UK Chancellor George Osborne and Bank of England Governor Mervin King last week announced another round of fiscal and monetary stimulus measures, including steps to ease the funding for banks and allow them to extend more loans.
If these measures were hoped to instil confidence they must be classified as a failure. We have lived through quite a few years of unprecedented and fairly persistent monetary accommodation and occasional rounds of QE by now, and I doubt that yet another dose of the same medicine will cause great excitement. Furthermore, observers must get confused as to what our most pressing problems really are. Have we not had a real banking crisis in the UK in 2008 because banks were over-extended and in desperate need of balance sheet repair? Is a period of deleveraging and a rebuilding of capital ratios not urgently required and unavoidable? Let’s not forget that the government is still a majority-owner of RBS and holds a large chunk of Lloyds-TSB. If banks are still on life-support from the taxpayer and the central bank, is it wise to already prod them to expand their balance sheets again and create more credit to ‘stimulate’ growth?
The same confusion exists on fiscal policy. Is the Greece crisis not a stark warning to all other sovereign borrowers out there, which are equally and without exception on a slippery slope toward fiscal Armageddon, that it is high time for drastic reduction in spending and fundamental fiscal reform? If the Bank of England or the government assume any of the risk of the latest additional credit measures, then the taxpayer is on the hook.
None of this will instil confidence, not in the economy and not in the banks, and certainly not in politics. UK newspaper ‘The Independent’ headlined: “King pushes the panic button”, which I consider a pretty apt description.
Banks are parastatal dinosaurs
One thing is now clear to even the most casual observer: banks are not capitalist businesses. In their present incarnation they have little to do with the free market and no place in it. They are constantly oscillating between two positions: One moment, they are a state protectorate, in desperate need of support from the state printing press or unlimited taxpayer funds, as, in the absence of such support, we are supposedly faced with the dreaded social fallout of complete financial collapse; the next moment they are a convenient tool for state policy, simply to be fed with ample bank reserves and enticed with low interest rates to create yet more cheap credit and help manufacture some artificial growth spurt. Either the banks are the permanent welfare queens of the fiat money systems, or convenient policy levers for the macro-economic central planners. In any case, capitalist businesses look different.
Central banks and modern fiat money banks are quite simply a blot on the capitalist system. In order for capitalism to operate smoothly they will ultimately have to be removed. I believe that the underlying logic of capitalism will work in that direction. Personally, I believe that trying to ‘reform’ the present system is a waste of time and energy. It is particularly unbecoming for libertarians as they run the risk of getting infected with the strains of statism that run through the system. Let’s replace this system with something better. With a market-based monetary system.
When and how exactly the present system will end, nobody can say. I believe we are in the final inning. Around the world, all major central banks have now established zero or near-zero interest rates and are using their own balance sheets in a desperate attempt to avoid their highly geared banking systems from contracting or potentially collapsing. If you think that this is all just temporary and that it will be smoothly unwound when the economy finally ‘recovers’, then you are probably on some strong medication, or have been listening for too long to the mainstream economists who are, in the majority, happy to function as apologists for the present system.
I still believe that chances are we will, at some point, get the full throttle, foot-on-the pedal monetary overkill, the ultimate uber-QE that will push the system over the edge. This will be the moment when central bankers discover – and discover the hard way – that their ability to print their fiat money may well be unlimited but that the public’s confidence in this fiat money certainly is not. The whole system will blow up in some hyperinflationary fireball, which has been the end of most previous experiments with complete fiat money systems, all others having ended with a voluntary return to commodity money before the public had lost complete faith in the system. And the prospect for a voluntary and official return to a gold standard seems slim at present. However, this is not the topic of this essay.
The future of money
I am often asked what will come next after the present system collapsed? Will we have to go back to barter? – No. Obviously, a modern capitalist economy needs a functioning monetary system. My hope is that from the ashes of the current system a new monetary system arises that is entirely private and not run by states – and that does not have the unholy state-bank alliance at its core, an alliance that exists in opposition to everything that the free market stands for. Nobody can say what this new system will look like precisely. Its shape and features will ultimately be decided by the market. In this field, as in others, there are few limits to human inventiveness and ingenuity. But we can already make a few conceptual points about such a system, and we should contemplate working on such a system now while the old system is in its death throes.
A private gold ‘standard’…
Free market monetary systems, in which the supply of money is outside political control, are likely to be systems in which money proper is a commodity of limited and fairly inelastic supply. It seems improbable that a completely free market would grant any private entity the right to produce (paper or electronic) money at will and without limit. The present system is unusual in this respect and it is evidently not a free market solution. Neither is it sustainable.
The obvious candidates are gold and silver, which have functioned as money for thousands of years. We could envision a modern system at whose centre are private companies that offer gold and silver storage, probably in a variety of jurisdictions (Zurich, London, Hong Kong, Vancouver). Around this core of stored monetary metal a financial system is built that uses the latest information and payment technology to facilitate the easy, secure and cheap transfer of ownership in this base money between whoever chooses to participate in this system (Yes, there would be credit cards and wire transfers, and internet or mobile phone payments. There would, however, be no FOMC meetings, no Bank of England governor writing letters to the Chancellor, and no monetary policy!).
Are these gold and silver storage companies banks? — Well, they could become banks. In fact, this is how our present banking system started out. But there are important differences about which I will say a few things later. In any case this would be hard, international, private and apolitical money. This would be capitalist money.
Another solution would be private virtual money, such as Bitcoin.
Bitcoin is immaterial money, internet money. It is software.
Bitcoin can be thought of as a cryptographic commodity. Individual Bitcoins can be created through a process that is called ‘mining’. It involves considerable computing power, and the complex algorithm at the core of Bitcoin makes the creation of additional Bitcons more difficult (and thus more expensive) the more Bitcoins are already in existence. The overall supply of Bitcoins is limited to 21 million units. Again, this is fixed by the algorithm at the core of it, which cannot be altered.
Thus, creating Bitcoin money is entirely private but not costless and not unlimited. Most people will, of course, never ‘mine’ Bitcoins, just as under the gold standard most people didn’t mine gold. People will acquire Bitcoins through trade, by exchanging goods and services for Bitcoins, then using the Bitcoins for other transactions.
Bitcoin is hard money. Its supply is inelastic and not under the control of any issuing authority. It is international and truly capitalist ‘money’ – of course this assumes that the public is willing to use it as money.
There are naturally a number of questions surrounding Bitcoin that cannot be covered in this essay: is it safe? Can the algorithm be changed or corrupted and Bitcoins thus be counterfeited? Are the virtual “wallets” in which the Bitcoins are stored safe? – These are questions for the computer security expert or cryptographer, and I am neither. My argument is conceptual. My goal is not to analyze Bitcoin as such but to speculate on the consequences of a virtual commodity currency, which I consider feasible in principle, and I simply assume – for the sake of the argument – that Bitcoin is already the solution. Whether that is indeed the case, I cannot say. And it is – again – for the market to decide.
There is one question for the economist, however: could Bitcoin become widely accepted as money? Would this not contradict Mises’ regression theorem, which states that no form of money can come into existence as a ready medium of exchange; that whatever the monetary substance (or non-substance), it must have had some other commodity-use prior to its first use as money. My counterargument here is the following: the analogy is to the banknote, which started life not as a commodity but as a payment device, i.e. a claim on money proper which was gold or silver at the time. Banknotes were initially used as a more convenient way to transfer ownership in gold or silver. Once banknotes circulated widely and were generally accepted as media of exchange in trade, the gold-backing could be dropped and banknotes still circulated as money. They had become money in their own right.
Similarly, Bitcoin can be thought of, initially, as payment technology, as a cheap and convenient device to transfer ownership in state paper money. (Bitcoins can presently be exchanged for paper money at various exchanges.) But as the supply of Bitcoins is restricted while the supply of state paper money constantly expands, the exchange-value of Bitcoins is bound to go up. And at some stage, Bitcoin could begin to trade as money proper.
A monetary system built on hard, international and apolitical money, whether in the form of a private gold system or Bitcoin, would be a truly capitalist system, a system that facilitates the free and voluntary exchange between private individuals and corporations within and across borders, a system that is stable and outside of political control. It would have many advantages for the money user but there would be little role for present-day banks, which goes to show to what extent banks have become a creature of the present state-fiat money system and all its inconsistencies.
Banks profit from money creation
Banks conduct fractional-reserve banking (FRB), which means they take deposits that are supposed to be safe and liquid and therefore pay the depositor little interest, and use them to fund loans that are illiquid and risky and thus pay the bank high interest. Through the process of fractional-reserve banking, banks expand the supply of money in the economy; they become money producers, which is, of course, profitable. Many mainstream economists welcome FRB as a way to expand money and credit and ‘stimulate’ extra growth but as the Currency School in Britain in the 19th century and in particular the Austrian School under Mises and Hayek in the early 20th century have argued convincingly (and as I explain in detail in Paper Money Collapse) this process is not only risky for the individual banks, it is destabilizing for the overall economy. It must cause boom-bust cycles.
It cannot be excluded that banks could conduct FRB even on the basis of a private system of gold-money or Bitcoin. However, in the absence of a backstop by way of a central bank that functions as a lender-of-last resort, the scope for FRB would be very limited indeed. It would be too dangerous for banks to lower their reserve ratios (at least to fairly low levels) as that would increase the risk of a bank-run.
I am sometimes told that I am too critical of the central banks and the state, and that I should direct my ire toward the ‘greedy’ ‘private’ banks, for it is the ‘private’ banks that create all the money out there through FRB. Of course they do. But FRB is only possible on the scale it has been conducted over recent decades because the banks are supported – and even actively encouraged – in their FRB activities by a lender-of-last resort central bank, in particular as the central bank today has full and unlimited control over fiat money bank reserves. Under a system of hard money (gold or Bitcoin), even if the banks themselves started their own lender-of-last resort central bank, that entity could not create more gold reserves or Bitcoin reserves and thus provide unlimited support to the banks.
FRB is particularly unlikely to develop in a Bitcoin economy, as there is no need for a depository, for safe-keeping and storage services, and for any services that involve the transfer of the monetary system’s raw material (be it gold or state paper tickets) into other, more convenient forms of media of exchange, such as electronic money that can facilitate transactions over great distances. The owner of Bitcoin has an account that is similar to his email account. He manages it himself and he stores his Bitcoin himself. And Bitcoin is money that is already readily usable for any transaction, anywhere in the world, simply via the internet. The bank as intermediary is being bypassed. The Bitcoin user takes direct control of his money. He can access his Bitcoins everywhere, simply via the SIM card in his smartphone.
The tremendous growth in FRB was made possible by the difficulty of transacting securely over long distances with physical gold or physical paper tickets. This created a powerful incentive to place the physical money with banks, and once the physical money was in the banks it became ‘reserves’ to be used for the creation of additional monetary assets.
Channelling true savings into investment is very important, but remember that FRB is something entirely different. It involves the creation of money and credit without any real, voluntary saving to back it. FRB is not only not needed, it is destabilizing for the overall economy. Under gold standard conditions, it created business cycles. Under the system of unlimited fiat money and lender-of-last-resort central banks, it created the super-cycle, which is now in its painful endgame.
Banks make money from payment systems
When I recently made arrangements for a trip to Africa I dealt directly with local tour operators there, which, today, can be done easily and cheaply with the help of email, websites, and Skype. Yet, when it came to paying the African tour operators I had to go through a process that has not changed much from the 1950s. Not only were British and African banks involved, but also correspondence banks in New York. This took time and, of course, cost money in form of additional fees.
Imagine if we could have used gold or Bitcoin! The payment would have been as easy and fast as all the email-communication that preceded it. There would have been no exchange rates and little fees (maybe in the case of gold) or no fees (in the case of Bitcoin).
Another example: Last year I gave a webinar at the Ludwig von Mises Institute (LvMI). The LvMI is located in Auburn, Alabama, I did the seminar from my home in London, the LvMI’s technology officer sat in Taiwan, and the seminar attendants were spread all over the world. All of this is now possible – cheaply, quickly and conveniently – thanks to technology. Yet, when the LvMI paid me a fee it had to go through a few banks – again, correspondence banks in New York – it took quite some time and it incurred additional costs. And the fee from LvMI was paid in a currency that I cannot use directly in my home country.
Banks make money from monetary nationalism
Future economic historians will pity us for having worked under a strange and inefficient global patchwork of local paper currencies – and for having naively believed that this represented the pinnacle of modern capitalism. Today, every government wants to have its own local paper money and its own local central bank, and run its own monetary policy (of course, on the basis of perfectly elastic local fiat money). This is naturally a great impediment to international trade and the free flow of capital.
If I want to spend the money I got from the LvMI where I live (in Britain), I have to exchange the LvMI’s dollars for pounds. I can only do that if I find someone who is willing to take the opposite side of that transaction, someone who is willing to sell pounds for dollars. The existence of numerous monies necessarily re-introduces an element of partial barter into money-based commerce. Sure, the 24-hour, multi-trillion-dollar a day fx market can accommodate me, and do so quickly and cheaply, but this market is only a second-best solution, a highly developed make-shift to cope as best as possible with the inefficiencies of monetary nationalism. The better, most efficient and capitalist solution would be to use the same medium of exchange around the world. The gold standard was a much superior monetary system in this respect. Moving from the international gold standard to a system of a multitude of state-managed paper currencies meant economic regression, not progress.
One hundred years ago, you could take the train from London to Moscow and use the same gold coins all along the way for payment. There was no need to change your money even once. (Incidentally, neither did you need a passport!)
The notion of the ‘national economy’ that needs a ‘national currency’ was always a fiction. So was the idea that economies work better if money, interest rates and exchange rates are carefully manipulated by local bureaucrats. (This fiction is still spread by many economists who make a living off this system.) The biggest problem with monetary policy is that there is such a thing as monetary policy. But in today’s increasingly globalized world, these fictions are entirely untenable. Capitalism transcends borders, and what it needs to flourish is simply hard, apolitical and thus international money. Money that is a proper tool for voluntary human interaction and cooperation and not a tool for politics.
Banks benefit from the present monetary segregation. They profit from constantly exchanging one paper money for another and from foreign exchange trading. Non-financial companies that operate internationally are inevitably forced to speculate in currency markets or to pay for expensive hedging strategies (again paying the banks for providing them).
Banks make money from speculation
There is, of course, nothing wrong with speculation in a free market. However, in a truly free market there would be few opportunities for speculation. Today the heavy involvement of the state in financial markets, the existence of numerous paper currencies, all managed for domestic political purposes, and the constant volatility that is generated by monetary and fiscal policy create outsized opportunities for speculation. Additionally, the easy money that central banks provide so generously to prop up their over-extended FRB-industry is used by many banks to speculate in financial assets themselves, often by anticipating and front-running the next move of the monetary authorities with which these banks have such close relationships. And to a considerable degree, banks pass the cheap money from the central banks on to their hedge fund clients.
Remember that immediately after the Lehman collapse, investment banks Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, which previously had shunned deposit and retail banking but have always been heavily involved in securities trading, quickly obtained banking licenses in order to benefit from the safety-net the state provides its own fiat-money-deposit banks.
Banks channel savings into investment
Yes, to some degree they still do this, and this is indeed an important function of financial intermediaries. However, asset managers can do the same thing, and they do it without mixing this services with FRB and money-creation. In general, the asset management industry is much more transparent about how it allocates its clients’ assets, it has a clear fiduciary responsibility for these assets, and it cannot use them as ‘reserves’. In the gold or Bitcoin economy of the future, you will, of course, be free to allocate some of your money to asset managers who mange investments for you.
Have I been too harsh on the banks? – Maybe. The bankers, in their defence, will say that they are not the source of all these inefficiencies, that they simply help their clients deal with the inefficiencies of a state-designed and politicized monetary system – and that they reap legitimate rewards for the help they provide. – Fair enough. To some degree that may be true. But it is very clear that the size, the business models, the sources of profitability, and the problems of modern banks are uniquely and intimately linked to the present, fully elastic paper money system. As I tried to show, even if the paper money system was meant to last – and it certainly is not – the forces of capitalism, the constant search for better, more efficient and durable solutions, coupled with technological progress, would put enormous market pressures on the present banking industry in the years to come. But given that our present system is not the outcome of market forces to begin with, that a system of fully elastic, local state monies is not necessary, that it is suboptimal, inefficient, unstable, and unsustainable, and that it is already in its endgame, I have little doubt that modern banks will go the way of the dodo. They are to the next few decades what the steel and coal industries were to the decades from 1960 to 1990. They are parastatal dinosaurs, joined at the hip with the bureaucracy and politics, bloated and dependent on cheap money and state subsidy for survival. They are ripe for the taking.
The demise of the paper money system will offer great opportunities for a new breed of money entrepreneurs. In that role, I could see gold storage companies, payment technology companies, Bitcoin service providers and asset management companies. If some of these join forces, the opportunities should be great. The world is ready for an alternative monetary system, and when the present system collapses under the weight of its own inconsistencies, there would be something there to take its place.
The present fiat money economy is ripe for some Schumpeterian ‘creative destruction’.
In the meantime, the debasement of paper money continues.
This article was previously published at Paper Money Collapse.