The economy is like a machine. At the most fundamental level, Bridgewater’s Ray Dalio explains in this excellent video introduction, it is a relatively simple machine. But, he adds, many people don’t understand it – or they don’t agree on how it works – and this has led to a lot of needless economic suffering. The clip and article below shares his simple but practical economic template explaining how he believes it works. As he notes “my description of how the economy works is different from most economists’. It has worked better, allowing me to anticipate the great deleveragings and market changes that most others overlooked.” The likely reason for this is because it is more practical. Simply put, Dalio notes, “This different way of looking at the economy and markets has allowed us to understand and anticipate economic booms and busts that others using more traditional approaches have missed.”
Here is the excellent 30 minute summary of Ray Dalio’s thinking – that is publicly avaliable at his site www.economicprinciples.org…
and here is the introduction from the full detailed description that can be downloaded here (PDF)
How the Economic Machine Works: “A Transactions-Based Approach”
An economy is simply the sum of the transactions that make it up. A transaction is a simple thing. Because there are a lot of them, the economy looks more complex than it really is. If instead of looking at it from the top down, we look at it from the transaction up, it is much easier to understand.
A transaction consists of the buyer giving money (or credit) to a seller and the seller giving a good, a service or a financial asset to the buyer in exchange. A market consists of all the buyers and sellers making exchanges for the same things – e.g., the wheat market consists of different people making different transactions for different reasons over time. An economy consists of all of the transactions in all of its markets. So, while seemingly complex, an economy is really just a zillion simple things working together, which makes it look more complex than it really is.
For any market, or for any economy, if you know the total amount of money (or credit) spent and the total quantity sold, you know everything you need to know to understand it. For example, since the price of any good, service or financial asset equals the total amount spent by buyers (total $) divided by the total quantity sold by sellers (total Q), in order to understand or forecast the price of anything you just need to forecast total $ and total Q. While in any market there are lots of buyers and sellers, and these buyers and sellers have different motivations, the motivations of the most important buyers are usually pretty understandable and adding them up to understand the economy isn’t all that tough if one builds from the transactions up. What I am saying is conveyed in the simple diagram below. This perspective of supply and demand is different from the traditional perspective in which both supply and demand are measured in quantity and the price relationship between them is described in terms of elasticity. This difference has important implications for understanding markets.
The only other important thing to know about this part of the Template is that spending ($) can come in either of two forms – money and credit. For example, when you go to a store to buy something you can pay with either a credit card or cash. If you pay with a credit card you have created credit, which is a promise to deliver money at a later date,1 whereas, if you pay with money, you have no such liability.
In brief, there are different types of markets, different types of buyers and sellers and different ways of paying that make up the economy. For simplicity, I will put them in groups and summarize how the machine works. Most basically:
All changes in economic activity and all changes in financial markets’ prices are due to changes in the amounts of 1) money or 2) credit that are spent on them (total $), and the amounts of these items sold (total Q). Changes in the amount of buying (total $) typically have a much bigger impact on changes in economic activity and prices than do changes in the total amount of selling (total Q). That is because there is nothing that’s easier to change than the supply of money and credit (total $).
For simplicity, let’s cluster the buyers in a few big categories. Buying can come from either 1) the private sector or 2) the government sector. The private sector consists of “households” and businesses that can be either domestic or foreign. The government sector most importantly consists of a) the Federal Government,2 which spends its money on goods and services and b) the central bank, which is the only entity that can create money and, by and large, mostly spends its money on financial assets.
Because money and credit, and through them demand, are easier to create (or stop creating) than the production of goods and services and investment assets, we have economic and price cycles.
Seeing the economy and the markets through this ”transactions-based” perspective rather than seeing it through the traditional economic perspective has made all the difference in the world to my understanding of what is going on and what is likely to happen. It lets me see what is actually happening and why it’s happening in much more granular ways than the traditional way of looking at things. I will give you a few examples:
1. The traditional way of looking at the relationship between supply, demand and price measures both supply and demand via the same quantity number (i.e., at any point the demand is equal to the supply which is the amount of quantity exchanged) and the price is described as changing via what is called velocity. There is no attention paid to the total amount of spending that occurred, who spent it, and why they spent it. Yet, in any time and across all time frames, the relationship between the change in the quantities exchanged and the change in the price will change based on these factors that are being ignored. Throwing all buyers into one group (rather distinguishing between them and understanding their motivations) and measuring their demand in terms of quantity bought (rather than in the amount spent) and ignoring whether the spending was paid for via money or credit, creates a theoretical and imprecise picture of the markets and the economy.
2. Most of what economists call the velocity of money is not the velocity of money of money at all – it is credit creation. Velocity is a misleading term created to explain how the amount of spending in a year (GDP) could be paid for by a smaller amount of money. To explain this relationship, people divided the amount of GDP by the amount of money to convey the picture that money is going around at a speed of so many times per year, which is the called the velocity. The economy doesn’t work that way. Instead, much of spending comes from credit creation, and credit creation doesn’t need money to go around in order to occur. Understanding this has big implications for understanding how the economy and markets will work. For example, whereas one who has the traditional perspective might think that a large increase in the amount of money will be inflationary, one using a transactions based approach will understand that it is the amount of spending that changes prices, so that if the increase in the amount of money is offsetting a decrease in the amount of credit, it won’t make a difference; in fact, if the amount of credit is contracting and the amount of money is not increased, the amount of spending will decline and prices will fall.
This different way of looking at the economy and markets has allowed us to understand and anticipate economic booms and busts that others using more traditional approaches have missed.
The Template: The Three Big Forces
I believe that three main forces drive most economic activity: 1) trend line productivity growth, 2) the long-term debt cycle and 3) the short-term debt cycle. Figuratively speaking, they look as shown below:
What follows is an explanation of all three of these forces and how, by overlaying the archetypical short-term debt cycle on top of the archetypical long-term debt cycle and overlaying them both on top of the productivity trend line, one can derive a good template for tracking most economic/market movements. While these three forces apply to all countries’ economies, in this study we will look at the U.S. economy over the last 100 years or so as an example to convey the Template. This Template will tell you just about everything I have to say in a nutshell. If you are interested to explore these concepts in more depth you can go into the next two chapters of this book.
Bridgewater’s full “Economic Principles” book can be downloaded from their public site here (PDF)