The Corruption of Economics

The Corruption of Economics Why Most Are Blind to What They Need to See

By Catherine Cashmore (Contributing editor – Cycles Trends & Forecasts)

In the 1880’s Judge James G. Maguire of the Superior Court of the city and county of San Francisco gave a speech to the New York Anti-Poverty Society in the 1880s. He said…

‘I was one day walking along Kearney Street in San Francisco when I noticed a crowd in front of a show window… I took a glance myself, but I saw only a poor picture of an uninteresting landscape.

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Source: henrygeorge.org  

As I was turning away my eye caught these words underneath the picture: ‘Do you see the cat?’ …I spoke to the crowd, “Gentlemen, I do not see a cat in the picture; is there a cat there?” Someone in the crowd replied, “Naw, there ain’t no cat there! Here’s a crank who says he sees a cat in it, but none of the rest of us can…. Then the crank spoke up. “I tell you,” he said, “there IS a cat there. The picture is all cat! …

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…. and then, there it was! Sure enough, just as the crank had said; But now that I saw the cat, I could see nothing else in the picture!…and I was never afterwards able, upon looking at that picture, to see anything in it *but* the cat.”[i]

Maguire’s story was intended as a parable for land’s role in the economy. Like the cat in the picture, it is blindingly obvious once it becomes clear – so obvious in fact, it is hard to see anything *but* the land.

The Man Who Electrified the World

Maguire had been inspired by a passage in the 19th century political treatise ‘Progress and Poverty’ the American journalist Henry George wrote. One of his famous passages was…  ‘That as land is necessary to the exertion of labour in the production of wealth, to command the land which is necessary to labour, is to command all the fruits of labour save enough to enable labour to exist.’[ii]

George had no formal education to speak of. He had left school at the age of 14, drifting in an out of poverty until securing steady employment as a typographer for the newly created San Francisco Times – later going on to edit his own newspapers.

However, George was an avid reader. He had studied the great classical economists such as David Ricardo and Adam Smith. He understood the relationship between the three factors of production – land, labour, and capital – and he used these tools to dissect the system.

He wrote:

Take now… some hard-headed businessman, who has no theories, but knows how to make money. Say to him:

“Here is a little village; in ten years it will be a great city—in ten years the railroad will have taken the place of the stage coach, the electric light of the candle; it will abound with all the machinery and improvements that so enormously multiply the effective power of labour.” “Will in ten years, interest be any higher?”

He will tell you, “No!”

“Will the wages of the common labourer be any higher…?”

He will tell you, “No the wages of common labour will not be any higher…”

“What, then, will be higher?”

“Rent, the value of land!” Go, get yourself a piece of ground, and hold possession!”  And if, under such circumstances, you take his advice, you need do nothing more…’[iii]

The book started as a potential magazine article written to address the paradox of why ‘poverty’ rises in tandem with ‘progress.’ When it was published 17 months later in 1879 during an industrial depression, George’s ideas electrified the world. He had not only identified the underlying cause of the boom and bust cycle, George also provided a practical remedy…

The book was an international bestseller. It was translated into Chinese, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Hebrew, Hungarian, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, and Swedish.

At its epoch, it was rumoured to have outsold even the Bible.

Seven years later, Henry George beat Theodor Roosevelt to almost get elected as Mayor of New York City – the financial capital of the nation. Henry George gravesite, Greenwood cemetery, New York.

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Source: PJA 

Chrystia Freeland, a current Canadian Liberal member of parliament, wrote this recently…(iv)

George ran for mayor of New York again in 1897, but died four days before election day. He was given a statesman’s send-off — his coffin lay in state at Grand Central Station, where more than 100,000 people came to pay their respects. It was the largest crowd of mourners since Abraham Lincoln’s funeral in 1865.’

The Corruption of Economics

Henry George didn’t have the modern tools of today’s economists. So why after 135 years don’t economists once again ‘see the cat’?..

(To read more of this post – sign up to Cycles, Trends and Forecasts – Australian economist and market cycle expert Phillip J Anderson) [

i] The Prophet of San Francisco, Chicago, 1904 – Louis F. Post

[ii] Progress and Poverty, 1879 p210 Henry George

[iii] ibid – ch.19 “The Basic Cause of Poverty

[iv] “The Problem Of Plutocrats: What a 19th Century Economist Can Teach Us About Today’s Capitalism”

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Skyscraper Hubris – Pride Before A Fall

By – Catherine Cashmore

“Bill, how high can you make it so that it won’t fall down?” reportedly asked financier John J. Raskob, as he pulled out a thick pencil from his drawer, and held it up to William F. Lamb, the architect he had employed to design and construct The Empire State Building.

It was the ‘race to the sky’ and it marked the peak of the roaring Twenties. Capturing what is perhaps one of the most exciting periods in New York’s history.

“Never before have such fortunes been made overnight by so many people,” said American journalist and Statesman Edwin LeFevre (1871–1943)

While areas of the economy such as agriculture and farming, were still struggling to gain ground from the post WWI depression, and a large proportion of the population continued to live in relative poverty. Advances in technology, rapid urbanisation and mass advertising accelerating consumer demand, produced an era of such sustained economic prosperity, it led Irving Fischer one of America’s ‘greatest mathematical economists’ to famously conclude that:

“Stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.”

“Only the hardiest spoilsports rose to protest that the wild and unchecked speculative fever might be bad for the country.” Wrote historian Paul Sann, in his publication, ‘The Lawless decade.’

“The money lay in stacks in Wall Street, waiting to be picked up. You had to be an awful deadhead not to go get some.”

Land values of course captured the gains, and between 1921 and 1929 lending on real estate increased by 179%, and urban prices more than doubled.

According to research collated by Professor Tom Nicholas and Anna Scherbina at the Harvard Business School in Boston, by 1930 values in Manhattan, including the total value of building plans, contained “only slightly less than 10% of the total for 310 United States cities (Manhattan included) during the same period.”

A staggering figure considering Manhattan at the time, contained only 1.5% of the US population.

Few raised concerns however.

It was believed the Federal Reserve Act, created in 1913 “to furnish an elastic currency” would tame the business cycle and – as the First Chairman of the Federal Reserve Charles S Hamlin put it:

“..relegate to its proper place, the museum of antiquities – the panic generated by distrust in our banking system..”

The National bank runs of the past had been exacerbated because there was ‘no stretch’ in times of crisis, or moderation in the rates of interest.

However, the bulk of lending against real estate over this period was not limited to New York, or to institutions that were members of the Federal Reserve.

Thousands of new banks were setting themselves up in outlying areas and as noted by Elmus Wicker, author of ‘The Banking Panics of the Great Depression

“..(they) were either operated by real estate promoters or exhibited excess enthusiasm to finance a local real estate boom”

It brought with it a period of high inflation, and coupled with speculation in real estate securities, produced an explosion in the value of construction that would not be equalled until the boom and bust era of the late 1980s.

NY construction(Tom Nicholas and Anna Scherbina – Real Estate Prices During the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression)

By 1925 real estate bond issues accounted for almost one quarter of all the corporate debt supplied – and between 1925 and 1929 alone, a quarter of New York’s financial district was rebuilt and 17,000,000 square feet of new office-space added.

This, prompted the owners of the grand Waldorf-Astoria Hotel at 34th Street and Fifth Avenue to sell.

Arising from a family feud between two competing cousins, the iconic guesthouse had been built at the top of a preceding boom and bust land cycle in the early 1890’s, and as ‘the most luxurious hotel in the world’ stood 17 stories high towering above the surrounding residences.

W&A hotel

By the late 1920s however, the décor had become dated and the social elite had centred themselves much further north.

The owner’s decision to upgrade into the Park Avenue district, and build what was then, ‘the tallest hotel in the world’ allowed John J. Raskob to acquire the site for The Empire State Building for the not so small sum of $16 million.

Raskob needed a further $50 million for construction, which he achieved by way of a $27.5 million dollar mortgage, as well as engaging with a limited number of substantial backers.

“If the amounts seem considerable the backers knew that this was a money maker. The building would be the greatest showcase in the city filled with them.  And tenants would line up to print “Empire State Building” on their letterhead….” wrote Robert A. Slayton author of Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith

The location was later criticised for being too far from public transport, but no such concerns were raised at the time.

New York office leases began on May 1st – the sooner the building was completed, the sooner it would bring in an income and notwithstanding, Raskob’s two main competitors also in the race for height supremacy – auto industry giant Walter Chrysler and investment banker George Ohrstrom – had already commenced.

Chrysler had seized his opportunity when gratuitous plans for an opulent office block designed by architect William Van Alen had fallen through due to financing.

He took over the project with clear intentions.

Adjusting the tower’s ascetics to reflect the company’s triumphs, with gargoyles, eagles and corner ornaments made to look like the brand’s 1929 radiator caps. Chrysler instructed the builders to make sure his toilet was ‘the highest in Manhattan’ so he could look down and as one observer put it, “shit on Henry Ford and the rest of the world.”

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Around the same time, George Ohrstrom, also determined to set the record, purchased the site that was to become the headquarters of The Bank of Manhattan at 40 Wall St (now the Trump Tower.)

Ohrstrom’s architect was H. Craig Severance, former partner and competitor to Walter Chrysler’s designer, Van Alen – and the bitter rivalry between the two added considerably to the dynamic.

Construction for 40 Wall St start started in May 1929 and no less than one month later, in April of the same year, fearing the competition Chrysler reportedly called his architect in frustration exclaiming:

“Van, you’ve just got to get up and do something. It looks as if we’re not going to be the highest after all. Think up something! Your valves need grinding. There’s a knock in you somewhere. Speed up your carburettor. Go to it!”  Higher: A Historic Race to the Sky and the Making of a City Neal Bascomb

Van Alen subsequently increased the height of the Chrysler tower to 925-feet and added more stories – 72 in total.

Not to be outdone however, Severance added 4 extra floors to his own design, extending the building’s height to 927-feet – only marginally taller than Van Alen’s efforts, but by this stage the steel frame for the Chrysler building had already been completed and in Ohrstrom’s mind, he had already won.

The Bank of Manhattan was finished at record speed, taking just 93 days in total – meeting the May 1st deadline and setting the record for skyscraper construction.

40 wall st

It opened with great celebration – with Ohrstrom boastfully laying claim to the title of “the world’s tallest,” while in blissful ignorance of the final trick Chrysler had yet to pull from his sleeve.

Replacing the original plans of a dome shaped roof, Van Alen enhanced the design with the addition of a 186 foot iconic spire, which was hoisted to the top of the structure in secret and assembled in a mere 90 minutes.

chrysler

This raised the building’s height to 1,046 feet, a total of 77 floors – allowing Chrysler, less than one month later to trump Ohrstrom’s record.

The battle continued long after both blocks were completed, with the consulting architects of 40 Wall Street, Shreve & Lamb, writing a newspaper article claiming that their building contained the highest useable floor and was therefore more deserving of the title.

The Empire State Building however, was to settle the matter.

Hamilton Weber the original rental manager, takes up the story.

“We thought we would be the tallest at 80 stories. Then the Chrysler went higher, so we lifted the Empire State to 85 stories, but only four feet taller than the Chrysler. Raskob was worried that Walter Chrysler would pull a trick – like hiding a rod in the spire and then sticking it up at the last minute” The Empire State Building Book by Jonathan Goldman

The solution to Raskob’s worries was to add what he quaintly termed “a hat!” – marketed as a mooring mast for dirigibles – although never utilised due to the strong winds and updrafts that circulated at the top.

This raised the building’s height to 1,250 feet, easily outstripping both Chrysler’s and Ohrstrom’s efforts, allowing Raskob to scoop the title.

Taking just 13 months to complete, 58 tons of steel, 60 miles of water pipe, 17 million feet of telephone cable and appliances to burn enough electricity to power the New York city of Albany. The Empire State building with 2.1 million square feet of rentable space opened on May 1st 1931 empty – just as the country was entering one of the worst economic depressions in recorded history.

ESB

Dubbed ‘The Empty State Building’ – it did not turn over a profit until 1950 putting Raskob who, in 1929 had penned the famous article ‘Everybody Ought to be Rich‘ by investing in “America’s booming corporate economy,” deep in the red.

The history of this era is a fascinating study.  However as entertaining as the story is, it does not stand in isolation.

From long before the Empire State Building was completed, to the most recent example – the Burj Khalifa in Dubai – mankind’s quest to reach the heavens and demonstrate power through the imposing dominance of boasting ‘the world’s tallest’ structure has – with no notable exception – commenced at the peak of each real estate cycle and opened its doors during the bust.

The pattern is easy to follow:

Improvements in the economy are first reflected in rents, which adjust quicker to market conditions than associated expenses – insurance and utility rates for example – which are subject to contract and therefore typically rise out of step.

This in turn attracts speculative investment, pushing prices upwards beyond the cost of replacement, fuelling a cyclical rise in construction – usually for the purpose of speculation, rather than genuine homebuyer demand.

The steeper land values become, the higher the building must be in order to achieve a profitable return, this in turn increases demand to concentrate both labour and capital around what is usually a centralised core.

There is however a lag in the time it takes for high-density construction to reach the market – usually a number of years – before the extra supply can drive down both rents and values, resulting in the building boom outlasting the boom in prices, and an overhang of vacancies when the fervour dissipates.

Notwithstanding, there are limits to how high you can extend before the whole project becomes unprofitable.

William Mitchell, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, makes the following point in his 2005 publication ‘Placing Words Symbols, Space, and the City.’

… floor and wind loads, people, water and supplies must be transferred to and from the ground, so the higher you go, the more of the floor area must be occupied by structural supports, elevators and service ducts.  At some point it becomes uneconomical to add additional floors, the diminishing increment of useable floor area, does not justify the additional cost.”

In a subsequent publication he goes one-step further.

“I suspect you would find that going for the title of ‘tallest’ is a pretty good indicator of CEO and corporate hubris. I would look not only at ‘tallest in the world,’ but also more locally—tallest in the nation, the state, or the city. And I’d also watch out for conspicuously tall buildings in locations where the densities and land values do not justify it”  ‘Practical Speculation’ By Victor Niederhoffer and Laurel, Kenner

Mitchell’s warning to look for the “tallest” is not to be taken lightly.

The New York Tribune Building for example, one of the world’s first skyscrapers boasting to be “the highest building on Manhattan Island” – opened in 1874 and coincided with the 1873 financial crisis in both Europe and North America.

The Manhattan Building in Chicago Illinois and the Pulitzer Building in New York, boasting the title of “the world’s tallest” – opened between 1890 and 1891 and coincided with one of the worst economic depressions of that time (particularly in Australia.)

The Singer Building and The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower in New York, boasting the title of “the world’s tallest”  – opened in 1908 and 1909 respectively and coincided with stock market panic of 1907 (the Knickerbocker Crisis.)

The World Trade Centre in New York, boasting the title of “the tallest twin towers in the world” – opened in 1973 and coincided with the 1973-75 economic recession.

The Sears (or Willis) Tower, boasting the title of ’the world’s tallest” opened in May 1973, coinciding once again, with the 1973-75 recession.

The Petronas Towers in Malay – surpassing The World Trade Centre as “the tallest twin towers in the world” – opened its doors to tenants in 1997, coinciding with the Asian financial crisis.

The Taipai 101 in China, the first to exceed half a kilometre, boasting the title of “the world’s tallest” – opened in the early 2000s, coinciding with the ‘Dot.com’ bubble and burst.

And most recently, the Borj Khlifa in Dubai, the current ‘tallest in the world’ -, opened in 2009, coinciding the sub-prime crisis, estimated to be the worst economic disasters to date.

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There are numerous examples, and rarely do these structures go up alone.

As we are seeing currently both here and abroad, the rate of high-rise construction globally, stands at unprecedented levels – funded by low interest rates and a wash of easy credit.

Matthew Guy, Minister for Planning in Victoria, has been a staunch supporter of higher density dwellings, but the risks surrounding a boom on the scale we are witnessing presently, cannot be diminished.

The small one and two bedroom apartments, funded in main by offshore speculation, are poorly designed, lack natural light, do not offer value for money, and lay out the reach of most first home buyers who face tighter lending restrictions for dwellings of this type

Notwithstanding, Prosper Australia’s Speculative Vacancies report for Melbourne in 2013, revealed many of these properties sit empty – up to 22% in the Southbank and docklands area – a figure that could well be higher today, considering the rate of what can only be termed, ‘bubble’ construction.

And to make matters worst, there is growing evidence the approved sites for skyscraper construction are being ‘flipped’ prior to commencement, with new owners reapplying to have height limits extended still further.

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(Developers ‘flipping’ projects for huge profits – The AGE September 1, 2014)

The next ‘world’s tallest’ will be the proposed Azerbaijan Tower in Baku, due for completion in 2019 – and projected to be 1km high.

AT

It coincides nicely with the completion of ‘the tallest’ residential tower in the Southern Hemisphere – Australia 108 in Melbourne – which at 319 metres, will exceed the height of the current record holder – the Eureka Tower – and unless we see changes to current policy – will mark another period of financial instability.

Aus108

Only by removing the accelerants that produce this behaviour – contained in our tax, supply, regulatory and monetary policies – can we start to address the boom and bust cycles that lay us open to economic instability, fuelling the boastful passions of financiers at the expense of the rest of the population.

It is these policies that keep us locked around a centralised core, increasing the cost of land at the margin and resulting in decades of dead weight taxes on every worker in the country being clawed back by way of preferential tax treatment for those that speculate on the rising value of land.

Every citizen in Australia would be richer by a significant margin if we collected instead, the economic rent from land, resources, banking profits, government granted licences and so forth, and used these to fund society’s needs rather than progressively taxing productivity to feed an elevated level of rent seeking behaviour.

But until such a time there is only one moral to this story.

Pride comes before a fall.

Nick Xenophon “Home affordability: a Super idea” – Really?

Nick Xenophon “Home affordability: a Super idea” – Really?

By Catherine Cashmore

Nick Xenophon (along with other groups, such as the REIA,) is advocating a policy that will be responsible for making housing affordability worst.

He is using the Canadian “Home Buyer Plan” as an example to promote a similar idea in Australia. That is – allowing first homebuyers to raid their Superannuation account – ‘sold’ under the pretext of ‘helping them get onto the property ladder.’

The theory goes that to “progress” up this mythological ladder, buyers must bet their income and in this case, future savings, on a speculative process that translates into higher house prices, without thought for the next generation of required ‘property ladder’ participants, who will no doubt fall dependant on similar schemes, to keep the tide rising.

The procedure in Canada allows eligible buyers to withdraw up to C$25,000 tax-free from their retirement fund, on the condition that they pay it back over a 15-year period.

If they fail to do this, the amount withdrawn will be taxed as per the income earner’s tax bracket. Currently, 35 per cent of Canadians fall into this category however, according to the CRA, roughly one out of two – that is, 47 per cent – contributed less than the required repayment amount over the 2011 tax year.

These means, while the Government picks up the added income revenue windfall, buyers, buoyed on by a rent seeking culture that fools the public into believing such policies are designed to be ‘helpful,’ over stretch their budget, and in weak economic conditions, are left to carry the can.

In short – you borrow money from yourself at 0 per cent interest and in doing so; lose 15 years of compounding ‘tax free’ interest with average returns in the order of 7 per cent.

It’s notable that many low to middle-income individuals have inadequate funds to draw upon, therefore even assuming the scheme were to be effective, it’s limited in the difference it can make.

But the real ‘nub’ of the issue, which Nick Xenophon has failed to acknowledge, is that the Canadian Home Buyer Plan was never intended to aid affordability.

It was promoted by the real estate industry as a temporary measure, following the recession in the late 1980’s, to stimulate land values and benefit the FIRE sector, along with it’s economic offshoots – renovations, furniture, appliances, moving costs, tax revenue to government and so forth.

The FIRE sector has lobbied to keep in place ever since and also pushed for the threshold to be raised.

This is because most Western economies have constructed their tax and supply policies, to reward real estate speculation over and above productive enterprise.

The process is assisted and abetted by a banking industry that seeks to lend against land as collateral, favouring the extraction of economic rent, over and above extending loans for the purpose of productive enterprise

canada

Canadian residential real estate tripled from an estimated C$1.3 Trillion in 2000, to C$3.8 trillion in 2014, however, only C$550 billion of this was for renovation projects or new home building – the rest was pure inflation.

By the end of 2011, the Home Buyer plan had been used 2.6 million times, with total withdrawals adding up to around $27.9-billion – that’s $27.9 billion of additional credit, feeding into existing house prices.

Between 2005 and 2011, Canadian house prices rose 58 per cent, while average income for 25-34 year olds, increased by just 6 per cent.

The Royal Bank of Canada reports that detached housing now requires more than 80 per cent of the median household income for mortgage payments in some of the country’s major cities.

Household debt to disposable income in Canada is currently 163.2 per cent, up from 129 per cent at the peak of the boom in 2006 and sitting only a few degrees lower than the recorded level in Australia.

SIZE OF HOUSEHOLD DEBT COMPARED WITH ANNUAL INCOME in Australia, Canada, France and Italy. (ABS)

aus canada

Mainstream economists like to focus on Government debt as a barometer of the heath of the economy. However, high and rising levels of private debt, as a consequence of such policies, constrain demand and eventually exceed the income and economic activity they helped create.

Nick Xenophon cites the Demographica Housing Affordability Report in his press release, however it’s clear he has not read it.

If he had, he would know that like Australia, Canada’s largest major markets are also rated as “severely unaffordable” – and by studying the ‘affordable markets’ such as Texas, or areas of Pittsburgh for example, Mr Xenophon would have a better understanding why these states avoided the harsh consequence of the GFC, and continue to generate healthy levels of economic growth.

Significantly, both cities have land tax and liberal supply policies that deter speculation – helping to keep real estate affordable, while investment is channelled into other areas of the local economy.

While, Australia rewards speculation, allowing the geo-rent (the unearned gains) from rising land values to capitalise into the land price, year upon year, taxing income earners, instead of resource rents, which by design, distorts economic activity, housing supply policy, and subverts social justice. Screen Shot 2014-08-07 at 3.43.20 AM

(Ninety per cent of taxation revenue has distortionary effects, pushing up prices 23% higher than need be, while economic rents from land and natural resources have no such deadweight loss.)

Never, throughout the course of history, has such a policy been sustainable.

At some point the productive capacity of the economy can no longer support the boom and the consequence, particularly for first homebuyers, can be particularly severe, as Australia’s history of land induced financial crises reveal.

However, when you appreciate how lucrative and wide spread this activity can be, it is very easy to see how policy fails us, and it’s additionally easy to see, why, a country with a plentiful supply of land like Australia, submits its younger generation to a life time worth of debt slavery, just to get onto the ‘property ladder.’