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Stewart Hotston

Hope, Anger and Writing

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Finance

Interest Rates and Inflation (this is a long one)

Everything here is my own view and does not reflect upon any institutions I may work for or be involved with. That’s not to say what I’m going to write is controversial (it largely isn’t among experts) but, you know, this is me.

It may also be that you have a view on this already and on that basis nothing I’m going to say here is written with a view to changing your mind should your view be different to mine. I am going to be snarky and if you find your view ridiculed? Sorry, I think these issues are important enough that those whose approaches would leave us all worse off need, at the very least, to be made fun of.

A couple of housekeeping points. First – prediction is really hard, especially when it’s about the future. (thanks Niels Bohr). I’m not going to talk about the future in this post. I’m simply going to talk about what some things are and what we know about them thanks to past events. Second, I’m going to try to keep jargon (such as monetarist, neo-liberal, keynesian, chicago school, exogenous, M0, M1 supply etc) out of the text – not because I can’t swing my educated dick around with the best of them but because this isn’t a policy document.It’s something I wanted to write to explain some stuff about inflation, rates and the consequences for you and me.

Third and final point of housekeeping – economics is not a science no matter how much maths is used, no matter how many formula. It is much harder than most science. It is also, as a discipline, much more arrogant. Although I’m trying to explain something here, I’m also giving you a health warning that although looking back we can try to describe what happened and then venture explanations as to why – the truth is there are no ‘great men of history’ driving what happens.

Right. That out of the way, let’s take a look at what I’m interested in talking about today.

The BoE describes Inflation as the word we use for rising prices. Which is annodyne without being incorrect.

The rate of inflation is therefore the rate at which prices are rising. Again, accurate without being insightful.

What that doesn’t do is explain WHY prices might be rising, what impact that has nor the fact that the measurement itself is…a thing worthy of examining.

So, first, what creates inflation?

Some people blame capitalism and suggest we could have a zero growth kind of world. I wish them luck. Why the snark?

Because inflation is a measure of what it takes to maintain the standard of living we have now. Think about that for a moment. Inflation is a measure of the cost of something at a given moment in time against another moment in time. I always struggle to help people see how inflation is a measure of cost over time. It’s not a measure of something today.

Think about it like this: I have built a road. To pay for the materials, expertise and labour I have to have money (and investment in stable systems in place over time to create expertise, tools and those same materials). I may have this money through two routes. I can save up until I have the funds OR I can borrow the money. Borrowing is essentially bringing money I might have in the future into today.

So I build my road. The money is spent. The road lasts forever.

Wait. Something isn’t right with that statement.

Yep. The road doesn’t last forever. It degrades. It crumbles and gets potholes through use. It needs maintaining to keep it in good nick. You could think about inflation as the amount you spend through time to keep that road in good condition. It’s not a perfect analogy but hopefully you get the point – which is inflation is a record of the cost of having something over time.

I think it’s a better description than saying inflation of 10% means a shirt that cost £10 last year will now cost £11 because it gives you a sense of why that additional cost has materialised.

So far so vague.

let’s delve into the weeds a bit. To do that we’ll need to leave the rather hand wavey/philosophical description above and assume that inflation’s about people wanting things and what they’re prepared to pay for them that drives prices – it’s obviously way more complicated than that. We’ll also ignore why basic measures of inflation entirely ignore the indirect impact of how society is structured and the economic and social policies in place for that society (and those it interacts with). For now though let’s go back to school for a moment and assume that what high schoolers and undergraduates are taught about inflation is actually true (pfff).

There’s basically two types of inflation. The first is what we call demand led inflation. This really means that you want something and you’re prepared to pay for it. If there’s not a lot of something and you still want it you might actually be prepared to pay more for it and the people selling it will therefore choose to charge you more because you’ll still buy it when they charge more. That is demand led inflation because your demand led to prices increasing.

Side Bar: this is not really what demand led inflation is – because that entirely ignores unequal demand, inequality and the elasticity of demand. ie. you may want something badly but can’t afford it, so you don’t buy it. I can afford it but the seller knows I can afford it and that I’ll still choose to pay for it if it’s twice the price. So they raise the price twofold and hey presto we have inflation. Except that the costs haven’t changed and now the seller is richer and there are lots of people(think about this globally) who can’t afford this thing that’s desirable. That might sound reasonable until you think of it being clean water or access to medicine. Inflation is too often thought about in connection to luxuries and not often enough with basic human essentials in mind. It’s important because sometimes the demand that we all have access to something is reasonable, compassionate and humane. Other times it’s not but the two things can both be true. END of Side Bar

There can be many reasons for this kind of inflation. You may be wealthy. You may have a critical need. You may simply want something for no other reason than you want it.

The other side of this coin is supply led inflation. Basically when the person/people/companies selling something jack up the price compared to the last time you bought it. Think Martin Schkreli who tried this with medicines and was, in the end, convicted although the actual gouging he engaged in wasn’t the illegal part (thanks laissez faire economics!).

The reasons for why supply led inflation may rise are also many but are rarely the same as those on the demand led side. They could be that the prices of raw materials have increased or the cost to heat their factory or the wages they must pay or the im(ex)port taxes levied by international treaties. They may be required to adjust their methods or invest in new machinery. Sometimes just the cost of keeping things running can lead to them needing to put cost up.

Side Bar: you may have heard of shrinkflation – this is a recent word for something that’s as old as the hills. When a company needs to put prices up it may not be able to because demand for that product would collapse. So it might keep prices the same but reduce what you receive for that. It may be a smaller chocolate bar or a flight with no free meal or a train that has no tables…these are all examples of the same thing. END of Side Bar

The perils of high inflation are unique to the human condition. high inflation, regardless of the cause, a the fact that prices are rising fast. Now, high inflation sounds like its a thing that happens in a moment but it’s not and this is REALLY important to grasp. Rising prices rise over time. That means that what costs £10 today may cost £12 next week but then £15 the week after. If you’re earning only £10 then both of those rises are damaging to your ability to just STAND STILL and maintain the quality of life you had yesterday.

You could just give everyone more money so they can afford everything but that too is definitely inflationary as suddenly people will spend this will definitely lead to SELLERS raising prices because they can and that will bring us right back to where we started but WITHOUT solving the problem of everyone spending more just to stand still.

It’s really important to realise that most inflation is transitory. By which I mean that there is a period in which the prices rise and then they stop rising. Think of it like this – when you accelerate from 20mph to 30mph there’s a period when you’re accelerating but when you reach 30mph you stop increasing your speed. Inflation is the acceleration and, just like driving faster, it stops when you reach that new level/speed.

Most of the time at least.

Knowing this doesn’t help if your wages don’t match the increased costs. Now, not being able to have the same quality of life as you did yesterday sounds bad and it is. For many people they absorb these costs and carry on but for many others they find they can’t eat or pay for heating or afford new clothes. For the least well off they discover they can’t afford to live in a house with walls and a roof. Inflation is exceptionally damaging in many circumstances because it always hits the poorest hardest, earliest.

Now, you’ll often find a moral dimension in inflation arguments and it runs like this. Talking heads moan about workers wanting more money arguing that if they do get more money they’ll then by able to buy more and therefore drive prices further up. No one ever criticises bosses for taking huge payrises or suggests that billionaires are responsible for asset bubbles (news flash, they’re a symptom of the disease not the cause, but they’re a cancerous symptom, one that spreads and does damage similar to but not identical with the problem from which they burst like nasty buboes). This one sided offence and moral castigation tells you people i) don’t understand inflation and ii) think workers should know their place and that place is to do work and not really be humans who might live for other reasons than work.

However there is some truth in the argument if you carefully excise the moralistic puss. It is this: if costs remain stable then demand led inflation can lead to price rises that increase inequality and damage economic stability. I come back to the fact that the ultra wealthy do this simply by existing as nodes for wealth accretion but hey, that’s just me.

In these circumstances, and these circumstances alone – that is where it is the great mass of people driving prices up via demand for more – then raising interest rates can have some impact. Not a huge amount, certainly not directly on people since the majority of homes in the UK are owned without a residential mortgage attached (the ONS estimates that only 28% of homes have a mortgage attached)) and so rising rates will have no DIRECT impact on the majority of people. If you factor those in with fixed rate mortgages the proportion remaining unaffected rises even higher. (and let’s not talk about the US where standard fixed rates are between 10-30 YEARS, not 1-3). For these people rates could rise to 10000% and they’d still not be directly impacted.

For others who borrow, the rate at which they borrow may only reset once every few years. So raise it today and rising rates won’t impact them until a few years from now.

Yet in fiction and in many economics textbooks and certainly in most news media, this is the only kind of inflation anyone ever talks about (because it’s easy to be moralistic about individual choices and being judgy sells copy).

What we’ve experienced in the last twelve months certainly has some elements of this – there was a huge amount of pent-up demand post lock down. Yet inflation was exceptionally low during lockdown and so this, really, can be balanced out by its later contribution to our overall inflation numbers (the rate at which prices rose reflected, in some part, the sudden demand in the market after months of people being stuck at home. This isn’t correct across many sectors but it’s close enough to being right that we’ll let it pass unremarked).

What isn’t well understood outside of banks and hedge funds, insurers and other financial professionals is this: the inflation that kicked UK CPI to 11.1% for it’s October reading is largely led by supply led factors. That is, factors that I as a consumer have no influence over. None at all. My buying habits have largely been to stay where I was this time last year. What I’ve discovered is that to do so I have to spend 11.1% more (on average – for those with less the inflation rate could be as high as 20% because the items they want have seen more extreme localised inflation). This isn’t me wanting more, it’s me struggling to stay still. Again, when I ask for a pay rise it’s not to buy more but to buy the same as what I was buying last year! That is hardly demand led as traditionally defined.

Why is this? A bunch of complex reasons all coming together at the same time.

The first is the impact of lock downs on a global scale. Factories shut, ships didn’t sale, ports were closed, mines stopped mining and people stopped planning for normal levels of demand. This meant that when the world started to ignore covid and carry on as if it wasn’t there (thank goodness for vaccines) the demand for life to return to how it was in 2019 simply couldn’t be met.

There were no factories producing widgets, no ships to take them and no ports to receive them. These shortages resulted in companies struggling to fulfil demand and prices rising because just to ratchet up production and mend supply lines and get shit around the world demanded new, unforeseen investment. It turns out that if you turn big things off it’s not simple (or free) to switch them on again.

Then the fact that some places responded to proposed shortages by agreeing to pay more than others. This demand inflation wasn’t created by you but by companies who wanted to sell to you and knew they could make you pay more just to stand still. So shortages turned into prices rises.

No one was earning more at this stage, we were just paying more.

Then came the war in Ukraine which obliterated the world’s grain supply as well as making its energy supply something it hadn’t been for 30 years – a geopolitical existential crisis.

Again, the desire to be warm is not a demand led problem. it’s a supply led problem. We ‘demand’ being warm but it’s not us pushing prices up wanting to be WARMER. We want to be as warm as we ever were not baking like never before…The political risk involved in this market which is a fundamental for EVERYTHING else meant that as unit costs for generating energy increased everything else also became more expensive. That is a cascade which means disproportionate non-linear rises in manufactured goods downstream. That process still hasn’t finished playing through the global system and there’s nothing to say it won’t continue for at least another 18 months (sorry, just the messenger here).

Now, I hear lots of ill informed people saying we need to raise rates to suppress demand. The desire to be warm when it’s -4C outside isn’t going to be suppressed by having the price of energy go up. You will impoverish people or, worse still, kill them from lack of heating. But you won’t make their desire to be warm go away. Fundamentals like this are not luxuries and the callous and wilful ignorance that refuses to see the nuance here infuriates me. That’s not the worst of it.

In a supply led inflationary scenario raising rates doesn’t work to bring prices down. Prices stop rising by themselves. Now, for those at the back – something really fucking important. When inflation falls from 11.1% to, let’s say 5%, that doesn’t mean prices are falling. It means prices are STILL RISING but only at a slower rate. In our car example, it means it’s going to take me longer to reach 30mph but I’m still going to reach 30mph.

It also means that price rises will naturally slow because the shocks play through the system and are gone. i.e. rising rates have no impact on those price rises and certainly had no influence on them slowing down. Prices have risen, the change is done, inflation has fallen but that doesn’t mean prices have fallen, on that the pressures on the supply side have stopped pushing prices rises through the system. We’ve reached 30mph which is, it turns out, too fast for many people to keep up with.

That is not a comfort to someone who’s already been priced out of being warm because their wages haven’t kept pace with rising costs.

Secondly, sure, Mr Governor, raise rates in the UK to 10%. I’m sure Putin and Zelensky will take notice in Russia and Ukraine…or not. I’m sure energy generators selling to China or the US will take notice and reduce their prices…or not. I’m sure people shipping from India will reduce their prices…or not. I’m sure the fact the EU can afford to pay more than they did before for supplies which once came to us will mean our prices fall…or not.

Localised raising of interest rates CANNOT control for global events as they interact with a thoroughly interconnected economic system.

What raising rates WILL do is lead us into recession as companies and individual exposed to interest rates find they can no longer meet interest payments, find that their customers can’t afford even what they bought last year. As their revenues decline those same companies will close and put people out of work and so on. It is, as the chief economist of a certain bank I know well said, meaningless and an act of self harm to raise rates when the drivers of inflation are i) not impacted by those rates and ii) those who are impacted by those rates will only be further impoverished.

Why? Well on one side prices are rising and will continue to do so. On the other hand my ability to even pay what I paid last year is now diminished because I’m at risk of losing my job and because my interest payments have increased. This triple whammy of rising prices, falling incomes and increasing interest rates is an economic disaster and why we’re likely to see rates in the UK peak around 4.25% – which is still historically low.

Sure it will reduce demand but it won’t reduce prices because those prices were rising independently of consumers.

Smart move there Mr Armchair Economist/Political Hack/Moralistic Moron.

Do I have better answers? There are some REALLY smart thinkers out there who have suggested alternate approaches for this specific kind of economic challenge but that’s for another post, another time.

Back to front

There’s a lot of discussion about algorithms at the moment. Algorithms are nothing more than recipes. If people say ‘algorithm’ they normally mean the recipe for whatever they’re talking about. A mathematical algorithm for finding a solution? Think the recipe for finding the solution.

Why do I care about algorithms and whether we should really call them recipes (the analogy isn’t perfect, don’t @me, I’m quite aware)? Mainly because the discussion about algorithms in the public sphere relates almost exclusively to social media and how these processing recipes lead users to ever more extreme and unpleasant content.

I’ve been quite concerned with this book over the last few days. Reminded as I was by a lecture by the author in which they said something I had entirely missed in my general thinking about the kind of content we’re shown online. I am almost embarrassed to admit it as well – because I like to think I ruminate on economics quite a lot.

As a reminder, the book is called: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power and is written by Shoshana Zuboff. Zuboff has written a lot about this subject but this book is (despite the cover being uninspiring) a very good piece of work.

I don’t want to talk too much about the book except I want to draw out one key idea because it should turn your world upside down a bit.

First though. We have been told all over the place by tech-bros, concerned citizens (I’m in this category), opinion piece writers and others that the algorithms which we look at blaming for the slow radicalisation of people as bland and formerly innocent as our grandmothers, our friends and our children are i) in need of fixing and ii) often beyond understandding.

We’re told that these algorithms are often the product of unconscious bias (such as when facial recognition software didn’t recognise PoC as human or when Google associated PoC with gorillas in image search software). We’re told it’s a side effect but one which makes them money and so they’re loathe to change their ways. We’re told it’s the tail wagging the dog – unfortunate but fixable.

Zuboff dismisses this idea and reminds us these companies have made their fortunes by learning about us. So far so not surprising. Yet Zuboff then reminds the economically literate among us what that learning is good for. It’s not good for knowing what we did in the past because we can’t make money from that. Nor is it good for knowing what we’re doing now – again, I can make money on what you’re interested in NOW but it’s not the prize. The real prize from this learning is to know what you’re trending towards tomorrow – because then I can make real money from knowing your future tastes and preferences.

Zuboff then reminds us about the point of advertising – not simply to let us know a product is available, but to create a felt need we didn’t know we had and then sell us the solution for that sudden new found desire.

In short, these algorithms are designed to do two things.

  1. They’re designed to predict what we’ll want to buy tomorrow
  2. They’re designed to push us into buying products we don’t know we needed today.

Algorithmic drift into showing you more extremist material such as racist content, anti-vax nonsense, anti-elite conspiracies serve the two goals above. Why? Because these drifts don’t exist in a vacuum – social media companies (and let’s be honest, we’re only really talking Google and FB in liberal societies) are selling these predictions to companies – telling them they can guarantee purchases and eyeballs on adverts. Deliberate drift to extreme material is proven to guarantee both of those things.

Furthermore, there is an argument which goes like this: SM companies could see extremist material was both attractive to many people and a direction society was moving in, in part because of their exposure via SM companies’ activities, and they had a choice:

i) do they change their business model to avoid these excesses, or

ii) do they lean into extremism knowing their activity will appreciably shift society that way and thereby increase their revenue

Zuboff, among others, suggest only the second of those two options can be true without regulation.

So in the discussion around free speech this week (and possibly next?) you’ll see lots of back and forth over whether private companies have the right yadda yadda yadda. What you won’t see (yet) is much on whether these companies deliberately created these environments exactly with the intent of fostering extreme content to increase revenues.

My proposition is this: the tail never wagged the dog. The algorithms we’ve seen were designed explicitly to monetise user data by predicting their behaviour and nudging them towards it in order to create opportunities for companies they were pitching their services to. This has always been the dog wagging its tail.

Over the next few months as regulation becomes a more central concern of liberal governments (with the possible exception of the current far right UK conservative government) one key plank of companies’ defence will be it wasn’t their fault – they were, at worst, as surprised as us by the outcomes. Do not believe them. This isn’t about free speech – that is a distraction – and a different argument. This is about whether companies with our personal lives stored on their servers should be required to treat that data not as if it’s their never ending gold mine but as if it’s something to which privacy and political standards around propaganda and manipulation should be applied.

The financial impact of Covid 19

I’ve just read and watched the unprecedented statement from the British Chancellor of the Exchequer. Shortly after him, within a matter of hours or days the US Congress will come to a similar place – with their own twist on it of course.

Someone asked me just what this money is. Where does it come from and what is it really – a loan, a repo or something else, maybe money printing.
The answer is, qualitatively the same for all people putting in place fiscal stimulus right now.

It’s based on several things but probably the best analogue are the warbonds which had no maturity but would be called at the appropriate time (the last of which weren’t called until last decade). It is unprecedented. It’s also impossible to foresee the long term consequences of this. I’m sure people are thinking about them. Ironically perhaps – this is how you get inflation because supply side is going to become more and more strained the longer borders are closed and people can’t work. Prices can and will go up because of that – not because we’ve got more money. However, this will clearly be offset by people not actually having money. It’s a hugely risky strategy – but clearly the risks of doing nothing will be worse. Rishi Sunak has just promised to cover 80% of salary up to 2500 per month indefinitely. This is astonishing and tremendously welcome but tells you just how scared everyone is by the economic impact of this. If you’re not taking this seriously right now then you are, simply, a fool. A government composed of right wing nationalists and fiscal conservatives for whom Hayek and the Chicago school remain idols have just announced Universal Basic Income and an effective socialisation of salary and all of society’s risks. This is the tiger making dinner for the rabbit, it’s the coyote apologising to Roadrunner. (and for those in the know…don’t be Peck.) The term unprecedented here is both correct and far too small to underscore what’s going on.

Back to the question of ‘how do we pay for this?’

Well I mentioned warbonds earlier. Specifically those from WWI and II. They didn’t think about how they would repay – the nation was supposed to be facing an existential crisis. So they borrowed from a future they hoped was there to be borrowed from. The sense of desperation here is the same. We fail and it’s a generational depression to make the financial crisis look like losing your lunch money vs. losing your house and being forced to live on the street.

If we successfully meet this challenge? Well then we’ll worry about the implications then. What’s clear is no western country, especially the UK, will be the same after this. The US still has a journey to go on but they too will be no less different after this is over and, perhaps a silver lining, but this will be a real insulation against partisan politics and especially popularists because the virus respects nobody. It’s not an innoculation but like a large volcanic eruption can stall climate change, this can stall the growth of populism if only for a time.

I’m not sure there’s anything further to say – beyond this point everything is speculation. There are precious few voices I’m interested in listening to on this right now – I’m kind of absorbing lots and filtering 95% of it as the noise people make when they’re scared – it’s all shouting and fear and fastening onto any details which people see that appear new.

Yet the above is relevant. The government is doing something beyond the wildest fantasies of any serious economist I know – including me. You may criticise them all you like but I’ll have less respect for you if you do (see my reference to Peck). I guarantee you, you don’t know better and you wouldn’t do better. The choices made today by Sunak and by other European countries ahead of him this week and by the US over the weekend are literally undreamt of – not simply because the world economy was never structured to allow it (and there’ll be a lot of previously important influencers in the system who will now either fall into line or disappear into irrelevance) but because fundamentally literally no one could imagine this situation and moreover, no one can foresee the consequences of this in a month, a year or a decade.

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