This was the question put to me by Treasury Committee Chairman Andrew Tyrie MP when I appeared before the Committee on January 6th to give evidence on the Bank of England’s latest Financial Stability Report.
This is a question to which many of us on our side have given much thought and I believe it to be the single most important question in the whole field of bank regulatory policy.
I was nonetheless caught off-guard when Mr. Tyrie asked it at the beginning of the session – I was expecting questions on the Bank’s latest nonsense, the results of its new stress tests – and my initial response was less than it should have been. But no excuse: it was a perfectly reasonable and entirely foreseeable question – the obvious question, even – and I still didn’t see it coming. Reminds me of the blunders I would occasionally make when I played competitive chess: I obviously haven’t improved much.
Thankfully, he asked me the same question again at the close of the session, and his doing so allowed me to give the correct answer clearly, an emphatic ‘No’. However, by this point there was no time to elaborate on the reasons why a bank in difficulties should be denied assistance.
These reasons go straight to the whole can of worms and my follow-up letter to Mr. Tyrie should, I hope, help to set the record straight.
My message to other advocates of free markets is that leaving aside the usual bailouts-are-bad stuff, we really should give more thought to what an Armageddon Plan B might look like: Yes, no bailouts would be best, even in our intervention-infested system, but in that case why do we humour lender-of-last-resort and, more to the point, if the government is even considering intervention in what it (rightly or wrongly) sees as an emergency in which something-really-ought-to-be-done-NOW, then what should we advise it to do – other than ‘Don’t’?
Mark my words: if we don’t give the government constructive advice, it will do what it always does when a crisis breaks out: it will panic and the chances of any sensible policy response will be zero.
So here is the text of the letter, dated January 12th:
“Dear Mr. Tyrie,
I would like to thank you for the opportunity to give evidence to the Treasury Committee at its meeting on January 6th.
At that meeting you asked me if the authorities should assist a bank that gets into difficulties.
My answer is ‘No’ but I should like to elaborate.
Consider first a free or laissez-faire banking system in which there is no central bank, no financial regulation and no other state interventions such as deposit insurance. In such a system, competitive pressures would force the banks to be financially strong; bankers who ran down their banks’ capital ratios or took excessive risks would eventually lose their depositors’ confidence and be run out of business, so losing their market share to more conservative and better-run competitors. Bankers themselves would have serious skin in the game and therefore have strong incentives to keep their banks sound: for them, bank failure would be personally costly. Banks would then be tightly governed and conservatively risk-managed, and the banking system as a whole would be highly stable.
There would still be occasional failures due to the incompetence of individual bankers, but these would be few and far between, and not pose systemic threats.
These claims from free-banking theory are broadly confirmed by the historical experiences of the many free or loosely regulated banking systems of the past, most notably the experiences of Scotland pre-1845 and 19th century Canada.
In such a system, there is no good case for official assistance to any bank in difficulties. A bank failure would be painful to those involved, but the possibility of bankruptcy is unavoidable in any industry in a healthy capitalist economy, and this includes the banking industry. Letting a badly run bank fail also sends out the right signals – it encourages other bankers to avoid the same mistakes, it encourages depositors to be careful with the banks they choose and it avoids the moral hazards inevitably created by any policy of assistance.
Modern banking systems differ from these systems because of the presence of extensive systems of state intervention, including a central bank, a central bank lender of last resort function, deposit insurance, capital adequacy regulation and other forms of financial regulation. In different ways, each of these interventions makes the banking system less stable: central banks through erratic and usually loose monetary policies, which create inflation and fuel asset price cycles, and generally destabilise the macroeconomy; the lender of last resort and deposit insurance by creating moral hazards that lead to excessive risk-taking by bankers; capital regulation by creating short-termist incentives for banks to reduce their capital (e.g., by playing games with risk models and risk weights); and financial regulation generally by its large compliance costs and its stifling of innovation. Over time, these interventions have made the banking system weaker and weaker, even though their usual stated intention was to strengthen the banking system rather than to weaken it.
However, even with the banking system already seriously weakened by a long history of misguided government interventions, the best policy response is still to refuse assistance to banks in difficulties. I say this for two main reasons:
the systemic effects of bank difficulties tend to be exaggerated even in a systemic crisis, sometimes grossly so; and
interventionist policy responses tend to make matters even worse.
The ideal response by policymakers is to refuse assistance point-blank – and to announce such a policy in advance so the bankers know where they stand.
Policymakers should follow the advice of Lord Liverpool, who was PM at the time of the last systemic banking crisis pre-2007, that of December 1825. In May that year, he foresaw the looming crisis and warned the House of Lords about the “general spirit of speculation, which was going beyond all bounds and was likely to bring about the greatest mischief on numerous individuals.” He wished it to be “clearly understood” that those involved “entered on their speculations at their own peril and risk” and he thought it his duty to declare that he would “never advise the introduction of any bill for their relief; on the contrary, if any such measure were proposed, he would oppose it” and he hoped Parliament would reject it.
In our current system such a response would require political leadership with uncommon vision and nerves of steel. When the next crisis occurs, it will explode unexpectedly, taking policymakers off guard. They will be under extreme pressure to respond quickly – probably within hours – on the basis of inadequate information, whilst bankers lobby intensely for immediate assistance: if we don’t get bailed out, the world will end, etc., the usual scare mongering. Under such circumstances, it would be extremely difficult for even the best political leadership to avoid being dragged into making the same mistakes made repeatedly in previous crises.
These mistakes include:
panicky rescues, which are later shown to be unnecessary, ill-judged and in some cases illegal;
the abandonment of previous ‘commitments’ to let badly run institutions fail;
bankers being rewarded for their failures by being made personally better off than they would have been had their banks been allowed to fail; and
more regulation or regulatory reshuffles accompanied by the usual empty promises that ‘it’ won’t happen again, made by the very people who had no idea what they were doing when they were in charge the last time round.
So how can we avert such outcomes? A good start would be an Act to prohibit future assistance: as much as possible within the confines of our constitution, we should seek to tie the government to the mast. “Much as I would like to help you”, the PM can say, “my hands are tied.”
But even with this Act in place, there is still the difficult question: if the government does respond to the next crisis, then what should it do?
To that question I would propose a publicly disclosed Plan B, whose main features would include:
a programme to keep the banking system as a whole operating at a basic level to prevent widespread economic collapse;
fast-track bankruptcy processes to resolve problem banks and, where possible, return them to operation as quickly as possible;
a prohibition of cronyist sweetheart deals for individual banks or bankers;
provisions to ensure that senior managers of any failed banks are made strictly liable to severe personal financial penalties;
a holding-to-account of senior bankers, regulators and policymakers, including the opening of criminal investigations into the activities of any banks that fail;
the establishment of a legal regime that imposes high standards of personal liability on senior bankers;
the restoration of sound accountancy standards; and
a radical programme to deregulate the banking industry.
This programme would include the abolition of the current regulatory structure including the PRA and FCA, the ending of deposit insurance, the UK’s withdrawal from the Basel system of capital regulation, and the reform (and preferably, abolition) of the Bank of England. These reforms would rein-in the out-of-control moral hazards that permeate our current banking system and restore the personal responsibility, tight governance and conservative risk-taking that are the keys to a sound banking system.
Contingency planning for the next crisis should also provide for only two possible responses by the authorities: either Plan A (i.e., do nothing) or Plan B as just set out. Any intermediate response should be prohibited, as that would merely open the door to the usual mistakes that the authorities are prone to make in such circumstances.
In short, in response to your question about whether a bank should receive assistance, my answer would be ‘No’, but if we are to avoid another bungled policy response when the next crisis occurs it would be wise to have a credible Plan B in place to address upfront the Armegeddon scenario of a possible systemic collapse. And if it does intervene, the government should use the opportunity to clean up banksterism once and for all and restore a sound banking system based on the principles of personal responsibility and laissez-faire.
Durham University/Cobden Partners [etc.]”
There is a lot more to say on this subject, but one of the points that emerges most clearly for me is the pressing need for free-market narratives of the financial crisis, blow-by-blow accounts of how it should and might have been. In this context – and off the top of my head – I would particularly recommend the following (with apologies to those whose work I have overlooked):
John A. Allison, The Financial Crisis and the Free Market Cure, McGraw-Hill 2013, esp. chapters 14-17.
Richard Kovacevich, “The Financial Crisis: Why the Conventional Wisdom has it All Wrong”, Cato Journal Vol. 34, No. 3 (Fall 2014): 541-556.
Vern McKinley, “Run, Run, Run: Was the Financial Crisis Panic over Institution Runs Justified?” Cato Policy Analysis 747, April 10, 2014
George A. Selgin, “Operation Twist-the-Truth: How the Federal Reserve Misrepresents its History and Performance”, Cato Journal Vol. 34, No. 2 (Spring/Summer 2014): 229-263.
These are all US-oriented of course and we badly need to work on similar narratives for the UK, Ireland and Europe.
But going back to the Treasury Committee, most of the discussion was on the regulatory risk models – or more precisely, on what is wrong with regulatory risk modelling and in particular, the Bank’s stress tests. I have to say, too, that I was greatly heartened to see the skepticism of the MPs towards the models and their openness towards our ideas, much of which is obviously down to the pathbreaking work that Steve Baker is doing on the Committee. But let me come to all that in another posting.
Originally, paper money was not regarded as money but merely as a representation of gold. Various paper certificates represented claims on gold stored with the banks. Holders of paper certificates could convert them into gold whenever they deemed necessary. Because people found it more convenient to use paper certificates to exchange for goods and services, these certificates came to be regarded as money.
Paper certificates that are accepted as the medium of exchange open the scope for fraudulent practice. Banks could now be tempted to boost their profits by lending certificates that were not covered by gold. In a free-market economy, a bank that over-issues paper certificates will quickly find out that the exchange value of its certificates in terms of goods and services will fall. To protect their purchasing power, holders of the over-issued certificates naturally attempt to convert them back to gold. If all of them were to demand gold back at the same time, this would bankrupt the bank. In a free market then, the threat of bankruptcy would restrain banks from issuing paper certificates unbacked by gold. On this Mises wrote,
People often refer to the dictum of an anonymous American quoted by Tooke: “Free trade in banking is free trade in swindling.” However, freedom in the issuance of banknotes would have narrowed down the use of banknotes considerably if it had not entirely suppressed it. It was this idea which Cernuschi advanced in the hearings of the French Banking Inquiry on October 24, 1865: “I believe that what is called freedom of banking would result in a total suppression of banknotes in France. I want to give everybody the right to issue banknotes so that nobody should take any banknotes any longer.”1
This means that in a free-market economy, paper money cannot assume a “life of its own” and become independent of commodity money.
The government can, however, bypass the free-market discipline. It can issue a decree that makes it legal for the over-issued bank not to redeem paper certificates into gold. Once banks are not obliged to redeem paper certificates into gold, opportunities for large profits are created that set incentive to pursue an unrestrained expansion of the supply of paper certificates. The uncurbed expansion of paper certificates raises the likelihood of setting off a galloping rise in the prices of goods and services that can lead to the breakdown of the market economy.
To prevent such a breakdown, the supply of the paper money must be managed. The main purpose of managing the supply is to prevent various competing banks from over-issuing paper certificates and from bankrupting each other. This can be achieved by establishing a monopoly bank-i.e., a central bank-that manages the expansion of paper money.
To assert its authority, the central bank introduces its paper certificates, which replace the certificates of various banks. (The central bank’s money purchasing power is established on account of the fact that various paper certificates, which carry purchasing power, are exchanged for the central bank money at a fixed rate. In short, the central bank paper certificates are fully backed by banks certificates, which have the historical link to gold.)
The central bank paper money, which is declared as the legal tender, also serves as a reserve asset for banks. This enables the central bank to set a limit on the credit expansion by the banking system. Note that through ongoing monetary management, i.e., monetary pumping, the central bank makes sure that all the banks can engage jointly in the expansion of credit out of “thin air” via the practice of fractional reserve banking. The joint expansion in turn guarantees that checks presented for redemption by banks to each other are netted out, because the redemption of each will cancel the other redemption out. In short, by means of monetary injections, the central bank makes sure that the banking system is “liquid enough” so that banks will not bankrupt each other.
It would appear that the central bank can manage and stabilize the monetary system. The truth, however, is the exact opposite. To manage the system, the central bank must constantly create money “out of thin air” to prevent banks from bankrupting each other. This leads to persistent declines in money’s purchasing power, which destabilizes the entire monetary system.
Observe that while, in the free market, people will not accept a commodity as money if its purchasing power is subject to a persistent decline, in the present environment, central authorities are coercively imposing money that suffers from a steady decline in its purchasing power. Since the present monetary system is fundamentally unstable it is not possible to fix it. Even Milton Friedman’s scheme to fix the money rate growth at a given percentage won’t do the trick. After all a fixed percentage growth is still money growth, which leads to the exchange of nothing for something-i.e., economic impoverishment and the boom-bust cycle. Moreover, we can conclude that there cannot be a “correct” money supply rate of growth. Whether the central bank injects money in accordance with economic activity or fixes the rate of growth, it further destabilizes the economy.
The central bank can keep the present paper standard going as long as the pool of real wealth is still expanding. Once the pool begins to stagnate-or, worse, shrinks then no monetary pumping will be able to prevent the plunge of the system. A better solution is of course to have a true free market and allow the gold to assert its monetary role. As opposed to the present monetary system in the framework of a gold standard money cannot disappear and set in motion the menace of the boom-bust cycles. In fractional reserve banking, when money is repaid and the bank doesn’t renew the loan, money evaporates. Because the loan has originated out of nothing, it obviously couldn’t have had an owner. In a free market, in contrast, when money i.e. gold is repaid, it is passed back to the original lender; the money stock stays intact.
1. Mises , Human Action p 446.
[Editor’s Note: this piece, by Ivo Mosley, first appeared at http://defendinghistory.com/antisemitism-banking/69351]
A good deal of today’s nationalist and right-wing antisemitism rests upon the fantasy that “the Jews” control the world through finance and banking. Nor is the same fantasy entirely absent from left-wing antisemitism, which currently tends to concentrate itself on criticism of Israel.
The fact that some Jews are very good at banking is, apparently, enough to justify race-hate in the antisemite’s mind. Of course, a number of Jews are also prominent as scientists, civil rights activists, generals, hairdressers, actors, musicians, historians, etcetera, without anyone blaming science, civil rights, theatre, hairdressing, war, music, history, etcetera on “the Jews.” This highlights one of the traditional functions of antisemitism: if something is obviously bad, “the Jews” can be reached for as a scapegoat.
The object of this article is twofold: first, to analyze what is rotten in the world of capitalism and finance; second, to show that while it has nothing to do with “the Jews” as a people or as a tradition, it has everything to do with a tradition that for centuries excluded “the Jews.”
Capitalism and Predatory Capitalism
There are two stories about how capitalism is financed. One is commonly believed and accepted, but not true. The other is true, but hidden under veils of obscurity.
The familiar story is that citizens save up bits of money: banks gather up those bits of money and lend them to capitalists, who put them to good use for the benefit of all. This, however, is not what banks do – nor is it necessarily what capitalists do.
The unfamiliar, but true, story is that banks create money out of nothing when they lend to capitalists, who use the new money to purchase assets and/or labor, from which they expect to make a profit.
The first story needs no elaboration: as well as being untrue, it is simple and widely understood. The second needs to be explained, however, because though it is not so very complicated, it is unfamiliar to most people.
Economists generally avoid mentioning the fact that banks create money, but central bankers are happy to state it and even on occasion to try to explain it. The Bank of England website states simply: “Most money in the modern economy is in the form of bank deposits, which are created by commercial banks themselves.” And again: “The majority of money in the modern economy is created by commercial banks making loans.” The same article explains that this fact is not recognized by most economists: “rather than banks lending out deposits that are placed with them, the act of lending creates deposits — the reverse of the sequence typically described in textbooks.” (Quotes from the Bank of England Quarterly Bulletin, 2014/1.)
The way bankers create money today requires two things: a “magic trick” by which a small quantity of money held by the banker becomes a great deal of money in circulation; and laws which make the “’magic trick” not just legal, but binding on all citizens.
The “Magic Trick” of Banking
“A banker may accommodate his friends without the payment of money merely by writing a brief entry of credit; and can satisfy his own desires for fine furniture and jewels by merely writing two lines in his books,” wrote Tommaso Contarini, Venetian Banker and Senator in 1584.
The Encyclopedia Britannica of 1950 states firmly and definitively, “A bank does not lend money.” So just what does it do, when we think it is lending money? The answer is: it writes two numbers into a ledger, just as Tommaso Contarini did in 1584. Those numbers represent two equal-and-opposite claims, with a time lapse in between. The borrower gets a claim on cash belonging to the bank, which it can exercise immediately. The bank gets a delayed claim against the borrower, which it may exercise when the loan is due for repayment. In the meantime, the bank charges the borrower interest. When both claims have been exercised, the bank’s creation – the loan – disappears.
The claim which the bank creates for the borrower is called “credit.” “Credit” means “believes,” meaning whoever owns the claim believes they can get cash from the bank when they want it. This is where the “magic trick of banking”’ begins. If people believe they can get cash from a claim, they are happy to receive a claim in payment, so long as they too can use the claim to get cash from the bank. Joseph Schumpeter observes: “There is no other case in which a claim to a thing can, within limits to be sure, serve the same purpose as the thing itself: you cannot ride a claim to a horse, but you can pay with a claim to money.”
The second bit of the magic trick is for the banker to create many claims on the same bit of money – or, to put it another way, to create claims on money that isn’t there. Banks, naturally enough, want to maximize their profits, so they create as many claims as they think they can get away with, bearing in mind the regulators and people’s demand for cash. By creating fictitious claims a bank turns a billion, say, of cash into sixty billion, say, of credit.
The magic trick may seem somewhat technical in nature, but it has enabled bankers, with the active connivance of governments and capitalists, to replace money we can own with money we must rent off governments and banks. The effects of this substitution are immense, incalculable, far-reaching, all-pervasive (more on this later).
The Legal Underpinnings and Authority for Bank-Money
For a claim to pass from hand to hand as money, completing the “magic trick of banking,” one more thing is needed: the law must recognize it as a valid claim.
Normally, people are not allowed to create claims on property they don’t have. You can’t, for instance, create a claim on Buckingham Palace – unless you happen to own it. Nor can you mortgage your house sixty times over, and spend the money. Banks alone may do this kind of thing. Only banks (and “other depository institutions”) are authorized in law to create claims on property they do not have.
For centuries, banks operated in a legal grey area. Their activities were restricted to merchants, who understood the risks involved, and to what might be called the “higher criminal class” of rulers and potentates. Lending to princes often carried an interest rate of 100% — but still, most bank-crashes occurred when monarchs defaulted on their debts.
The watershed in banking history came during the decades on either side of 1700, when the English House of Commons, newly-all-powerful and consisting of rich men voted in by other rich men, wanted to exploit the fruits of bank-credit for their own devices of war and profit.
The Lord Chief Justice of the time, Sir John Holt, was supporting the traditional legal position that a claim on property was valid only if the claim was on a specific piece of property. Parliament passed an Act of Parliament (the Promissory Notes Act of 1704) to overrule him. Over the next three centuries, other countries followed the English example and “credit-creation” — creating claims on assets that don’t exist — is now authorized for bankers all across the world.
The Two Traditions: Money-Lending and Banking
Within the European tradition, Jews were long known as money-lenders. The relatively straightforward nature of money-lending, as a freely-negotiated contract between lender and borrower, was complicated by moral and social issues.
Usury (lending money at interest) was deplored in the Judeo-Christian tradition, but Jews were allowed (by their own religious laws and by self-interested Christian monarchs) to lend to non-Jews. A pattern was established: monarchs licensed Jewish money-lenders to lend to their subjects; agents of the monarch helped them collect their debts, then the monarch would rob the money-lenders of much of their profits. Throughout much of Europe, discriminatory laws forbade Jews to earn a living any other way. Although money-lending was a despised and hated occupation, it could make people very rich.
Meanwhile, banking — the creation of credit — was developing in an entirely separate tradition via the activities of merchants, exchange-dealers and civic banks. The tradition was Christian, protective of its own, and often openly antisemitic. When these early bankers “lent” money they were not lending hard cash, they were lending claims written into ledgers.
Failure to distinguish between banking and money-lending, and the superior social status of bankers (who being in close collusion with the State are liable to pick up honors as well as great wealth) have led many writers to claim that Jewish money-lenders were bankers, i.e. creators of credit. This in turn has fed the delusions of antisemitic pseudo-historians. In reaction to this false history, most serious historians of banking have found themselves making statements similar to this from Raymond de Roover: “Unlike the Christian moralists, the rabbis paid little attention to exchange dealings or cambium, because, as Yehiel da Pisa explains, this business was not practiced by Jews. This is further evidence that the latter confined their activities to money-lending on a small scale and that the leading international bankers, such as the Medici or the Fuggers, were all Christians. There is, therefore, nothing to support Sombart’s thesis according to which the Jews were the originators of international finance and the founders of modern capitalism.”
All this, of course, was a long time ago, and nowadays bankers are Anglo-Saxon, Chinese, African, Indian, Jewish, Christian, Islamic or whatever: assorted individuals who have no more consuming interest than to make lots of money.
What is Wrong With Creating Money as Fictitious Credit?
Bank-credit — money created as credit on assets that don’t exist — has many features that may be viewed as negative. It replaces money owned outright with money rented out, and is therefore (in the words of John Taylor of Virginia, 1753-1824) a “machine for transferring property from the people to capitalists.” Along the same lines, it allocates new money to borrowers on the mere promise of profit: as a result, much of it goes to inflating asset prices, again increasing inequality. It enables governments to borrow with little accountability, and to charge interest and repayment to “the people”: these charges make domestic labor more expensive, and therefore less competitive. It is created in large quantities during booms, and disappears during busts as loans are retired or “go bad,” thereby exacerbating business cycles. It encourages the production of arms and war by providing unaccountable finance to both governments and arms manufacturers, at the expense of their peoples. It encourages large concentrations of power in government, corporations, and individual “oligarchs,” reducing independence among citizens. It has an endogenous (inbuilt) insatiability: money drifts to the ownership of capitalists and only economic growth, state hand-outs and war (when governments create new money for working people rather than for banks) can supply consumer-money to the poor. The effects of this insatiability on the environment are literally devastating. It gives vast wealth to an elite who care only for making more money: the tastes of this elite have corrupted human culture. Lastly, because the process is not widely understood and is conducted largely in secret, it makes Western claims to political “democracy” dubious at best.
Given all this, it might be a good idea to contemplate reform, which would have to include (i) the replacement of credit money with digital money owned outright and (ii) withdrawal of the license allowed banks, to create claims on assets they don’t have.
Most people familiar with the reality of bank-credit also profit from it. Reason gives way to self-interest in human affairs, so enlightenment and reform are hardly to be expected from among the powers-that-be. As for antisemitism, mental disease is also resistant to reason, so the targets of criticism in this essay are unlikely to be affected by the contents of this article. However, the majority of humanity have strong reasons to desire both financial reform and less racial hate and I hope this essay has made a small contribution to those ends by shedding light on a topic that is not at present widely understood.
Recent evidence points increasingly towards global economic contraction.
Parts of the Eurozone are in great difficulty, and only last weekend S&P the rating agency warned that Greece will default on its debts “at some point in the next fifteen months”. Japan is collapsing under the wealth-destruction of Abenomics. China is juggling with a debt bubble that threatens to implode. The US tells us through government statistics that their outlook is promising, but the reality is very different with one-third of employable adults not working; furthermore the GDP deflator is significantly greater than officially admitted. And the UK is financially over-geared and over-dependent on a failing Eurozone.
This is hardly surprising, because the monetary inflation of recent years has transferred wealth from the majority of the saving and working population to a financial minority. A stealth tax through monetary inflation has been imposed on the majority of people trying to earn an honest living on a fixed salary. It has been under-recorded in consumer price statistics but has occurred nonetheless. Six years of this wealth transfer may have enriched Wall Street, but it has also impoverished Main Street.
The developed world is now in deep financial trouble. This is a situation which may be coming to a debt-laden conclusion. Those in charge of our money know that monetary expansion has failed to stimulate recovery. They also know that their management of financial markets, always with the objective of fostering confidence, has left them with market distortions that now threaten to derail bonds, equities and derivatives.
Today, central banking’s greatest worry is falling prices. The early signs are now upon us, reflected in dollar strength, as well as falling commodity and energy prices. In an economic contraction exposure to foreign currencies is the primary risk faced by international businesses and investors. The world’s financial system is based on the dollar as reserve currency for all the others: it is the back-to-base option for international exposure. The trouble is that leverage between foreign currencies and the US dollar has grown to highly dangerous levels, as shown below.
Plainly, there is great potential for currency instability, compounded by over-priced bond markets. Greece, facing another default, borrows ten-year money in euros at about 6.5%, while Spain and Italy at 2.1% and 2.3% respectively. Investors accepting these low returns should be asking themselves what will be the marginal cost of financing a large increase in government deficits brought on by an economic slump.
A slump will obviously escalate risk for owners of government bonds. The principal holders are banks whose asset-to-equity ratios can be as much as 40-50 times excluding goodwill, particularly when derivative exposure is taken into account. The stark reality is that banks risk failure not because of Irving Fisher’s debt-deflation theory, but because they are exposed to a government debt bubble that will inevitably burst: only a two per cent rise in Eurozone bond yields may be sufficient to trigger a global banking crisis. Fisher’s nightmare of bad debts from failing businesses and falling loan collateral values will merely be an additional burden.
Macro-economists refer to a slump as deflation, but we face something far more complex worth taking the trouble to understand.
The weakness of modern macro-economics is it is not based on a credible theory of prices. Instead of a mechanical relationship between changes in the quantity of money and prices, the purchasing power of a fiat currency is mainly dependent on the confidence its users have in it. This is expressed in preferences for money compared with goods, and these preferences can change for any number of reasons.
When an indebted individual is unable to access further credit, he may be forced to raise cash by selling marketable assets and by reducing consumption. In a normal economy, there are always some people doing this, but when they are outnumbered by others in a happier position, overall the economy progresses. A slump occurs when those that need or want to reduce their financial commitments outnumber those that don’t. There arises an overall shift in preferences in favour of cash, so all other things being equal prices fall.
Shifts in these preferences are almost always the result of past and anticipated state intervention, which replaces the randomness of a free market with a behavioural bias. But this is just one factor that sets price relationships: confidence in the purchasing power of government-issued currency must also be considered and will be uppermost in the minds of those not facing financial difficulties. This is reflected by markets reacting, among other things, to the changing outlook for the issuing government’s finances. If it appears to enough people that the issuing government’s finances are likely to deteriorate significantly, there will be a run against the currency, usually in favour of the dollar upon which all currencies are based. And those holding dollars and aware of the increasing risk to the dollar’s own future purchasing power can only turn to gold and subsequently those goods that represent the necessities of life. And when that happens we have a crack-up boom and the final destruction of the dollar as money.
So the idea that the outlook is for either deflation or inflation is incorrect, and betrays a superficial analysis founded on the misconceptions of macro-economics. Nor does one lead to the other: what really happens is the overall preference between money and goods shifts, influenced not only by current events but by anticipated ones as well.
Recently a rising dollar has led to a falling gold price. This raises the question as to whether further dollar strength against other currencies will continue to undermine the gold price.
Let us assume that the central banks will at some time in the future try to prevent a financial crisis triggered by an economic slump. Their natural response is to expand money and credit. However, this policy-route will be closed off for non-dollar currencies already weakened by a flight into the dollar, leaving us with the bulk of the world’s monetary reflation the responsibility of the Fed.
With this background to the gold price, Asians in their domestic markets are likely to continue to accumulate physical gold, perhaps accelerating their purchases to reflect a renewed bout of scepticism over the local currency. Wealthy investors in Europe will also buy gold, partly through bullion banks, but on the margin demand for delivered physical seems likely to increase. Investment managers and hedge funds in North America will likely close their paper-gold shorts and go long when their computers (which do most of the trading) detect a change in trend.
It seems likely that a change in trend for the gold price in western capital markets will be a component part of a wider reset for all financial markets, because it will signal a change in perceptions of risk for bonds and currencies. With a growing realisation that the great welfare economies are all sliding into a slump, the moment for this reset has moved an important step closer.
The U.S. financial system faces a major, growing, and much under-appreciated threat from the Federal Reserve’s risk modeling agenda—the “Fed stress tests.” These were intended to make the financial system safe but instead create the potential for a new systemic financial crisis.
The principal purpose of these models is to determine banks’ regulatory capital requirements—the capital “buffers” to be set aside so banks can withstand adverse events and remain solvent.
Risk models are subject to a number of major weaknesses. They are usually based on poor assumptions and inadequate data, are vulnerable to gaming and often blind to major risks. They have difficulty handling market instability and tend to generate risk forecasts that fall as true risks build up. Most of all, they are based on the naïve belief that markets are mathematizable. The Fed’s regulatory stress tests are subject to all these problems and more. They:
- ignore well-established weaknesses in risk modeling and violate the core principles of good stress testing;
- are overly prescriptive and suppress innovation and diversity in bank risk management; in so doing, they expose the whole financial system to the weaknesses in the Fed’s models and greatly increase systemic risk;
- impose a huge and growing regulatory burden;
- are undermined by political factors;
- fail to address major risks identified by independent experts; and
- fail to embody lessons to be learned from the failures of other regulatory stress tests.
The solution to these problems is legislation to prohibit risk modeling by financial regulators and establish a simple, conservative capital standard for banks based on reliable capital ratios instead of unreliable models. The idea that the Fed, with no credible track record at forecasting, can be entrusted with the task of telling banks how to forecast their own financial risks, displacing banks’ own risk systems in the process, is the ultimate in fatal conceits. Unless Congress intervenes, the United States is heading for a new systemic banking crisis.
[Editor’s Note: the full document published by the Cato Institute can be found here]
[Editor’s note: this article, by Robert Batemarco, first appeared at Mises.org]
John Tamny recently wrote a piece at Forbes titled, “The Closing of the Austrian School’s Economic Mind” in which he critiqued certain claims made in Frank Hollenbeck’s Mises Daily article, “Confusing Capitalism with Fractional Reserve Banking.”
Tamny goes far beyond taking Hollenbeck to task, asserting that many modern Austrian economists have certain views of monetary policy that are at odds with much of the rest of the contribution of the Austrian School. Tamny’s biggest point of disagreement with Austrians is over the low regard with which many Austrians hold the practice of fractional reserve banking. In so doing, he makes several arguments which cannot stand up to critical scrutiny.
The crux of the Austrian position is that the practice of fractional reserve banking gives ownership claims to the same funds to more than one person. The person depositing the funds clearly has a property claim to those funds. Yet when a loan is made from those funds, the borrower now has a claim to the same funds. Two or more people owning the same funds is what makes bank runs possible. The existence of deposit insurance since the 1930s has minimized the number of these runs, in which multiple owners sought to claim their funds at the same time. The deposit insurance that prevents bank runs really amounts to a pre-emptive bailout of the banks. As this is a special privilege, rather than a natural development of the market, it follows that restrictions on fractional reserve banking would be a libertarian validation of the market rather than the statist interference that Tamny claims it to be.
His inability to see that fractional reserves lead to two or more people having claim to the same funds at the same time leads him to deny the logic of the money multiplier. To quote him:
The problem is that the very notion of a “money multiplier” is a logical impossibility; one that dies of its illogic rather quickly if analyzed in the lightest of ways. … To the Austrians, money can be multiplied. Bank A takes in $1,000, lends $900 to Bank B, then Bank B lends $810 to Bank C, only for Bank C to lend $729 to Bank D, etc. Pretty soon $1,000 has been “multiplied” many times over as the credit is passed around.
The notion of the money multiplier is by no means uniquely Austrian. I learned it forty years ago from the Paul Samuelson textbook and from the Fed publication Modern Money Mechanics. It is also the centerpiece of the monetary system chapter of virtually every textbook right up to Paul Krugman’s most recent edition. Indeed, the nature of the process is one of the most uncontroversial propositions in economics — a good definition of an uncontroversial economic proposition being one on which both Murray Rothbard and Paul Krugman are in substantive agreement. Indeed, if there were no money multiplier, one would be at a loss to explain why, until QE1 in 2008, M1 was a 1.6 times size of the monetary base, having historically been even higher. Nor would the required reserve ratio, a tool of monetary policy that became too powerful to be used after 1937, have any effect on the money supply in the absence of the money multiplier effect.
What is controversial about the money multiplier is not its existence, but whether or not it creates distortions in the economy. The distortions introduced into the economy by fractional reserve banking, and to an even greater extent by central banking, comprise the central element of Austrian business cycle theory. The basic idea is that the creation of money (which is also credit, since that new money is loaned into existence) increases the supply of loanable funds and lowers market interest rates without increasing the supply of voluntary saving. This misleads investors into believing that more resources have been made available by savers for investment projects than actually have been made available. Thus, projects are started on too big a scale since many investors try to exercise a claim on the same productive resources. In so doing, they will bid up the resource prices, slashing the profitability of many of these investment projects. This is the real goods sector counterpart of bank runs in the monetary sector. Since there is no real goods sector counterpart to deposit insurance, firms will run short of the resources necessary to profitably complete their investment projects, exposing them as malinvestments and turning boom to bust.
Tamny disputes the above claims, largely on the basis of what seems to me an idiosyncratic definition of credit. He states that, “credit can’t be multiplied. Period. For every individual who attains credit successfully, there must be a saver willing to give up near-term access to the economy’s resources.” This statement is informed by the valuable insight that lending money to those who wish to buy goods they could not otherwise afford does not create additional goods. Where the equivocation arises is in his use of the word credit to describe the goods that credit permits one to buy. I believe this eccentric use of that word is what leads to many of Tamny’s disagreements with the Austrians. Here is Exhibit A:
Perhaps another logical response to this line of thinking is the housing boom that took place in the 2000s. Wasn’t the latter most certainly a function of easy credit? Let’s be serious. To believe it was, that low rates set by the Fed were what made housing credit easy is to believe that rent control renders apartments abundant. But it doesn’t, nor were low rates decreed by the Fed the driver of the housing boom.
Austrians agree that making loans more available than the market would make them does not make more goods available. But there is the illusion of more resources in the short run because the credit-creation process does initially commandeer resources from those whose money decreases in value through the Cantillon Effect. Unfortunately, many entrepreneurs seeking to expand their operations act on this illusion. Only when the new money reaches those whose money lost its value initially and they re-assert their demand, does the inability of new credit to create new goods become obvious.
The last critique Tamny makes that I will discuss here is his implication that Austrian support for 100 percent reserves on demand deposits would make it impossible for borrowers to borrow from savers in order to lend those savings out. This is wrong. Austrians have no problem with savers buying the bonds of a firm seeking additional financing, nor with their buying stock, either directly from the company or its investment bank through an IPO or on the secondary market where it helps keep the market liquid, nor with their buying a bank CD or time deposit knowing that they will not have a claim on the funds they have entrusted to the bank until maturity. In all of these cases, intermediaries are borrowing from savers in order to lend those savings out (this is not exactly a loan in the case of stocks). What Austrians object to is banks telling depositors they still have an instantaneous claim on the funds deposited when they have given someone else a claim on the same funds.
Under the elimination of fractional reserve banking, investment spending would be reduced, not to zero, but to a more sustainable level. This would not eliminate entrepreneurial errors, which are part and parcel of having to act in the face of uncertainty, but it would eliminate the cluster of errors generated by the inconsistent plans that would be made on the basis of falsified market signals of interest rates below their natural rate, thus moderating, or in the best-case scenario, eliminating the business cycle.
When it comes to the world of international finance, Jim Rickards has quite nearly seen it all. As a young man, he worked for Citibank in Pakistan, of all places. In the 1990s, he served as General Counsel for Long-Term Capital Management, Jim Merriwether’s large, notorious hedge fund that collapsed spectacularly in 1998. In recent years, he has been a regular participant in Pentagon ‘wargames’, in particular those incorporating financial or currency warfare in some way, and he has served as an advisor to the US intelligence community.
Yet while his experiences are vast in breadth, they have all occurred within the historically narrow confines of a peculiar international monetary regime, one lacking a gold- or silver-backed international reserve currency. Yes, reserve currencies have come and gone through history, but it is the US dollar, and only the US dollar, that has ever served as an unbacked global monetary reserve.
Nevertheless, in CURRENCY WARS and THE DEATH OF MONEY, Jim does an excellent job of exploring pertinent historical parallels to the situation as it exists today, in which the international monetary regime has been critically undermined by a series of crises and flawed policy responses thereto. He also applies not only economic but also complexity theory to provide a framework and deepen understanding.
As for what happens next, he does have a few compelling ideas, as we explore in the following pages. To begin, however, we explore what it was that got him interested in international monetary relations in the first place.
BACK TO THE 1970S: THE DECADE OF DISCO AND DOLLAR CRISES
JB: Jim, you might recall the rolling crises of the 1970s, beginning with the ‘Nixon Shock’ in 1971, when the US ‘closed the gold window’, to the related oil shocks and then the de facto global ‘run on the dollar’ at the end of the decade. At the time, as a student, did you have a sense as to what was happening, or any inclination to see this as the dollar’s first real test as an unbacked global monetary reserve? Did these events have any influence on your decision to study international economics and to work in finance?
JR: I was a graduate student in international economics in 1972-74, and a law student from 1974-77, so my student years coincided exactly with the most tumultous years of the combined oil, inflation and dollar crises of the 1970s. Most observers know that Nixon closed the gold window in 1971, but that was not considered the end of the gold standard at the time. Nixon said he was ‘temporarily’ suspending convertibility, but the dollar was still officially valued at 1/35th of an ounce of gold. It was not until 1975 that the IMF officially demonitised gold although, at French insistence, gold could still be counted as part of a country’s reserve position. I was in the last class of students who were actually taught about gold as a monetary asset. Since 1975, any student who learns anything about gold as money is self-taught because it is no longer part of any economics curriculum. During the dark days of the dollar crisis in 1977, I spoke to one of my international law professors about whether the Deutschemark would replace the dollar as the global reserve currency. He smiled and said, “No, there aren’t enough of them.” That was an important lesson in the built-in resilience of the dollar and the fact that no currency could replace the dollar unless it had a sufficiently large, liquid bond market – something the euro does not yet have to this day. From law school I joined Citibank as their international tax counsel. There is no question that my academic experiences in a period of borderline hyperinflation and currency turmoil played a powerful role in my decision to pursue a career in international finance.
JB: As you argued in CURRENCY WARS and now again in THE DEATH OF MONEY, the US debt situation, public and private, is now critical. It would be exceedingly difficult for another Paul Volcker to arrive at the Federal Reserve and shore up confidence in the system with high real interest rates. But why has it come to this? Why is it that the ‘power of the printing press’ has been so abused, so corrupted? Is this due to poor federal governance, as David Stockman argues in THE GREAT DEFORMATION? Is it due to the incompetence or ignorance of the series of Federal Reserve officials who failed to appreciate the threat of global economic imbalances? Or is it due perhaps to a fundamental flaw in the US economic and monetary policy regime itself?
JR: It is still possible to strengthen the dollar and cement its position as the keystone of the international financial system, but not without costs. Reducing money printing and raising interest rates would strengthen the dollar, but they would pop the asset bubbles in stocks and housing that have been re-created since 2009. This would also put the policy problem in the laps of Congress and the White House where it belongs. The problems in the economy today are structural, not liquidity-related. The Fed is trying to solve structural problems with liquidity solutions. That will never work, but it might destroy confidence in the dollar in the process. Federal Reserve officials have misperceived the problem and misapprehend the statistical properties of risk. They are using equilbirium models in a complex system. (Ed note: Complexity Theory explores the fundamental properties of dynamic rather than equilibrium systems and how they react and adapt to exogenous or endogenous stimuli.) That is also bound to fail. Fiat money can work but only if money issuance is rule-based and designed to maintain confidence. Today’s Fed has no rule and is destroying confidence. Based on present policy, a complete loss of confidence in the dollar and a global currency crisis is just a matter of time.
JB: Thinking more internationally, the dollar is in quite good company. ‘Abenomics’ in Japan appears to have failed to confer any meaningful, lasting benefits and has further undermined what little confidence was left in the yen; China’s bursting credit and investment bubble threatens the yuan; the other BRICS have similar if less dramatic credit excess to work off; and while the European Central Bank and most EU fiscal authorities have been highly restrained for domestic political reasons in the past few years, there are signs that this may be about to change. Clearly this is not a situation in which countries can easily trust one another in monetary matters. But as monetary trust supports trust in trade and commerce generally, isn’t it just a matter of time before the currency wars of today morph into the trade wars of tomorrow? And wouldn’t a modern-day Smoot-Hawley be an unparalleled disaster for today’s globalised, highly-integrated economy?
JR: Currency wars can turn into trade wars as happened in the 1920s and 1930s. Such an outcome is certainly possible today. The root cause is lack of growth on a global basis. When growth is robust, large countries don’t care if smaller trading partners grab some temporary advantage by devaluing their currencies. But when global growth in anemic, as it is now, a positive sum game becomes a zero-sum game and trading partners fight for every scrap of growth. Cheapening your currency, which simultaneously promotes exports and imports inflation via the cross rate mechanism, is a tempting strategy when there’s not enough growth to go around. We are already seeing a twenty-first century version of Smoot-Hawley in the form of economic sanctions imposed on major countries like Iran and Russia by the United States. This has more to do with geopolitics than economics, but the result is the same – reduced global growth that makes the existing depression even worse.
JB: You may recall that, in my book, THE GOLDEN REVOLUTION, I borrow your scenario of how Russia could, conceivably, undermine the remaining international trust in the dollar with a pre-emptive ‘monetary strike’ by backing the rouble with gold. Do you regard the escalating situation in Ukraine, as well as US policies in much of the Black Sea/Caucasus/Caspian region generally, as a potential trigger for such a move?
JR: There is almost no possibility that either the Russian rouble or the Chinese yuan can be a global reserve currency in the next ten years. This is because both Russia and China lack a good rule or law and a well-developed liquid bond market. Both things are required for reserve curreny status. The reason Russia and China are acquiring gold and will continue to do so is not to launch a new gold-backed currency, but rather to hedge their dollar positions and reduce their dependence on dollar reserves. If there is a replacement for the dollar as the leading reserve currency, it will either be the euro, the special drawing right (SDRs), or perhaps a new currency devised by the BRICS.
JB: Leaving geo-politics aside for the moment, you mention right at the start of THE DEATH OF MONEY, citing the classic financial thriller ROLLOVER, that even non-state actors could, perhaps for a variety of reasons, spontaneously begin to act in ways that, given the fragility of the current global monetary order, cascade into a run on the dollar and rush to accumulate gold. If you were to do a remake of ROLLOVER today, how would you structure the plot? Who could be the first to begin selling dollars and accumulating gold? Who might join them? What would be the trigger that turned a trickle of dollar selling into a flood? How might the US government respond?
JR: If Rollover were re-made today, it would not be a simple Arab v. US monetary plot. The action would be multilateral including Russia, China, Iran, the Arabs and others. Massive dumping of dollars might be the consequence but it would not be the cause of the panic. A more likely scenario is something entirely unexpected such as a failure to deliver physical gold by a major gold exchange or dealer. That would start panic buying of gold and dumping of dollars. Another scenario might begin with a real estate collapse and credit crash in China. That could cause a demand shock for gold among ordinary Chinese investors, which would cause a hyperbolic price spike in gold. A rising gold price is just the flip side of a collapsing dollar.
JB: This entire discussion all follows from the fragility of the current international monetary system. Were the system more robust, we could leave the dollar crisis topic to Hollywood for entertainment rather than to treat it with utmost concern for personal, national or even international security. But what is it that makes systems fragile? Authors ranging from George Gilder (KNOWLEDGE AND POWER), to Joseph Tainter (THE COLLAPSE OF COMPLEX SOCIETIES) and even Edward Gibbon (THE RISE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE) have applied such thinking to ancient and modern economies and societies. They all conclude that, beyond a certain point, centralisation of power is destabilising. Does this mean that a robust monetary system would ‘de-centralise’ monetary power? Isn’t this incompatible with any attempt by the G20 and IMF to transform the Special Drawing Right (SDR) from a unit of account into a centrally-managed, global reserve currency?
JR: Yes. Complex systems collapse because increases in complexity require exponential increases in energy to maintain the system. Energy can take many forms including money, which can be thought of as a form of stored energy. We are already past the point where there is enough real money to support the complexity of the financial system. Elites are now resorting to psuedo-money such as deriviatives and other forms of leverage to keep the system going but even that will collapse in time. The proper solution is to reduce the complexity of the system and restore the energy/money inputs to a sustainable level. This means reducing leverage, banning most derivatives and breaking up big banks. None of this is very likely because it cuts against the financial interests of the power elites who run the system. Therefore a continued path toward near-term collapse is the most likely outcome.
JB: In CURRENCY WARS you make plain that, although you are highly critical of the current economic policy mainstream for a variety of reasons, you are an agnostic when it comes to economic theory. Yet clearly you draw heavily on economists of the Austrian School (eg Hayek) and in THE DEATH OF MONEY you even mention the pre-classicist and proto-Austrian Richard Cantillon. While I doubt you are a closet convert to the Austrian School, could you perhaps describe what it is about it that you do find compelling, vis-à-vis the increasingly obvious flaws of current, mainstream economic thinking?
JR: There is much to admire in Austrian economics. Austrians are correct that central planning is bound to fail and free markets produce optimal solutions to the problem of scarce resources. Complexity Theory as applied to capital markets is just an extension of that thinking with a more rigorous scientific foundation. Computers have allowed complexity theorists to conduct experiments that were beyond the capabilities of early Austrians. The results verify the intuition of the Austrians, but frame the issue in formal mathematical models that are useful in risk management and portfolio allocation. If Ludwig von Mises were alive today he would be a complexity theorist.
JB: You may have heard the old Irish adage of the young man, lost in the countryside, who happens across an older man and asks him for directions to Dublin, to which the old man replies, unhelpfully, “Well I wouldn’t start from here.” If you were tasked with trying, as best you could, to restore monetary stability to the United States and by extension the global economy, how would you go about it? You have suggested devaluing the dollar (or other currencies) versus gold to a point that would make the existing debt burdens, public and private, credibly serviceable. But does this solve the fundamental systemic problem? What is to stop the US and global economy from printing excessive money and leveraging up all over again, and in a decade or two facing the same issues, only on a grander scale? Is there a better system? Could a proper remonetisation of gold a la the classical gold standard do the trick? Might there be a role for new monetary technology such as cryptocurrency?
JR: The classic definition of money involves three functions: store of value, medium of exchange and unit of account. Of these, store of value is the most important. If users have confidence in value then they will accept the money as a medium of exchange. The unit of account function is trivial. The store of value is maintained by trust and confidence. Gold is an excellent store of value because it is scarce and no trust in third parties is required since gold is an asset that is not simultaneously the liability of another party. Fiat money can also be a store of value if confidence is maintained in the party issuing the money. The best way to do that is to use a monetary rule. Such rules can take many forms including gold backing or a mathematical formula linked to inflation. The problem today is that there is no monetary rule of any kind. Also, trust is being abused in the effort to create inflation, which is form of theft. As knowledge of this abuse of trust becomes more widespread, confidence will be lost and the currency will collapse. Cryptocurrencies offer some technological advantages but they also rely on confidence to mainatin value and, in that sense, they are not an improvement on traditional fiat currencies. Confidence in cryptocurrencies is also fragile and can easily be lost. It is true that stable systems have failed repeatedly and may do so again. The solution for individual investors is to go on a personal gold standard by acquiring physical gold. That way, they will preserve wealth regardless of the monetary rule or lack thereof pursued by monetary authorities.
JB: Thanks Jim for your time. I’m sure it is greatly appreciated by all readers of the Amphora Report many of whom have probably already acquired a copy of THE DEATH OF MONEY.
In a world of rapidly escalating crises in several regions, all of which have a clear economic or financial dimension, Jim’s answers to the various questions above are immensely helpful. The world is changing rapidly, arguably more rapidly that at any time since the implosion of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Yet back then, the changes had the near-term effect of strengthening rather than weakening the dominant US position in global geopolitical, economic and monetary affairs. Today, the trend is clearly the opposite.
Jim’s use of Complexity Theory specifically is particularly helpful, as the balance of power now shifts away from the US, destabilising the entire system. Were the US economy more robust and resilient, perhaps a general global rebalancing could be a gradual and entirely peaceful affair. But with the single most powerful actor weakening not only in relative but arguably in absolute terms, for structural reasons Jim explains above, the risks of a disorderly rebalancing are commensurately greater.
The more disorderly the transition, however, the less trust will exist between countries, at least for a time, and as Jim points out it is just not realistic for either the Russian rouble or Chinese yuan to replace the dollar any time soon. As I argue in THE GOLDEN REVOLUTION, this makes it highly likely that as the dollar’s share of global trade declines, not only will other currencies be competing with the dollar; all currencies, including the dollar, will increasingly be competing with gold. There is simply nothing to prevent one or more countries lacking trust in the system to demand gold or gold-backed securities of some kind in exchange for exports, such as oil, gas or other vital commodities.
Jim puts the IMF’s SDR forward as a possible alternative, but here, too, he is sceptical there is sufficient global cooperation at present to turn the SDR into a functioning global reserve currency. The world may indeed be on the path to monetary collapse, as Jim fears, but history demonstrates that collapse leads to reset and renewal, and in this case it seems more likely that not that gold will provide part of the necessary global monetary foundation, at least during the collapse, reset and renewal period. Once trust in the new system is sufficient, perhaps the world will once again drift away from gold, and perhaps toward unbacked cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin, but it seems unlikely that a great leap forward into the monetary unknown would occur prior to a falling-back onto what is known to have provided for the relative monetary and economic stability that prevailed prior to the catastrophic First World War, which as readers may note began 100 years ago this month.
[Editor’s note: this piece was first published at Zero Hedge, which has had several excellent articles tracking the effusions of the PBOC and their effect on credit markets]
Shortly after we exposed the real liquidity crisis facing Chinese banks recently (when no repo occurred and money market rates surged), China (very quietly) announced CNY 1 trillion of ‘Pledged Supplementary Lending’ (PSL) by the PBOC to China Development Bank. This first use of the facility “smacks of quantitative easing” according to StanChart’s Stephen Green, noting it is “deliberate and significant expansion of the PBOC’s balance sheet via creating bank reserves/cash” and likens the exercise to the UK’s Funding For Lending scheme. BofA is less convinced of the PBOC’s quantitative loosening, suggesting it is more like a targeted line of credit (focused on lowering the costs of funding) and arguing with a record “asset” creation by Chinese banks in Q1 does China really need standalone QE?
China still has a liquidity crisis without the help of the PBOC… (when last week the PBOC did not inject liquidty via repo, money market rates spiked to six-month highs…)
And so the PBOC decided to unleash PSL (via BofA)
The China Business News (CBN, 18 June), suggests that the PBoC has been preparing a new monetary policy tool named “Pledged Supplementary Lending” (PSL) as a new facility to provide base money and to guide medium-term interest rates. Within the big picture of interest rate liberalization, the central banks may wish to have a series of policy instruments at hand, guaranteeing the smooth transition of the monetary policy making framework from quantity tools towards price tools.
PSL: a new tool for base money creation
Since end-1990s, China’s major source of base money expansion was through PBoC’s purchase of FX exchanges, but money created from FX inflows outpaced money demand of the economy. To sterilize excess inflows, the PBoC imposed quite high required reserve ratio (RRR) for banks at 17.5-20.0% currently, and issued its own bills to banks to lock up cash. With FX inflows most likely to slow after CNY/USD stopped its one-way appreciation and China’s current account surplus narrowed, there could be less need for sterilization. The PBoC may instead need to expand its monetary base with sources other than FX inflows, and PSL could become an important tool in this regard.
…and a tool for impacting medium-term policy rate
Moreover, we interpret the introduction of the PSL as echoing the remarks by PBoC Governor Zhou Xiaochuan in a Finance Forum this May that “the policy tool could be a short-term policy rate or a range of it, possibly plus a medium-term interest rate”. The PBoC is likely to gradually set short-term interbank rates as new benchmark rates while using a new policy scheme similar to the rate corridor operating frameworks currently used in dozens of other economies. A medium-term policy rate could be desirable for helping the transmission of short-term policy rate to longer tenors so that the PBoC could manage financing costs for the real economy.
Key features of PSL
Through PSL, the PBoC could provide liquidity with maturity of 3-month to a few years to commercial banks for credit expansion. In some way, it could be similar to relending, and it’s reported that the PBoC has recently provided relending to several policy and commercial banks to support credit to certain areas, such as public infrastructure, social housing, rural sector and smaller enterprises.
However, PSL could be designed more sophisticatedly and serve a much bigger monetary role compared to relending.
First, no collateral is required for relending so there is credit risk associated with it. By contrast, PSL most likely will require certain types of eligible collaterals from banks.
Second, the information disclosure for relending is quite discretionary, and the market may not know the timing, amount and interest rates of relending. If the PBoC wishes to use PSL to guide medium-term market rate, the PBoC perhaps need to set up proper mechanism to disclose PSL operations.
Third, relending nowadays is mostly used by the PBoC to support specific sectors or used as emergency funding facility to certain banks. PSL could be a standing liquidity facility, at least for a considerable period of time during China’s interest rate liberalization.
Some think China’s PSL Is QE (via Market News International reports),
Standard Chartered economist Stephen Green says in a note that reports of the CNY1 trillion in Pledged Supplementary Lending (PSL) that the People’s Bank of China recently conducted in the market smacks of quantitative easing. He notes that the funds which have been relent to China Development Bank are “deliberate and significant expansion of the PBOC’s balance sheet via creating bank reserves/cash” and likens the exercise to the UK’s Funding For Lending scheme. CDB’s balance sheet reflects the transfer of funds, even if the PBOC’s doesn’t.
The CNY1 trillion reported — no details confirmed by the PBOC yet — will wind up in the broader economy and boost demand and “sends a signal that the PBOC is in the mood for quantitative loosening,” Green writes
The impact will depend on whether the details are correct and if all the funds have been transferred already, or if it’s just a jumped up credit facility that CDB will be allowed to tap in stages.
But BofA believes it is more likely a targeted rate cut tool (via BofA)
The investment community and media are assessing the possible form and consequence of the first case of Pledged Supplementary Lending (PSL) by PBoC to China Development Bank (CDB). The planned total amount of RMB1.0tn of PSL is more like a line of credit rather than a direct Quantitative Easing (QE). The new facility can be understood as a “targeted rate cut” rather than QE. We reckon that only some amount has been withdrawn by CDB so far. Despite its initial focus on shantytown redevelopment, we believe the lending could boost the overall liquidity and offer extra help to interbank market. Depending on its timespan of depletion, the actual impact on growth could be limited but sufficient to help deliver the growth target.
Relending/PSL to CDB yet to be confirmed
The reported debut of PSL was not a straightforward one. The initial news report by China Business News gave no clues on many of the details of the deal expect for the total amount and purpose of the lending. With the limited information, we believe the lending arrangement is most likely a credit line offered by PBoC to CDB. The total amount of RMB1.0tn was not likely being used already even for a strong June money and credit data. According to PBoC balance sheet, its claims to other financial institutions increased by RMB150bn in April and May. If the full amount has been withdrawn by CDB, it is equivalent to say PBoC conducted RMB850bn net injection via CDB in June, since CDB has to park the massive deposits in commercial banks. We assess the amount could be too big for the market as the interbank rates were still rising to the mid-year regulatory assessment. The PBoC could disclose the June balance after first week of August, we expect some increase of PBoC’s claims on banks, but would be much less than RMB850bn.
Difference with expected one
In our introductory PSL report, we argue that the operation has its root in policy reform of major central banks. However, we do not wish to compare literally with these existing instruments, namely ECB’s TLTRO or BoE’s FLS. Admittedly, the PBoC has its discretion to design the tailor-made currency arrangement due to the special nature of policy need. However, the opaque operation of PSL will eventually prove it a temporary arrangement and perhaps not serving as an example for other PSLs for its initial policy design to be achieved. According to Governor Zhou, the PSL is supposed to provide a reference to medium-term interest rate, which is missing in today’s case.
The focus is lowering cost of funding
We have been arguing that relending is a Chinese version of QE. Although relending is granted to certain banks, but there is no restriction on how banks use the funding. However, we believe PSL is more than that. The purpose of CDB’s PSL has been narrowed down to shantytown redevelopment, an area usually demands fiscal budget or subsidy in the past. Funding cost is the key to this arrangement.
Indeed, the PBoC has been working hard to reduce the cost of funding in the economy since massive easing is not an option under the increasing leverage of the economy. A currency-depreciation easing has been initiated by PBoC to bring down the interbank rate. Since then the central bank carefully manages the OMO in order to prevent liquidity squeeze from happening. On 24 July, State Council and CBRC have introduced workable measures to reduce funding cost of small and micro-enterprises.
Impact of the lending
PSL is not a direct QE, but there could be some side effect by this targeted lending. PSL to CDB means the funding demand and provision come hand-inhand. Targeted credit easing by nature is a requirement by targeted areas demanding policy support, which could be SMEs, infrastructure or social housing. In this regard, it is not surprising to see more PSL to support infrastructure financing. In addition to the direct impact on those targeted areas, we expect the overall funding cost could benefit from liquidity spillover.
Since the news about PSL with CDB last Monday, we have seen a rally in the Shanghai Composite Index. However we believe multiple factors may have contributed to the rebound in the stock market including: (1) better than expected macro data in 2Q/June and HSBC PMI surprising on the upside leading to improved sentiment; (2) The State Council and the CBRC have introduced measures to reduce funding cost of small and micro-enterprises; (3) More property easing with the removal of home purchase restrictions in several cities. PSL could have contributed to the improved sentiment on expectation of further easing.
Since as we noted previously, China’s massive bank asset creation (dwarfing the US) hardly looks like it needs QE…
As Bank Assets exploded in Q1…
dramatically outpacing the US…
Unless something really bad is going on that needs an even bigger bucket of liquidity.
* * *
So whatever way you look at it, the PBOC thinks China needs more credit (through one channel or another) to keep the ponzi alive. Anyone still harboring any belief in reform, rotation to consumerism is sadly mistaken. One day of illiquidity appears to have been enough to prove that they need to keep the pipes wide open. The question is where that hot money flows as they clamp down (or not) on external funding channels.
Notably CNY has strengthened recently as the PSL appears to have encouraged flows back into China.
* * *
The plot thickened a little this evening as China news reports:
- *CBRC ALLOWS CHINA DEV. BANK TO START HOUSING FINANCE BUSINESS
- *CHINA APPROVES CDB’S HOME FINANCE DEPT TO START BUSINESS: NEWS
Thus it appears the PSL is a QE/funding channel directly aimed at supporting housing. CNY 1 trillion to start and maybe China is trying to create a “Fannie-Mae” for China.
According to the French historian Fernand Braudel, to understand the present we should master the whole of world history. The same may be said for the rate of interest: to grasp its significance we should have a full understanding of the whole of economics. Interest is the most important price of economy, the most pervading, as pointed out by the American economist Irving Fisher. Interest plays a key role in affecting all economic activity: interest and the price level are strictly interconnected, subject to leads and lags, they move in the same direction. A falling interest rate induces falling prices and a rising interest induces rising prices. Capital values are derived from income value: if interest is 5%, a capital amount yielding $100 every year has a value of $2,000. The interest rate translates, as it were, the future into the present bridging capital to its income.
When interest drops from a high down to a low level it raises the capitalized value of equipments, bonds, annuities or any other assets providing a stream of future incomes. The rate of interest reveals the individual’s rate of time preference or their “impatience for money”: the inclination towards current consumption over future consumption and vice versa. For example if the individual is indifferent between €1.04 next year and €1.00 today, his rate of time per preference per annum is four percent.
Interest can therefore be considered the minimum future amount of money required to compensate the consumer for foregoing current consumption. It is as it were, the return on sacrificing consumption towards more future consumption. When time preference falls, savings rise and interest falls. And the lower the time preference the more the supply of income saved and transferred in the form of credit to satisfy investment demand. In the economy there cannot be any real net investment without an equal amount of real net saving. The price balancing the supply of income (from savings) and the demand for it (for spending and investment) was defined by the Scandinavian economist Kurt Wicksell, the “natural rate of interest”.
Its function is to ration out existing scarce savings into productive uses and to induce to sacrifice current consumption to add to the stock of capital. The 18th century French finance minister Anne-Robert-JacquesTurgot put it this way:
The current interest of money is the is the thermometer by which the abundance or scarcity of capitals may be judged; it is the scale on which the extent of a nation’s capacity for enterprises in agriculture, manufactures, and commerce, may be reckoned.. Interest may be looked upon as a kind of like a sea level …… under which all labor, culture, industry, commerce cease to exist». In the contemporary economy interest is a monetary tool by which central banks pretend to regulate the abundance of capital. Unfortunately in doing so they make the economy sink under the sea level. To understand this effect the rate of interest has to be investigated through its relation with money and capital.
Interest and Money
In ordinary language interest is defined either as the cost or the price for borrowing money, but these notions are partly true. If interest is a cost for the borrower is also an income for the lender. On the other hand by defining interest as a “price” we are lead into thinking that it varies inversely to the money quantity. This is what the monetary theory of the interest holds. Despite some appearance of truth it is a fallacious doctrine because being also the interest a quantity of money paid or collected against a loan it varies in direct proportion to the quantity of money. For example, if a loan was $100 earning $5, and the money supply doubled, it will rise to $200 earning $10. Interest must double to make loans equivalent (in fact: 5/100=10/200) although in percentage remains unchanged. If anything, other things being equal, an increase of money supply causes interest to rise, not to fall, for the “price of money” is not interest but money purchasing power. Furthermore the definition of interest as the price for money obscures the fact that what is exchanged in a loan is not money but present money against future money, namely credit. Credit is the temporary transfer of wealth or purchasing power from one person to another upon payment of interest. Since purchasing power is wealth and wealth producing income is capital, the rate of interest is the income paid for the use of capital. But what is used is not “abstract capital” because there is not a generic demand for capital, otherwise there would be no difference between the interest rate and the discount rate, but between the money market and the capital market. When a person asks for a loan for consumption he is not asking for capital but for money as means of payment. Who discounts bills or notes does not need capital he already has in some form or another, he wants to transform it in a more liquid form. Ultimately he needs “liquidity” not to expand his capital or business but to anticipate its monetary form. Because most businesses due to seasonal fluctuations cannot be conducted on a cash basis they need credit or liquidity just to compensate these fluctuations. The price for the temporary use of liquidity is the rate of discount. It doesn’t represent interest on capital but a rent, as it were, measuring the value of the money services namely for specific services: making the flow of the production smooth, keeping solvency or allowing specific profits in money transactions. The whole all transactions involving transfers of liquidity used to increase the marketability of all the forms of wealth as to render them more fluid, form the money market. Here money is invested without losing its form, without turning itself into capital which is the money income employed in production. However, liquidity emerging as cash surpluses to fund cash balances deficits, is always grounded on capital operations and being limited by the use of capital depends on the rate of interest.
Interest and capital
While the rate of discount concerns money or short term credit to anticipate the monetary form of real capital, the rate of interest concern the money or long term credit to extend real capital. So it is a long rate not a discount rate because what is lent is not money but capital (which is wealth employed in view of more future production). Hence the purpose of capital or long credit market is to provide the nexus between savers and borrowers to finance productive investments and expand the economy. Thus interest is the price balancing the supply and demand for money capital. An increased supply competing for borrowers pushes down the interest. An increases demand competing for lenders pushes up interest. The interaction supply/demand establishes the rate of interest at the point where the lenders rate of time preference tends to equal the borrowers rate of profit. This is because the use of capital depends on its marginal utility: in the market it is convenient to borrow till the income earned from the use of capital will exceed the cost of its use coinciding with the rate of time preference. So interest is the price of money capital as determined by the interaction between the least productive use and the savers’ return on sacrificing consumption. In practice it oscillates between an upper limit and a lower limit. The former is the rate of profit, otherwise borrowing would not be convenient, and the latter the rate of time preference which represents for the economy as a whole the cost of capital accumulation. This lower limit cannot be zero otherwise lenders would use income directly giving up sacrificing current consumption.
However because the rate of interest reflects the productivity of capital and it’s convenient to borrow until capital yields a positive income, it is the rate of profit that commands the rate of interest. Hence interest may also be defined as the market price of money capital typified by the rate of profit.
To the extent people are provident and have a low time preference, the capital is abundant, the rate of interest is low and long term capital-intensive projects can be undertaken, the economy expands, technological progress advances and wages productivity rises. Conversely, if the time preference is high, capital is scarce, interest higher and more liquid projects prevail. However according to the monetary theory the market rate of interest is typified by the return or yield per year on riskless long term government bonds which are deemed to typify the benchmark for the rate of profit on capital assets. Yet because governments consume instead of producing the bond yield typifies the shifts of income supply towards consumption uses. In fact the lower the bond yield the higher the government consumption and the lesser the capital available for production. Therefore bond yields reflect propensity to consume, in contrast with interests on capital reflecting propensity to invest.
Because capital it is tied up for long time in production and regain its liquid form after the sale of products, the rate of interest has a different economic nature than the rate of discount: while the latter is subject to money fluctuations, the former is less sensitive to them for it gives up its monetary form for an extended period until the time of loan repayment. Moreover by borrowing liquidity one looks at prospects of immediate gain while by borrowing capital one looks at incomes over a longer period of time. In general, the interest rate is higher than the discount rate because being less liquid commands a premium for liquidity. However when production languishes, profits fall, capital withdraws from production, interest falls while discount rate rises as demand for short-term loans rises to preserve liquidity. Interest rises during periods of economic development when present income is sacrificed and invested in capital. Once capital starts to produce new income, interest falls setting the pace for the boom period when discount rises because the higher volume of spending increases demand for money. So in general they vary independently from one another. Although there is a constellation of rates of interest depending on the loan maturities, all tend to a same level. Money capital moves where it is most needed, runs from less profitable assets to more profitable ones and like water flows to find its level. So by continuous market oscillations any capital tends to provide the same income any difference due to the risk.
It’s worth noting that if the liquidity of capital invested is lost for many years it can be regained at any time in the stock exchange by selling shares. However because shares represent titles on already existing capital, their sale does not adds to capital stock and doesn’t affect the rate of interest, rather it adds to liquidity affecting the discount rate.
Other interest rate determinants
Interest as a market price arising from the interaction between the rate of profit and the time preferences governs the price of capital assets as well as their allocation other things being equal. In fact, because the rate of profit arises in the economic system as a difference between the prices of products and the prices of factors of production to manufacture them, it is affected by these price levels. Fluctuations in these prices cause fluctuations in the rate of profit and as consequence in the rate of interest which is typified by the rate of profit. And because capital assets are determined by discounting their expected returns by interest rates of the same maturities as the life of the capital assets,it follows that all capital allocation in the market is affected by the ratio of demand to supply of both products and factors of production.
However, the value of money is also determined by supply and demand of money. If interest, in essence, depends on real factors such as time preferences, rate of profit and supply and demand, being itself a money sum must logically be dependent on the value of money although indirectly. To explain the emergence of interest the Austrian economist Eugene Bohm Bawerk argued that because present goods due to the time preference worth more than future goods of like kind and quantity, they command a premium over the future goods. In other terms, interest is the discount of future goods as against present goods or the demand price of present goods in term of future goods. However, once goods are priced in term of money, the interest rate becomes a ratio of exchange between present and future money sums and its value may not coincide with the ratio between their physical quantities because of changes occurring in the prices level. If, for example the money supply rises, the value of the expected monetary sum lent falls. Then savers expecting a rise in prices will ask for a higher interest to compensate for the loss in the value of loan capital (this confirms the mistake of monetary theory in claiming that a rise in the money supply lowers interest). Because money affects the value of real capital it’s wrong to assert (as Knut Wicksell did) that a loan might be likened to a temporary transfer of goods repayable in goods rewarded by an interest paid also in goods and determined by the supply and demand of physical goods. Interest cannot be appraised by abstracting from money because as the money value changes so does the value of real factors determining interest, all acting through money. Only if the value of money were constant would the “real” and “monetary” interest coincide.
As Ludwig von Mises pointed out, interest is a category of human action, a primordial phenomenon unlikely to disappear even in the most ideal world. In fact the forces determining interest prevents it from falling permanently to zero or even below. If it were zero saved income could not be exchanged for more future income or to say it differently, the valuation between present and future goods would be at par which may happen only in world where all goods would be free and no capital would be necessary to produce them. If the interest were negative future goods would command a premium on present goods, a reversal of human nature whereby present goods would be valued less than future goods and lenders would have to pay an interest instead of receiving it. The capital would shrink and the economy would regress. Such extreme values which are a little like to the absolute zero in physics, may be only inflicted to interest by exceptional circumstances such as revolutions, seizures, thefts, invasions all situations of great danger when people would prefer to pay a “penal rate” rather than lose their entire capital. Still, in the contemporary economy, similar abnormal situations are artificially created. This is because interest is not commanded by the self generating forces regulating the rate of interest, but by the central banks planned monetary policy closely related to the governments’ fiscal policy.
Central banks set an official or discount rate, a minimum and arbitrary lending rate, the “price for liquidity”, which varies through monetary policy consisting of buying and selling in the open market governments issued bonds against such liquidity. Thus monetary policy acts as a pressure and suction pump alternately decreasing and increasing the quantity of money to push the interest up and down either to keep bonds in the desired relationship with the official rate or to provide a money supply favorable to economic stability and growth. In so doing central banks mimic the natural tendency of interest. For example by expanding money supply during recessions they lower the official rate as this were the after effect of new income streams arising out of foregoing savings required to restore economic growth. The long term rate then changes through expectations towards the official rate: if the latter falls the former is expected to rise and vice versa. However because interests are used to determine the present value of capital assets by discounting their expected income, monetary policy misprices capital assets and misallocate them. This is because the entire interest market structure (the relationship among interest rates influencing prices of income producing assets of different maturity) depends solely on liquidity fluctuations commanded by monetary policy which is completely divorced from the real factors that determine the interest and lay the foundation of liquidity. So not in any sense can the market rate of interest be compared with the one determined by central banks. By ignoring the distinction between money and capital, monetary policy denies the natural function of time preferences and rate of profit confining them to an adaptive role vis-à-vis of their monetary manipulation.
On the other hand because government bonds provide the basis for the money expansion that grows as interest drops, the official rate may be looked upon as a tool of fiscal policy reflecting capital dissipation.This is because central banks pay for these bonds not with income released by foregoing capital operations, but with means of payment they themselves “coin” and lend as they were saved income. This manoeuvre – also known as credit easing – is tantamount to discounting and putting into circulation expected wealth as if it were current wealth, to consume or to use as capital. In other words, central banks by advancing means of payment act as the future were so prosperous as to pledge an ever increasing wealth allowing for their repayment. But the fact is that the most of these means of payment passed off as an existent wealth besides using up, without replacing, the wealth already produced, will never be repaid for they will be misallocated into unproductive uses by a rate of interest not reflecting the existence of money capital but the mere expansion of means of payment that, as already pointed out, should cause interest to rise, not to fall. The paradox is that subsequent rounds of this expansion entail equivalent rounds of waste making capital scarcer and scarcer. Thus economic downturns are just the result of the attempt to create capital on the foundation of monetary policy rather than on the foundation of the real factors determining the rate of interest. Unfortunately, they tend to become permanent to the extent central banks in trying to alleviate them expand money by buying bonds on a huge scale so as to push interest down to zero. But at this level lenders, having no incentive to turn income into capital, will turn capital into income which means they will be living out of their capital until is depleted. As interest vanishes “under the sea level” so does capital till “labour, culture, industry, or commerce will cease to exist” as Turgot predicted long ago.
Editor’s note: this article, under the title “No end to central bank meddling as ECB embraces ‘quantitative easing’, faulty logic” appears on Detlev Schlichter’s site. It is reprinted with kind permission.
The 2nd edition of his excellent Paper Money Collapse is available for pre-order.
“Who can print money, will print money” is how my friend Patrick Barron put it succinctly the other day. This adage is worth remembering particularly for those periods when central bankers occasionally take the foot off the gas, either because they genuinely believe they solved the problem, or because they want to make a show of appearing careful and measured.
The US Federal Reserve is a case in point. Last year the Fed announced that it was beginning to ‘taper’, that is, carefully reduce its debt monetization program (‘quantitative easing’, QE), and this policy, now enacted, is widely considered the beginning of policy normalization and part of an ‘exit strategy’. But as Jim Rickards pointed out, the Fed already fully tapered twice – after QE1 and after QE2 – only to feel obliged to ‘qe’ again some time later. Whether Ms Yellen is going to see the present ‘taper’ through to its conclusion and whether the whole project will in future be remembered as an ‘exit strategy’ remains to be seen.
So far none of the big central banks has achieved the ‘exit’ despite occasional noises to the contrary. Since the start of the financial crisis in the summer of 2007, the global trend has been in one direction and one direction only: From easy money we moved to easier money. QE has been followed by more QE. As I mentioned before, the Fed’s most generous year in its 100-year history was 2013, any talk of ‘tapering’ notwithstanding.
ECB mistrusted by Keynesian consensus
Whenever the European Central Bank reduces its money printing and scales back its market rigging, it invariably unleashes the fury of the Keynesian and inflationist commentariat. In the eyes of its numerous critics, the ECB lacks the proper money-printing credentials of the more pro-active and allegedly more ‘modern’ central banks. It still has a whiff of the old Bundesbank about it, although a few years back, when the ECB flooded the European banking system with cheap liquidity, its balance sheet was larger as a share of GDP than those of its comrades, the Fed and the Bank of England.
The ECB went through two periods of restraint since the crisis: In early 2011 it began to hike interest rates, and in 2013, after the eurozone debt crisis died down, the ECB allowed its balance sheet to shrink by more than €700 billion as banks repaid cheap loans from the central bank. This stood in stark contrast to the Fed’s balance sheet expansion of about $1,000 billion over the same period. The first episode of restraint came to an end in 2012 when the ECB reversed its rate hikes and then cut rates further, ultimately to a new low of just 0.25 percent. Presently, we are still in the second period of restraint, although it too appears to be about to end soon as the ECB’s boss Mario Draghi hinted in his press conference last week at a newfound willingness to embrace unconventional policies to combat ‘deflation’ or even ‘long periods of low inflation’. (The ECB’s harmonized index of consumer prices stood probably at just 0.5% last month.) This means the ECB is likely to cut rates to zero or below soon, or to start asset purchases (‘QE’), or probably both.
This move is hardly surprising in the big scheme of things as outlined above, and the ECB will explain it officially with its mandate to keep inflation below but close to 2 percent, from which it does not want to deviate in either direction. This target itself is silly as it assumes that inflation of 1.8 percent is inherently better than inflation of zero (true price stability, if it ever was attainable), or inflation of minus 1.8 percent (deflation). This is, of course, precisely the argument that has been relentlessly and noisily trumpeted by the easy-money advocates in the media, the likes of Martin Wolf and Wolfgang Münchau in the Financial Times, and the reliably shrill Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in The Daily Telegraph, among others. A certain measure of inflation is deemed good, very low inflation is bad, and anything below zero, even mild deflation, potentially a disaster. But why should this be the case?
Moderate deflation, that is, slowly declining money prices, may or may not be a symptom of problems elsewhere in the economy, but that slowly declining money prices as such constitute an economic problem lacks any foundation in economics and can easily and quickly be refuted by even a cursory look at economic history. In the 19th century we find extended periods of ongoing, moderate deflation in many economies that simultaneously experienced solid growth in output and substantial rises in living standards, a “coincidence”, wrote Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz in their influential A Monetary History of the United States, 1867 – 1960, that “casts serious doubts on the validity of the now widely held view that secular price deflation and rapid economic growth are incompatible.”
Many commentators advance the argument that falling prices depress consumption as purchases get constantly deferred. Even the usually more sober FT-writer John Authers seems to have succumbed to this argument as he explained to his readers last Saturday that prices “fall, thanks to sluggish economic activity. Consumers do not buy now, as goods will be cheaper in future. This lack of consumption slows growth further, and pushes prices down even further.” (John Authers, “Draghi has to back his QE words with action” Financial Times, Saturday April 5/ Sunday April 6 2014, page 24)
This argument, constantly regurgitated by the cheerleaders of money-printing, is weak. First of all, it is certainly no argument in the present environment of close to zero but still positive inflation. If the ECB plans to fight even very low inflation, as Draghi stated at the ECB press conference, than this argument does nothing to support that policy. Certainly, no one defers any purchases when prices are just stable. However, and more importantly, even in a mildly deflationary environment of let’s say 1 to 2 percent per annum, the argument does appear to be a stretch.
Argument ignores time preference
Consumers only contemplate buying something that they consider an economic good, that is, that they consider useful, that they want because it expends some (subjective) use-value to them. In deferring a purchase they can, in a deflationary environment, save money but at the cost of not enjoying the possession of what they want for some time. By not buying a toaster now you may be able to buy it 1 or 2 percent cheaper in a year’s time, or 2 to 4 percent cheaper in two years’ time (always assuming, of course, that the mild deflation persists that long, which nobody can guarantee), but even these small monetary gains come at the expense of not enjoying ownership of the toaster for two years. The small monetary gain obtained by delaying purchases is not for free, as the argument seems to assume, but comes at the cost of waiting. I suggest that only a very small number of items, and only those for which there is very marginal demand indeed, would be affected.
Time preference is not a concept of psychology, it is a constituting element of human action. It is a priori to human action, which means it exists independent of experience or of personal circumstances as it is already entailed in the very concept of what constitutes an ‘economic good’.
If you experienced no time preference in relation to a specific good you would be indifferent as to whether you enjoyed the possession of that good today or tomorrow. And tomorrow you would be indifferent as to whether you enjoyed it that day or the next, and so forth. Logically, you would be indifferent as to whether you enjoyed possession of it at all, and this means that the good in question is not an economic good for you. You do not care for it.
As George Reisman put is succinctly: To want something means, all else being equal, to want it sooner rather than later.
Be honest, how many purchases over the past 12 months would you not have made had you had a reasonable chance of obtaining the item in question at a 1 or 2 percent discount if you waited a year?
That the prospect of falling prices does not usually deter consumption can be readily seen today in the market for consumer electronics (mobile phones, computers), which has been in deflation – and considerable deflation – for quite some time.
Argument ignores opportunity costs of holding money
The argument also seems to ignore that holding one’s wealth in the form of money involves opportunity costs. Rather than sitting on cash you could enjoy the things you could buy with it. In a deflationary environment, your cash hoard’s purchasing power slowly rises and you can afford ever more nice things with your money, which means the opportunity cost of not spending it constantly goes up. (In a way, while you are waiting four years to buy your toaster at an 8 percent discount to today’s price, buying the toaster is also becoming marginally more attractive to others who are presently holding cash and who may initially not even had an interest in a toaster.)
I think that all that would follow from secular (that is ongoing, systematic but moderate) deflation is that cash would be a more meaningful competitor for other depositories of deferred consumption. Saving by simply holding money makes sense in a deflationary environment, so other vehicles to save with (bonds and shares) would have to offer a return reasonably above the expected deflation rate to attract savings. I think this is not an unreasonably high hurdle.
Furthermore, if what Authers and others describe were true for even marginal deflation, that is, if marginal deflation indeed led to more deflation and a progressively weakening economy, the reverse must logically be true for marginal inflation. Consumers would accelerate their purchases to avoid the 1 or 2 percent loss in purchasing power per annum, and this would quickly drive inflation higher. If two percent deflation led to cash hoarding and a collapse in consumption, would the 2 percent inflation advocated today as ‘price stability’ not lead to a spike in money velocity and an inflationary boom? Either scenario seems highly unrealistic.
Monetary causes versus non-monetary causes
If we use the economic terminology correctly, then inflation and deflation are always monetary phenomena, that is, they always have monetary causes. (As an aside, I here use the now standard definition of inflation as an ongoing, trending rise in the general price level, and deflation as the opposite, rather than the traditional meaning of inflation as an expansion of the money supply and deflation as a contraction.) However, the starting point of the present discussion is simply some low readings on the official inflation statistics in the eurozone. And that those could have non-monetary causes, that they could be the consequence of a crisis-driven drop in real demand in certain industries and certain countries is a realistic assumption and is in fact implied by the arguments of the QE-advocates. Outright deflation is presently being recorded in Greece, Cyprus, and Spain. And John Authers’ short statement on deflation in the FT also starts from the assumption that “prices fall thanks to sluggish economic activity.”
But to the extent that recorded deflation is not due to a general rise in money’s purchasing power (due to a general rise in money demand or an unchanged or falling money supply, to which I come soon) but the result of some producers slashing certain prices in certain industries and regions, and of those price drops not being fully compensated by rising prices somewhere else in eurozone, then this has various implications:
Consumers cannot simply assume that this is a lasting trend. The liquidation of capital misallocations and the discounting of merchandise to get it moving are crisis phenomena and cannot simply be extrapolated into the future the way consumers may have extrapolated the secular deflation of gold standard economies in the 19th century. But the straight extrapolation of very recent price changes into the future is at the core of the argument that even small deflation would be disastrous.
Furthermore, it would seem bizarre to advice merchants to not slash prices when demand drops as that would, according to the logic advanced by Authers et al, only lead to further postponement of consumption and a further drop in demand as consumers would simply expect price declines to continue. Would hiking prices be a better strategy to counter falling demand? Should we reconsider the concept of the “sale” and of “discounting” inventory to encourage buying?
To a considerable degree, the reduction in certain prices for ‘real’ economic reasons could be part of the economic healing process. It is a way for many producers, sectors of the economy, and economic regions, to regain competitiveness. It is true that falling wages in certain industries or regions make it more difficult for workers to repay mortgages and consumer loans but often the lower wage may be the only way to avoid unemployment, which would make repaying debt harder still. Behind the often-quoted headline inflation rate of presently 0.5% per annum lie numerous relative price changes by which the economy re-balances. All discussions about the ‘price index’ ignore these all-important changes in relative prices. It so happens that what goes on with the multitude of individual prices in the economy adds up, according to the techniques of the ECB statisticians, to a 0.5% harmonized inflation rate at the moment, and it may all add up to -0.5% next month or next year, or maybe even – 1 percent. To simply conclude from this one aggregate price number that the economy is getting progressively sicker would be wrong.
There is no escaping the fact that recent economic difficulties are the result of imbalances that accumulated during the credit boom that preceded the 2007/2008 financial crisis, of which the eurozone debt crisis was an after quake. Artificially cheap money created the credit boom and these imbalances. A period of liquidation, contraction, changing relative prices and occasionally falling prices is now necessary, and short-circuiting this process via renewed central bank intervention seems counterproductive and ultimately dangerous.
There is, of course, the possibility that proper monetary causes are behind the eurozone’s low inflation and soon deflation, and that those might persist. Banks still feel constrained in their ability to extend new loans and thus create new money. The growth in bank lending and thus in wider monetary aggregates may fall short of the growth in money demand. But it is an essential feature of money that any demand for it can be fully satisfied with a rise in its price. Demand for money is always demand for readily exercisable purchasing power, and by allowing the market to lift the purchasing power of money, that is, through deflation, that demand can be met. The secular, moderate and largely harmless deflation of 19th century gold standard economies had essentially the same origin. Money production did not keep pace with money demand, so money demand was satisfied via slowly falling prices.
And here the same conclusion applies: a more restrained approach to lending, credit risk, and financial leverage, now adopted by banks and the public at large as a consequence of the crisis, may be a good thing, and for the central bank to mess with this process and to use ‘unconventional’ means to force more bank lending and money creation onto the system, out of some misguided commitment to the arbitrarily chosen statistical goal of ‘2-percent inflation’ seems foolish. If successful in raising the headline inflation rate it may succeed in creating the same imbalances (excessive leverage, misallocations of capital and distorted asset prices) that have created the recent crisis.
One commentator recently said the eurozone could ill afford deflation considering the size of its bloated banking sector. But the question is if it can afford the level of lending to attain 2 percent inflation considering the size of its bloated banking sector.
The fallacy of macroeconomics and macroeconomic policy
Let me be clear: I do not recommend a zero-inflation target or a target of moderate deflation. Moderate deflation in and of itself is a little a solution as moderate inflation in and of itself is a problem. I recommend no target as I reject the entire concept of ‘monetary policy’, of the notion that a state agency could conceivably enhance, through clever manipulation of interest rates and bank reserve policy, the coordinating powers of the market that help people realize their personal economic objectives through free trade.
We should remember that no one participates in the economy and in trade and commerce because his or her goal is that the general price level goes up by 2 percent, or that nominal GDP increases by 5 percent. People have their own personal objectives. The market is simply a powerful tool for voluntary and decentralized plan-coordination among independent individuals and groups of individuals that pursue their own goals. It is best left undisturbed. This entire project of ‘monetary policy’ is absurd in the extreme, regardless of what the target is.
It is the fallacy of macroeconomics that certain statistical aggregates, such as CPI, GDP or nominal GDP, are deemed reliable representatives of what goes on in a complex market economy, and it is dangerous hubris to believe that the state should define ‘targets’ for these statistical aggregates and then use policy intervention to achieve them. This might be an approach intellectually suitable for the ruler of a communist or fascist society. It is fundamentally at odds with free trade and a free market, and it must and will fail. That should have been a clear lesson from the financial crisis.
Instead, the mainstream consensus, deeply influenced by Keynesianism and macroeconomics, continues to embrace policy activism and intervention. I fully expect central banks to continue on their path towards more aggressive meddling and generous fiat money production. It won’t take long for the ECB to take the next step.