Monetary Stimulus: Prudent or Panic

The Bank of Canada has just lowered rates to protect the Canadian economy from being disrupted by collapsing oil prices. And the E.U. central bank has just announced it intends to massively expand the European money supply. Except for oil prices, nothing much has changed.

As I have long argued in this space, there is little reason to expect growth to resume at its historical rate within the medium term. The only way we could get strong sustained growth is if every one of the world’s immediate challenges is resolved quickly. There are so many problems in so many places that this was always an optimistically unrealistic outlook. The E.U. struggles to avoid falling back into recession; China is under stress as it copes with dramatically [for it] slower growth, never mind the inherent contradictions in its public/private authoritarian system; the United States has neither a functioning government nor a coherent economic policy; most of the other high-growth economies of the world, like Brazil and India, have come to the end of their brief interlude of effortless growth; Russia is offline; the commodity markets are chaotic and stock markets understandably volatile. At least the American economy is generating respectable growth. But the U.S. economy cannot carry the global economy on its back, and has not been able to do so for years. And American growth is itself still inherently fragile. After being force-fed money since the last recession, we should not celebrate this progress uncritically.

Remember that when the storm hit in 2008, the deluge almost extinguished the fires of the economy. So we poured gasoline on the embers in order stay warm. Again and again we throw the gasoline of cheap money into the economy. Finally, after 7 years the U.S. economic fire looks sustainable. But given how much gasoline we poured on the campfire, the forest itself should have burned down.

What, Dear Readers, happens when the run of absurdly cheap money comes to an end? The simple answer is we do not know. We have never engaged in such aggressive monetary policy and so there is no precedent, no historical norms to guide us. Will we calmly absorb higher
interest rates by gradually re-adjusting our spending? Or will we panic and drastically reducing spending? Who knows?

Notice the difficult choice the world now has before it. Interest rates will stay low because economic growth is so limited. Or interest rates rise because growth is strengthening and needs to be restrained. Either way, high sustained growth is excluded.

Recognize that I am not objecting to this degree of monetary stimulus. All things considered, it was necessary since the global economy was in grave danger. But this stimulus comes with heavy costs: the distortion of property and stock markets, the accumulation of high indebtedness and a literal addiction to cheap money.

Longer term we will struggle to break this addition. For the moment, slow growth means low rates continue. So what does the individual do? Look aggressively for profitable investments. Support start-ups and small high growth companies. Develop a career strategy that builds a strong competitive distinction. Make sure that no matter what happens you will be in demand for expertise and knowledge that cannot easily be found elsewhere.

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Finding Your Passion

[This post was written in response to the email that is being generated by the Waterloo TEDx video, Why You Will Fail to Have a Great Career.]

Since pursuing your passion is a necessary, but not sufficient condition, for a great career, it becomes logically essential to find your passion as a starting point.

Nevertheless, many persons struggle to find their passions. What mistakes are they making?

Often they assume that finding one’s passion is a matter of luck. They see that some persons seem to have found their passions as children. Often, others just seem to just trip over their passion as they move into adulthood. The process seems random and difficult to see as a methodical process of search.

Yes, some are lucky. Teaching is their passion and as a 5-year old, they wake up in classroom and they are home for life. And even as they have new experiences, they notice that their first love grows only stronger.

Others have the luck of being born into a family in which a family member or friend shows them a domain that immediately engages them, or slowly sneaks up on them. In the absence of the lucky circumstance of their family, the search would have been longer and more challenging.

But notice that some who pursue a childhood or family “interest” do so only as a convenient default choice. It was there and so they chose it to avoid further thought or uncertainty. It is hardly an interest and never mind a passion, although they may speak of it very positively – the better to tell themselves or others that they made a “wise” choice.

The majority do not have the advantage of circumstance, and therefore have no choice but to search for their passion methodically.

Many of these persons fail to find their passion because they either fail to search methodically, or they do not search persistently. Some will simply not commit the time and energy to a search that can often be frustrating. In fact, they want their destiny to find them; they do not want to find it themselves. But only rarely does destiny come knocking.

You cannot find your passion idly staring into space, hoping for it to appear as a revelation, expecting it to appear from one book, article, blog posting or casual conversation. Passion is rarely found in a bar or on Mother Google’s home page.

Those who search and find their passion place themselves in intensely stimulating environments, and stay there until the job is done. It can be intellectually exhausting.

There are many such environments. Some read voraciously; others seek out many persons in many situations and engage them in intense conversation. Some do both. Others visit every major museum and gallery in North America. They find their passion by immersing themselves in a panoply of human experience.

But you cannot just read, talk or experience. You must also have your mind in high gear. You must be fully engaged, reading and thinking to a purpose. You must be constantly saying to yourself about whatever book, fact, argument, person or experience is at hand: Why? What if? Why don’t they?

Yes, it is intense. And yes, too few are practiced in this art, no matter their level of education.

But you will never find your passion in the modern way: by surfing or browsing. Recognize the superficiality implied by those words and by our impatient thoughtless world.

You will have to stand against the popular culture to find your passion. Too many do not have the independence of mind or force of commitment to do so.

Take the time you need. Recognize your mind’s natural tendency to resolve its painful uncertainty by rushing to judgment, even to the judgment that it is time to give up.

How will you recognize your passion when you encounter it? Usually, it is quite easy. One moment you are reading in hopes of finding a topic of great interest; then you find you are reading and do not want to stop. It almost feels as if you cannot stop. Or you find yourself in a regular conversation, and you start talking with excitement about an idea or possibility. Or you find yourself in an activity and you lose track of time itself.
The rule of passion is simple: the mind cannot stop thinking about that which it loves.

It is what you would do even if you won a lottery.

For some the realization is sudden, as if they reach a critical mass of experience and it coalesces into a complete and compelling vision. For others, it is a slow process, each piece coming into view separately until the puzzle is revealed.

Even with a passion identified, there is a common pitfall. Some persons know or find their passion, and then with little thought, relying on no more than popular opinion, they dismiss the passion as one that “cannot be turned into a livelihood” with any reasonable degree of assurance. And they move on to try to find a second, more practical love. That is not necessarily a bad choice since one could certainly have more than one love. [It does though seem unfortunate that some struggle to find one passion, and others have multiple ones.]

But before you look for a second love, you should carefully, intensively and creatively examine whether your first found love could support a career. Research the experiences of those who have found ways to pursue as livelihoods the strangest of passions. Never take conventional wisdom as anything other than folklore, to be tested against your logic, information and experiences.

We must also reiterate in conclusion that passion is necessary for a great career, but it is not sufficient. There’s no magic here. Success also demands patience, persistence, focus, discipline, independence of mind, resourcefulness, experimentation and high creativity.

Economic Outlook 2014

There has been no post on the macro-economy in more than a year for the simple reason that there has been little upon which to comment. As we have long argued, growth in the developed world is going to be slow at best. And so it has proved to be true. The outlook for the next year is similar. The good news is that the threat of recession has abated; but secure and sustained growth at our best historical rates is unlikely. The reasons which account for persistently slow growth remain the same. Rising competition around the globe restrains employment levels. For example in the US, the number of people seeking to work has fallen sharply, explaining a primary cause for decline of the US unemployment rate. While the US has finally passed a budget, it is too soon to declare that America has stepped back from complete political dysfunction. And all of its long term problems await. Europe continues to make small progress, even as some of its states drift along, one millimetre from disaster. Political and military tension in and around the Ukraine merely adds to the uncertainty. India is now in one of its frequent periods of political paralysis, with most of its long term challenges unaddressed. China is holding its own for the moment, as its authoritarian government continues to struggle with the country’s inherent contradictions. We should keep in mind that about half of China’s GDP and employment arise from its state-owned enterprises. Its commitment to the marketplace remains half-hearted at best.

The most fundamental reason that the world’s political institutions are struggling to create coherent policy is because they are all having to adjust to a global economy. This is a radically new circumstance, the entire planet recently stitched into a web of commerce, finance and communication. How to cope challenges us all.

It is important to note that this anemic growth is occurring even though we are fueling the economic engine with extraordinarily low interest rates. It is as if we pouring gasoline on a slowly smoldering fire and the embers just burn a bit more brightly. Where is the fire? Clearly the fuel is water-logged with the problems noted above. With interest rates at near zero, all we get is slow growth!

Overlaying all the factors that account for slow growth is the greatest economic uncertainty of all: what will happen when the world’s central bankers start to remove the monetary stimulus that is giving us such low rates. Such historically low levels cannot be sustained indefinitely, one presumes. Surely inflationary pressure will increase. Or will it? Or have we killed inflation for a generation? Or is inflation about to erupt with a vengeance? But would that at least mean growth is seriously accelerating? Or might we get low growth and high inflation? The plain truth is that the situation is so dynamically complex and so unprecedented, we cannot answer any of the above questions with any reasonable degree of assurance. We can guess or we can hope. But that is not forecast.

But let us guess that as growth starts to accelerate and inflation moves up modestly, the central bankers will respond with measured, that is, small steps. That much might be clear. But we have no way of knowing what will happen next. Will investors panic or stay logically calm? Will real investment come to a halt? What happens to consumption of big-ticket items like cars? What happens to the world’s property markets? What happens if we stay calm when the bankers start withdrawing the stimulus and then freak out when it becomes clear they might spend the next five years raising interest rates? Slow torture? Again, there are no rigorous evidence-based answers to these questions.

Welcome to a world with economic uncertainty higher than it has ever been since the Second World War.