Uses and abuses of monetary orders

The advent of a European Union with a single currency was hailed by Nobel laureate Robert A. Mundell as

a great step forward, because it will bring forth new and for once meaningful ideas about reform of the international financial architecture. The euro promises to be a catalyst for international monetary reform.

Unfortunately, by underwriting member countries’ financial risk with impunity, the EU made the euro the catalyst of unsound monetary policies that are now leading the Union into an economic maelstrom. Still less has euroization set the pace for an international reform of the monetary machinery.

Milton Friedman was more cautious about this super currency. The euro’s real Achilles heel, he said, would prove to be political: a system under different governments subject to very different political pressures could not endure a common currency. Without political integration, the tension and friction of the national institutional systems would condemn it to failure. Indeed the problem is always political, but not in the sense meant by Friedman. Regardless of the degree of political integration, governments’ spending and dissipation, which are unalterable tendencies of any political organism, make irredeemable paper monies act as transmission belts for financial and economic disruptions.

At the outset of the 2010 Greek crisis that triggered the European domino effect, Professor Mundell pointed out that there was nothing inherently bad in the euro as such; the problem lay in the country’s public debt spiralling out of control. However, being a strong advocate of financial and monetary “architectures” as means for pursuing monetary and non monetary ends, he should have acknowledged that irredeemable currencies cannot be examined independently of the political framework in which they are embedded, because politics inevitably extends the role of money beyond its original function as a medium of exchange, making it trespass into the field of “economic policies”. Official theory does not see money as a neutral device, but as an instrument of policy for purposing ends which conflict with its primary goal: to retain the value of the monetary unit. Failing this primary goal, monetary architectures no matter how they are framed make for economic devastation.

Is a monetary order a constitution?

Robert Mundell’s assertion — that a monetary order is to a monetary system what a constitution is to a political or electoral system — unintentionally sheds light on the authoritarian nature of today’s irredeemable money governance and its fraudulent practices. Where is the flaw in this catching parallel? The flaw is that if a monetary order stands for a constitution, i.e. a democratic framework of laws and regulations, it does not provide for a separation of powers. The money order as a legislative system coincides with the executive power, the money system, embracing the range of practices and policies pursued for monetary and non monetary ends. Moreover, the judicial system is concentrated in the same hands because monetary authorities are not accountable to anyone. With the exception of governments that, being their source of power, may be considered “ghost writers” of monetary constitutions, no one else can influence money legislation. In other words, in this framework there is no room for an “electorate” (producers and consumers). What basic law regulates the relationships between individuals and their monetary orders by guaranteeing fundamental rights?

The basic law of the gold standard was the free convertibility of currencies, allowing individuals to redeem paper into gold on demand. This acted as protection against money misuse by banks or governments. Convertibility was for producers and consumers the means to express their vote on the degree of money reliability. Money was an instrument of saving. Paper money, or fiduciary circulation, as opposed to the banknote which was a title of credit, could be issued too but it had to comply with the law of gold circulation whereby the total volume of currency, coins, banknotes and paper notes had to correspond exactly to the quantity of metallic money necessary to allow economic exchanges. This being the purpose of the monetary system, banks, to avoid insolvency risks and gold reserves outflow had to adjust, through the discount rate policy, the issue of fiduciary papers to the real needs of economy.

Therefore gold was a barrier against the use of money as an instrument of power. Its value was fixed on the world market where gold was always in demand. Gold then had the same value in each country, and that’s why it was a stable international means of payment. Finally exchange rates were stable, not because they were arbitrarily controlled by government but because they were always gravitating towards the gold parity, the rate at which currencies were exchanged, and this was determined by their respective gold content. Roughly stated, the gold standard was an order providing for a separation of powers: the fundamental law of metallic circulation was the constitution, the banking system was the executive power which was controlled by producers and consumers representing the judicial power to sanction abuses. In today’s monetary order, producers and consumers have become legally disarmed victims of monetary legislation, deprived of the weapon of defence against money manipulation.

A trail of broken monetary arrangements

Central banks are the pillars of the monetary order because they are the source of the world’s supply and they regulate it. They control circulation, expand and restrict credit, stabilize prices and, above all they act as instruments of State finances. They are both “anvil and hammer”, trying to adapt the system to all occasions, remedying abuse by a still greater abuse, and considering themselves immune from the consequences. For these reasons, the leading architects of the world financial order should explain how the very same institutions that are pursuing unsound policies domestically might realistically think to establish a sound monetary order at a higher level.

The most important architecture, after the Second World War, was the Bretton Woods Agreement (1944). A “managed” form of gold standard was designed to give a stable word monetary order by a fixed exchange rate system with the dollar as the key currency, redeemable in gold only to central banks, and with member countries’ currencies pegged to the dollar at fixed rates and indirectly redeemable in gold. But the huge balance of payments deficit and high inflation in the US should have made gold rise against the dollar. A crisis of confidence in the reserve currency pushed foreign countries’ central banks to demand  conversion into the metal, panicking the US, which promptly closed the gold window.

After the end of Bretton Woods in 1971, fiat currencies began to rule the world

The Smithsonian Agreement (1971-1973) which followed Bretton Woods was hailed by President Nixon as the “greatest monetary agreement in the history of the world” (!).  It was an order based on fixed exchange rates fluctuating within a narrow margin, but without the backing of gold. Again, countries were expected to buy an irredeemable dollar at an overvalued rate. The system ended after two years.

Within the West European block, fixed exchange rates remained, but floating within a band against dollar. “The snake”, as the arrangement was called, died in 1976.  Major shocks, including the 1973 oil price spike and the 1974 commodity boom, caused a series of currency crises, repeatedly forcing countries out of the arrangement. But this did not persuade them to abandon the dream of intra-European currency stability. The snake was replaced in 1979 by the European Monetary System (EMS) with its basket of arbitrarily fixed-but-adjustable exchange rates floating within a small band and pegged to the European currency unit (ecu), the precursor of euro.

Yet the arrangement ultimately failed, again due to a series of severe shocks (a global recession, German economic and monetary unification, liberalization of capital controls).  Rather than abandoning the system, European governments adopted much wider fluctuation bands, reaffirming their commitment to an order based on fixed rates and irredeemable currencies.

So we arrive at an arrangement without historical precedent: sovereign nations with a single legal tender issued by a common central bank — the Euro entered into function in 1999. The stated aims of the single currency were noble: to facilitate trade and freedom of movement, providing for a market large enough to give each country better insulation against external shocks. Unfortunately, it couldn’t provide the member states with a system of defence against the internal shocks inherent to any irredeemable currency.

History confirms that currencies cannot rest on stability pacts and similar restrictions. Mainstream economists have long argued that the euro crisis has arisen from the lack of common social and fiscal policies, but the architects of the European currency were also well aware of this.  Their aim was always to forge a European people, and a socialist European superstate, on the back of the euro.  They had not the patience for a European state to naturally emerge in the same manner as the US, from a population sharing the same culture and language.  “Europe of the people and for the people” was a misleading disguise to give an economic prison the honest appearance of a democratic and liberal project.

So in the end, Euroland has been working as a hybrid  framework of institutions to which members countries delegate some of their national sovereignty in exchange for access to a larger market, capital, and low interest rates. But they entered an region of anti-competitive practices, antitrust regulations, redistributive policies, lavish subsidies, and faux egalitarianism — a perfect economic environment in which to run astronomical debts. The euro system represents one of the most significant attempts to place a currency at the service of political and social objectives, and it is for this reason that it will remain a source of problems.

Descent into the maelstrom

Today’s monetary orders are shaped to pursue what Rothbard has called the economics of violent intervention in the market. They are, in essence, based on a socialist idea of money. Accordingly they make for a framework of laws, conventions, and regulations fitting the interests of the rulers. In this framework it is the public debt that has utmost importance. Indeed, it is the monetary order that has developed the concept of debt in the modern sense. Because the management of public finances have become the supreme direction of economic policy, treasuries are now in charge of the national economies. Through the incestuous relationships they maintain with central banks, they are able to create the ideal monetary conditions in which to borrow ad libitum. Purely monetary considerations such as providing a stable currency are disregarded. Political, fiscal and social ends prevail over everything else.

In the last eighty years, monetary orders have allowed an abnormal increase in finance, banking, debt, and speculation completely unrelated to a development of sound economic activity and wealth production, but due instead to government’s overloading of central banking responsibilities. Unfortunately, the outcome is the de facto insolvency of the world monetary order. The ensuing adverse effects may be still delayed with the aid of various measures, interventions and expedients, but not much time is left. The stormy sea of debt has already produced a whirlpool that will be sucking major economies into a maelstrom, and the larger they are, the more rapid will be their descent. It remain to be seen what shape they will take after the shipwreck. Gloomy as the situation may appear, it is not hopeless because such an event might be the sole opportunity to cause a decisive change. It might be that instead of resuming the art of monetary expedients to create irredeemable money, governments and banks let them fade into oblivion. This would allow people to take their monetary destiny back into their own hands.