Once upon a time the pound sterling ruled the world of finance. Today it has been relegated to a less regal status, displaced by the U.S. dollar over the course of the twentieth century. Not only is very little international trade performed in sterling these days, but there are new doubts that it will remain the exclusive currency on the British mainland.
Once upon a time, English as a language was a little known form of communication, largely isolated to the British Isles. Starting at about the same time as the spread of sterling as the universal money throughout the world, English set off on the route to global dominance. Today there are about 350 million native English speakers, but this number is dwarfed by the masses that use it as a lingua franca - their second or even third language.
Considering their common pedigree, one may ask why the currency is now a second-rate citizen in the world of international finance while the language is going stronger than ever.
Historians commonly attribute the rise of the English language to the rise of Pax Britannica throughout the 19th century. This period did see the English economy rise to great stature and expand its scope to the point where the sun never set on the British Empire. However, other great European economies also flourished and encompassed many foreign lands. The Spanish Empire at its pinnacle included more square miles than the British (though never as many people). Both France and Germany had sizable colonies. Even the Russians, it can be argued, held huge “colonies” in the form of the Soviet Bloc.
Alternatively one could say that the rise of the United States (complete with its dominant media industry) assured the rise of the English language. Yet this too seems to put the cart before the horse. Much of America was settled by non-English speakers (Spaniards in the south-west, French in the South-east and Northern European Germans, Scandinavians and Dutch in the upper mid-west). English was emerging as the linguistic force to be reckoned with before the ascendance of the U.S. as a world super power, which really only happened after World War I.
Instead, the rise of the English language can be largely explained by its decentralized nature. It is true that English grammar is quite simple relative to other languages, especially its Romance and Germanic brethren. Yet if anything this would normally incentivize Romance and German speakers to streamline their own grammatical rules to make adoption easier. In most languages this is not possible due to their extreme form of centralization. French and Spanish, as examples, require linguistic changes to be approved by the centralized governing body (L’Académie Française inFrance, and the Real Academia Española in Spain). Changes are almost impossible as they must go through the usual bureaucratic approval process as other changes to legislature.
It is no surprise that French and Spanish as languages are slow to adopt to changes, in much the same way as their legal systems are outdated and move only at a snail’s pace. Lacking any centralised authority, anyone was able to use English, but more importantly, they could change it as they saw fit. Changes and new words occurred spontaneously as a response to market demands, not to the pen of a bureaucrat. This form of crowd sourcing allowed the English language to be modified as it spread around the globe and incorporate the intricacies of daily life and the existing languages of its newfound locals.
By contrast, the British pound sterling has suffered from centuries of centralised mismanagement. Since the creation of the Bank of England in 1694, the venerable old lady has done what she can to diminish the pound sterling on an ongoing basis. While the First World War was devastating in many respects for Britain, one of the longest lasting effects was the decoupling of the pound from gold. This shift left the once proud currency open to continual and unabated inflation at the hands of the Bank of England, with the result that it is now worth a fraction of what it was just a century prior.
In international finance people use the language that makes trade easiest, as well as the money that best facilitates its dealings. A decentralized language system has proven an overwhelming success as it is now the standard around the globe. The centralized monetary system has been mismanaged to the point where few outside of the country elect for sterling in their affairs. With the Scottish independence vote approaching it is questionable how many people within the United Kingdom want to continue using it.
If George Osborne stays up at night wondering what the future will be for the pounds his Treasury manages perhaps he would do best to take a lesson from British history. The English language became a world standard without the oversight of Parliament – perhaps it is time to recognise the same can be true for the pound sterling as well.
David Howden is Assistant Professor of Economics and Chair of the Department of Business and Economics at St. Louis University in Madrid, Spain | Contact us
25 April 13 | Tags: Bank of England | Category: Economics | 5 comments
The following is a transcript of the “Adam Smith Lecture” I gave at a private gathering in London on 19 February.
For a long time governments have been redistributing peoples’ income and wealth in the name of fairness. They provide for the unemployed, the sick, and the elderly. The state provides. You can depend on the state. The result is nearly everyone in all advanced countries now depends on the state.
Unfortunately citizens are running out of accessible wealth. Having run out of our money, Governments are now themselves insolvent. They started printing money in a misguided attempt to manage our affairs for us and now have to print it just to survive. The final and inevitable outcome will be all major paper currencies will become worthless.
To appreciate the scale of these problems, we must understand the errors in economic and monetary policies. I shall start with economics.
Modern economists retreat into two comfort zones: empirical evidence and mathematics. They claim that because something has happened before, it will happen again. The weakness in this approach is to substitute precedence for the vagaries of human nature. We can never be sure of cause and effect. Human action is after all subjective and therefore inherently unpredictable.
The mathematicians like to think that economics is a physical science and is not a slippery social science. Economics is a branch of human psychology. It is plainly nonsensical to apply maths to human psychology.
The result is that much of the good work done by the classical economists like Adam Smith has been destroyed by modern economics. The classical economists explained the benefits of doing away with tariffs and the guilds. This revelation was instrumental to the industrial revolution. Then along came Marx who persuaded people that economics was a class interest, that free market economists were promoting the interests of the bourgeois businessman to the disadvantage of the worker. That became the justification for communism and socialism. Keynes and those that followed him never properly challenged Marxian fallacies. They were never involved in what became known as the socialist calculation debate.
It is not generally appreciated that Keynes was strongly socialistic. In the concluding remarks to his General Theory, Keynes looks forward to the euthanasia of the rentier (or saver) and that the State will eventually supply the resources for capital investment. He wanted the state to control profits.
Keynes was primarily a mathematician. Keynes was no more an economist than Karl Marx, whose beliefs led to the economic destruction of Russia and China; or John Law, who bankrupted France, with similar fallacies to those of Keynes.
The misconceptions of Keynesianism are so many that the great Austrian economist von Mises said that the only true statement to come out of the neo-British Cambridge school was “in the long run we are all dead”.
Let me define economics for you at the simplest level. We divide our labour. Each one of us is a consumer; an entrepreneur whether for wages or profit; and a saver for the future. We invest savings to improve production. Each of us discharges these three functions in the proportions we choose as individuals, we interact with others doing the same thing. We exchange our goods at mutually agreed prices using money to facilitate the exchange. We use money to keep score, and that money has to be sound for our calculations to mean anything. Together we are society itself, each providing things others want and will pay for.
The state has no role in this process. Instead it is a cost to society, because it takes some of our spending and savings to support itself. The more the state takes the greater the burden. It destroys society’s potential wealth. But it has not stopped there. Socialism forces the vast majority of people to give up saving and rely on the state to provide. Governments everywhere are now encumbered with obligations they cannot possibly discharge.
On the money side our mistakes go back to the Bank Charter Act of 1844.
The Bank Charter Act gave the Bank of England a note-issuing monopoly backed by gold and government debt. It failed to stop other banks issuing bank credit. This led to credit-driven business cycles which were socially destabilising, adding fuel to the various brands of communism and socialism that developed in the late nineteenth century.
Gold backing for the Bank of England’s notes was gradually eroded, starting in the late 1890s, with a number of countries, including Britain, abandoning it altogether in the interwar years. A gold-exchange standard was adopted for central banks at Bretton Woods. And finally President Nixon in August 1971 abandoned gold altogether.
Ever since then, the expansion of money supply has been increasing exponentially. Quantitative easing is now required to keep the pace of printing up, lest interest rates begin to rise.
Monetary policy from the 1920s has been used to manage an increasingly unstable global economy. The irony is that this instability has its origins in the expansion of money and credit itself. The growth of money supply and bank credit has as its counterpart debt. Few are the assets not encumbered with this debt. Asset prices need more money and credit to sustain them. It is a finite process that ended with the credit crunch five years ago.
That is the background. Now I shall look at the situation today, five years on from the credit crunch. There are four interlinked problems that cannot be resolved: the economy, the banks, government finances and population demographics.
The advanced economies have been progressively undermined by government intervention and unsound money. They are taxed and regulated to such a degree that laissez-faire hardly exists anymore.
Government spending typically amounts to 50% of GDP in the advanced economies; sometimes more, sometimes less. For productive businesses it is like running a marathon carrying a bureaucrat on your back who tells you how to run.
The misallocation of economic resources which is the result of decades of increasing government intervention cannot go on indefinitely. Businesses have stopped investing, which is why big business’s cash reserves are so high. Money is no longer being invested in production; it is going into asset bubbles. Dot-coms, residential property, and now on the back of zero interest rates government bonds and equities. These booms have hidden the underlying malaise. There can be no economic recovery. Our bureaucrat-carrying marathon runner is finally collapsing under his burden.
The burden of government is now too great to be sustained.
Banks are geared 25 to 30 times, which is fine if you can grow your way out of problems. That is no longer the case. They are vulnerable to existing but unrecognised bad debts, and now a fall in government bond prices. All that’s needed to trigger a collapse in the banks is absence of economic recovery. If we have a downturn it will be quicker. All that’s needed is a rise in interest rates, to reduce collateral values. All that’s needed is a fall in asset prices.
Then there is the shadow banking system, which the Bank for International Settlements reckoned amounts to over $60 trillion, of which $9 trillion is in the UK. If an investment bank goes under, the shadow banking system could make it virtually impossible to ring-fence the others.
Another area of risk is cross-border exposure. Cross border loans in Europe amount to EUR3.5tr. France is 1.2tr. Italy 700bn. Spain 500bn. These are only the obvious risks. Much of this is cross-border within the eurozone, meaning a default in any of those three is certain to wipe out the European banking system, and then everyone else’s.
For this not to happen requires the central banks to make available unlimited funds in the form of credit and raw money. As Mario Draghi said, whatever it takes. His solution is to print enough fiat currency to save the system.
From the time of the banking crisis, government finances have deteriorated sharply, and their debts rocketed. No country, except some in the Eurozone has managed to cut government spending, and only those which did, did so under extreme financial pressure and because they couldn’t print money. The fact is that everywhere government spending is increasingly mandated into pensions, social services and healthcare, which makes spending cuts extremely difficult.
Until recently it was assumed that economic recovery would generate the taxes to balance the books. That has not happened, nor can it happen. In the Eurozone governments are now taking on average over half of every working man’s income and deploying it unproductively. Take France. Government is 57% of GDP. The population is 66m, of which the employed working population is about 25m, 17m in the productive private sector. The taxes collected on 17m pay for the welfare of 66m. The taxes on 17m pay all government’s finances. The private sector is simply over-burdened and is being strangled.
The interest rates at which governments borrow are entirely artificial, made artificial by their own intervention in the debt markets. They are financing themselves by printing money to buy their own debt. The moment this ends, and it will, money will flow out of bonds, equities and even property priced on the back of low interest rates. The pressure for interest rates to rise will have to be met with yet more money printing, because governments cannot afford to pay higher interest rates, nor can they afford to see private sector asset values fall. Price inflation will create a real crisis, perhaps later this year.
Populations in the US, the UK, Japan and Europe are growing older. This is bad news for government finances. When someone retires, he stops paying income taxes and becomes a cost. High unemployment is also costly, because the unemployed are not funding future liabilities. Professor Kotlikoff of Boston University has calculated that in fiscal 2012 the net present value of the US Government’s future liabilities increased $11 trillion to $212tr. The whole US economy is only $15 trillion. Europe is worse, far worse: Europe has more pensioners as a proportion of the working population, high rates of unemployment and a large government relative to the private sector, which funds it all. The UK, taking these factors into account, is slightly worse off than the US. Japan has worse birth rates and longevity. They sell more nappies for the incontinent than they do for new-borns. The solution already is to issue increasing amounts of unsound currency.
The world’s economic problems have been building for a long time. Economic fallacies have been pursued first by Marx and then by Keynes in the 20th century, and monetary policy first took a wrong turn with the Bank Charter Act of 1844. The progressive replacement of sound money by fiat currency has destroyed economic calculation, and has destroyed private sector wealth. These policies were deliberate. We have now run out of accessible wealth to transfer from private individuals to governments. That is our true condition.
Governments will still seek to save themselves at the continuing expense of their citizens, and in the process destroy what wealth is left.
There can only be one outcome: the bankruptcy of governments. This means that their fiat currencies will inevitably lose all their purchasing power.
How soon? I’m afraid sooner than most people think. Japan is already entering the black hole, with her currency beginning its collapse. The UK is on the precipice and cannot afford further falls in sterling without triggering the rise in inflation that will force a rise in interest rates and a spiral into insolvency. Europe could go at any time. The US is probably the best of a very bad bunch, but even her economy is looking bad.
I do not make these statements because I am gloomy. I make them because I approach economics without emotion and without political bias. I make them because I have considered our true economic and monetary position using as far as I am able sound aprioristic theory applied to our current position.
In light of recent events, we’re bringing forward this proposal from June 2010.
There’s two ways to view the financial meltdown that occurred in 2008. The first is that it was a rare and unfortunate blip that can be remedied with calm and enlightened improvements in the regulatory framework. The second is that it exposed a serious flaw in the entire monetary system, and is likely to be repeated unless a radical transition takes place.
It’s no surprise that politicians, bankers and regulators – the architects of the banking industry – favour the first idea. This is why their response has skirted around the edges instead of dealing with the core. Even supposedly extreme measures such as nationalising banks are in fact attempts to preserve the status quo.
For those of us who favour the second idea, 2008 provided a golden opportunity to join the public debate and present a credible alternative. Perhaps we missed it. But if indeed another crisis is coming, this article attempts to outline a 14-point plan that could be implemented quickly and genuinely reform the institutions that create financial instability.
The key aspects of this proposal have been made previously, notably by economists Kevin Dowd and Richard Salsman. It could be implemented in three phases:
Over 2 days the aim is to ensure that all operating banks are solvent
Deposit insurance is removed – banks will not be able to rely on government support to gain the public’s confidence
The Bank of England closes its discount window
Any company can freely enter the UK banking industry
Banks will be able to merge and consolidate as desired
Bankruptcy proceedings will be undertaken on all insolvent banks
Suspend withdrawals to prevent a run
Ensure deposits up to £50,000 are ring fenced
Write down bank’s assets
Perform a debt-for-equity swap on remaining deposits
Reopen with an exemption on capital gains tax
Over 2 weeks the aim is to monitor the emergence of free banking
Permanently freeze the current monetary base
Allow private banks to issue their own notes (similar to commercial paper)
Mandate that banks allow depositors to opt into 100% reserve accounts free of charge
Mandate that banks offering fractional-reserve accounts make public key information (these include: (i) reserve rates; (ii) asset classes being used to back deposits; (iii) compensation offered in the event of a suspension of payment)
Government sells all gold reserves and allows banks to issue notes backed by gold (or any other commodity)
Government rescinds all taxes on the use of gold as a medium of exchange
Repeal legal tender laws so people can choose which currencies to accept as payment
Over 2 months the aim is the end of central banking
The Bank of England ceases its open-market operations and no longer finances government debt
The Bank of England is privatised (it may well remain as a central clearing house)
You can download a copy of the plan in pamphlet form here.
Stop all the Bloomberg feeds, cut off all the cell phones, prevent the press from thinking with a juicy story about the failed politician’s marriage. Because the new governor of the Bank of England, the extremely well-compensated Mark Carney, has just discovered how to fix Great Britain’s economic woes. Can you guess what it is yet? Yes, you might be ahead of me on this one, but he’s going to ‘rescue’ Britain’s economy by printing more money. Who would have thunk it?
(If you can get through the Financial Times paywall, you can read about this here.)
It seems Mr Carney is going to be granted a Federal-Reserve-style mandate of ‘targeting’ both unemployment and price inflation, as opposed to just price inflation. However, since the Bank of England has failed to hit their price inflation target for quite a number of years now, who was counting anyway? This Keynesian dual-targeting of both unemployment and inflation is hilariously based on the 1958 Phillips Curve, which never really worked as a model even back in 1958 and which was repeatedly smashed on the Procrustean rocks of stagflation in the 1970s, to the point where teenage boys would laugh at economics professors who tried to teach it in the ivy league halls of the United States.
However, Keynesians never let history, lost decades, or indeed logic and the unchanging nature of the human condition, ever get in the way of a good mathematical curve, especially when completely unrelated to reality and where it can be used to justify million dollar salaries for themselves personally (once again proving the unchanging nature of the human condition).
And so, after five years of quibbling with a mere half a trillion dollars of quantitative easing, the Bank of England has finally decided to really ‘rescue’ Great Britain, just as Mr Ben Bernanke has ‘rescued‘ the United States, Mr Shinzo Abe has decided to ‘rescue‘ Japan, and Mr Mario Draghi has decided to ‘rescue‘ Euroland. It seems remarkable that they’ve all hit upon the same solution, which is to print more money. Who knew it was that easy?
So why has the Bank of England waited so long outside the western central banking party before deciding to ‘rescue’ Great Britain by flooding it with quadrillions of paper currency units? Before they drown us in yet more digital scrip, however, perhaps they ought to speak first to Mr Gideon Gono, the governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe. I’m confident he has an opinion on this crucial central banking tool.
Maybe they decided against this because money printing is the only central banking tool, and if they’re to be denied this wonder drug, they may as well just all sack themselves? Though it does seem amazing to me that you have to pay a man a million dollars a year to tell you that he’s going to swing the only golf club available in the bag. However, I suppose if he wears a suit nicely, sounds vaguely foreign, and looks ‘authoritative’ on financial news programmes, it’s cheaper than hiring Brad Pitt. We must also remember that although money printing has never done any general society any good, it has done one group of really special people lots of good, especially over the last few years, when most of them should have been made bankrupt. These people are of course the closet friends and the shadowy shareholders of the western central banks, the über-wealthy bank-rollers of the western political classes.
For they just love money printing, especially when it is used to bail out the banks they own and operate. And they’re still über wealthy as a result, when many of them should be pushing trolleys around supermarket car parks. Though collecting supermarket trolleys is honest work, and honest work is something the über-wealthy long since gave up on. Why work when printed money can steal the production of others? Just make sure that you control the people who do the printing. You can ask any mafia gang controlling a high-quality basement counterfeiter about that. And if the money you’re printing is such high quality that it is the currency of the realm, then you can laugh all the way to the Bank of England. So long as you possess the collective morals of a cackle of hyenas.
The London Bullion Market is the global trading centre for physical gold, and the Bank of England holds gold on behalf of other central banks. There are a number of historical reasons the Bank has this privileged role, but the most important are that the Bank is trusted, and it oversees the largest bullion market by far. Therefore a significant portion of the world’s monetary gold should be stored at the Bank of England.
This does not appear to be the case. First, we must try to get an idea of how much unidentified central bank, or monetary gold, is in London at the Bank of England.
Table 1 shows the derived figures for February 2006 and 2012 (The Bank’s accounting year-end).
Subtracting the known or reasonably estimable quantities listed in the table leaves 2,220 tonnes unidentified in 2006, which rose to 4,691 in 2012. To see how these figures stack up in a global context, we need to compose a second table (Table 2).
China, Russia and the middle-Asian states are taken out on the basis that their gold reserves are mostly from local mine production, and for political reasons they can be deemed unlikely to hold gold in London. The United States is assumed to hold all its gold on its own territory.
Immediately we can see a disparity, with unidentified central bank holdings in Table 2 declining by 464 tonnes, whereas the Bank of England reports an increase of 2,471 tonnes in custody. The explanation – taking the World Gold Council/IMF figures at face value – is that either central banks have been shipping their gold to London, or much more likely, the increase is not monetary gold at all. If the latter is correct, and given that the unidentified gold figures in Table 2 declined over the period, the maximum figure for monetary gold has to be within the 2,220 tonnes recorded in 2006.
This 2006 figure includes an undeclared quantity of gold held on behalf of bullion banks, but comparing the LBMA’s clearing statistics at the two dates suggests little overall variation in LBMA stocks. Logically the balance must be non-monetary gold held on behalf of governments and sovereign wealth funds, on the basis that no one else would be eligible for a bullion account with the Bank. Given the political instability in the Middle East and elsewhere over the last decade, it is very likely that this is the origin of the ownership of much of this custodial bullion. And if that is the case, we can assume that these holdings began to accumulate in the Bank’s custody before 2006.
This being the case, a significant portion of the 2006 figure of 2,220 tonnes must also be non-monetary gold. Therefore, on the basis of reasonable supposition it appears that the total amount of monetary gold at the Bank of England, including that of Germany, Austria and Mexico and the UK’s own stock, cannot be more than 3,320 tonnes, perhaps significantly less. The belief that the world’s central banks store a significant amount of their gold in London is therefore incorrect.
This raises two interesting questions: where is it all, and does it actually exist?
Luxury carmaker Rolls-Royce’s 2012 financial results must have brought new worries to those concerned with the growing wealth divide.
Rolls-Royce reported a third consecutive annual sales record, the best results in its 108-year history. Priced at £170,000 for its cheapest model, it is safe to say that these sales were reserved for a small subsection of the wealthiest, perhaps the 0.01 percent. While the ongoing recession has left the masses paying off their debts and enjoying less consumption than before, the so-called one percent continue reaching for new heights and excesses.
What explains this growing divide, especially concentrated in the hands of a very few?
One place to look could be in the successes of businessmen, earning large profits by serving customers especially well. While there may be a handful of entrepreneurs weathering the financial storm well, the recession is wearing on the majority of the business community. It also doesn’t appear that these lavish displays of wealth are being made by the astute business community.
Another place to look is whether there is a privileged position or relationship that is enabling some to succeed at the expense of others. Such a cause would have the markings of some people earning large profits with seemingly little conventional work at the expense of the well-being of the masses (in contrast to the normal way of earning profits – hard work aimed to make the masses better off).
Last year the Bank of England increased the supply of notes and coins by about 4%. This increase provided a buyer for UK gilts that might not otherwise exist, reducing borrowing costs for the government. Yet while some politicians might be living the high life, the real culprit is found within the banking system.
With that increase in base money, the banking system was able to increase its supply of credit – issued in the form of loans to borrowers against the deposit base. It was able to do this by a legal privilege bestowed on it by the government, in the form of fractional-reserve banking. By issuing loans in excess of the amount of their assets, banks are able to effectively create something from nothing. These loans are used by borrowers, and have the result of pushing up prices. Inflation harms savers – those whose hard work was rewarded in the past but is now compromised as rising prices reduce the purchasing power of these funds. On the other hand, borrowers are able to use these newly created funds for purchases. Since they gain access to funding at one set of prices and then, through their spending, raise these prices, borrowers of this fractional-reserve created money relatively impoverish the rest of us.
Instead of earning profits the old-fashioned way, it is now advantageous for people to borrow money from the banking system and spend it as quickly as possible. The only problem is that most of us cannot do this. Since the bank is concerned with getting paid back, it will only loan money to the credit-worthy, or connected. The one percent, relatively unaffected by the recession compared to Main Street, is able to gain access to new exclusive profits.
That these profits should be funneled into displays of wealth like luxury autos should come as no surprise.
Yet Rolls-Royce is not alone in this growing wealth divide. Last year I discussed how high-end art and real estate markets are flourishing. BMW (Rolls-Royce’s parent company), Audi, Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar Land Rover also all reported record luxury sales in 2012. Automotive research consultancy JATO Dynamics reports that premium and luxury car sales have grown by 13% over the past four years, despite talks of austerity and recession filling the financial press. Bently recently announced that its 2012 sales increased 22% compared to the year before.
The mass-market automotive brands are in a much starker position. Battling over price points to attract price-sensitive customers, high taxes and rising unemployment are endangering sales. Indeed, “[t]here is a disconnect between the mega-rich and the rest of us” according to Rim Urquhart, an analyst at IHS Automotive. With the forthcoming introduction of Roll-Royce’s ultra-luxury model, the trend shows no sign of abating. Aimed at just hundreds of units of sales instead of the thousands for its current model, Rolls-Royce is aiming clearly at a different segment of the market than it is accustomed to – one geared toward the one percent of the one percent.
For those upset at these ostentatious displays of wealth and the growing divide they signify, blame should be properly placed. In some cases these purchases and lifestyles are the result of hard work and the reward of sacrifice. For many, however, the growing divide is a “reward” for being in a privileged position within the financial industry. The fractional reserve system enables undue profits to some at the expense of others. Scrutiny over the Bank of England (and other central banks) and their continued inflationary gifts to the financial system would do much to rectify this growing imbalance.
Under President Obama the debt of the United States government has grown by about 50%, and now stands at close to $16 trillion. Every year, the US government spends between $1.2 and $1.5 trillion more than it takes in. Every day that financial markets are open the US government has to borrow an additional $4 billion.
The pathetic fiscal cliff ‘compromise’ of last week has proved the most cynical students of the political elite correct in that there is not a snowball’s chance in hell that Washington will ever get this under control.
Can this go on forever? No, it cannot — although adherents of the Church of Modern Monetary Theory now proclaim that its holiness, the State, is not restricted by earthly matters, and that no limits apply to it. “It simply prints the money!” Back on earth, however, such recklessness has consequences, and these consequences will ultimately put a very nasty end to proceedings. But politics will not fix this. This much is certain.
One of the annoying little things that stand in the way of more debt is the dreaded debt ceiling debate, a quaint congressional tradition according to which the politicians in Washington have to periodically pretend that they can indeed exercise self-constraint and that they would even obey self-imposed limits. After the usual self-serving theatrics, both parties agree that the debt ceiling should be lifted, that spending must continue, and that more debt should be accumulated – in the interest of the American people, the US and the global economy, social peace, and because the show must go on.
Since March 1962, the debt ceiling has been raised 74 times.
Enter The Coin!
In order to make this farce a tad easier next time, the following plan has been concocted. It has recently made the headlines. You can read about it here and here:
The U.S. treasury is to issue a platinum coin with a notional value (that is, a value that is fixed entirely arbitrarily by the government) of $1 trillion, and this coin is deposited with the Federal Reserve. In fact, the coin is used to pay down $1 trillion of US government bonds held presently by the Fed (The Fed holds more than $2 trillion in government bonds). Thus, tradable government debt that counts against the debt ceiling is swapped for a ‘commemorative’ coin that does not count against the debt ceiling. $1 trillion of government debt thus magically disappears.
The US government has its fans who believe that anything, legally or illegally, should be done to keep it living beyond its means for as long as possible. These fans are supporting the plan. Among them is, not surprisingly, Paul Krugman, who fears nothing more than a congressionally enforced coitus interruptus before the protracted orgy of money-printing and deficit-spending has a chance to climax – as he keeps promising us – in a wonderful return of self-sustaining growth.
But the plan has many critics. Their criticism strikes me, however, as rather naïve and faint, and also missing the true significance of it all.
The critics make the following points:
1) This is just a trick and may not be legal.
2) It eases the pressure on politics to reduce the deficit meaningfully.
3) This could lead us onto the dangerous road toward debt monetization and could be inflationary.
Let me address each of these points before I come to what I consider the most important aspect of this.
Ad 1): Oh pleeeeze! Is it a trick? Is it a gimmick? Could it be illegal? – Are you stuck in the 1980s? – Of course, it is a trick and probably illegal! But who cares? Please get real. We have long passed the point at which any of the major governments feel constrained by such things as constitutions, laws, contracts or past promises. We live in a time of ‘anything goes’. Remember: “We will do whatever it takes!”
Look at Europe: From the start of the European debt crisis to today, EVERY rule that was set up at the start of EMU in order to govern it and to discipline its members, has been violated, ignored or shamelessly re-interpreted. The political class is making up its own rules as it goes along. Parliaments are rubber-stamping everything, and if they hesitate they are told that they could be held responsible for the ‘next Lehman’. Sign here, or else….
As I explained here, the US government has already abandoned habeas corpus, has arbitrarily annulled private contracts and will force Americans into commercial transactions. You think they will stop at the laws governing the issuance of commemorative coins? Do you really think that the army of lawyers that works for Washington cannot come up with a reasonably acceptable explanation (read: this side of totally laughable) for whatever the government wants to do that will sufficiently appease the folks at Harvard Law Review?
We may not get this specific version of the plan but something similar will certainly be implemented in the near future. You can bet on it. It is simply in line with current modes of thinking and the present political culture – or lack thereof.
Ad 2) The politicians will feel less pressure to enact real budget reform. – Oh come off it! There is neither real desire nor ability nor the required character and decency among the political elite to fix this self-inflicted budget mess. If you needed a reminder of the spinelessness and stupidity ruling Washington you only have to look at the great fiscal cliff compromise that was reached last week and that the equity market, evidently still on a drug-high from snorting unlimited lines of free central bank money, has been celebrating deliriously ever since. Let me say this in reference to a great quote by the incomparable P.J. O’Rourke: To expect Washington to reform itself and rein in spending is akin to giving your car keys, your credit card and a bottle of Jack Daniels to your 17-year old son and expect him to act responsibly.
Ad 3) Could this be the start of debt monetization?
Debt monetization has been going on for years, is alive and kicking, and gets bigger by the day. In the US and Britain, the central banks are the largest holders of their respective governments’ debt and the largest marginal buyers. The Bank of England has monetized about 30 percent of outstanding debt and now has more UK Gilts (government bonds) on its balance sheet than the entire UK pension and insurance industry combined. Under its current program of ‘open-ended’ QE3 (or QE4, or QEwhatever) the Fed buys $85 billion worth of new Treasuries and other securities every month.
Let’s get this straight: The whole raison d’etre of central banks is that they print money to fund the state. The Bank of England – the mother of all central banks – was set up specifically for this purpose in 1694. Since then a whole list of elaborate excuses has been drawn up for why central banks are needed and useful, a list that looks more ridiculous by the day: Central banks control inflation and guarantee monetary and economic stability? The exact opposite is true: Central banks create inflation and cause monetary and economic instability. There is no escaping the conclusion that they are organs of state planning and systematic market manipulation and thus fundamentally incompatible with the free market. But one true purpose remains: funding government. Increasingly, it is the dominant function of the ECB, the Bank of Japan, the Bank of England, and the US Federal Reserve to secure cheap credit for their respective governments and their out-of-control spending programs.
There is nothing new, surprising, or shocking about the $1 trillion coin proposal. It is perfectly in tune with the zeitgeist and with established trends in politics.
Bernanke will need a new script
So, what is significant about it? – Only one thing in my view: It exposes Bernanke as a liar.
Remember that Bernanke, and also his other central bank chums, such as Mervyn King and Mario Draghi, have tried to maintain the myth that they could one day – if markets allowed it or required it – reduce their bloated balance sheets. During the financial crisis, the Fed has ballooned its balance sheet from $800 billion to close to $3 trillion. We are supposed to believe that this is all temporary. Just to provide a stimulus. Nobody calls this debt monetization or ‘funding the government’. Same in Europe: Mervyn calls it ‘unlocking the credit markets’, Mario calls it ‘making sure the monetary transmission mechanism works’. The idea is that when the economy is finally mended the central banks can ‘normalize’ their balance sheets. More importantly, should inflation concerns arise, the central banks would quickly mop up all the excess bank reserves that they provided through ‘quantitative easing’ and sell the very assets they accumulated during the easing cycle. That would mean liquidating the central bank’s holdings of – among other things – government bonds.
But once the government has replaced liquid government bonds on the central bank’s balance sheet with illiquid coins the central bank’s maneuverability is severely restricted. When the public gets nervous about inflation, the central bank would have to reverse its crisis-policies and sell assets. There is (still) a market for US Treasury debt. However, there is no market for $1 trillion coins.
While the central bankers try to convince the public that their buying of government debt is a special case, an exception, a temporary policy measure, and that they could still defend the value of paper money if circumstances require, the politicians have other plans. They already consider central bank buying a permanent source of funding – unlimited and ever-lasting. I have long maintained that the central banks have no ‘exit strategy’, that they will simply not be allowed to reverse course. This is now becoming part of the official narrative, and central bankers who maintain otherwise are either hopelessly deluded or simply lying.
The deficits are here to stay and they will be funded by the printing press. No limit, no end, no exit.
Will this lead to inflation? _ Well, unless you are a fully signed-up member of the Church of Modern Monetary Theory, you know the answer.
I’m not excited about the appointment of a new Governor of the Bank of England. The money power is one too pervasive and too dreadful to be trusted to an individual or a committee: the prospects of tens of millions of people ought not to depend on the talents and character of an individual or a small group. With Richard Cobden, I believe managing the currency and interest rates is an impossible task. That’s a minority view these days but more or less anyone ought to agree that the Governor of the Bank of England has now a vast power over the collective and individual life of the country and that this power will increase under the new regulatory system. That’s why the Treasury Select Committee’s pre-appointment hearing is so important.
Given the undoubted power of the Governor, it is vital that this appointment is subject to democratic scrutiny. If the Treasury Committee does not support the appointment of Mark Carney, then the House must have the opportunity to debate and endorse or reject their decision – and the Chancellor’s.
These select committee debates are usually held in back-bench time, which is precious and which the Government seems to ignore. The role of Governor is too important for that: any debate should be in Government time and any motion should be binding on the Government. A free vote is probably too much to ask, but nevertheless the vote should be free.
The power to set interest rates and to control the exchange value of money is either a power too dreadful to tolerate in a free society or, if it must be tolerated, it is one which can only properly be wielded by someone ultimately under democratic control. Parliamentary scrutiny matters, first through the Treasury Committee, then through the whole House if necessary.
Steve Baker is Conservative MP for Wycombe and a co-founder of The Cobden Centre. He was previously an aerospace and software engineer. Among other things, he worked with major banks and regulators internationally. His personal and political website is at stevebaker.info. | Contact us
27 November 12 | Tags: Bank of England, Central Banking | Category: Economics | 6 comments
I’m not aware of any unconditional support for central banking as such around The Cobden Centre but, nevertheless, occasionally a central banker says something worth hearing. Today, that central banker is often Andy Haldane, Executive Director, Financial Stability at the Bank of England.
So what is the secret of the watchdogs’ failure? The answer is simple. Or rather, it is complexity. For what this paper explores is why the type of complex regulation developed over recent decades might not just be costly and cumbersome but sub-optimal for crisis control. In financial regulation, less may be more.
Mr Haldane is a way from Greenspan’s famous defence of gold and free banking but the contemporary debate is also far from that point. Haldane’s speech is an intellectual tour de force which concerns some of the epistemological problems which will be so familiar to Austrians.
In my time-limited speech on the Bill which hands vast discretionary power to the Bank of England, I criticised it, saying, “I sincerely hope that it represents the absolute zenith of contemporary thinking on interventionist bank reform”. Perhaps it may yet: Haldane concludes,
Modern finance is complex, perhaps too complex. Regulation of modern finance is complex, almost certainly too complex. That configuration spells trouble. As you do not fight fire with fire, you do not fight complexity with complexity. Because complexity generates uncertainty, not risk, it requires a regulatory response grounded in simplicity, not complexity.
Delivering that would require an about-turn from the regulatory community from the path followed for the better part of the past 50 years. If a once-in-a-lifetime crisis is not able to deliver that change, it is not clear what will. To ask today’s regulators to save us from tomorrow’s crisis using yesterday’s toolbox is to ask a border collie to catch a frisbee by first applying Newton’s Law of Gravity.
It does not yet seem likely that a central banker will produce a speech with which Austrian-School liberals will agree whole-heartedly but Andy Haldane’s recent contribution was a courageous step in the right direction.