Our Counterfeit Economy   (February 1, 2012)

The U.S. economy is in effect a counterfeit economy, living on money created from thin air that is unbacked by an equivalent productive expansion of surplus value.

Yesterday we looked at counterfeiting and money printing and discovered they are one and the same: (Counterfeit Money, Counterfeit Policy.) If we apply the same analysis to the U.S. economy, we have to conclude the entire U.S. economy is also counterfeit.

The analysis is not as complicated as store-bought economists would have you think. Much of what passes for "economics and finance" is simply distraction, a sophisticated version of bread and circuses.

Let's start with two basic concepts: productive value and surplus value. The classic example of a productive asset is a factory that produces goods that have a market value that exceed the input (production) costs. In other words, the factory produces surplus value.

We can measure value by any number of means: ounces of gold, quatloos, sea shells, etc. To keep things simple, let's just measure value in units. If it costs 10 units to produce a good (including labor, materials, energy inputs, transportation, and a return on the investment to construct and maintain the factory), then the output (products manufactured by the factory) must fetch 11 units in the open market to create 1 unit of surplus that can be invested or spent on consuming other goods or services.

If it takes 10 units of input costs to make a product that is only worth 9 units, then the process generates a net loss. There is no surplus to spend; rather, there is a loss that must be covered by cash, borrowing or the selling of other assets. When the cash, ability to borrow and assets that can be sold all run out, then the enterprise is recognized as insolvent and it closes.

If the factory's output has little to no market value, then the investment is what we call a mal-investment--an investment that only claimed to be valuable because it was speculative or protected from price discovery in a transparent market.

Our current economic theory holds that any good or service produced has value, which we measure in dollars of gross domestic product (GDP). The intrinsic flaw in this way of assessing value is that it doesn't recognize mal-investments.

Here are some examples.

-- If a military aircraft woefully underperforms and costs so much field commanders dare not risk its combat deployment, then what value was created by its manufacture?

-- If it takes 10 units of input costs to produce a biofuel crop that is processed into fuel worth 9 units, then what value was created by the process of making that biofuel?

-- If a subdivision of new homes is built in the middle of nowhere and finds no buyers, then what value was created by the construction of these houses?

-- If a costly medicine is distributed at great expense in the millions of doses and is discovered to have little to no effect on longevity or other metrics of health, then what value was created by the immense cost squandered on this medication?

In all these cases, the mal-investment was added to the GDP as if it created productive value. The factory and the costly but essentially useless aircraft (think B-1B bomber) were added to the GDP, but they did not create useable military value. The biofuel production facilities were all added to the GDP, even though the process generated a net loss. The homes built in the middle of nowhere were also added to the GDP, along with the costs of the worthless medication.

Consider a financial sector that is declared "too big to fail" and trillions of units are borrowed on the taxpayers' account to bail out the albatross banks. The bailout of banks created no productive value, even as it took money away from potentially productive investments.

Since surplus value is not limitless, the money squandered on these mal-investments was no longer available for productive investments. Rather, these mal-investments sucked up all the surplus generated by the entire economy. Now there is no money left for superior (and cost-effective) military aircraft, medications that actually cure diseases rather than reduce symptoms, homes that are in desirable, cost-effective locales, productive energy investments, and solvent banks.

Let's say an economy required 1 million units of input costs to generate 2 million units of productive value, i.e. goods and services whose price has been discovered by a transparent market. That economy has 1 million units of surplus to spend on consumption, productive investments and mal-investments.

Since everything requires maintenance and infrastructure, then there is no such thing as a steady-state economy: for example, factory machines wear out and have to be replaced. If there is no surplus money left because it has been sunk into mal-investments, then the factory's ability to create productive value and surplus value degrades.

If the mal-investments have been prodigious, at some point the factory is incapable of producing any surplus at all.

There is a "fix": borrow money based on the future surplus. If the amount being borrowed is modest in comparison to the potential surplus created by a refurbished factory, and the borrowed money is productively invested, then this reliance on credit and leverage may pay off.

But if the borrowed money is spent on consumption and mal-investments rather than being invested in productive assets, then the only "fix" left is to borrow more money--not just mortgaging the future surplus of the factory, but leveraging it into a stupendous sum of borrowed money.

At some point the sums being borrowed far exceed the potential surplus generated by the factory, even if the factory amd market are running at optimum levels. If the factory requires 100 units of investment to generate 50 units of surplus, but 1,000 units of money have been borrowed against that future surplus, then the interest payments on that 1,000 will eventually exceed the modest potential surplus value.

Note that future surpluses are all imaginary; it could turn out that the market for the factory's goods declines and there will be little to no surplus value created in the future.

Borrowing money based on imaginary future surpluses is a higher form of counterfeiting. And that is precisely what the U.S. is doing, borrowing immense sums at every level, private, corporate and State/Federal, all leveraged against phantom future surpluses, even as the economy requires some 10% of its supposed output (GDP) to be borrowed and spent on consumption each and every year just to run in place, i.e. the Red Queen's Race (Bernanke, Goldilocks and The Red Queen January 10, 2011).

In other words, the U.S. economy is running a massive deficit, and squandering the vast sums being borrowed on consumption and mal-investments. Once you rely on more borrowing against imaginary future surpluses to fund your current expenses, then eventually the costs of servicing that debt exceeds any possible future surplus.

The last-ditch "fix" is to simply print units of money (or borrow it into existence like the Federal Reserve)--counterfeiting, pure and simple-- and deceive the market for a time via the illusion that the freshly printed units of money are actually backed by productive value or surplus.

As history has shown, eventually the market discovers the actual value of this counterfeit money, i.e. near-zero, and the system implodes.

Alternatively, the credit markets grasp that there is no way the economy can pay the interest on its monumental debts, never mind pay back the principal, and then the number of people willing to lend surplus capital to the economy declines to zero, as does the economy's ability to sustain itself with leveraged debt.

The system then implodes as the "free money machine" of ever-expanding debt breaks down. Once there is no more "free money" to fund consumption and mal-investment, then the reality of systemic insolvency is revealed to all.

You cannot counterfeit actual surplus value generated by productive assets, you can only counterfeit proxy claims on future surplus. That is the U.S. economy in a nutshell: we are counterfeiting claims on our future surplus, even as we squander vast sums on horrifically obvious mal-investments and wasteful, cost-ineffective consumption.

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