10-Year Yield Hits New Low

The yield on 10-year U.S. treasuries has hit a new low, at least for the last 60 years.  The yield dropped as low as 1.62% earlier today.  The 30-year rate is also down, although not at record low levels yet.

This is interesting for a lot of reasons.  First, the 10-year rate is highly correlated with mortgage rates.  This means that mortgage rates are now at or near an all-time low.  It doesn’t seem to be doing much for the housing market, but maybe on the margin it will encourage a few more buyers.  Anyway, if you can lock in a 30-year fixed rate for under 4% right now, that really is the bargain of the century.

The next interesting thing about the super low rate is the bond market’s defiance of the bond bears.  There are a lot people, libertarians included, who have been predicting higher rates for quite some time.  I remember when Harry Browne was talking about the permanent portfolio about 7 years ago and there were people challenging him on the bond portion of it, saying that rates couldn’t possibly go any lower.  Yet bonds have been one of the best investments of the last 30 years.  While gold has done better in the last 10 years, bonds have been more consistent since the 1980’s.  I’m not saying that it will remain that way, but just that the bond market has proven a lot of people wrong, at least in timing.

Another interesting thing about the low rates is that it is allowing the Fed to stop its quantitative easing (money creation).  Since QE2 ended about 11 months ago, the Fed has been tight.  It can remain tight with low yields.  That means the U.S. Congress can continue to rack up huge debts without relying on the Fed to buy the debt.

So when will rates finally go up significantly?

I think the answer depends on price inflation.  And price inflation will depend on several factors including the general health of the economy, bank lending, and Fed policy.  If price inflation remains relatively low, then I don’t see interest rates going up.  If rates start to tick up and there is relatively low price inflation, then the Fed can step in and buy.

The only scenario I can see where the Fed would refuse to buy more government debt in the face of rising interest rates is if price inflation is also high.  If there is price inflation of 2 or 3 percent like we have now (at least according to government statistics), then the Fed has no problem creating new money out of thin air.

On the other hand, if we had a scenario where interest rates were rising significantly and we had price inflation of 10 or more percent, then the Fed would have difficulty stepping in and lowering rates, out of fear of triggering massive inflation or even hyperinflation.

Until we see a significant rise in price inflation, I don’t expect a significant rise in rates on U.S. government debt.  There will probably be a good time to short the bond market, but we are not there yet.

Romney Clinches with Texas

It looks like Mitt Romney is the winner in the Texas primary and it looks like he will be the Republican nominee for 2012.  The media is saying that he officially clinches the nomination with his Texas win.  Of course, this is ridiculous because the whole delegate count that the press is using is just a guess.  We won’t really know the delegate count for sure until the convention in Tampa.

This does not mean that I think Ron Paul and his supporters will miraculously snatch the nomination away using a delegate strategy.  I have already said that this would be extremely unlikely.  If the situation were reversed and Ron Paul were winning, then I would worry about Romney and the establishment stealing the nomination away.  But the Ron Paul people are too honest to make a serious challenge at this point.

I never really expected that Ron Paul would get the Republican nomination.  Things would be far more interesting if he were on the Libertarian Party ticket.  But I am still impressed by his vote totals.  He will get about 2 million votes when everything is done.  However, unlike the other Republican candidates, he has a great deal of support outside of the party.  He gets just as much support (sometimes more) from independents and Democrats.  Someone like Rick Santorum would get very few independents and almost no Democrats.

Things have changed a lot in America.  While government has gotten bigger, the lines of communication have opened up.  The number of liberty-minded people has to be larger now than it has been in the last hundred years or more.  It is no longer completely crazy to support someone like Ron Paul.  It is far more socially acceptable now.  It makes it easier for others.  It opens up people’s minds when they know they won’t be called a lunatic for supporting a particular position.

The Ron Paul group, combined with other libertarians, anarchists, etc., are a significant group now.  They can’t influence policy in the direction of smaller government yet, but they can slow down big government.  There will come a tipping point where things shift and it could happen quite quickly, particularly with the fragile state of the economy.

The number of principled libertarians does not have to reach a majority status.  If 10% of the population is strongly libertarian, this might be enough.  I think 15% would mean a radical change in the direction of this country.  20% would just about seal the deal, as change would be inevitable whether it would be through repealing legislation at the federal level or secession.

While Romney vs. Obama is a depressing thought, I am optimistic for the long run.  The libertarian direction that America is starting to take cannot be stopped.

Run On Greek Banks

There has been a lot of news in the last couple of weeks about runs on banks in Greece.  It is reported that bank customers have withdrawn euros in total of the equivalent of over a billion U.S. dollars.

There are a couple things that are a little surprising about this news.  First, 800 million euros (or one billion U.S. dollars) is really not a lot of money in today’s world.  In the U.S., we talk about trillions now. One billion dollars is only 0.1% of a trillion dollars.  While the total amount is not insignificant for Greece, it is also not exactly earth-shattering news.  I suppose the symbolism of it is bigger than the actual amount of money.

The second notable thing is just how long it took for this to happen enough that it is headline news.  I was forecasting a Greece pullout from the euro zone last year.  Greece has been a mess for years now.  It is amazing how long people wait until they finally take action.  These people withdrawing money from the banks in a panic remind me of shoppers looking for canned foods and bottled water on the day that a hurricane is about to hit.  They can only hope at that point that there will be something left for them.  The problem is that these people should have known that a hurricane was coming days before if they had paid any attention.  Yet, they waited until the last minute.

The more amazing thing is the shoppers who just deny that a hurricane will hit at all.  They don’t even bother trying to do some last minute shopping in preparation.  Are there really still people in Greece who have their money in Greek banks?  This is just the epitome of foolishness.

There is definitely a lesson here.  Most things, particularly when it comes to economics and government policy, do not happen all at once.  There are usually warning signs.  Some Jewish people living in Germany in the early 1930’s saw the warning signs and got out.  Some saw the signs in the later 30’s.  Some were able to get out and some weren’t, but at least they had a shot.  Meanwhile, there were some that were in denial right until the end.

It is good to keep an eye on the big picture.  If you were living in Greece during the last few years, what would you have done?  Hopefully you would have left the country, where the government is trying to seize wealth any way it can.  If you stayed, hopefully you would at least have the sense to not leave any significant amount of money in a Greek bank.

Americans should pay attention to the same warning signs.  It is not just about banks or even economics.  It is everything political.  As times get tougher, the U.S. government and state and local governments will be looking for ways to fund their own operations.  Hopefully Americans will do a better job of turning their backs on big government than the Greek people.

Gary North on the Future

Gary North, a prolific libertarian writer, has written two pieces recently on the future.  In the first one, he says that we are not on the road to serfdom, but on the road out of serfdom.  In the second piece, he says that our kids will have it better than us.  I like his optimism and I wish more people had it.

I find that the majority of people who are new to the libertarian movement are pessimistic.  In fact, I could say that even the majority of older libertarians are pessimistic.  They think we are at the breaking point.  They think that if things aren’t turned around immediately and dramatically, that we will be in full-fledged tyranny, if we aren’t there already.

I am relatively young, but I have been a libertarian much longer than most of the young Ron Paul supporters.  I was a child of the Reagan era.  I had libertarian leanings as a child and into young adulthood.  I really became interested at about the age of 25.  It was about 9 years ago at the age of 28 that I became a more hardcore libertarian.  If anything, I have become even more radical since then.

I heard Harry Browne give a speech in 2004 on the prospects of liberty.  He said that he doubted that one in a hundred libertarians understood this one simple thing in our fight for liberty: that human nature is on our side.  The natural state of human beings is not to live under tyranny.  Most people want choices in their lives and they want liberty.

In 2004, there weren’t a lot of libertarians.  But from everything I have read, there were far more libertarians in 2004 than there were in 1954, 1964, or 1974.  I can safely say that there are far more libertarians now than there were 8 years ago.  In fact, I’d venture to guess that the number has at least quadrupled.

I think Gary North has it right.  Barring something disastrous event like a nuclear war, the next generation should be better off.  I warn people about the next several years and the economic trouble ahead.  But long term, I am an optimist.  With technology and the free flow of information, I don’t see how the libertarian movement can be stopped at this point.

There may be certain areas where we are less free in America today.  We have the TSA at airports.  Business regulation is probably as bad as it has ever been.  There are surely other examples, but there are also examples of where we are more free.

There is no more slavery in America (although we could argue that we are all slaves to the state).  With the internet, the news media is no longer monopolized by a small number of networks.  While there are wars going on, there is no full draft as we saw during many past wars.  The top tax rate is far lower now than it was during much of the 20th century.

If there are two things that really symbolize our hope for liberty, it is free speech and guns.  They are both related to the first two amendments to the Constitution.  While there are gun laws and restrictions, most Americans can own guns.  Not only that, but a large portion take advantage and do own guns.  Americans may not be armed to the teeth like the Swiss, but there are tens of millions of American households that have firearms.

As far as speech, we are as free as ever.  That is why I think the best hope for liberty starts in America.  While I can’t say that free speech is 100%, it is pretty close.  Just use google and you can see for yourself.  I laugh when I hear people talk about how great the Founding Fathers were and how they defended all of our liberties.  Have these people never heard of the Alien and Sedition Acts?  If Barack Obama tried to do what John Adams did, he would have a revolution on his hands.  Of course, with the internet, there would be no way to enforce the Sedition Act today, unless the government tries to arrest 50 million Americans.

While there are no guarantees, I think we will move toward liberty over the next few decades.  Technology will help a lot.  The current group of Ron Paul supporters will help a lot.

It is ironic because there are many Ron Paul supporters who are pessimistic, not knowing that the libertarian movement has grown by leaps and bounds because of them.  Yet, it is because of the Ron Paul supporters that I am so optimistic.

Adjusted Monetary Base – May 24, 2012

You can view a short-term chart of the adjusted monetary base here:

You can view a longer term chart for a broader view here:

You can view a chart of the excess reserves held by commercial banks here:

The increase in excess reserves has closely mimicked the increase in the monetary base since the fall of 2008.  I have seen little to indicate a change in this scenario.  This means that the creation of new money by the Fed has gone into excess reserves at banks.  It is not being lent out.  This is helping to keep a lid on price inflation.

The Fed has not really inflated since the end of QE2.  It is hard to believe, but it is almost 11 months since QE2 ended at the end of June of 2011.  The monetary base is actually slightly lower from that point.

The Fed is keeping its powder dry for right now.  It is walking on a tightrope and it doesn’t want to lean too far in one direction.  It does not want to trigger severe price inflation and it also doesn’t want the economy to fall off a cliff.  Eventually, I see it falling one way or the other.

I am guessing there will eventually be a QE3, but not until the economy gets visibly worse.  It is hard to read the minds of central bankers, but I don’t see them sitting on their hands if price inflation is relatively low and the economy is falling off a cliff.

We will continue to watch the adjusted monetary base to see if the Fed is doing what it is saying.  So far this year, the Fed has not been doing much.  Hopefully that will last, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Dave Ramsey on 529 Plans

Dave Ramsey is a money guy.  I have written about him before.  I agree with much of what he has to say about money.  I don’t often agree with him when it comes to investing and anything political.  He does not understand the monetary system, which is rather critical when you are offering investment advice.

With that said, I was surprised to hear what he said this morning on a morning television show.  He was warning people about having state 529 plans.  He pointed out that many states are in financial trouble and that you should avoid contributing to a state prepaid college plan (or something like that) if your state currently has financial difficulties.

This is surprising because I consider Dave Ramsey as part of the establishment.  He has little clue about the monetary system while being a popular personality talking about money on television and the radio.  Yet, with this statement he made about being careful with state 529 plans, he is saying in a not-so-subtle way that some states are headed for bankruptcy.

That is all his statement can mean.  He is saying that states in financial trouble are at least somewhat likely to default on their promises.  This means that you could make contributions for your child’s college education and then see it all evaporate because of politicians spending too much and promising too much. If Dave Ramsey is suggesting something like this, then we can be almost certain that it is going to happen, because I don’t see him as someone who questions the system very often.

I completely agree with him on this topic.  I would go further and say that you should avoid these state plans no matter where you live.  First, college is way too expensive in most places and I would try to find a cheaper way to pay for your child’s education.  There are more choices now with community colleges and online courses.  You can also encourage your child to take college credit classes while in high school and maybe even test out of some college level classes.

Second, if you are going to save some money to help pay for your child’s college, then you don’t need to contribute money to the politicians in your state.  You can save your own money.

I would not contribute to any state plans, as things can change quickly.  Most of the 50 states are in financial trouble.  It is all relative.  But the worst ones that come to mind are California, New York, New Jersey, and Illinois.

Not coincidentally, the states with the highest taxes have the worst problems.  This could be for several reasons.  First, high taxes tend to drive productive people away.  Second, the high taxes meant high government “revenues” during the so-called good times.  When good times went to bad (the bursting housing bubble), then government tax collections went way down.  But the politicians had already made big promises and were already accustomed to spending huge amounts.  Third, the states with the highest taxes also tend to be the states most likely to elect big government politicians.  (I know “big government politicians” is redundant, but it is all relative.)

In conclusion, you should actually take Dave Ramsey’s advice on this.  Stay away from the state college savings plans.  If and when the economy turns south again, we could see a wave of state bankruptcies.  Don’t be one of the victims.

Hyperinflation and Expectations

Yesterday, I wrote a piece giving three reasons why I think hyperinflation is unlikely.  Today, I want to add a key point about the subject.

Hyperinflation (or even inflation) is not all about the money supply, when we define it in terms of prices.  Supply and demand affect each individual price in the market.  For the overall general price level, it is affected by just a few things.

First, productivity and technology play a role in the overall price level.  We can see this in the computer and electronic industry today.  You can have falling prices, even in the face of monetary inflation.  In a world with a stable money supply, prices would most likely decline gradually as production increases.

Second, the overall price level is obviously affected by the money supply.  If you increase the money supply, then the overall price level will increase, assuming other factors stay the same.

Third, the overall price level is affected by the banks and lending, particularly in a fractional reserve environment.  Prices will tend to go up with more fractional reserve lending.

Fourth, and this is the main point I wanted to touch on, is that prices are affected by the demand for money.  This is also called velocity, which is the speed at which money changes hands.

The demand for money changes based on people’s thoughts and actions.  If people spend more, then velocity will increase (the demand for money goes down) and prices will tend to rise.  If people save more, then prices are not bid up as much and prices will tend not to rise or even go down.

One thing that affects the demand for money is people’s expectations.  This ties in with the subject of hyperinflation.  If people expect that the Fed (or any other central bank) will continue to inflate, then people may be more anxious to spend their money quickly before prices go higher.  This can just trigger even more expectations of higher prices and cause them to go up even faster.

In a hyperinflation type environment, the money in use can be destroyed quickly.  Prices will often go up faster than the money supply is increasing due to people’s expectations.

On the other hand, prices can also go up slower than monetary inflation.  If people expect that the increasing money supply will slow down, stop, or even go down, then more people are likely to save their money.  This will cause prices to go down, or at least go up slower.

If we hit a scenario where there is high price inflation, the Fed can most likely slow it down very quickly. The Fed just needs to tell everyone that it will stop monetizing debt.  If people believe the statement is credible, then price inflation will most likely slow down quickly.  You could have 50% price inflation go down very quickly if the Fed makes a credible statement that it will halt its increasing of the money supply.

Keep these thoughts in mind, particularly if we hit a scenario of high price inflation.  Things can change quickly, depending on the actions of the Fed and also the actions of millions of people in the marketplace.  Price inflation is not just about the money supply.  It is also about the future expectations of the money supply.

3 Reasons Why Hyperinflation is Unlikely

There are many Austro-libertarians who think that hyperinflation in the U.S. is practically inevitable.  There are certainly some good arguments to be made for the scenario.  The government debt is enormous, now exceeding 100 percent of the measured GDP.  The Federal Reserve has loaded its books with toxic assets that cannot be sold for what they are “worth” on the Fed’s books.  The banking system is still a mess, despite the massive excess reserves built up from the Fed’s monetary inflation over the last 4 years.

While I don’t think the threat of hyperinflation can be discounted, I still believe that it is unlikely.  I will offer three reasons why.

Before listing my reasons, let’s define hyperinflation.  The definition can vary.  Some people would say that 50% or more annual price inflation is hyperinflation.  Some might say that prices have to double or more every year.  Some might say that prices have to be rising every day.  Others would leave prices out of the equation and define it using the money supply.

For the sake of this discussion, we will say that hyperinflation is general prices rising 100% or more per year.  This would mean that prices are doubling each year or more.  (Note: I understand that Austrian school economists define inflation in terms of the money supply, but I would prefer to use prices for this discussion.)

So here are the top three reasons I see hyperinflation as unlikely:

1) The Bankers

The big bankers (and this includes the Fed) do not really want hyperinflation.  It does not benefit them.  It would destroy their pensions.  It would destroy their incomes.  It would destroy their standard of living.  It would probably remove them from their own power.

Why would the bankers commit financial suicide?  Even if they all had a stash of gold (which they probably don’t), they would still be worse off.  The bankers like to redistribute wealth from the average American into their own pockets.  But they should know enough not to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.

I hear people casually talking about how we are going to have hyperinflation.  I tell them that if they are serious and if they really think it is going to happen, then they should be making major preparations.  They should be a hard-core prepper.  They should really consider moving to another country, preferably somewhere with a lot of farmland.  Hyperinflation in the U.S. would mean a breakdown in the division of labor.  It means that your paycheck would be worth almost nothing.  It would mean that trucks would stop delivering gas to the gas stations and food to the grocery stores.

2) Ron Paul Supporters

When the Republican primaries and caucuses are over, Ron Paul will have received about two million votes.  Sure, this is out of a population of over 300 million, but it is still a significant number.  While a few of those two million may not be libertarians in the slightest, there are also some Ron Paul supporters who never changed their voting registration to Republican to vote for Paul.  So there may be more than two million Ron Paul supporters.

Of course, one of the big issues that Ron Paul has continued to hammer away on is the issue of the Fed.  He wrote a book called “End the Fed”.  His supporters have a basic enough understanding of monetary policy.  They understand that overall price inflation is caused by monetary inflation, which is caused by the Fed.  They can explain to others that it is Fed policies that cause higher prices at the grocery store and gas station.  While some may not believe it right away, more people will be searching for answers if overall prices start going up like they did in the late 1970’s, at a 10 to 20 percent annual rate.

Ron Paul supporters are a big enough group now that they can be a check on Bernanke and the Fed.

3) The Internet

The number three reason goes hand-in-hand with number two.  Open information and communication is the enemy of big government and central bankers.  This is why big government relies on propaganda.  They need the consent of at least the majority of the people, if not more.

The internet spreads information.  Ron Paul supporters on the internet really spread information.

Imagine a scenario where prices start going up at more than 10% per year.  Imagine grocery bills going up at 20% per year.  Now imagine someone with 300 Facebook “friends” complaining about their high grocery bill on Facebook.  Out of 300 people, there will probably be at least one Ron Paul supporter.  Now that Ron Paul supporter can post a message, or maybe even a video.  It could be a two minute cartoon video.  It would briefly explain that a general rise in prices is because there is more money chasing goods and services.  The only way there can be more money (aside from fractional reserve banking) is because the Fed is creating more money.

If this Ron Paul supporter had posted this on Facebook before, it might not have gotten much attention. But when people really start feeling the pinch, they may pay attention.  The person complaining on Facebook also has 300 friends who will see the response.

Now extrapolate these results over millions of people.  If we all of a sudden have tens of millions of people who understand that general price inflation over time has to be caused by the Fed, then the Fed cannot get away with it.  It will have to stop creating new money or risk a complete revolt by the populace.

In conclusion, while hyperinflation is possible in the U.S., I don’t think it is likely.  I think high price inflation of 10 to 20 percent is somewhat likely.  The Fed cannot get away with things like it could in the past.  If you disagree with me and think hyperinflation is likely, then I hope you are making plans to get out of dodge.

Libertarian Movie List

Last year, I wrote a post on my “Libertarian Reading List“.  It covered books on libertarianism that were influential on me and that I recommend to others.  I was asked recently if I have a libertarian movie list.  While it differs quite a bit from my reading list, I do have some movie favorites.

There is a big difference between my reading list and movie list.  The reading list is mostly non-fiction and is overtly libertarian in most cases.  The books I recommend are for people who specifically want to learn more about libertarian philosophy and want to be able to better understand it and also defend the pro-liberty positions.

My movie list tends to be different.  I don’t know of many non-fiction libertarian movies.  If you want to watch a video of libertarianism, you are probably better off going to YouTube and finding what you want.  But there are some good movies that have very subtle libertarian messages, even if it is often unintended.  Many of these movies are good for non-libertarians.  They may plant a seed in the person’s head without them knowing it.

Joyeux Noel
This movie is based on a true story.  It is about soldiers fighting in World War I, who decide to call a truce during the Christmas holiday.  They come out and socialize with the “enemy”.  It shows the absurdity of war.  It shows that these soldiers had more in common than they realized and that they were fighting each other only because of their respective governments.

The Village
I enjoy the psychology of this movie.  The people in the village have basically been brainwashed, but they don’t really know it.  (Does anyone being brainwashed ever know it?)  The main character questions authority.  He is a thinking individual.  He questions the world around him.  I don’t want to spoil anything in case you haven’t seen it.  Again, there is no overtly libertarian theme, but there are messages about thinking outside of the box and questioning authority.

Star Wars
Most people are quite familiar with the Star Wars movies.  It is a story of good vs. evil.  It is a story of redemption.  It is a story of tyranny trying to rule the world.  It is a story of a group of freedom fighters (rebels) trying to defeat the evil empire.  These movies are not for everyone, but there is definitely an aspect appealing to libertarians.

The Patriot
There are some good libertarian lines in this movie.  Mel Gibson does not want to fight an American Revolution, but he changes his mind when tragedy strikes his family.  While I am anti-war and I even think there are legitimate questions about the Revolutionary War, this movie still deserves to be on my list.

V for Vendetta
This isn’t a purely libertarian movie.  I am against the use of violence unless it is strictly in self defense.  The methods used by the main character go beyond this.  However, this movie still deserves a place on my list due to the overall story of fighting for freedom against tyranny.

Lord of the Rings
I have to admit that I have not seen the entirety of these movies.  This is like Star Wars in that it is not for everyone.  But there is definitely a libertarian theme in that people cannot be trusted with great power.

Atlas Shrugged, Part I
This is completely different from the other movies on this list.  This movie is not subtle in its message.  It is libertarian and it doesn’t hide its message.  I would recommend the book over the movie first.  With that said, I was actually pleasantly surprised when I saw this movie.  For a low budget movie, it was actually decent and I look forward to seeing part II.

If I think of any other movies, I will update my list.

May 16, 2012 – What is Happening with Gold?

The price of gold, at least in terms of dollars, has been in a rut.  As of this writing, it is down to around $1,540 per ounce.  After 11 straight years of gains, many are wondering if this is the end of the gold bull market.

Of course, some of the weakness is due to the U.S. dollar.  It’s not that the dollar is that great, but with all of the problems in Greece and Europe in general, the euro has been down quite a bit.  Therefore, for Europeans, the price of gold is not down as much.

I think these retracements in the price are always a good test for people who own gold or gold related investments.  The true believers stay in the game.  The ones who don’t really understand why it is important to own some gold are the ones who are scared off.

Sometimes I am asked if I think gold will continue to go lower.  To be honest, if I knew the answer with any precision, I would be incredibly rich.  I would be trading futures every day and raking in money like Warren Buffett.  But there is no way that I can predict the short-term price movements of gold or anything else.

If there is one thing that Austrian school economics teaches us, it is that economics depends on human action.  I cannot predict how billions of people in the world are going to act tomorrow and I therefore cannot predict what the price of gold will be.  Maybe some futures trader in Singapore decides to get into a huge position tomorrow.  Maybe a whole bunch of Indians decide to buy gold for their daughters.  Maybe Ben Bernanke makes a special announcement that the Fed is changing its policies.

Because of all of the variables, it is impossible to predict the short-term price movements.  But we can make some predictions with a certain degree of accuracy.  We can predict that the U.S. federal government will continue to run up debt and spend money like crazy in the short term.  We can predict that the Fed will continue to monetize debt in the future if it feels it is necessary to keep interest rates down or to keep a major crash from occurring.  We can predict that an increase in the money supply will likely lead to an increase in prices, especially in things like gold.

I can’t even be certain that the Fed will continue to inflate.  Strange things can happen in this world.  Maybe Bernanke will resign and someone new will come in and stop monetizing debt.

While I can’t be certain that gold will go up in terms of U.S. dollars, I think it is highly likely to happen over the next few years, given the circumstances.  With that said, if you have been a procrastinator in buying gold and gold related investments, now seems to present a good opportunity.  Again, it may go down more in the next few weeks or months, but if I could call the exact bottom, I would be really wealthy.