Central Bank Mistakes

When Albert Hofmann — the Swiss chemist who discovered LSD — passed away at the start of this month, newspaper editors the world over reported it as the death of the man “who experienced the first ever bad trip.”

But Hofmann’s hallucinations seem little worse than most acid-induced visions. Or so people tell us…

“Beginning dizziness,” he wrote in his lab journal for 19 April 1943. Looking to find a stimulant for the circulatory and respiratory systems, he’d just concocted — and taken — a big dose of lysergic acid diethylamide-25.

“Feeling of anxiety,” he noted, before adding in due course “Difficulty in concentration. Visual disturbances. Desire to laugh.”

Finally, Hofmann scrawled the words “most severe crisis” and fled the lab on his bicycle. It seemed to stay stationary even as it wheeled him back home, where his neighbor — who brought him a nice glass of milk to calm him down — appeared as a witch in a colored mask.

He felt possessed by demons. The furniture in his bedroom began to menace him. All pretty run of the mill stuff if you dabble with psychotropics, in short.

But such “fantastic images” don’t always ease into the sensations of “good fortune and gratitude” Hofmann got to enjoy later that day. Hallucinations can still cause the “most severe crisis” — even without some fool laying Witches Hat by the Incredible String Band on the turntable.

“Inflation will return to the two percent target,” claimed Mervyn King, head of the Bank of England, and one half of the financial furry freak brothers running Anglo-American monetary policy.

“Growth will eventually recover to a sustainable rate.”

Just a central banker’s wide-eyed hallucination? Maybe not. Like Albert Hofmann’s wobbly bike-ride six decades ago, the credit cycle will get us home in good time, ready to turn once again from boom to bubble to bust. But like any powerful psychedelic, the trip gobbled down by Western investors could last much longer than anyone dares hope right now.

And just what was the Governor smoking when he claimed, “In these [current] circumstances, the household saving rate is likely to rise…”?

The Bank of England has been cutting U.K. interest rates since December. Its latest Inflation Report says it will continue to cut interest rates “in line with [bond] market expectations,” too.

And U.K. households have grown their savings only once when interest rates fell in the last four-and-half decades. That brief period lasted for two years at the start of the 1990s.

Both before and since — and most markedly during the previous post-war recessions (of 1974 and 1981) — people have tweaked their savings almost precisely in line with changes to the rate of interest, as set by the Bank of England itself.

King’s starry-eyed vision, however, “is part of a rebalancing of the U.K. economy, away from spending and importing, toward saving and exporting,” he told reporters last week.

The sky’s turned all purple in Washington too if U.S. policy-makers think the credit crunch will somehow boost household savings there.

Put another way, “who had heard of collateralized debt obligations just 10 years ago?” as Niall Ferguson, history professor at Harvard, asked in a speech opening New York’s new Museum of Finance back in January this year.

“Collateralized loan obligations? Credit derivatives? These forms of financial instrument are of very recent origin. So are the hedge funds; so are the private equity partnerships; so are the sovereign wealth funds; and so are those wonderfully named entities, the conduits…”

Ferguson then flashed up a series of charts “to illustrate the speed with which these phenomena have proliferated.” First, mortgage-backed securities. Starting in 1980 – “when scarcely any such thing existed” — they total $3.5 trillion-worth today. Then he cited “the whole range” of other newly born asset-backed instruments — automobile loans, equipment loans, student loans, credit card-backed debt derivatives…

“Over the counter derivatives outstanding?” the professor asked. “Well, if you’d asked someone to name that figure in 1987 it would have been a very small number indeed.”

Ferguson’s theme bears repeating; he likens the huge growth in complex financial products to an evolutionary spurt, “an explosion of life forms [amid an] unusually benign climate.”

Whereas I see it more as a chemistry experiment gone horribly wrong. The hare-brained PhDs mixing up the medicine are too spaced out to even guess at what’s now sitting in the Petri dish. And the financial monsters it has spawned aren’t merely in the scientists’ minds.

Take hedge funds, for example; Ferguson notes that in 1990, those financial life forms known as “hedge funds” numbered around 600 (also including funds of funds). Now they’ve reproduced and multiplied up toward 10,000.

“As a form, the hedge fund dates back to the 1940s. But this population explosion is of very recent origin.”

The raw numbers also hide a “regular, annual dying out”; there’s chronic survivorship bias in the data. In 2006, for example, 717 hedge funds were culled; the 2007 figure should be even larger. And here, believes Ferguson, we see survival of the fittest in action. If he’s wrong, perhaps it’s just the contingency of life itself, allowing the standard proportion of idiots to thrive and market their “top decile” performance to a new generation of unwitting investors.

“A lot of reporters ask me these days whether we’re in the midst of a commodity bubble,” said Dr. Benn Steil, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, at the Hard Assets Conference in New York in mid-May.

“In fact, I’m going to Washington to give a Senate testimony. [Because] my perspective is that the more interesting, and indeed more important, question to ask is whether we’re at the end of what I would call a ‘fiat currency bubble’.”


Like Professor Ferguson, Dr. Steil looks back “to the early 1980s” to find the origins of whatever it is we’re now watching mutate, if not die out.

Under Paul Volker at the Federal Reserve, “inflation, and at least equally importantly inflation expectations, were driven out of the system through a pretty ruthless policy of very tight money, high interest rates. Very tight money.”

What followed was “the golden age of the fiat Dollar” says Steil, reminding us that credit expansion was unshackled from gold in 1971, when Richard Nixon stopped redeeming the U.S. currency for bullion altogether. It took tight money — “very tight money” — to bring the resulting inflation of the 1970s under control.

The fiat money experiment then broke out of the lab with the “explosion” of financial life-forms witnessed from 1980 right up to last summer. Indeed, it all ran just fine until around 2002, when the cost of key raw materials — notably wheat and oil, as in Steil’s charts above — began to shoot higher in terms of Dollars and other government-backed currencies.

Measured against gold prices, however, they’ve barely budged. “That shouldn’t surprise people,” says Steil, “because as we go back to the era of the gold standard from about 1880 until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, prices around the world in countries that were on the gold standard were also remarkably flat.

“The figure looked just like this. So gold is behaving as it has historically.”

In the hot, fetid climate of low interest rates and surging credit supplies, central bankers like Ben Bernanke and Mervyn King are hallucinating if they think they can control the monsters spawned by the fiat money experiment.

And tripped out on delusions of “minor god” status, these furry freaks really do believe they can talk Wall Street and the City back down from their current wave of “worst crisis ever.”

Adrian Ash
May 27, 2008