Saturday, March 27, 2010

Money Multiplier and Velocity

Can you have GDP growth without debt growth? Is debt contraction (monetary deflation) a sure sign of economic contraction? Apparently the common perception is no and yes: without debt expansion we are doomed. While we believe at SBC that these events can exist for a period of time, we don't believe they are forgone conclusions of some necessity borne out of some fundamental economic equation.

John Mauldin has produced for us some excellent analysis on this topic. We don't like predicting the future, but we conclude from his recent work that GDP growth does not have to be negative nor small.

First let's look at some conclusions from The Multiplication of Money. We believe it's a mistake to conclude a nation can't have economic growth without credit growth. If we understand the money multiplier correctly, it measures growth of debt; how much M0 money (reserves) gets converted into M1 money (via loan origination). It doesn't measure how many times the dollar from wages and income changes hands. In fact, if we pay cash for something and the business we trade with pays cash, and that business pays cash, and their business, and on and on down the line, all kinds of GDP is being created without any debt growth, either in M1 or M2. Economic activity without debt growth is very possible. It's how the world operated before fractional reserve banking was invented.

What we've described there is money velocity. Mauldin has another excellent description of that in the recent weekly newsletter titled The Implications of Velocity. In it he presents an example of one kind of GDP growth.
"Having learned from their parents, they immediately become successful and start doing $100,000 a month themselves. GDP rises to $14,000,000."

Wait, how did they get their hands on the money to conduct trade? If mom and dad gave them the money, mom and dad had to give up spending it themselves. If the bank loaned them the money from fractional reserves, the velocity doesn't have to change for everyone to stay at the same level of income, since everyone still has all their money to spend and the new kid on the block has newly created money from fractional reserves. For sure, this is how economies have grown in modern times, giving someone future money to spend today.

So let's take a look at the velocity equation. Notice P=MV does not have debt as part of the equation, except to the extent debt is a component of M. Since GDP transactions are conducted in real physical cash or checking deposits, the monetary metric to use is M1. The astute reader will notice immediately that one can conduct transactions with credit cards and bank loans. True, but since we are presuming an economy where debt is not growing, those don't count. They either get offset by someone paying down loans, or by the person paying off the loan (credit card) at the end of the month with cash or M1 money.

Furthermore, for those who spend cash on debt repayment (pay down car loans, mortgages, etc) we need to realize those payments are M1 asset transfers from debtor to creditor. They don't affect the M in the velocity equation, either.

In fact, Mauldin shows M2 is not growing as M1 has recently. Since M2 is not directly spendable money, it appears the nation is churning the money in demand deposits and cash (GDP is not zero) instead of loading it into savings vehicles (M2 is not growing with M1). Unwinding debt would do this. As pointed out above, debt pay-down is nothing more than an M1 asset transfer from debtor to creditor. If the creditor then uses it to pay down their own debt, it too is another asset transfer of M1 from debtor to creditor. This creditor to debtor pay-down cycle can go on for some time. It can happen any number of times, all the while reducing "total debt". Does that alter velocity or GDP? Not necessarily.

At some point a creditor is payed and decides not to reduce debt, either because they don't have any in the first place or they are comfortable with the debt they have. If they save it, the money appears as M2 growth. If they spend it, it appears as a contribution to velocity and GDP.

It seems apparent, then, that if M1 is growing and M2 is not, and GDP is not contracting, that M1 money is being used to buy things with cash or pay down debt (or bury the bills in a can in the back yard.) There really aren't any other things one can do with money but to spend it, save it, or pay off debt.

People don't spend M2. It might be a funding source for spending, as people cash in the CD or transfer money out of a money market. It may also form the basis of confidence for spending, since one can buy on credit and pay it off when the CD matures or when they chose to redeem Money Market funds. But M2 itself is not directly spendable. It only represents the confidence of spending what is available in M1 or new debt. One can think of it as a source of "respending". If one writes a check today and something else comes along to entice the person later, one always has that M2 savings to use for the purchase. Nevertheless, all commerce takes place with M1 money.

We conclude that it is not a forgone conclusion that we must have economic stagnation if we have debt contraction. It's not even certain that we will have weak economic growth. Whether we do or not really depends on the velocity of money. If those with money have confidence to spend it, and if they relearn how to live within their means, we could have very healthy GDP. The problem we have with the common public data is that they predominantly provide statistics representative of the Losers; those who've botched it; those who are financially illiterate. While we have no hard data to prove it, we believe those people make up the minority of the American public.

Isn't it interesting how many advocate that people live within their means and that the nation would be stronger if we didn't rely on debt for economic well being? Has anyone even provided a picture of what that transition would look like? We don't want to sound too proud or arrogant, but maybe we just did.

Now what fiscal policy can do to this aspect is another matter. We'll have to look for evidence to that effect somewhere else.

Before you scoff at our conclusion, take another clue from chaos theory. Mauldin points out a very useful lesson from the book Ubiquity: Why Catastrophes Happen. The conclusion is that stress points are built into the fabric of human existence. The implication is that it almost doesn't matter how one responds to a crisis. The long term consequence is that complacency and comfort will set in, preparing the way for the next build up of critical mass to produce another crisis. Now if you can't tell when you are there at the precipice, how can you tell what the fundamental change is that is setting up the next generation for a fall? If you knew when the fundamental change was taking place, one presumably could prepare a plan for the consequences of the complacency that follows. But in fact these things are never clear until they become hindsight.

No comments:

Post a Comment