Monday, February 6, 2012

Société Générale Dylan Grice: "On The Failure Of Inflation Targeting, The Hubris Of Central Planning, The "Lost Pilot" Effect, And Economist Idiocy"

From ZeroHedge:
...Alas, the last thing the central planning "fools" (more on that shortly) will admit is their erroneous hubris, which in the years to come will claims millions of lives. In the meantime, we can merely comfort ourselves with ever more insightful analyses into the heart of the broken system under which we all labor, such as this one by SocGen's Dylan Grice, whose latest letter on Popular Delusions is a call for "honest fools" -

"Frequently, when we make mistakes we try to correct them not by changing the flawed thinking which led to the mistake in the first place, but by reapplying the same flawed thinking with even more determination. Behavioural psychologists call it the “lost pilot” effect, after the lost pilot who tried to reassure his passenger: “I have no idea where we’re going, but we’re making good time!” Policy makers on both sides of the Atlantic are treating today’s malaise with the same flaky thinking which created it in the first place. How can that work?" Simple answer: it can't.

Grice explains why "Trying harder" is the only recourse of a status quo gripped in a confirmation bias so tense that even merely glancing outside the window at the Marriner Eccles building could be sufficient grounds for the whole house of cards to come tumbling down:
[This week I want to think about] the incorrect application of faulty models. In essence, that's all those studies on confirmation bias are really about. Subjects applied a faulty model - a mental algorithm saying "accept only supporting evidence" - which resulted in a biased assessment of the evidence. "Trying harder" didn't work because the problem was the faulty model, not the lack of effort, and applying that faulty model with more determination just caused an even bigger error. Psychologists have a name for this. They call it the "lost pilot effect" after the lost pilot trying to reassure his passengers by saying "I have no idea where we're going, but we're making good time!"

Flawed thinking got us into this mess. But rather than change that flawed thinking, our policy makers are applying it with even more rigour: we have more debt for insolvent borrowers, more financial engineering, more complicated banking regulations, more blaming speculators for everything, more monetary experimentation by central banks. Our policy makers have absolutely no idea what they're doing, but they're giving it a go!
"Lost pilot effect" exhibit A - Inflation Targeting, which failed miserably in the past, and will fail miserably again.
The latest from the Fed provides a wonderful example. Undeterred by the latest calamitous failure of CPI targeting regimes (a brief history of which will be presented below), it has announced an explicit 2% inflation target. But why? Would an explicit target have made any difference to the last crisis? Will it prevent the next one? And where did this 2% come from? We don't know. But we suspect that past uninformed capital market tinkering has failed to control the uncontrollable, and we're pretty sure these ones will too.

In fact, if such tinkering has in the past been the primary causes of crises, then why won't this latest attempt - the 2% inflation target - be the cause of the next one? There are certainly precedents. Targeting stable "prices" isn't a new idea. The first experiment was actually conducted in the US in the 1920s, apparently successfully. Indeed, so stable were consumer prices that the authorities assumed there was no inflationary threat. And, this brilliant new idea, that stable consumer prices were both a necessary and sufficient condition for economic stability, proved so appealing that the NY Fed adopted it as a policy objective. On January 11th 1925, then-governor Benjamin Strong wrote to a friend:

That it was my belief, and I thought it was shared by all others in the Federal Reserve System, that our whole policy in the future, as in the past, would be directed towards the stability of prices so far as it was possible for us to influence prices.”

During the 1927 Stabilization hearings before the Committee on Banking and Currency on a Bill to amend the Federal Reserve Act to provide for the "stabilization of the price level for commodities in general", the governor was asked if the Fed could stabilize prices more than it had done in the past. Strong replied “I personally think that the administration of the Federal Reserve System since the reaction of 1921 has been just as nearly directed as reasonable human wisdom could direct it toward that very object.”

Like a driver focused on the speedometer rather than the speed, oblivious to the risk that the speedometer might be faulty, they kept their foot on the gas until they crashed. So focused were they on the stability of the CPI (first chart below), and so convinced that it was the be all and end all of inflation, they missed what was going on in the credit markets (second chart below).