sprott.com / By Eric Sprott and Etienne Bordeleau
Not a day goes by without hearing about the fiscal cliff, the debt ceiling or another political deadlock. We would not disagree that some of these are important issues that need resolving but, in the grand scheme of things, they are relatively superficial.
As we all know, central banks around the world have been frantically expanding their balance sheets. While exceptional times might warrant exceptional measures, Figure 1 below paints a rather troubling picture. The monetary base, the amount of money in circulation in the economy, has expanded at an incredible pace. Since the mid-80s, the U.S. monetary base had been very stable at around 5-6% of GDP. Through fractional reserve banking, this amount was sufficient to maintain annual inflation around 2-3%. With the banking system collapsing in 2008-2009, it was necessary for the Fed to increase the monetary base. However, banks are now in much better shape than they were in that period and the benefits of monetary expansion seem to be waning.
The Fed is not the solution to every economic and social woe and trying to hide real problems (eg. structurally high unemployment and rampant poverty, unsustainable income inequality and exploding government liabilities) with money printing achieves nothing constructive.
First, while we are supposed to be in the midst of an economic recovery, about one in five Americans are on food stamps (Figure 2). As the chart below shows, this measure of poverty has been fairly steady for the past year. We also find it hard to reconcile this data point with the headline unemployment numbers, which seem to be improving. We prefer a more comprehensive measure of unemployment, commonly referred to as U6, which includes discouraged workers and those working part time against their will. By this measure, we see that “Total Unemployment” has come down, but remains extremely elevated at around 14% of the labour force. Moreover, food stamps and “Total Unemployment” tend to move together. If food stamps users stabilize at current highs, we believe that it is a sign that the natural unemployment rate in the U.S. economy is now significantly higher than it was pre-crisis.