Multiplying by Zero

Permanent zero. That’s what Edward Harrison calls the Fed’s new policy of guaranteeing ultra-low interest rates for the next 2 years.

But first, let’s look at what happened yesterday. Gold soared $21…again, setting a record.

The Dow fell 76 points. Not much of a follow up to the bullish day on Monday. Maybe investors are catching on. Maybe they realize that we are in a ‘zero stage” economy.

Zero is a funny number. It is not a number at all. When you say there are ‘zero’ donuts on the table, how many are there? None at all. There are no donuts on the table. So how many is zero?

And what happens when you add zeros together? Nothing. But when you multiply by zero something extraordinary happens…something becomes nothing. No kidding. Zero times 6 = 0. Zero times the entire federal deficit equals zero. Want to make something disappear? Multiply it by zero.

And what happens when you multiply a Great Correction economy by zero rates of interest? Hey, that’s what we’re finding out.

If a person is zero years old…how old are they? They have no age. They do not exist. Zero is empty…non-existent…it is nothing. It is a void. It is where the person who does not exist sits to drink his coffee.

But what is a void? It is like describing the universe. You may say that the universe began with the ‘big bang,’ but what was there before? Zero? No… There had to be something to blow up.

If you say the universe was a ‘giant void,’ it only raises our curiosity. How can a void be giant? And what exactly is in a void?

Let’s try to imagine something that is so small it has no dimensions. None. Take a measurement. Cut it in half. Do that again…and again…and no matter how many times you do it, you still have something. You can’t make the damned thing disappear! You can’t get to nothing, no matter how hard you try.

Therefore, zero – by definition – does not exist! And if it does not exist, there is no point in talking about it.

We only bring it up because zero is becoming a larger and larger part – if you can imagine it – of the US economy. Zero interest rates. Zero growth. Zero stock market appreciation. Zero housing gains. Zero new jobs.

Yes, dear reader…the economy is a Big, Fat Zero…

The whole thing is breathtakingly bizarre. The feds’ latest measure puts consumer inflation at more than zero – about 3%. John Williams’ Shadow Stats puts it at 11%. And yet, the Fed lends member banks money at zero interest.

It is not only giving money away, it has pledged to do so until the middle of 2013.

“Get it here! Free Money! Get your Free Money here! For the next 24 months!”

Readers may think this is a good thing. Now, the banks know that all they have to do is to borrow the Fed’s money for nothing…and then lend it back to the federal government for 10 years at a higher rate. Maybe 2% higher. Two percent is not a lot. But the feds will borrow $3 trillion or so during that 2-year period. Let’s see, 2% of $3 trillion is $60 billion. Not bad. Especially for doing zero work.

In other words, for zero effort and at zero risk the banks will make beaucoup money from the Fed’s permanent zero interest rate policy. It is supposed to encourage them to borrow and lend…and thereby stimulate the economy to grow.

But we’ll make a prediction. No, several of them.

Bankers, being who they are, will still find a way to lose money. They are public utilities now, run largely for the benefit of their employees. Bank managers will suck out the profits, leaving banks severely undercapitalized. Then, when US Treasurys collapse, the banks will collapse too.

Another one: permanent zero is not just a policy measure…it’s a prediction and a curse. It is what you get when you take the road to Japan – permanently zero interest rates…and zero growth too.

And another one: when they multiply a permanent zero interest rate policy with an economy in a Great Correction they will get…zero.

And more thoughts…

“I’m not going to waste my time reading this Water for Elephants book,” said our mother, who will turn 90 next month. “It’s depressing.

“I just don’t have time to read bad books. I don’t have time to waste. Let young people read these trashy novels. I only have time for a few books, so I have to choose them carefully.”

“So, what are you going to read?” we asked.

“Well, I’m still working my way through the Bible, but it’s slow going. I don’t know if I’ll ever make it to the end. And I think I’ll read George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss. I’ve never read it.

“I fell over on my right side last week. My right arm is almost paralyzed. And then I fell over on my left side yesterday. I feel like I’m falling apart. I’ll read fast.”

*** Here’s Paul Krugman with more advice:

For the fact is that right now the economy desperately needs a short-run fix. When you’re bleeding profusely from an open wound, you want a doctor who binds that wound up, not a doctor who lectures you on the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle as you get older. When millions of willing and able workers are unemployed, and economic potential is going to waste to the tune of almost $1 trillion a year, you want policy makers who work on a fast recovery, not people who lecture you on the need for long-run fiscal sustainability… What would a real response to our problems involve? First of all, it would involve more, not less, government spending.

What a delight it must be! To see things so clearly… Without complications…or unintended consequences. When there is a problem – you just get a quack on the case and fix it.

Okay…sure….there are things that could go wrong. And maybe you’ll make the situation worse. But when you can’t worry about it. You just deal with the damned problem in front of you.

And yes, government could already owe far more money than it can ever repay. But, heck, we can’t worry about that either.

And yes, putting people to work is not as easy as it sounds…and of course, they won’t necessarily be doing things that are worth doing. Which means, they will be using up resources…the world’s wealth…and wasting it.

And yes…we would be taking a bankrupt borrower…and putting him further in the hole…so he can squander trillions more of the world’s real wealth…by ‘employing’ people to do things that they probably shouldn’t be doing (if they were worth doing…why weren’t they done by the private sector…or even by the public sector when it still had money to spend?)….and misleading investors, businessmen and households into thinking the economy is healthier that it really is…thereby causing them to make even more errors…

…But heck…stop complicating things! Stop worrying! We’ve got to keep this simple. Otherwise, we won’t be able to give such moronic advice.

***“It looks like we’ll have Christina for a few years more,” said a friend from Argentina.

“She’s trouncing her opponents. She’s way ahead in the polls. And she’s giving away money – by increasing pension payouts – in advance of the election. She looks unstoppable.”

Argentina’s politics are simple enough – on the surface. In the 19th century, the country was controlled by large landowners. Food prices were high. Argentina has one of the most fertile and most productive agricultural regions in the world.

By the turn of the century, Argentina was rich. English gentlemen hoped to marry their daughters to Argentine farmers. Boatloads of immigrants arrived in Buenos Aires, a city so grand and beautiful it made New York look like a slum.

But the immigrants tended to stay in the city. Buenos Aires was beginning to develop an urban proletariat. And many of the immigrants – coming largely from Italy – had ideas about what the working classes should do. They formed unions…anarchist groups…and socialist political parties.

It wasn’t long before the mass of urbanites outweighed the few, rich old families out in the countryside. Thereafter, Argentine politics has largely been an open auction for votes in Buenos Aires. Whoever promises most benefits to the masses wins.

And then, the country goes broke.

“Argentina has a financial crisis about once every 10 years,” says our friend. “The politicians promise more than we can pay for. And then we have hyperinflation, defaults…bank closures. Happens every time. And we should be about ready for another one.”

Argentina’s politicians are smart. They promise the middle and lower classes a lot. But they also systematically cheat the masses. High rates of inflation rob them of their purchasing power. Listen up, Bachman, Perry, Clinton, et all. This is a system you might want to follow.

Herewith the latest news:

Ten years on from its debt default, the Argentine economy is booming: since 2001, GDP has grown by 79.5%, and the government forecasts further growth of 8.2% in 2011. But some are wondering whether this stellar growth seen in Argentina, and in other dynamic emerging economies, is sustainable.

The Economist recently published a study rating all countries on a number of criteria – including inflation, unemployment, GDP growth, excess credit, real interest rates and forecast change in current account balance – to test for signs of overheating. Argentina received a score of 100%, putting the country top of the list, and above other ‘high-risk’ nations such as Indonesia, Vietnam and Egypt. Are the good times coming to an end?

Much discredited government figures state an average inflation rate 8.6% over the past four years, whereas a consensus of private think- tank opinions suggest an average rate of 22.2%.

But the government denies inflation is an issue, claiming it is a media phenomenon whilst focusing on maintaining the high growth rate.

Herwin Loman, a South American economist from Rabobank, suggests the government may actually benefit from the current situation: “by having high inflation, and underreporting the inflation rate at the same time, the government can decrease the amount in real terms it has to pay on bonds on which the interest rate is linked to the (official) inflation rate.”


Bill Bonner
For Markets and Money Australia

Bill Bonner

Bill Bonner

Since founding Agora Inc. in 1979, Bill Bonner has found success and garnered camaraderie in numerous communities and industries. A man of many talents, his entrepreneurial savvy, unique writings, philanthropic undertakings, and preservationist activities have all been recognized and awarded by some of America’s most respected authorities. Along with Addison Wiggin, his friend and colleague, Bill has written two New York Times best-selling books, Financial Reckoning Day and Empire of Debt. Both works have been critically acclaimed internationally. With political journalist Lila Rajiva, he wrote his third New York Times best-selling book, Mobs, Messiahs and Markets, which offers concrete advice on how to avoid the public spectacle of modern finance. Since 1999, Bill has been a daily contributor and the driving force behind Markets and Money.
Bill Bonner

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3 Comments on "Multiplying by Zero"

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Love reading Bill’s articles. Expresses his point in a funny way.

Jonathan F.
“Zero is a funny number. It is not a number at all. When you say there are ‘zero’ donuts on the table, how many are there? None at all. There are no donuts on the table. So how many is zero?” “And what happens when you multiply a Great Correction economy by zero rates of interest? Hey, that’s what we’re finding out.” This article is actually kind of dumb. The development of zero as a NUMBER is one of the most important developments in the history of mathematics. If the author is not sophisticated enough to understand the concept of… Read more »
I believe the author was speaking of the number zero in practical terms. Central banks setting the cost of credit at (close to) o% nominal interest rates is no interest rates. Banks lending at 100% LVR is no deposit necessary for the borrower. Governments issuing (close to) 0% nominal interest rates bonds to pay for (close to) 0% nominal interest rates on existing bonds. The banking system is dumb. Fractional reserve banking is a big, fat zero. Gold is about 165,000 tonnes. I prefer an ounce in the hand than AUD $1800 “guaranteed” in the bank. Gold and silver is… Read more »
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