Dylan Grice: "There Is A Widespread Perception That Something Is Very Wrong"

Dylan Grice lets loose with his latest piece "The Language Of Inflation":

We’ve recently come to the conclusion that there seems to be a widespread misunderstanding of what "capital" is. We happened to stumble across a fabulous book called Talent is Overrated (no sarcastic emails on why we were so attracted to such a title, please) written by the well-regarded Forbes journalist Geoff Colvin. To be clear upfront, is an excellent book which we learned a lot from. But consider the following extract (our emphasis):


For roughly five hundred years—from the explosion of commerce and wealth that accompanied the Renaissance until the late twentieth century— the scarce resource in business was financial capital. If you had it, you had the means to create more wealth, and if you didn’t, you didn’t. That world is now gone. Today, in a change that is historically quite sudden, financial capital is abundant. The scarce resource is no longer money...


“Financial capital” indeed. We found it striking that Mr. Colvin, a distinguished journalist of a distinguished business magazine should use the  concepts of capital and credit completely interchangeably. Yet this is a fundamental error of thought. Capital is not money. One is scarce, the other is in infinite. And we might not have thought anything of this sloppy language had we not been talking to an economist a few days earlier who feared for the future of euro. The situation remained grave, he said, and there was surely no alternative than for the ECB eventually to “print more capital”…


What he meant, we think, was printing more money. But it’s not what he said. He had confused money with capital as Mr. Colvin did in his book.


Like the Zuni tribes struggling to deal with the difference between yellow and orange without sufficient linguistic precision, we face the same problem in our financial system. As stock markets blink green on more QE supposedly making us all more wealthy, the developed world is saving less than it has at any time since WWII. And as central banks are conjuring up ever more liquidity, more thoughtful observers scratch their heads over the lack of collateral in the system. Of course, the problem is solvency, not liquidity. Capital comes from savings, and the policy of cheap credit with its inflation of time preference has encouraged spending, not saving. Scarce capital is growing ever scarcer.


One day, the price of capital will reflect its underlying scarcity, because one day it must. But in the meantime we think very carefully about the capital requirements of the businesses we own, growing increasingly wary of those which depend on artificially cheap “financial capital” for their survival. We note in passing that physical gold bullion is the oldest and purest capital there is…


What is the moral of this story for the steward of capital? Success in the long run requires that thought and action be fully independent from the false ideas of the herd. Yet today’s language of inflation embeds so many of these false ideas that the full rottenness of what passes for financial thinking today is obscured. One increasingly reads of capital stewards complaining that things seem more difficult today. We think it’s because they are. We are also increasingly mindful of conversations with friends, family and colleagues that reveal a widespread perception that  something is very wrong, though people can’t quite put their finger on what it is. As we have just argued, we think the answer is that the inflation of credit has driven an inflation of asset prices, which has driven an inflation of future expectations, which has driven an inflation of time preference… and that while the consequences of these various inflations are profound, the new language of ininflation which it has spawned is shallow. Therefore, not only is there insufficient capital to ensure future prosperity and insufficient realism to deal with the future this implies, there is insufficient linguistic precision for most people to articulate the problem let alone understand it. And when language itself becomes so grotesquely distorted, how does one go about substituting the customers’ unattainable hopes and expectations of never-ending growth with the need for principled and honest action?

Read the full note by Dylan Grice, no longer at SocGen but at Edelweiss Holdings, below:

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