The One Chart We Need To Study And Why Bitcoiners Need To Move Away From The 1970s-Style Inflation Thesis
The first chart plotted below is deceptively simply, and yet extremely important. I would even make the argument that it is the most important chart to fully internalize so far in 2021. This is the signal through the recent noise of messy economic data.
Chart #1 below visualizes Nominal Gross Domestic Product (Quarterly GDP in actual dollars, annualized), divided by the Employment to Population Ratio (most commonly defined as prime age workers aged 25-54 as percent of total population).
A historic shift:
What this chart is telling us is that already, a year after COVID brought the biggest employment shock in modern times, we have produced higher GDP in dollars relative labor employed. Ever.
Chart #2 plotted below is simply meant to emphasize where our employment levels currently stand in a historical context. It shows us how incredible the GDP growth is despite there still being approximately 15.35 million people filing unemployment claims in this country. That compares to about 1.6 million people filing claims prior to the COVID crisis, when GDP was $21.8 trillion.
Let us think about this for a minute. Currently, with GDP at a new high of $22.06 trillion, we have “accomplished” a 1.2% nominal GDP growth rate in defiance of a nearly 10x order of magnitude increase in the number of workers unemployed in that period!
I know many skeptics will argue that such a rate of GDP is not sustainable, and is driven by a temporary and synthetic demand from high transfer payments and the inflated personal income and spending that comes with such government programs. And while these facts are true, they miss the point. The point is that our economy can handle such demand at current levels of employment.
If Powell and the Fed are watching this, they must certainly be gnashing their teeth and wincing anxiously. If one’s goal is full employment, defined as getting job levels back to pre-pandemic levels, these facts are rather alarming.
The Emergence Of A New Debate: Deflation
Some signal-oriented thinkers like Jeff Booth have done an excellent job in delivering a message that frames the hurdles for a system of debt-based fiat. A system that necessitates higher inflation to propel it forward with an ever-increasing secular headwind of deflationary forces. Such forces result from the productivity fueled by exponential technological innovation and an increasingly digital world that simply does not require human labor at nearly the same scale as historically observed.
The Oversimplified Dichotomy Of Inflation Versus Deflation
It is my view that fellow Bitcoiners would be better served to stop broadcasting the inflation and hyperinflation narrative as the primary reason to migrate to the hardest, most decentralized money ever invented. Such a narrative has the unintended consequence of reducing bitcoin merely to digital gold alone. Such a reductionist conclusion is incredibly unfortunate as bitcoin is so much more than this, and is so much better suited for the epoch we have just recently begun. The other flaw in this inflation tale is that it could very likely not occur, at least not in the 1970s-era manner that many are expecting to unfold. The world is so utterly different from the decade of the 1970s today, that such a comparison is almost nostalgic in its oversimplified and stale rationales. However, before some bitcoiners explode at this statement in defensive recoil, let us pause and take a deep breath.
We don’t need this narrative at all. Let me repeat it. We don’t need this inflation narrative to unfold to be victorious. And when viewing the above charts, that is a good thing. Why give bitcoin opponents yet another Straw Man argument to burn at their alters? So let us shed this skin, so that these FUDsters are left without a flame to even fan in the first place.
The Forest For The Trees
This does not mean that inflation, in some phase state, is not occurring. But money is not necessarily inflating in the Keynesian textbook definition of more dollars chasing fewer goods and services. (Defined by such measures as the Consumer Price Index and other econometric inflation gauges that use average and aggregate prices based on baskets of ever-changing, and hedonically adjusted components). Alas, the circumstances are much more nuanced. Money is inflating, but is now doing so via Monetary Entropy, rather than by way of the superficial consumer and services headline aggregate inflation we typically use as our barometer. (For a deeper dive into the theoretical framework of monetary entropy, please see my essay linked above, titled B.I.T. Bitcoin Information Theory).
Currently, we are witnessing a lot of noisy post-pandemic reopening statistics, misleading base effects and short-term supply shocks after a year of lockdown and severe economic disruption. These strange times breed a tremendous degree of confusion, and overwhelm us in a cacophony of noisy data. Nevertheless, we must see the forest for the trees and not succumb to the yarns of the past. Memes such as “OMG look at lumber prices!!” are low hanging Inflationista fruit, an empty vessel of click bait. This is the noise. The signal is telling us that businesses have accelerated the shifts of productivity, automation, and digitization already well under way over the past 20 to 30 years. The ability to do more with less human labor. This is immensely more deflationary in the long run relative to any short-term commodity-driven disruptions.
How Central Bankers Think About Wealth Creation
“Since we decided a few weeks ago to adopt the leaf as legal tender, we have, of course, all become immensely rich.” -Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Quantitative Easing (QE) is indeed insidious money printing, but not in the way characterized by most financial analysts and pundits. The real nuanced mechanism is actually much more problematic for fiat as it is significantly more financially destabilizing. This is because rather than injecting fresh capital into the real economy in the form of fractional bank reserves that enter monetary circulation through the extension of credit, such avenues are circumvented in favor of a speculative asset vector. However, given speculative assets ideally have free market pricing mechanisms that can make real-time agile adjustments, financial markets will constantly test the political resolve to support them. Such is a very important distinction relative to the behavior of the more deliberate real economy that lives outside of the domain of financialization, a domain that is shrinking by the day. In 2011, rock star venture capitalist Marc Andreessen famously opined that “software is eating the world”. But well before 2011, financial assets were already eating the world and in much larger quantities. Financial markets crave certainty in order to establish equilibrium fair value prices and confidence. Over time, when such tests are repeatedly iterated, history has proven a desire on the part of policy makers to maintain market confidence at all costs. Such a dynamic also adds to “short-termism”, as the incentive structure for the typical politician, technocrat and bureaucrat is etched along a very short time horizon and becomes matched by a new equally short time horizon for financial markets. This realization becomes ingrained as a pattern of moral hazard, and begins to dictate policy decisions to a greater extent. Once the government itself becomes reliant on QE to finance its own spending plans, it is game over. These counterproductive incentives become too difficult to overcome. This is why moral hazard is so dangerous. Such bridges, once crossed, become very difficult to retrogress.
Stocks And Bonds As The Embodiment Of Fiat Currency
Money Supply relative to economic activity (measured via the M2 $ / GDP $ ratio) is now 60% below its peak ratio in 1974 and has been in consistent but sharp decline ever since the financialization of our economy began in earnest in the early 1980s. Meanwhile, the stock market’s market capitalization relative to GDP has gone from about 40% of GDP in the 1970s to well over 200% today, an all time high. This is perhaps one of the more stunning facts to internalize out of everything I’ve said thus far.
Because this demonstrates how Money Supply (measured primarily as M0, M1 and M2 growth) is not required as the only mechanism to pump new money into the system. Keynesians and monetarist macroeconomists have defended QE as not actually being money printing, but bank reserve creation instead and thus non-inflationary. This is true, but only in a semantic and academic sense, using their own pre-defined measures of inflation. Measures that carry little relevance in modern reality. Talk about circular logic!
But the bigger problem with such definitions is they entirely miss the point. Why print more actual dollars, if banks are regulated into holding higher excess reserves, and are not going to turn them into credit anyway? Credit is the actual mechanism for money printing in our system. And money velocity (the residual multiplier effect on base money) has plummeted. In 1997, the velocity of money peaked at 2.2x and is currently dramatically down 50%, now sitting near an all-time low at 1.1x. That means that every $1 dollar of money in the system in 1997 was recycled over two times but now is…