Real Wealth Weaker than GDP Stats Show


Real GDP doesn’t measure the real strength of an economy

by Frank Shostak | | September 7, 2015

US real gross domestic product (GDP) grew faster than initially thought in Q2.

GDP expanded at a 3.7 percent annual rate instead of the 2.3 percent rate reported last month and 0.6 percent in Q1. Most experts, in response to this figure, are now arguing that the US economy is strengthening visibly.

This, coupled with a relatively stable price level, raises the likelihood that the economy is approaching the path of healthy economic growth with stable price inflation.


When we talk about economic strength on an individual level by this we mean an individual’s real wealth. On a national level, one could talk about overall real wealth by adding up the real wealth of individuals.

GDP Can’t Measure Real Wealth

As simple as it sounds however, this cannot be done since we cannot add up potatoes to tomatoes to obtain a meaningful total. So from this perspective we cannot ascertain the total real wealth in an economy:

[T]here are serious problems regarding the calculation of the GDP statistic. To calculate a total, several things must be added together. To add things together, they must have some unit in common. It is not possible to add refrigerators to cars and shirts to obtain the total of final goods. Since the total real output cannot be meaningfully defined, obviously it cannot be quantified …

It is interesting to note that in commodity markets, prices are quoted as Dollars/barrel of oil, Dollars/ounce of gold, Dollars/tonne of copper, etc. Obviously, it wouldn’t make much sense to establish an average of these prices. On this Rothbard wrote, “Thus, any concept of average price level involves adding or multiplying quantities of completely different units of goods, such as butter, hats, sugar, etc., and is therefore meaningless and illegitimate.”

The employment of various sophisticated methods to calculate the average price level cannot bypass the essential issue that it is not possible to establish an average price of various goods and services …

So what are we to make out of the periodical pronouncements that the economy, as depicted by real GDP, grew by a particular percentage? All we can say is that this percentage has nothing to do with real economic growth and that it most likely mirrors the pace of monetary pumping.

As a rule, the more money created by the central bank and the banking sector, the larger the monetary spending will be. This in turn means that the rate of growth of what is labeled as the real economy will closely mirror rises in money supply.

GDP Follows Money Supply

Thus, real GDP doesn’t measure the real strength of an economy, but rather reflects monetary turnover adjusted by a dubious statistic called the price deflator.

Obviously then, the more money is pumped, all other things being equal, the stronger the economy appears to be.

In this framework of thinking one is not surprised that the Fed can drive the economy since by means of monetary pumping the central bank can influence the GDP rate of growth.

While we cannot establish total real wealth we can, however, ascertain factors that undermine the real wealth formation.
Malinvestment: The Fed’s Balance Sheet Jumped 421 Percent

One of the key factors here, apart from government outlays, is the monetary policy of the Fed.

On this, the Fed’s balance sheet jumped from $861 billion in January 2007 to $4,484 billion by August this year — an increase of 421 percent or an average increase of 55 percent per annum during this period.

Furthermore, since December 2008 the Federal Reserve interest rate target was kept at 0.25 percent.



This aggressive monetary pumping coupled with an almost-zero interest rate must have severely misallocated real resources and thereby severely undermined the process of real wealth generation.

So, from this perspective, a strengthening in GDP doesn’t reflect an economic strengthening but actually the exact opposite.

Now, even in terms of the government’s own data such as real income, economic activity doesn’t look that great, with the growth momentum of real income actually showing a visible softening.

The yearly rate of growth fell to 2.2 percent in Q2 from 3.3 percent in Q1. The key factor behind this emerging softening is a fall in the growth momentum of money supply during October 2011 to October 2013.

It is likely, however, that this fall is positive for the health of the economy since it puts pressure on various bubble activities that undermine the wealth generation process.




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Let us paraphrase: how soon until QE 4?


On Friday, alongside China’s announcement that it had bought over 600 tons of gold in “one month”, the PBOC released another very important data point: its total foreign exchange reserves, which declined by $17.3 billion to $3,694 billion.

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We then put China’s change in FX reserves alongside the total Treasury holdings of China and its “anonymous” offshore Treasury dealer Euroclear (aka “Belgium”) as released by TIC, and found that the dramatic relationship which we first discovered back in May, has persisted – namely virtually the entire delta in Chinese FX reserves come via China’s US Treasury holdings. As in they are being aggressively sold, to the tune of $107 billion in Treasury sales so far in 2015.

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We explained all of his on Friday in “China Dumps Record $143 Billion In US Treasurys In Three Months Via Belgium“, and frankly we have been surprised that this extremely important topic has not gotten broader attention.

Then, to our relief, first JPM noticed. This is what Nikolaos Panigirtzoglou, author of Flows and Liquidity had to say on the topic of China’s dramatic reserve liquidation

Looking at China more specifically, it appears that, after adjusting for currency changes, Chinese FX reserves were depleted for a fourth straight quarter by around $50bn in Q2. The cumulative reserve depletion between Q3 2014 and Q2 2015 is $160bn after adjusting for currency changes. At the same time, a current account surplus in Q2 combined with a drawdown in reserves suggests that capital outflows from China continued for the fifth straight quarter. Assuming a current account surplus in Q2 of around $92bn, i.e. $16bn higher than in Q1 due to higher merchandise trade surplus, we estimate that around $142bn of capital left China in Q2, similar to the previous quarter.

JPM conclusion is actually quite stunning:

This brings the cumulative capital outflow over the past five quarters to $520bn. Again, we approximate capital flow from the change in FX reserves minus the current account balance for each previous quarter to arrive at this estimate (Figure 2).

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Incidentally, $520 billion is roughly triple what implied Treasury sales would suggest as China’s capital outflow, meaning that China is also liquidating some other USD-denominated asset(s) at a feverish pace. So far we do not know which, but the chart above and the magnitude of the Chinese capital outflow is certainly the biggest story surrounding the world’s most populous nation: what is happening in its stock market is just a diversion.

At this point JPM goes into a tangent explaining what the practical implications of a massive capital outflow from China are for the global economy. Regular readers, especially those who have read our previous piece on the collapse in the Petrodollar, the plunge in EM capital inflows, and their impact on capital markets and global economies can skip this part. Those for whom the interplay of capital flows and the global economy are new, are urged to read the following:

One way that slower EM capital flows and credit creation affect the rest of the world is via trade and trade finance. Trade finance datasets are unfortunately not homogeneous and different measures capture different aspects of trade finance activity. Reuters data on trade finance only aggregates loan syndication deals, which have mandated lead arrangers and thus capture the trends in the large-scale trade lending business, rather than providing an all-inclusive loans database. Perhaps the largest source of regularly collected and methodologically consistent data on trade finance is credit insurers (see “Testing the Trade Credit and Trade Link: Evidence from Data on Export Credit Insurance”, Auboin and Engemann, 2013). The Berne Union, the international trade association for credit and investment insurers with 79 members, includes the world’s largest private credit insurers and public export credit agencies. The volume of trade credit insured by members of the Berne Union covered more than 10% of international trade in 2012. The Berne Union provides data on insured trade credit, for both short-term (ST) and medium- and long-term transactions (MLT). Short-term trade credit insurance accounts for the vast majority at around 90% of new business in line with IMF estimates that the vast majority 80%-90% of trade credit is short term.

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Figure 4 shows both the Reuters (quarterly) and the Berne Union (annual) data on trade finance loan syndication and trade credit insurance volumes, respectively. The quarterly Reuters datashowed a clear deceleration this year from the very high levels seen at the end of last year. Looking at the first two quarters of the year, Reuters volumes were down by 25% vs. the 2014 average (Figure 4). The more comprehensive Berne Union annual volumes are only available annually and the last observation is for 2014. These data showed a very benign trade finance picture up until the end of 2014. Trade finance volumes had been trending up since 2010 at an annual pace of 8.8% per annum (between 2010 and 2014) which is faster than global nominal GDP growth of 6% per annum, i.e. the trend in trade finance had been rather healthy up until 2014,but there are indications of material slowing this year. This is also reflected in world trade volumes which have also decelerated this year vs. strong growth in previous years (Figure 5).

Summarizing the above as simply as possible: for all those confounded by why not only the US, but the global economy, hit another brick wall in Q1 the answer was neither snow, nor the West Coast strike, nor some other, arbitrary, goal-seeked excuse, but China, and specifically over half a trillion in still largely unexplained Chinese capital outflows.

* * *

But wait, because it wasn’t just JPM whose attention perked up over the weekend. This morning Goldman Sachs itself had a note titled “the Curious Case of China’s Capital Outflows“:

China’s balance of payments has been undergoing important changes in recent quarters. The trade surplus has grown far above previous norms, running around $260bn in the first half of this year, compared with about $100bn during the same period last year and roughly $75bn on average during the previous seven years. Ordinarily, these kinds of numbers would see very rapid reserve accumulation, but this is not the case. Partly that is because China’s services balance has swung into meaningful deficit, so that the current account is quite a bit lower than the headline numbers from trade in goods would suggest. But the more important reason is that capital outflows have become very sizeable and now eclipse anything seen in the recent past.

Headline FX reserves in the second quarter fell $36bn, from $3,730bn at end-March to $3,694bn at end-June. While we estimate that there was a large negative valuation effect in Q1 (due to the drop in EUR/$ on the ECB’s QE announcement), there was likely a positive valuation effect in Q2, which we put around $48bn. That means that our proxy for reserve accumulation in the second quarter is around -$85bn, i.e. the actual “flow” drop in reserves was bigger than the headline numbers suggest because of a flattering valuation effect. If we put that number together with the trade surplus in Q2 of $140bn, net capital outflows could be around -$224bn in the quarter, meaningfully up from the first quarter. There are caveats to this calculation, of course. There is obviously the services deficit that we mention above, which will tend to make this estimate less dramatic. It is also possible that our estimate for valuation effects is wrong. Indeed, there is some indication that valuation-related losses in Q1 were not nearly as large as implied by our calculations. But even if we adjust for these factors, net capital outflows might conceivably have run around -$200bn, an acceleration from Q1 and beyond anything seen historically.

Granted, this is smaller than JPM’s $520 billion number but this also captures a far shorter time period. Annualizing a $224 billion outflow in one quarter would lead to a unprecedented $1 trillion capital outflow out of China for the year. Needless to say, a capital exodus of that pace and magnitude would suggest that something is very, very wrong with not only China’s economy, but its capital markets, and last but not least, its capital controls, which prohibit any substantial outbound capital flight (at least for ordinary people, the Politburo is clearly exempt from the regulations for the “common folk”).

Back to Goldman:

The big question is obviously what is driving these flows and how long they are likely to continue. We continue to take the view that a stock adjustment is at work, although it is clear that the turning point is yet to come. We will look at this in one of our next FX Views. In the interim, we think an easier question is what this means for G10 FX. This is because this shift in China’s balance of payments is sure to depress reserve accumulation across EM as a whole, such that reserve recycling – a factor associated with Euro strength in the past – is unlikely to be sizeable for quite some time.

In other words, for once Goldman is speechless, however it is quick to point out that what traditionally has been a major source of reserve reflow, the Chinese current and capital accounts, is no longer there.

It also means that what may have been one of the biggest drivers of DM FX strength in recent years, if only against the pegged Renminbi, is suddenly no longer present.

While the implications of this on the global FX scene are profound, they tie in to what we said last November when explaining the death of the petrodollar. For the most part, the country most and first impacted from this capital outflow will be China, something its stock market has already noticed in recent weeks.

But what is likely the take home message for non-Chinese readers from all of this, is that while there has been latent speculation over the years that China will dump US treasuries voluntarily because it wants to (as punishment or some other reason), suddenly China is forced to liquidate US Treasury paper even though it does not want to, merely to fund a capital outflow unlike anything it has seen in history. It still has a lot of 10 Year paper, aka FX reserves, left: about $1.3 trillion at last check, however this raises two critical questions: i) what happens to 10 Year rates when whoever has been absorbing China’s Treasury dump no longer bids the paper and ii) how much more paper can China sell before the entire world starts paying attention, besides just JPM and Goldman… and this website of course.

Finally, if China’s selling is only getting started, just what does this mean for future Fed strategy. Because one can easily forget a rate hike if in addition to rising short-term rates, China is about to dump a few hundred billion in paper on a vastly illiquid market.

Or let us paraphrase: how soon until QE 4?

VIDEO: Americans Choose Free Hershey Bar Over Silver Bar Worth $150

San Diegans value chocolate more than precious metals


Mark Dice’s previous video showed him attempting to sell the 10oz silver bullion for as little as 99 cents, with no takers. This time San Diegans didn’t even show an interest in receiving the silver for free, choosing the chocolate bar instead every time.

“I’ll take the chocolate bar,” says one woman as Dice tells her, “who needs a 10 ounce bar of silver, right?” as the woman physically recoils from it.

“Who needs a 10 ounce bar of silver when you can have a good delicious bar of chocolate, right?” Dice tells another man who responds, “Yeah, exactly!”

“The Hershey bar, I can eat it, I can’t eat the silver bar,” remarks another man as he choose the chocolate over the bullion.

Another woman chooses the Hershey bar, commenting, “I’m a girl and it’s been a cranky day.”

A man in a cap then sardonically asks, “silver?” before taking the chocolate bar.

A woman wearing sunglasses remarks, “I don’t have a way to do anything with the silver,” presumably unaware that she could exchange it for $150 at a coin shop just a few feet away. Ironically, the woman then becomes preoccupied with whether or not the Hershey bar is real.

“Is it real? It doesn’t seem real,” states the woman, to which Dice responds, “I mean we could go into this coin shop, we could verify this silver bar as real.”

“No, that’s alright,” responds the woman.

As precious metals specialist Addison Quale wrote in response to Dice’s previous silver bar video, “Americans have been tricked into believing precious metals are not valuable.”

Quale writes that the video illustrates how central bankers have created an “uninformed, uninterested, ignorant and pliable citizenry they can lead around by the nose,” having “essentially convinced the populace that gold and silver coins are ultimately impractical and just too old-fashioned” while making them firmly believe that promissory bank notes and certificates represent real money.


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    East is moving away from U.S. Dollar


The “perfect-storm” of geopolitical instability, diplomatic isolation, severe currency depreciation, and economic decline now confronting Russia has profoundly damaged Moscow’s international standing, and possibly for the long-term.

Yet, it is precisely such conditions that may push the country’s leadership into taking the radical step that will secure its world-player status once and for all: the adoption of a gold-exchange standard.

Though a far-fetched idea at first glance, many factors suggest that remonetization in gold may be a logical next step for Moscow.

First, for years Moscow has been expressing its unwillingness to remain at the monetary mercy of the US and its NATO allies and this view has been most vehemently expressed by President Putin’s long-time economic advisor, Sergei Glazyev. Russia is prepared to play strategic hardball with the West on the issue: the governor of Russia’s central bank took the unusual step last November of presenting to the international media details of the bank’s zealous gold-buying spree. The announcement, in sharp contrast to that institution’s more taciturn traditions, underscores Moscow’s outspoken dismay with dollar hegemony; its timing suggests coordination with the top rungs of government to present gold as a possible currency-war weapon.

Second, despite international pressure, Russia has been very wary of the sell-off policies that led the UK, France, Spain, and Italy to unload gold over the past decade during unsuccessful attempts to prop up their respective ailing economies — in particular, of then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s sell-off of 400 metric tons of the country’s reserves at stunningly low prices. Moscow’s surprise decision upon the onset of the ruble’s swift decline in early December 2014 to not tap into the country’s gold reserves, now the world’s sixth largest, highlights the ambitiousness of Russia’s stance on the gold issue. By the end of December, Russia added another 20.73 tons, according to the IMF in late January, capping a nine-month buying spree.

Third, while the Russian economy is structurally weak, enough of the country’s monetary fundamentals are sound, such that the timing of a move to gold, geopolitically and domestically, may be ideal. Russia is not a debtor nation. At this writing in January, Russia’s debt to GDP ratio is low and most of its external debt is private. Physical gold accounts for 10 percent of Russia’s foreign currency reserves. The budget deficit, as of a November 2014 projection, is likely to be around $10 billion, much less than 1 percent of GDP. The poverty rate fell from 35 percent in 2001 to 10 percent in 2010, while the middle class was projected in 2013 to reach 86 percent of the population by 2020.

Collapsing oil prices serve only to intensify the monetary attractiveness of gold. Given that oil exports, along with the rest of the energy sector, account for 45 percent of GDP, the depreciation of the ruble will continue; newly unstable fiscal conditions have devastated banks, and higher inflation looms, expected to reach 10 percent by the end of 2015. As Russia remains (for the foreseeable future) mainly a resource-based economy, only a move to gold, arguably, can make the currency stronger, even if it does limit Russia’s available currency.

In buying as much gold as it has, the country is, in part, ensuring that it will have enough money in circulation in the event of such fundamental transformation. In terms of re-establishing post-oil shock international prestige, a move to gold will allow the country to be seen as a more reliable and trustworthy trading partner.

The repercussions of Russia on a gold-exchange standard would be immense. Above all, it would mean the first major schism in the world’s monetary order. China would quite likely follow suit. It could mean the threat of a severe inflation in the United States should rafts of unwanted dollars make their way back across the Atlantic — the Fed’s ultimate nightmare. Above all, the country will avoid the extreme debt leverages which would not have happened had Western capitals remained on gold.

“A gold standard would be politically appealing, transforming the ruble to a formidable currency and reducing outflows significantly,” writes Dr. Enrico Colombatto, economics professor at the University of Turin, Italy.

He notes that the only major drawback would be that the imposed discipline of a gold standard would deprive authorities of discretionary political power. The other threat would be that of a new generation of Russian central bankers becoming too heavily influenced by the monetary mindset of the European Central Bank (ECB) and the Fed.

As Alisdair MacLeod, a two-decade veteran of off-shore banking consulting based in the UK, recently wrote, Russia (and China) will “hold all the aces” by moving away from any possible currency wars of the future into the physical gold market. In his article, he adds that there is currently a low appetite for physical gold in Western capital markets and longer-term foreign holders of rubles would be unlikely to exchange them for gold, preferring to sell them for other fiat currencies.

Mr. Macleod cites John Butler, CIO at Atom Capital in London, who sees great potential in a gold-exchange standard for Russia. With the establishment of a sound gold-exchange rate, he argues, the Central Bank of Russia would no longer be confined to buying and selling gold to maintain the rate of exchange. The bank could freely manage the liquidity of the ruble and be able to issue coupon-bearing bonds to the Russian public, allowing it a yield linked to gold rates. As the ruble stabilizes, the rate of the cost of living would drop; savings would grow, spurred on by long term stability and lower taxes.

Foreign exchange also would be favorable, Mr. Butler maintains. Owing to the Ukraine crises and commodities crises, rubles have been dumped for dollar/euro currencies. Upon the announcement of a gold-exchange, demand for the ruble would increase. London and New York markets would in turn be countered by provisions restricting gold-to-ruble exchanges of imports and exports.

The geopolitics of gold also figure into Russia’s increasingly close relations with China, a country that also has made clear its preference for gold over the dollar. (Russia recently edged out China as the world’s top buyer of the metal.) In the aftermath of the $400 billion, 30-year deal signed between Russian gas giant Gazprom and the China National Petroleum Company in November 2014, China turned its focus to the internationalization of its own gold market. On January 15, 2015, the Shanghai Gold Exchange, the largest physical gold exchange worldwide, and the World Gold Council, concluded a strategic cooperation deal to expand the Chinese gold market through the new Shanghai Free Trade Zone.

This is not the first time the gold standard has been seen as the ultimate cure for Russia’s economic problems. In September 1998, the noted economist Jude Wanninski predicted in a far-sighted essay for The Wall Street Journal that only a gold ruble would get the the country out of its then-debt crises. It was upon taking office about two years later, in May 2000, that President Putin embarked upon the country’s massive gold-buying campaign. At the time, it took twenty-eight barrels of crude just to buy an ounce of gold. The gold-backed ruble policy of those years was adopted to successfully pay down the country’s external debt.

As a pro-gold stance is, essentially, anti-dollar, speculation about how the US would react raises the question of whether an all-out currency war would follow. The West would have to keep Russia regionally and militarily marginalized, not to mention kept within the confines of the Fed, the ECB, and the Bank of England (BOE).

Nor is that prospect too far-fetched. As Dutch author Willem Middelkoop has written in his 2014 book The Big Reset: War on Gold and the Financial Endgame,

    A system reset is imminent. Even before 2020 the world’s financial system will need to find a different anchor. … In a desperate attempt to maintain this dollar system, the United States waged a secret war on gold since the 1960s. China and Russia have pierced through the American smokescreen around gold and the dollar and are no longer willing to continue lending to the United States. Both countries have been accumulating enormous amounts of gold, positioning themselves for the next phase of the global financial system.