Feb

17

 This question is akin to an inverse of the rabbit from the empty hat trick. The rabbit has to be there in the hat before it has been taken out. The inverse of this trick would be that the affairs of men relating to wealth and money during a downturn and crash are prone to imagining a rabbit vanishing into a hat that was never put into the hat.

Money in its broadest realm is a state of the mind. Cash and currency are but one tangible subset of money, a much smaller one. There are many other tangible subsets. Then there are the intangible ones. The wealth effect espoused by financial behaviorists is but nothing else. Today's context is nothing different really conceptually from the Tulip mania or any other that has happened in between since.

Value is what money is supposed to store. Cash is one form of money. Central Banks are creating money in modern times as their dutiful function. Financial markets are producing money and consuming away their own and others' money creations periodically as a by-product of their other core functions. Whatever can be a store of value and a medium of exchange is money. That's how there was a time not too long ago when the Tulip bulb was the most important store of and producer of more money. As confidence and thus belief in the existing amount of collective wealth and value goes up so does the amount of money perceived goes up. When the amount of money perceived around exceeds far beyond the utility or the utilizable value, mankind is presented with the bills enabling reality check.

Where would the money go that never existed? That rabbit was never put in to the hat. No point in searching it there at least. But then in such cases, there were several rabbits that never existed.

Now markets, crowds, societies and the entire mankind are known to have swung from one extreme to the other one. So, as this all gets prepared to be relegated back behind to leaves of history, yet again the real rabbits will be put into the hat and won't be visible before being pulled out. In markets, non-existent rabbits are being put into hats and existent rabbits don't get seen inside the hat. Men of the markets are indulging in relishing and enjoying the magic of both kinds they are themselves creating again and again.

George Parkanyi asks:

But where has the actual cash that's been created (not the intangibles) gone? Every balance sheet begins and ends with the current assets line-item Cash. I understand that the Treasury can create money out of thin air - but whatever dollars it has created to date exist somewhere as cash - net of those dollars that have been taken out of circulation. It cannot not exist. A big chunk of it may not be CIRCULATING, or at least not in our economy, but it's SOMEWHERE. My question is where? and what would cause the money not circulating to begin circulating again?

Now some balance sheets are of course over-stated because they value assets at a market value that is not realizable. And real cash was lent against those unsustainable values. This just means that a significant amount of cash was deployed unproductively buying a house for $1,000,000 that could be replaced for $400,000, or a $1,000,000 mortgage backed issue that may only receive back $300,000 of principal. But even where cash went to purchase intangibles, the seller of the intangible still received the cash, and either "saved" it or went and bought something else.

If we assume that the cash the Treasury has created over time still mostly exists, then I believe the question becomes to what extent have balance sheets been bloated with unrealizable intangible values? And to what level do these intangibles need to readjust down for businesses to again begin investing and for people to still show up for work and maintain and grow an economy?

There are some potential implications. For example, if you have $30 trillion of cash around the world (I have no idea what the real number should be), then adding another 2, 5, or 10 trillion may not necessarily be all that inflationary. Also, if intangible "assets" on books are 3 or 4 times the amount of cash available, and they suddenly go out of favor (e.g. real estate prices drop, no-one wants junk bonds, no-one wants to pay more than book value for stocks), then demand for cash and "safe" cash equivalents will soar (and cause one godawful depression- especially if the cash is just hoarded). There may even be bank runs despite federal deposit insurance. And what if the real cash is mostly overseas, and we're holding the bag with mostly intangibles? Ouch.

I would expect that the tipping point to inflation will come when we begin to see shortages (or perceived shortages) in real assets (e.g. from droughts causing food shortages or commodity shortages due to global supply disruptions) to meet current needs, but especially if there is a fear-driven demand to acquire and hoard real assets (loss of confidence in the currency), possibly leading to hyper-inflation. That doesn't seem to be the case right now, especially in North America and Europe.

My gut reaction on this is to lean toward the deflation scenario, because even though the Treasury may throw a few $trillion out there, much of it may be absorbed by born-again savers and foreigners, and still mostly stay out of circulation while asset prices fall. However, that deferred latent purchasing power, when unleashed, could be enormous when asset prices finally turn.

Easan Katir comments:

George, here is the train of thought I think you're asking about/ applying your line of questioning to what everyone says is the root problem: housing.

Trillions were in pensions and sovereign funds. Pension plans, sovereign funds, no doubt Orange County ( they get in on all the deals ) bought CDOs from investment banks. So their cash went to investment banks. To create the CDOs, the banks had to buy mortgages from lenders. So the cash went to mortgage lenders. To originate the loan, mortgage lenders gave cash to home sellers. At this point in the logic train we have two layers of paper, not cash: CDOs and mortgages, which have had to be reduced in value because the home buyers overpaid.

Buyers and lenders gave their cash to the homebuilders, who were of course, sellers. So the homebuilders should have mountains of money. Since they don't appear to, one assumes they must have taken their money and bought more land, built more houses, which they couldn't sell, and have had to write down. Some cash went to the land sellers, the subcontractors and the materials suppliers. Private homebuilders bought more investment real estate, and gave their cash to those sellers.

Those who now have the trillions don't seem to be standing up and waving "it's here. I've got it", do they….

So a "nutshell" answer to your question, "where is the cash?" might be, it's in the bank accounts of anyone who was a seller of houses, land or stocks a few years ago. Herb and Marion Sandler, for example, who sold in 2006.

Stefan Jovanovich comments:

Most of "the money" is gone. Some very little of it is sitting in safes and vaults in the form of greenbacks and bullion, but most of it is simply up in smoke. Very few of the people invited to the A-List party have the wisdom to want to leave early or the guts to be seen leaving early. The homebuilders here in California put most of the money they made into options for and outright purchases of new lots, heavy equipment and (in the case of the public companies) stock buy-backs. They also paid a lot of money in income taxes. The value of the lots they bought or optioned here in California is close to zero, and I assume it is the same in Florida and the other places that saw a boom. The heavy equipment is worth between 10 and 25 cents on each dollar they paid in 2005, 2006 and 2007. (It is not just the slow-down in orders from China that is killing Caterpillar right now; the competition from used equipment is murderous.) The idea that somehow only we poor Americans were the suckers is funny. If anything, we have gotten off comparatively easy. The property markets in Europe and the Middle East and Asia have, as the Beach Boys might have put it, all become California dirt; and their central bankers bought far more of our crap paper than Helicopter Ben bought of theirs. What is also funny is the notion that the money center banks need to start lending again to get the economy moving again. They ARE lending - to the Treasury. Why, in a world of ZIRP, should they do anything else?

Bud Conrad writes:

Bud ConradThere are so many good questions and answers it is hard to focus on simple explanations. But first a few clarifications on George Parkanyi's initial point of view: Money is not a real thing of substantial value, and it is not created by the Treasury, but by the Federal Reserve. The Dollars in your pocket are Federal Reserve Notes. This is a minor point because your question makes perfect sense if you wrap the word "government" around both the Treasury and the Federal Reserve, and replace your use of the world Treasury by the word government.

Then your question still stands: Where did the money go? First, the real assets of homes and land and factories still exist, and they are still owned by someone. What disappeared was the value expressed in dollars. This is a form of money implosion as experienced by holders of deeds of trust that don't cover the defaults. It means less money in total. That is why we have deflation.

But as you say the government (Fed) can print money pretty much at will to keep things going. The system of fractional reserve banking is set up so that most of the "money" comes from the banking system as it makes loans. For example, mortgages are used to buy homes, not the money from a down payment. These mortgages were based on the banks making money by creating loans. About 6 times as much "money" was made by the banking system as by the Fed. In boom times and according to theory, banks always want to make more loans as that is the way they make money. They are constrained by having enough reserves to meet the Fed's requirement of supposedly 10% of deposits put on deposit at the Fed. When the Fed adds new reserves by buying Treasuries from banks, the theory expects the banks to make new loans an "multiply" the money throughout the economy making new loans. In this situation today, the Fed has bought Toxic waste giving the banks new money that could be lent. But the banks aren't lending because they have bad debts, and need to have capital adequate to meet regulatory review and because they can't find lenders they can trust who want money. So the banks have piled up "Excess Reserves" at the Fed and the money multiplier is leaving the Fed "Pushing on a string" getting no expansion of the money, even after their bailouts that they thought would be stimulating.

P.S. I like the rabbit that isn't there being put in the hat as explanation as it makes as much sense as all the details here. It is only an illusion that money is worth anything, that is left over from convention before 1971 when foreign central banks could convert dollars at $32 per oz for gold. De Gaul reached for the gold and Nixon slammed the window on his fingers after we sold off half our store. Since then it is mere historical convention, image and illusion that keeps the dollar afloat.

Nigel Davies offers:

Here's another take on it. What if most energy in any system is lost simply through friction, this frictional tendency actually increasing during an asset bubble. When the bubble deflates again, most of what you have left is the huge waste caused by people chasing something that never really existed in the first place. They were pursuing an optical illusion caused by increased liquidity and dissipating real wealth via their frenetic activity.

Jim Sogi writes:

Money, cash, and credit, is merely a counting method for confidence, or now, the lack thereof. It is created as an ether, and disappears as the fog. It is a strong only as our full faith. With mass communication, global memes seem to spread faster, turn on a dime, so to speak. I wonder if there is a correlation between speed of decline and recovery time?

Vincent Andres responds to Nigel Davies' questions about China:

Once upon a time they did build a big wall, I would posit it's now imprinted in their DNA. The surface inside the wall + the number of people there seems already a nice piece to manage. And btw, In 2008, everybody also knows how too big empires end.

So, I'm really not worrying too much about China. China managing China is already a really great challenge. Kudos if they succeed.

Just my two cents feeling, I would like to hear the flaws/missing points above.

George Parkanyi adds:

The mitigation of risk and the collective formation of capital in the capitalist system incents exploration, invention, innovation, and experimentation. Look around you at the marvellous things it has built, and the amazing discoveries it has facilitated. Next time you take a flight think about all that went into you being able to do that. Or even just driving a car. There's nothing really wrong with the current monetary system other than we've allowed it to run amok. Credit is fine as long as there is a reasonable expectation of most of it being repaid. (But even if it isn't the stuff gets built anyway; someone eventually just takes a haircut.) With some better checks and balances, there is no reason we can't dust ourselves off from this face-plant and continue to progress - hopefully a little less rough-shod over the environment and each other. The key is to keep enough people incented to keep innovating and working productively to sustain the complex societies and systems we have built.


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