A Coin of the Realm

December 20, 2020

by Steve Stofka

As bitcoin surged past $20,000 in value this past week, I wondered what the world would look like if bitcoin were the dominant medium of exchange on our planet. A little more than a decade ago the algorithm behind bitcoin was invented. From its inception, the supply of bitcoin was limited. Although it may function as a medium of exchange, its fixed quantity makes it ideal for buying – not being – currency.

When a currency is limited, the value of that currency increases, a matter of supply and demand. The goods and services that the currency buys fall in value, a process called deflation. It is the opposite of inflation or rising prices.

Limited currencies encourage saving, not spending. Bitcoin savers are called “hodlers” after a typo for advice to “hold” the currency on a message board in 2013 (Frankenfeld, 2020). In a deflationary environment, that is the best strategy because the currency will buy more next year. It pays to delay consumption. Businesses put off buying equipment that will make them more productive. People who own equipment are motivated to sell it before it loses even more value. These two impulses cause a deflationary spiral. At the bottom of that spiral, everything sells for dirt cheap.

A version of this happened during the Great Depression eighty years ago. In the years after the 1929 stock market crash, the central bank was, believe it or not, worried about inflation and limited the supply of money (Friedman, 1968). The central bank turned a sharp correction into a severe depression. Knowing that perverse history, former Fed chief, Ben Bernanke, assured Congress that the central bank would not make the same mistake in response to the 2008 financial crisis.

Let’s imagine a world where bitcoin is the medium of exchange. Because your car is eight years old, you anticipate more repairs. Is now the time to buy? The local dealership is offering a reliable car for 1 bitcoin, but you remember that just a few years ago, that same car sold for 1.5 bitcoin. If you wait until next year, you can probably get it for maybe ¾ bitcoin. You decide to drive your old car for another year.

A lot of people make that same decision and hold off buying new cars. Auto repair shops see an increase in business because people are repairing their cars instead of buying new. Car dealers, anxious to move cars off their lot because they owe the bank for those cars, lower prices even more. This induces some people to buy new cars, but it convinces even more people that their prediction was true; it is better to wait.

Car dealers start slowing their purchases from the factories, cause some factories to close. Those workers lose their jobs; why don’t all those workers just become car mechanics? First, car factories employ a concentrated workforce; auto repair shops are dispersed across a wide area. Second, building new cars and repairing old cars take two different sets of skills. Some workers will make the transition, but many won’t.

Because there are fewer cars being made, the price for new cars doesn’t fall as fast. People who had expected the price for a particular model car to fall to ½ bitcoin are disappointed. Some decide to buy now because car repair rates have gone up faster than new car prices are going down. But some people look around at the people losing their jobs and decide to play it safe. The buying power of the bitcoin currency holds steady for a while.

Uncertain about the growth of auto sales, auto manufacturers close more factories. The reasoning is simple. Although bitcoin as steadied in buying power, they anticipate that the currency will continue to grow faster than profits from making cars. As more auto factory workers lose their jobs, people become more cautious and hold off buying. The anticipation of future deflation contributes to further deflation.

For those who remember the hyperinflation of the 1970s, inflation does the same thing. That is why central banks are wary of a strong tendency toward inflation or deflation. They are self-reinforcing phenomena.

Let’s step out of the world where bitcoin is the global medium of exchange and back into the present world. What is bitcoin? Its limited quantity makes it like a collectible – a fine painting, or an old coin, but is not a collectible because there needs to be an agreement of the blockchain before anyone can buy a bitcoin. You can buy a painting without that consensus.

Its ability to act as a medium of exchange makes it like a currency, but it is not a currency because it doesn’t have a critical feature of a sustainable currency. As a unit of account, it behaves like an asset or commodity itself, not a ledger of account for a commodity. A stable and sustainable currency is an asset of the larger community, not just a store of value for an individual.  

So, what is bitcoin? It is a hybrid animal like the platypus, part bird and part mammal. Like the platypus, bitcoin is a species best suited to an island ecology. Bitcoin advocates point to the number of asset and hedge funds buying bitcoin as a demonstration of its growing acceptance as a global currency. Some funds have added bitcoin to their portfolios because it is a specialty, part of a broad asset mix. Like the platypus, it will only survive in a protected environment. Protected by? A stable currency like the dollar.

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Photo by Bermix Studio on Unsplash

Frankenfield, J. (2020, August 29). HODL. Retrieved December 18, 2020, from https://www.investopedia.com/terms/h/hodl.asp

Friedman, M. (1968). The Role of Monetary Policy. American Economic Review, 58(1). https://www.aeaweb.org/aer/top20/58.1.1-17.pdf. p.3.

Reaching Consensus

September 22, 2019

by Steve Stofka

In the early 1980s, scientists at NASA raised the alarm that much of the protective ozone layer over Antarctica was missing. Newspapers and TV carried images of the “ozone hole” (Note #1). In 1987, countries around the world enacted the Montreal Protocol and banned the use of aerosols and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). There were some arguments and a few AM radio talk show hosts called the ozone hole a scientific hoax. However, most of the world reached consensus. There will always be crackpots who ride backwards on their horse and claim that everyone is lying about what lies ahead.

Compare those days of yesteryear with today. We have a wide array of media and information outlets. People who can’t make change are self-proclaimed experts on climate change. The Decider-in-Chief can’t reach consensus with himself for more than a day. A slight breeze changes his opinion. Intentionally or not, he has become the Anarchist-in-Chief.

The younger generation is quite upset because they will have to live with the consequences of climate change. The fat cats who make their money proclaiming climate change is a hoax will be dead. Next week there’s a climate summit at U.N. headquarters in NYC. A lot of young people demonstrated in cities around the world this past Friday to let the world know that they are concerned. That’s consensus.

What happened to us in the past thirty years? It’s tougher for us to reach consensus about guns, immigration, climate change, women’s rights, and health care to name a few. Let’s turn to a group of people whose job it is to craft a consensus. In a recent Town Hall Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch pointed out that the nine justices reach unanimous consensus on 40% of the 70 cases that they decide each year. Only the most contentious cases make it to the Supreme Court. 40% unanimity means they agree on many principles. 25-33% of their cases result in a 5-4 decision. Those are the ones that get all the attention. The nine justices who currently sit on the Court were appointed by five different Presidents over the past 25 years. Despite the changing composition of the Court over the past seventy years, those percentages of unanimous decisions and split decisions have remained the same.

Let’s turn to another issue concerning consensus – money. Specifically, digital money like Bitcoin. Some very smart people believe in the future of Bitcoin and the distributed ledger concept that underlies digital money. In this podcast, a fellow with the moniker of Plan B discusses some of the econometrics and mathematics behind Bitcoin (Note #3). However, I think that pricing Bitcoin like a commodity is a mistake.

I take my cue from Adam Smith, the father of economics, who lived during a time and in a country with commodity-based money like gold and silver. Unlike today, paper money was redeemable in precious metal. However, Smith did not regard gold or silver as money. To Smith, the distinguishing feature of money is that it could be used for nothing else but trade between people. Money’s value depends exclusively on consensus, either by voluntary agreement or by the force of government. Using this reasoning, Bitcoin and other digital currencies are money. They have no other use. We can’t make jewelry with Bitcoin, or fill teeth, or plate dishes as we can with gold and silver. The additional uses for gold and silver give it an anchoring value. Bitcoin has an anchoring value of zero.

When people lose confidence in money, they lose consensus over its value. Previous episodes of a loss of confidence in a country’s money include Zimbabwe in the last decade, Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and the sight of people pushing wheelbarrows of money in Germany during the late 1920s.

Like gold, Bitcoin must be mined, a process that takes a lot of electricity and supercomputers but does not give it any value. Ownership in a stock gives the owner a claim on the assets of a company and some legal recourse. Ownership of a digital currency bestows no such rights.

In an age when we cannot reach consensus on ideas like protecting our children at school or the rights a woman has to her own body, we seek consensus with others on more material things like Bitcoin. We seek out information outlets which can provide us with facts shaped to our perspective. When facts don’t fit our model of the way things should be, we bend the facts the way water bends light.

John Bogle, the founder of Vanguard, died recently. He was an advocate of investing in the consensus of value about stocks and bonds. Now we call it index investing. That’s all an index is – a consensus of millions of buyers and sellers about the value of a financial instrument. There are several million owners of Bitcoin – a small consensus. There are several thousand million owners of SP500 stocks. That is a very large consensus, and like a large ship, turns slowly in its course. A small ship, on the other hand, can zip and zig and zag. That’s all well if you need to zig and zag. Many casual investors don’t like too much of that, though. They prefer a steadier ship.

I do hope we can move toward a consensus about the bigger issues, but I honestly don’t know how we get there. In 2008, former President Obama called out “Si, se puede!” but quickly lost his super-consensus in Congress. “No, you can’t!” called out the new majority of House Republicans in 2010. We’ve gotten more divisive since then. Journalist Bill Bishop’s 2008 book “The Big Sort” explained what we were doing to ourselves (Note #4). Maybe he has an answer.

In the next year we are going to spend billions of dollars gloving up, getting on our end of the electoral rope and pulling hard. Our first President, George Washington, was reluctant to serve a second term. Hadn’t he given enough already? In our times, each President looks to a second term as a validation of his leadership during his first term. There’s that word again – consensus.

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Notes:

  1. Images, video of the ozone hole in 1979 and 2018 from NASA.
  2. We the People podcast from the National Constitution Center
  3. Discussion of bitcoin on this podcast
  4. The Big Sort by Bill Bishop

Work

April 1, 2018

by Steve Stofka

This week I’ll look at several aspects of work, from cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, to the minimum wage.

What is work? In general science or physics, the subject of “work” pictured a horse hitched to a pulley lifting a weight (an example). In one minute, the horse could lift so many pounds a foot in the air and that equaled so much horsepower. Thus we could reduce our definition of work to three components: weight, distance and time.

Even this mechanical definition of work illustrates a problem. If the horse lifted the weight, then let it down again, how would we know that the horse did any work? Should we give the horse a few cups of oats, or have we got a lazy horse?

A variation on that problem – I cut my lawn. My neighbor looks at my lawn and sees that work was done. In a week or two the grass has grown and time has erased any sign that I did work.

Thus, we need a way of recording work done. The product of the work performed may serve as a record. A big pyramid sitting on a desert is a permanent record that work was done. If workers dig holes in the ground, then fill the holes, how do we know any work was done? If they have dug up gold from those holes.

Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies (crypto) are assets like gold. They recognize that some work was done. Equipment, technology and workers were needed to dig up gold. Likewise, electricity was an important resource needed to generate a bitcoin, and even more electricity will be needed to generate a replacement bitcoin if one were lost.

This Politico article is an account of a crypto mining boom in a rural area in Washington state. The electricity consumed is enormous. The mighty Columbia River nearby provides electricity at a fifth of the average cost in the country. By the end of this year, there will be enough electrical capacity in this small area to power the equivalent of a tenth of the homes in Los Angeles. Shipping containers house computer servers which generate so much heat that the exhausted air melts the snow around the containers. As gold records the digging of dirt, a bitcoin records the expenditure of some quantity of electricity.

Assets can represent past work, future work, or a combination of the two. Precious metals, jewels, books and artistic works represent work done in the past. On the other hand, a machine represents future work. Other assets include stocks and bonds, both of which are claims on future work. A bond is a fixed limit claim on a company’s assets. In contrast, a share of stock is an undying claim on a portion of a company’s assets.

The blockchain algorithm behind crypto requires agreement among many parties to confirm a property right to the crypto. The recording of property rights might seem rather ordinary to a reader in the U.S. In some countries, however, property deeds are more easily altered by those in power. In contrast, a blockchain system of recording property rights prevents forgery and alteration.

As a record of work done, money relies on a relatively stable value. High inflation damages the money record of work done. Consequently, high inflation can fracture the social bonds among people. As an example, I cut someone’s lawn on Saturday and am paid. When I spend the money on Sunday, it is worth half the amount. In effect, the money has only recorded that I cut half a lawn. Examples of this hyper-inflation are Zimbabwe in the 2000s, and Yugoslavia in the 1990s (Wikipedia article). Look no further than Venezuela for a current example of the destruction that inflationary policies can have on a society.

Let’s turn from the recording of work done to the doing of it. New unemployment claims are at a 45 year low. A decade ago, job seekers despaired. In contrast, employees today are confident they will quickly find new employment. To illustrate, the quit rate is at the same pace as the mid-2000s, at the height of the housing boom. As a percent of the labor force, new unemployment claims are the lowest ever recorded. Last week’s numbers broke the record set in April 2000 at the height of the dot-com boom.

Equally important to the strength of a job market is the fate of marginal workers who are most vulnerable to the shifting tides of the economy. This includes disabled people who want to work. During the recession, the unemployment rate for disabled men of working age reached almost 20%. Today it is half that.

Let’s turn to another disadvantaged sector of the job market – those who work for minimum wage. The 1930s depression put many employers at an advantage in the job market. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA) enacted a wage floor, but many workers were not subject to the new law. In 1955, almost twenty years after passage of the law, “retail workers, service workers, agricultural workers, and construction workers were still not required to be paid at least the minimum wage” (article).

The minimum wage affects many lower paid workers who are making more than minimum wage. In some union jobs, starting wages for helpers are set by contract at a percentage above minimum wage. The understanding may be non-written in some cases. In 1966, the rate was increased from $1.25 per hour to $1.60 per hour. Non-union clerks at a NYC hospital who had been making $1.70 per hour now complained that they were making minimum wage. As a result of their pressure on management, they got a raise within a few months.

Here’s a chart showing the annual increases in the minimum wage for each period since 1950.

MinWagePctInc

In the three decades after World War 2, annual increases in the minimum wage exceeded inflation. Since 1977, the minimum wage standard has not kept pace with inflation.

MinWageLessCPI

If Congress truly represented all of their constituents, they would make the minimum wage adjust automatically with inflation. On the contrary, Congress represents only a small portion of their constituents, and the minimum wage is used as a political football.

Finally, there is the destruction of the record of past work by war. Every minute of every day, living requires calories, another measure of work. Therefore, each of us is a record of work done.  War destroys too many human records, and the unliving records of work like buildings, roads and bridges. Perhaps one day we will fight our battles in video games and stop destroying all those work records.

Taxes, Bitcoin, and Housing

December 24, 2017

by Steve Stofka

Merry Christmas! Because of the holidays, I’ll keep it short. A few notes on the tax bill passed this week and some odds and ends I’ve collected.

In the final version of the tax bill, the state and local tax (SALT) deduction was limited to $10,000.  This limitation will hurt those in the coastal “blue” states.  As a group, these states already pay more in Federal taxes than they receive in various Federal programs.  The limit on the SALT deduction will take even more money from blue states and give it to red states. There is a second transfer taking place intra-state.

There are several components to SALT: income, sales and property taxes. According to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, almost 50 million households own a home with a mortgage.  Under current tax law, they get to deduct whatever mortgage interest they pay. Rich homeowners take the bulk of the mortgage interest deduction on their million-dollar homes.  50 million households rent. They get to deduct zilch.

For decades, homeowners have been in a protected class and able to deduct their property taxes. Renters have enjoyed no such deduction.  The owner of the building gets the deduction.  Think the owner is sharing that tax largesse by lowering rents?  No. For years, renters have effectively subsidized the tax deduction for their homeowning neighbors. The new tax bill transfers some of that tax burden from renters back to homeowners, putting both types of households on a more even level.

The density of coastal populations requires more infrastructure supplied by states, cities and towns.  Unless there is a natural resource like oil that can be taxed, local jurisdictions need higher taxes to pay for the added infrastructure. Secondly, the population density leads to more competition for land and housing, which causes higher property prices.  Even if New Jersey and Colorado charged the same property tax rate, the higher home prices in New Jersey would result in higher taxes.  But the two states don’t charge the same rate.  New Jersey averages almost twice the property tax rate charged by counties and towns in Colorado.

If you would like to compare property taxes in your state, county, or zip code with others, you can click here (https://smartasset.com/taxes/new-jersey-property-tax-calculator)

Democrats have long championed a graduated income tax, and the more graduated the better. The limit on the SALT deduction effectively levies more tax on those with higher incomes. That is the core principle of a graduated tax. Isn’t that what Democrats want?

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Bitcoin Bumps

After surging more than 2000% this year, bitcoin has fallen 40% this week, but is still up more than 1400% for the year. 80% of the trading volume this year has come from Asia. Japanese men have turned from leveraged forex trading to bitcoin and other digital currencies. (WSJ article)

As an exchange of value, currencies should be stable. When they are not, they have failed, and it is invariably due to a failure of government policy. Venezuela is a current example. From 2007-2009 Zimbabwe’s currency failed, and even today, they use the U.S. dollar. Germany in the 1920s is probably the most egregious example of a failed currency.

Bitcoin is not a currency. Bitcoin is an asset but barely that. Buyers of bitcoin and other digital “currencies” are buying a share in the “greater fool” theory. Yes, the concept is brilliant. Ledger transaction chains solve many problems in international exchange. But digital transactions take too much energy to serve as a currency. In the time that it takes to validate the transfer of one bitcoin, hundreds of credit card transactions take place.

Bitcoin is not secure. A South Korean bitcoin exchange went bankrupt this month when it was hacked, and its reserves stolen. (CNN article) . Mt. Gox is the most well-known bitcoin hack victim, but there are others (Top 5 Bitcoin Hacks ).

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Housing Prices to Income Ratio

New home sales in October were 10% above estimates. The average price of a new home hit an all-time high of $400K. The median price is $316K, more than five times the median household income. Here’s a graph of that housing price/income ratio for the past thirty years.

HomePriceIncomeRatio

The ratio first broke above 4 in 1987 and steadied for the next 13 years. During the housing bubble in the 2000s, the ratio rose swiftly and crossed above 5. As the bubble popped in 2007 and millions of people defaulted on their loans, the ratio fell as fast as it rose. Since the Financial Crisis, low interest rates have helped fuel another bubble.

The recent Case-Shiller housing index was higher than expected. Home prices are going up 6% per year, twice the rate of increase in incomes.

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I’ll have more next week on long-term trends in income and inflation. Have a merry and take care of year ending stuff this week! Those with high SALT deductions might consider paying 2018 property taxes in 2017 but there is some question whether the IRS will allow the deduction. See this L.A. Times article.