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Economics

Are economic sanctions behind a possible recession in Russia?

According to commentators, sanctions imposed by the US and the European Union are pushing Russia towards a recession. However, we hold that some key Russian economic data have been displaying weakening prior to the annexation of Crimea to Russia. This raises the likelihood that sanctions might not be the key factor for an emerging recession.

The yearly rate of growth of monthly real gross domestic product (GDP) eased to 0.3% in February from 0.7% in January and 1.8% in July last year. After closing at 12.2% in March last year the yearly rate of growth of retail sales fell to 7.7% in January before settling at 9.6% in February.

Russia real GDP

Russia retail sales

We suggest that the key factor behind any emerging slowdown and a possible recession is a sharp decline in the yearly` rate of growth of money supply (AMS) from 67.1% in May 2005 to minus 12.2% by September 2009. We hold that the driving force behind this sharp decline is a strong decline in the growth momentum of the central bank’s balance sheet during that period (see chart).

Graphs 3 4 Russia

There is a long time lag from changes in money supply and its effect on economic activity. We suspect that it is quite likely that the effect from a fall in the growth momentum of money during May 2005 to September 2009 is starting to dominate the present economic scene.

This means that various bubble activities that emerged on the back of the prior strong increase in money supply are at present coming under pressure. So from this perspective irrespective of sanctions, the Russian economy would have experienced a so-called economic slowdown, or even worse a recession.
Now, to counter a further weakening in the ruble against the US$ the Russian central bank has raised the seven day repo rate by 1.5% to 7%. The price of the US$ in ruble terms rose to 36.3 in March from 30.8 rubles in March last year – an increase of 18%.

Russia graphs 5 6

Whilst a tighter interest rate stance can have an effect on the present growth momentum of money supply this is likely to have a minor effect on the emerging economic slowdown, which we suggest is predominately driven by past money supply.

There is no doubt that if sanctions were to become effective they are going to hurt economic activity in general i.e. both bubble and non-bubble activities.

On this one needs to exercise some caution given the possibility that major world economies are heading toward a slower growth phase.

Hence from this perspective, regardless of sanctions the pace of the demand for the Russian exports is likely to ease.

We hold that it is quite likely that the Euro-zone, an important Russian trading partner, is unlikely to enforce sanctions in order to cushion the effect of the possible emerging economic slowdown in the Euro-zone. (Sanctions are likely to have a disruptive economic effect not only on Russia but also on the Euro-zone). Observe that Russia’s export to the Euro-zone as a percentage of its total exports stood at 54.1% in 2013 against 52.9% in 2012. In contrast Russia’s export to the US as a % of total stood at 2.1% in 2013. As a percentage of total imports Euro-zone imports from Russia stood at 8% in January whilst American imports from Russia as a percentage of total imports stood at 0.8%. Note that the Euro-zone relies on Russia for a third of its energy imports. Hence it will not surprise us if the Europeans are likely to be more reluctant than the US in enforcing sanctions.

Russia 7 8

Russia’s foreign reserves have weakened slightly in February from the month before. The level of reserves fell by 1.1% to $493 billion after declining by 2.1% in January. The growth momentum of reserves also remains under pressure. Year-on-year the rate of growth stood at minus 6.2% in February against a similar figure in January. A possible further weakening in China’s economic activity and ensuing pressure on the price of oil is likely to exert more pressure on foreign reserves.

Russia 9 10

Meanwhile, the growth momentum of the Russian consumer price index (CPI) displays a visible softening. The yearly rate of growth stood at 6.2% in February against 6.1% in January. Observe that in February last year the yearly rate of growth stood at 7.3%. Based on the lagged growth momentum of our Russian monetary measure AMS we can suggest that the yearly rate of growth of the Russian CPI is likely to weaken further in the months ahead.

Russia 11 12

Summary and conclusion

According to some experts sanctions imposed by the US and the European Union are likely to push Russia into a recession. We suggest that the key factor which is likely to push Russia into a recession is not sanctions as such but a sharp decline in the growth momentum of money supply between May 2005 and September 2009. Given the possibility that major world economies are heading towards a renewed economic slowdown, we suggest that regardless of sanctions the pace of the demand for Russia’s exports is likely to ease. Now, given that the Euro-zone relies on Russia for a third of its energy imports it will not surprise us if the Euro-zone proves likely to be more reluctant than the US in enforcing sanctions.

Economics

Do we have easy money?

This week marked the fifth anniversary of the 0.5% Bank of England base rate and the Bank of England’s Quantitative Easing program which has so far seen the Bank conjure up £375 billion of new base money and spend it on British government debt. It’s difficult to imagine money being any ‘easier’.

Or is it? At his Money Illusion blog this week, Scott Sumner asked

1.  Japan has had interest rates near zero for nearly 2 decades.  Is this easy money, despite an NGDP that is lower than in 1993?  Despite almost continual deflation?  Despite a stock market at less than one half of 1991 levels.  Despite almost continually falling house prices?  If it’s easy money, how much longer before the high inflation arrives?

2.  The US has had near zero interest rates for more than 5 years.  Is this easy money?  If so, how much longer until the high inflation arrives?  If rates stay near zero for 2 more years, and inflation stays low, will you still call it easy money?  How about 5 more years?  Ten more years?  Twenty? 

It is a key tenet of Market Monetarist thought that a low base rate or Fed funds rate is no indicator of whether money is ‘easy’ or not[1]. The correct indicator, they argue, is the growth rate of nominal GDP; if it’s slumping money is too tight, if it’s roaring on it’s too loose, and if it’s ticking along at some predetermined rate all is rosy in the monetary garden. As a result of this analysis Market Monetarists like Sumner believe the Bank of England’s low base rates and vast monetary base expansion do not indicate ‘easy money’. Are they right?

Well, first we have to define what we mean by ‘easy money’. It’s a rhetorical term rather than a textbook one so here’s my definition (which, if you don’t accept it, probably scuppers the following analysis so feel to substitute your own); money is ‘easier’ the more people who want credit can get it[2].

There are two points to make. First, the choice of ‘credit’ rather than ‘money’ is deliberate. When most of us ‘borrow money’ we are, in fact, accessing credit which is some derivative of, or claim on money. Secondly, a point I’ve made previously, economy wide aggregates often tell us little of interest or use. Often more useful and interesting is to disaggregate. Instead of looking at the availability of credit to the British economy look instead at the availability of credit to different bits of it.

Looked at like this we would have to say that for most businesses and individuals in the UK, despite the tripling of the monetary base since March 2009, credit is not easily available and money cannot be said to be ‘easy’. The most recent Bank of England lending report in January noted that “The rate of decline in the stock of lending to UK businesses eased slightly in the year to November compared to 2012. The annual rate of growth in the stock of secured lending to individuals rose slightly to 0.8% in the three months to November” –November’s fall in business lending being the biggest in six months.

But banks certainly do have ‘easy’ money. That tripling of the monetary base, as I wrote recently, has flowed onto their balance sheets and stayed there. The money multiplier has collapsed and growth of base money, M0, has not led to growth in broader monetary aggregates such as M4, which would influence nominal GDP. The open handed stance of the Bank of England isn’t showing up as ‘easy’ money as Market Monetarists see it because ‘easy’ money for banks isn’t translating into ‘easy’ money for the rest of the economy[3].

Do we have easy money? On my definition that depends on who ‘we’ is. Banks face little constraint on their ability to access credit from the Bank of England so for them the answer is yes. The rest of us who rely on those banks find it rather tighter.


[2] For fans of mathematical notation, if E is monetary ease and C is availability of credit then E=f(C)

[3] If we think of a river, with M0 pouring out of the spring at Threadneedle Street and the broad delta downriver being M4, banks’ demand for money has built a big dam stopping the river flowing. The Market Monetarist solution to this is to get the spring pouring out enough money that it flows over the top of this dam – in Quantity Theory notation to offset the decline in V stemming from banks’ increased money demand (which with downwardly sticky P would pull down y) with sufficient expansion of M.

Economics

The success of “credit easing” on its own terms

Click for Telegraph Story

Click for Telegraph Story

Today, the Telegraph reports, UK house price growth ‘approaching madness’:

The speed UK property prices are rising at is “approaching madness”, analysts have warned, after data showed house prices jumped 2.4pc in February, the biggest monthly increase in five years.

The rise, revealed in the latest Halifax House Price Index, outstripped analysts’ expectations of a 0.7pc rise, renewing fears of a house price bubble.

House prices advanced 7.9pc on an year-on-year basis, the figures showed, taking the average price across the UK to £179,872 and marking the strongest annual uplift since October 2007.

The Chancellor’s policies of “monetary activism” and “credit easing” including Funding for Lending and Help to Buy have, on their own terms, succeeded. According to Kaleidic Economics, the Austrian measure of the money supply is now expanding by over 12% year on year:

Click for Kaleidic's data

Click for Kaleidic’s data

Nothing has been learned since Hayek wrote Monetary Theory and the Trade Cycle. His preface could have been written today:

It is a curious fact that the general disinclination to explain the past boom by monetary factors has been quickly replaced by an even greater readiness to hold the present working of our monetary organization exclusively responsible for our present plight. And the same stabilizers who believed that nothing was wrong with the boom and that it might last indefinitely because prices did not rise, now believe that everything could be set right again if only we would use the weapons of monetary policy to prevent prices from falling.The same superficial view,which sees no other harmful effect of a credit expansion but the rise of the price level, now believes that our only difficulty is a fall in the price level, caused by credit contraction.

… There is no reason to assume that the crisis was started by a deliberate deflationary action on the part of the monetary authorities, or that the deflation itself is anything but a secondary phenomenon, a process induced by the maladjustments of industry left over from the boom. If, however, the deflation is not a cause but an effect of the unprofitableness of industry, then it is surely vain to hope that by reversing the deflationary process, we can regain lasting prosperity. Far from following a deflationary policy, central banks, particularly in the United States, have been making earlier and more far-reaching efforts than have ever been undertaken before to combat the depression by a policy of credit expansion—with the result that the depression has lasted longer and has become more severe than any preceding one. What we need is a readjustment of those elements in the structure of production and of prices that existed before the deflation began and which then made it unprofitable for industry to borrow. But, instead of furthering the inevitable liquidation of the maladjustments brought about by the boom during the last three years, all conceivable means have been used to prevent that readjustment from taking place; and one of these means, which has been repeatedly tried though without success, from the earliest to the most recent stages of depression, has been this deliberate policy of credit expansion.

On its own terms, systematic intervention in the market for credit has succeeded: it has restarted the Domesday machine which delivered us into this mess. Those of us who have studied Mises, Hayek and the other Austrian-School masters will know that our present economic system remains built on sand.

Economics

Sound money for Europe

You can be sure that most of my colleagues in the European Parliament do not embrace the concept of the free market. Day after day, I hear them speaking up for the protection of established interests or attempting to regulate away risk. However, there is one area where there is a genuine coalition of interests and that is the need for banking reform.

Despite all the legislation, nearly six years after the run on Northern Rock and almost five years since Lehman Brothers collapsed, we’ve endured an onslaught of new financial regulations emanating from Brussels, but we haven’t solved the fundamental problem. If a bank went bust tomorrow it would still need taxpayers to bail it out. The Left hate bail outs because they believe taxpayers’ money should be spent elsewhere and not on subsidising what they see as “rich bankers.” While those of us who believe in free and open markets think that companies that fail ought to be allowed to go bust to allow better-run rivals and new entrants to fill the gap in the market. This coincidence of interests has formed the basis of the Left-Right coalition.

For the last few years, I have been pushing three items within the family of Cobden Centre proposals: no taxpayer bail out; director liability and sorting out IFRS accounting standards.

We have spent the past five years introducing legislation that does not tackle the fundamental problem of banks needing bailouts when they fail. I have been making this point for several years and it seems that finally other legislators share this view.

In a report on banking reform adopted by the European Parliament in early July, there was genuine agreement on the need for an overhaul of the banking sector. Most political groups agree that supervisors will need to spell out procedures to wind down failing banks without taxpayer funding and to create a scheme to allow customers of failed retail banks to continue to pay their bills or withdraw money from ATMs until ownership is resolved.

However, we have to be realistic and recognise that at some point, governments will be tempted to use taxpayers money. Therefore, we agreed to encourage banks to separate wholesale banking activities from retail activities in the event of failure so that the savings of retail savers are not used to subisidise the trading activities in the investment arms of banks. This so-called ringfence need not necessarily be structural but a clear distinction needs to be made.

In the same report, I tabled an amendment which received the support of a large part of the European Parliament that we should explore how to make directors more liable for failure including exploring the feasibility of a return to the partnership model of ownership. Although there are concerns about how this would work in practice, the principles of director liability and the need for a better alignment between performance and reward are now firmly on the agenda.

I have also worked with the Cobden Centre, PIRC and Steve Baker MP to point out the concerns that many investors have expressed over IFRS. This included hosting a packed event in the European Parliament organised by the ACCA where Gordon Kerr from the Cobden Centre spoke alongside representatives from the auditors, the banks and the standard-setters themselves. This discussion helped us to secure the support of all major political groups in the European Parliament for a major review of international accounting standards.

In making the case for a review, it has been important to highlight the apolitical nature of this issue. All political groups regardless of party, are supporting calls for simpler standards that drive better governance and question why banks are able to book unrealised profits without making sufficient provision for potential losses.

In addition, supporters of the work of the Cobden Centre believe it is vital that consumers understand how fractional reserve banking works. This means making consumers aware that when they open bank accounts, their money is not actually on deposit at the bank. I have consistently spoken in parliamentary debates on the need for banks to be much more transparent with consumers when they open accounts and to distinguish between deposit accounts, current accounts where so-called savers are really lending their money to a bank and investment accounts. In time, I hope to be able to introduce amendments pushing for such transparency.

It may be far away and many may question whether the UK should remain a member of the EU, but as long as Britain remains in the EU and I remain a Member of the European Parliament I will continue to seek to influence the debate and share the ideas of the Cobden Centre with MEPs across the political spectrum.

Economics

2 days, 2 weeks, 2 months: A proposal for sound money

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

  1. Deposit insurance is removed – banks will not be able to rely on government support to gain the public’s confidence
  2. The Bank of England closes its discount window
  3. Any company can freely enter the UK banking industry
  4. Banks will be able to merge and consolidate as desired
  5. Bankruptcy proceedings will be undertaken on all insolvent banks
    1. Suspend withdrawals to prevent a run
    2. Ensure deposits up to £50,000 are ring fenced
    3. Write down bank’s assets
    4. Perform a debt-for-equity swap on remaining deposits
    5. Reopen with an exemption on capital gains tax

Over 2 weeks the aim is to monitor the emergence of free banking

  1. Permanently freeze the current monetary base
  2. Allow private banks to issue their own notes (similar to commercial paper)
  3. Mandate that banks allow depositors to opt into 100% reserve accounts free of charge
  4. 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)
  5. Government sells all gold reserves and allows banks to issue notes backed by gold (or any other commodity)
  6. Government rescinds all taxes on the use of gold as a medium of exchange
  7. 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

  1. The Bank of England ceases its open-market operations and no longer finances government debt
  2. 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.

Economics

Intervening in bankers’ pay

I attended a lecture recently given by Dr. John Thanassoulis from Oxford University.  His objective in this lecture was to explore the question of whether there is a case for financial regulation which intervenes in bankers’ pay.  To cut a long story short, Thanassoulis’s conclusion was that, yes, effectively the Government should intervene in bankers’ pay and cap it at an appropriate level to lower the overall risk of the banking industry.  Leaving aside who decides what “an appropriate level” to pay bankers is, in my view there are a host of problems with Thanassoulis’s analysis and conclusions.

Before getting into the problems I will describe Thanassoulis’s argument.  Fundamentally, he believes that the level of remuneration at banks is a legitimate source of concern because the higher the remuneration the greater the following:

a)      Restriction of bank lending

b)      Increased risk incentive for the banker

c)      Increased risk taking by banks in general.

Thanassoulis characterises these aspects as an externality (in other words a cost that others have to pay rather than the banks themselves) thus requiring intervention.  Interestingly, he views competition in the banking industry as a problem, because in order to compete for the best banking employees banks must pay higher remuneration thus increasing risk.  In his view, competition in a free market can sometimes be a problem. 

Thanassoulis’s analysis results in him drawing other bizarre conclusions.  Because he is concerned that that banking executives are overly concerned with the short-term (unlike say government regulators) and because bankers discount deferred pay, banks should be forced to defer pay to force bankers to focus on the long-term.  Secondly, remuneration should be capped to a proportion of assets under management or profits, nominally to lower risk but also to refocus banking towards lending.  Banks exist to lend money but apparently this is not sufficient motivation for them to actually lend money.  It is also not clear who is qualified to actually decide what the cap should be or who can define the long-term versus the short-term.  Is the long-term 20 years or three?  Is the short-term three months or one year?  How far into the future can one accurately divine?  That is a question for mystics perhaps or maybe left for analysis after the fact.

Oftentimes, when you find yourself making conclusions that on their face are absurd it is wise to go back and revisit your premises.  In this case, Thanassoulis’s basic premise is that for whatever reason bankers took excessive risks.  Fundamentally, he believes that bankers took excessive risks because they were incentivised to do so by their compensation package.  And furthermore, he seems to lump “bankers” into one homogeneous group when in fact, there are many types of bankers who perform various different functions.  Essentially, when many people think of bankers, they often seem to have in mind equity traders, a group I could imagine would fit the public image of an aggressive, all caution to the wind, testosterone charged bankers.  Indeed, Thanassoulis appears to refer interchangeably between traders and bankers without defining either.  The reality of course is far more complex.

Certainly commercial bankers (such as RBS, HBOS, Lloyds, who needed varying amounts of bail-outs) tend to be a much more genteel group than might be suggested by their public image.  The approach taken by such bankers to lending is consideration of the borrower’s ability to pay them back, whether this is over three years or twenty (long term?).  Simply put, banks will not lend if they do not believe there is a reasonable chance of regaining their principal.  It is true that during boom times a lot of loans were made that ex post have proven to be unwise, but the risks weren’t fully appreciated at the time. Bankers, like many individuals, conducted themselves as though the good times would continue to roll.  The issue here, therefore, is not excessive risk-taking but a misspecification of risk.  Commercial lenders base their specification of risk on actuarial models which unfortunately, can be biased based on recent events.  Furthermore, these models cannot account accurately for the business cycle, thus risk estimates are biased downwards.  As such, bankers are making loans based on a belief that the risk is lower than it really is. 

Furthermore, the very nature of banks allows them to have more funds available for these improperly specified loans than they otherwise would.  This is for two reasons.  First, modern commercial banks hold fractional reserves.  At the height of the boom period banks were holding perhaps 1% of deposits on reserve and lending the rest out.  Secondly, where necessary, the central bank would provide additional liquidity (i.e. print money to support banks’ lending).

And so not only was the risk estimate of lending understated, the amount of money available to lend was too high.  If banks have money to be lent it will be lent.  This is the modern function of banks.  The pressure on banks to lend will increase over time as profits that are made on earlier successful projects need to be reinvested.  This results in the banks increasing in size (due to increased asset values, new employees required to manage the multiplying projects etc.) necessitating further lending in a crowded loan market.  Furthermore the increasing esteem of banks provides further pressure to become involved in prestigious new projects.  These developments will also cause banking pay to rise and increase competition in the market to hire bankers.

Additionally, with a lowered perception of risk the interest rate charged to borrowers will be lower than it otherwise would be.  This in turn encourages companies and individuals to borrow money and invest in projects or spend on frivolities. Indeed, borrowers will also have a lowered perception of risk, essentially for the same reason as bankers.  And so while the cross-hairs of blame are centred on bankers, the same mistakes were made by all market participants.  HMV and Woolworths are two such casualties that borrowed money for investment in projects that ultimately proved to be wasteful. 

Fiddling around with bankers pay, capping it, deferring it, re-portioning it is a complete waste of time, trying to solve a problem that does not exist.  Bankers’ pay, its composition or amount, has nothing to do the causes of the recent economic bust, other than that it is merely another symptom of the business cycle.  Bankers are well paid because the economy is set up to reward them in this manner.  The majority of the financial resources in the economy are funnelled through the banking system and bankers take their cut.  This is because of the legal and economic structure in which banks operate.  That is, the central bank fractional reserve system.  Thus, in good times and bad, banks disproportionately benefit.

In any event, the compensation of banking employees is not a major source of risk in banking.  The major risk factors in banking include (but are not limited to) the risk of the project itself, market risk (i.e. movement in variables such as interest rates) and the gap between short-term borrowing and long-term lending.  If well paid banking executives steer the bank towards high yield projects it is because they have the appearance of being relatively low risk, not because they are anxious to take on high risk, high yield projects.  Unfortunately, they are unaware that the benefits from such projects are an illusion created by the very business cycle that banks perpetuate.

The obvious solution is to abolish every aspect of fractional reserve banking, including central banking and fiat currency.  This will not happen any time soon as it benefits the government to have this system in place.  The government has access to a hidden tax through inflation and a willing scapegoat when things go wrong.  The villagers will go armed with pitchforks and torches trying to kill the wrong monster.

Indeed, while complaining that banks are not lending, (after criticising them for lending too much!) the government assures that banks will not lend in any great amount by making it impossible to do so.  The low interest rate environment, created by that agency of the government, the Bank of England, has made it impossible for banks to exit many of their positions for many years.  But we should recognise here that the primary objective of the government is to ensure the survival of their colleagues at banks around the country (and by extension the world) and not either a quick end to the depression or lending to businesses that may or may not need the funds.

As such, John Thanassoulis’s conclusions are quite invalid and will not solve any particular economic problem.  Instead, he has fallen prey to the smoke screen promoted by the Government which has focused the causes of the depression on trivial issues like bankers’ pay.  Indeed, in this manner the Government takes advantage of feelings of envy amongst the population at large to focus their rage away from government policy and the fundamental causes of the depression.  This is slightly analogous to a similar method used with petrol prices.  When prices are too high, it’s not because of the approximately 150% tax on petrol but because of greedy oil companies and price-gouging petrol station owners.

Economics

The death of banks – and the future of money

UK Chancellor George Osborne and Bank of England Governor Mervin King last week announced another round of fiscal and monetary stimulus measures, including steps to ease the funding for banks and allow them to extend more loans.

If these measures were hoped to instil confidence they must be classified as a failure. We have lived through quite a few years of unprecedented and fairly persistent monetary accommodation and occasional rounds of QE by now, and I doubt that yet another dose of the same medicine will cause great excitement. Furthermore, observers must get confused as to what our most pressing problems really are. Have we not had a real banking crisis in the UK in 2008 because banks were over-extended and in desperate need of balance sheet repair? Is a period of deleveraging and a rebuilding of capital ratios not urgently required and unavoidable? Let’s not forget that the government is still a majority-owner of RBS and holds a large chunk of Lloyds-TSB. If banks are still on life-support from the taxpayer and the central bank, is it wise to already prod them to expand their balance sheets again and create more credit to ‘stimulate’ growth?

The same confusion exists on fiscal policy. Is the Greece crisis not a stark warning to all other sovereign borrowers out there, which are equally and without exception on a slippery slope toward fiscal Armageddon, that it is high time for drastic reduction in spending and fundamental fiscal reform? If the Bank of England or the government assume any of the risk of the latest additional credit measures, then the taxpayer is on the hook.

None of this will instil confidence, not in the economy and not in the banks, and certainly not in politics. UK newspaper ‘The Independent’ headlined: “King pushes the panic button”, which I consider a pretty apt description.

Banks are parastatal dinosaurs

One thing is now clear to even the most casual observer: banks are not capitalist businesses. In their present incarnation they have little to do with the free market and no place in it. They are constantly oscillating between two positions: One moment, they are a state protectorate, in desperate need of support from the state printing press or unlimited taxpayer funds, as, in the absence of such support, we are supposedly faced with the dreaded social fallout of complete financial collapse; the next moment they are a convenient tool for state policy, simply to be fed with ample bank reserves and enticed with low interest rates to create yet more cheap credit and help manufacture some artificial growth spurt. Either the banks are the permanent welfare queens of the fiat money systems, or convenient policy levers for the macro-economic central planners. In any case, capitalist businesses look different.

Central banks and modern fiat money banks are quite simply a blot on the capitalist system. In order for capitalism to operate smoothly they will ultimately have to be removed. I believe that the underlying logic of capitalism will work in that direction. Personally, I believe that trying to ‘reform’ the present system is a waste of time and energy. It is particularly unbecoming for libertarians as they run the risk of getting infected with the strains of statism that run through the system. Let’s replace this system with something better. With a market-based monetary system.

When and how exactly the present system will end, nobody can say. I believe we are in the final inning. Around the world, all major central banks have now established zero or near-zero interest rates and are using their own balance sheets in a desperate attempt to avoid their highly geared banking systems from contracting or potentially collapsing. If you think that this is all just temporary and that it will be smoothly unwound when the economy finally ‘recovers’, then you are probably on some strong medication, or have been listening for too long to the mainstream economists who are, in the majority, happy to function as apologists for the present system.

I still believe that chances are we will, at some point, get the full throttle, foot-on-the pedal monetary overkill, the ultimate uber-QE that will push the system over the edge. This will be the moment when central bankers discover – and discover the hard way – that their ability to print their fiat money may well be unlimited but that the public’s confidence in this fiat money certainly is not. The whole system will blow up in some hyperinflationary fireball, which has been the end of most previous experiments with complete fiat money systems, all others having ended with a voluntary return to commodity money before the public had lost complete faith in the system. And the prospect for a voluntary and official return to a gold standard seems slim at present. However, this is not the topic of this essay.

The future of money

I am often asked what will come next after the present system collapsed? Will we have to go back to barter? – No. Obviously, a modern capitalist economy needs a functioning monetary system. My hope is that from the ashes of the current system a new monetary system arises that is entirely private and not run by states – and that does not have the unholy state-bank alliance at its core, an alliance that exists in opposition to everything that the free market stands for. Nobody can say what this new system will look like precisely. Its shape and features will ultimately be decided by the market. In this field, as in others, there are few limits to human inventiveness and ingenuity. But we can already make a few conceptual points about such a system, and we should contemplate working on such a system now while the old system is in its death throes.

A private gold ‘standard’…

Free market monetary systems, in which the supply of money is outside political control, are likely to be systems in which money proper is a commodity of limited and fairly inelastic supply. It seems improbable that a completely free market would grant any private entity the right to produce (paper or electronic) money at will and without limit. The present system is unusual in this respect and it is evidently not a free market solution. Neither is it sustainable.

The obvious candidates are gold and silver, which have functioned as money for thousands of years. We could envision a modern system at whose centre are private companies that offer gold and silver storage, probably in a variety of jurisdictions (Zurich, London, Hong Kong, Vancouver). Around this core of stored monetary metal a financial system is built that uses the latest information and payment technology to facilitate the easy, secure and cheap transfer of ownership in this base money between whoever chooses to participate in this system (Yes, there would be credit cards and wire transfers, and internet or mobile phone payments. There would, however, be no FOMC meetings, no Bank of England governor writing letters to the Chancellor, and no monetary policy!).

Are these gold and silver storage companies banks? — Well, they could become banks. In fact, this is how our present banking system started out. But there are important differences about which I will say a few things later. In any case this would be hard, international, private and apolitical money. This would be capitalist money.

…or Bitcoin

Another solution would be private virtual money, such as Bitcoin.

Bitcoin is immaterial money, internet money. It is software.

Bitcoin can be thought of as a cryptographic commodity. Individual Bitcoins can be created through a process that is called ‘mining’. It involves considerable computing power, and the complex algorithm at the core of Bitcoin makes the creation of additional Bitcons more difficult (and thus more expensive) the more Bitcoins are already in existence. The overall supply of Bitcoins is limited to 21 million units. Again, this is fixed by the algorithm at the core of it, which cannot be altered.

Thus, creating Bitcoin money is entirely private but not costless and not unlimited. Most people will, of course, never ‘mine’ Bitcoins, just as under the gold standard most people didn’t mine gold. People will acquire Bitcoins through trade, by exchanging goods and services for Bitcoins, then using the Bitcoins for other transactions.

Bitcoin is hard money. Its supply is inelastic and not under the control of any issuing authority. It is international and truly capitalist ‘money’ – of course this assumes that the public is willing to use it as money.

There are naturally a number of questions surrounding Bitcoin that cannot be covered in this essay: is it safe? Can the algorithm be changed or corrupted and Bitcoins thus be counterfeited? Are the virtual “wallets” in which the Bitcoins are stored safe? – These are questions for the computer security expert or cryptographer, and I am neither. My argument is conceptual. My goal is not to analyze Bitcoin as such but to speculate on the consequences of a virtual commodity currency, which I consider feasible in principle, and I simply assume – for the sake of the argument – that Bitcoin is already the solution. Whether that is indeed the case, I cannot say. And it is – again – for the market to decide.

There is one question for the economist, however: could Bitcoin become widely accepted as money? Would this not contradict Mises’ regression theorem, which states that no form of money can come into existence as a ready medium of exchange; that whatever the monetary substance (or non-substance), it must have had some other commodity-use prior to its first use as money. My counterargument here is the following: the analogy is to the banknote, which started life not as a commodity but as a payment device, i.e. a claim on money proper which was gold or silver at the time. Banknotes were initially used as a more convenient way to transfer ownership in gold or silver. Once banknotes circulated widely and were generally accepted as media of exchange in trade, the gold-backing could be dropped and banknotes still circulated as money. They had become money in their own right.

Similarly, Bitcoin can be thought of, initially, as payment technology, as a cheap and convenient device to transfer ownership in state paper money. (Bitcoins can presently be exchanged for paper money at various exchanges.) But as the supply of Bitcoins is restricted while the supply of state paper money constantly expands, the exchange-value of Bitcoins is bound to go up. And at some stage, Bitcoin could begin to trade as money proper.

A monetary system built on hard, international and apolitical money, whether in the form of a private gold system or Bitcoin, would be a truly capitalist system, a system that facilitates the free and voluntary exchange between private individuals and corporations within and across borders, a system that is stable and outside of political control. It would have many advantages for the money user but there would be little role for present-day banks, which goes to show to what extent banks have become a creature of the present state-fiat money system and all its inconsistencies.

Banks profit from money creation

Banks conduct fractional-reserve banking (FRB), which means they take deposits that are supposed to be safe and liquid and therefore pay the depositor little interest, and use them to fund loans that are illiquid and risky and thus pay the bank high interest. Through the process of fractional-reserve banking, banks expand the supply of money in the economy; they become money producers, which is, of course, profitable. Many mainstream economists welcome FRB as a way to expand money and credit and ‘stimulate’ extra growth but as the Currency School in Britain in the 19th century and in particular the Austrian School under Mises and Hayek in the early 20th century have argued convincingly (and as I explain in detail in Paper Money Collapse) this process is not only risky for the individual banks, it is destabilizing for the overall economy. It must cause boom-bust cycles.

It cannot be excluded that banks could conduct FRB even on the basis of a private system of gold-money or Bitcoin. However, in the absence of a backstop by way of a central bank that functions as a lender-of-last resort, the scope for FRB would be very limited indeed. It would be too dangerous for banks to lower their reserve ratios (at least to fairly low levels) as that would increase the risk of a bank-run.

I am sometimes told that I am too critical of the central banks and the state, and that I should direct my ire toward the ‘greedy’ ‘private’ banks, for it is the ‘private’ banks that create all the money out there through FRB. Of course they do. But FRB is only possible on the scale it has been conducted over recent decades because the banks are supported – and even actively encouraged – in their FRB activities by a lender-of-last resort central bank, in particular as the central bank today has full and unlimited control over fiat money bank reserves. Under a system of hard money (gold or Bitcoin), even if the banks themselves started their own lender-of-last resort central bank, that entity could not create more gold reserves or Bitcoin reserves and thus provide unlimited support to the banks.

FRB is particularly unlikely to develop in a Bitcoin economy, as there is no need for a depository, for safe-keeping and storage services, and for any services that involve the transfer of the monetary system’s raw material (be it gold or state paper tickets) into other, more convenient forms of media of exchange, such as electronic money that can facilitate transactions over great distances. The owner of Bitcoin has an account that is similar to his email account. He manages it himself and he stores his Bitcoin himself. And Bitcoin is money that is already readily usable for any transaction, anywhere in the world, simply via the internet. The bank as intermediary is being bypassed. The Bitcoin user takes direct control of his money. He can access his Bitcoins everywhere, simply via the SIM card in his smartphone.

The tremendous growth in FRB was made possible by the difficulty of transacting securely over long distances with physical gold or physical paper tickets. This created a powerful incentive to place the physical money with banks, and once the physical money was in the banks it became ‘reserves’ to be used for the creation of additional monetary assets.

Channelling true savings into investment is very important, but remember that FRB is something entirely different. It involves the creation of money and credit without any real, voluntary saving to back it. FRB is not only not needed, it is destabilizing for the overall economy. Under gold standard conditions, it created business cycles. Under the system of unlimited fiat money and lender-of-last-resort central banks, it created the super-cycle, which is now in its painful endgame.

Banks make money from payment systems

When I recently made arrangements for a trip to Africa I dealt directly with local tour operators there, which, today, can be done easily and cheaply with the help of email, websites, and Skype. Yet, when it came to paying the African tour operators I had to go through a process that has not changed much from the 1950s. Not only were British and African banks involved, but also correspondence banks in New York. This took time and, of course, cost money in form of additional fees.

Imagine if we could have used gold or Bitcoin! The payment would have been as easy and fast as all the email-communication that preceded it. There would have been no exchange rates and little fees (maybe in the case of gold) or no fees (in the case of Bitcoin).

Another example: Last year I gave a webinar at the Ludwig von Mises Institute (LvMI). The LvMI is located in Auburn, Alabama, I did the seminar from my home in London, the LvMI’s technology officer sat in Taiwan, and the seminar attendants were spread all over the world. All of this is now possible – cheaply, quickly and conveniently – thanks to technology. Yet, when the LvMI paid me a fee it had to go through a few banks – again, correspondence banks in New York – it took quite some time and it incurred additional costs. And the fee from LvMI was paid in a currency that I cannot use directly in my home country.

Banks make money from monetary nationalism

Future economic historians will pity us for having worked under a strange and inefficient global patchwork of local paper currencies – and for having naively believed that this represented the pinnacle of modern capitalism. Today, every government wants to have its own local paper money and its own local central bank, and run its own monetary policy (of course, on the basis of perfectly elastic local fiat money). This is naturally a great impediment to international trade and the free flow of capital.

If I want to spend the money I got from the LvMI where I live (in Britain), I have to exchange the LvMI’s dollars for pounds. I can only do that if I find someone who is willing to take the opposite side of that transaction, someone who is willing to sell pounds for dollars. The existence of numerous monies necessarily re-introduces an element of partial barter into money-based commerce. Sure, the 24-hour, multi-trillion-dollar a day fx market can accommodate me, and do so quickly and cheaply, but this market is only a second-best solution, a highly developed make-shift to cope as best as possible with the inefficiencies of monetary nationalism. The better, most efficient and capitalist solution would be to use the same medium of exchange around the world. The gold standard was a much superior monetary system in this respect. Moving from the international gold standard to a system of a multitude of state-managed paper currencies meant economic regression, not progress.

One hundred years ago, you could take the train from London to Moscow and use the same gold coins all along the way for payment. There was no need to change your money even once. (Incidentally, neither did you need a passport!)

The notion of the ‘national economy’ that needs a ‘national currency’ was always a fiction. So was the idea that economies work better if money, interest rates and exchange rates are carefully manipulated by local bureaucrats. (This fiction is still spread by many economists who make a living off this system.) The biggest problem with monetary policy is that there is such a thing as monetary policy. But in today’s increasingly globalized world, these fictions are entirely untenable. Capitalism transcends borders, and what it needs to flourish is simply hard, apolitical and thus international money. Money that is a proper tool for voluntary human interaction and cooperation and not a tool for politics.

Banks benefit from the present monetary segregation. They profit from constantly exchanging one paper money for another and from foreign exchange trading. Non-financial companies that operate internationally are inevitably forced to speculate in currency markets or to pay for expensive hedging strategies (again paying the banks for providing them).

Banks make money from speculation

There is, of course, nothing wrong with speculation in a free market. However, in a truly free market there would be few opportunities for speculation. Today the heavy involvement of the state in financial markets, the existence of numerous paper currencies, all managed for domestic political purposes, and the constant volatility that is generated by monetary and fiscal policy create outsized opportunities for speculation. Additionally, the easy money that central banks provide so generously to prop up their over-extended FRB-industry is used by many banks to speculate in financial assets themselves, often by anticipating and front-running the next move of the monetary authorities with which these banks have such close relationships. And to a considerable degree, banks pass the cheap money from the central banks on to their hedge fund clients.

Remember that immediately after the Lehman collapse, investment banks Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, which previously had shunned deposit and retail banking but have always been heavily involved in securities trading, quickly obtained banking licenses in order to benefit from the safety-net the state provides its own fiat-money-deposit banks.

Banks channel savings into investment

Yes, to some degree they still do this, and this is indeed an important function of financial intermediaries. However, asset managers can do the same thing, and they do it without mixing this services with FRB and money-creation. In general, the asset management industry is much more transparent about how it allocates its clients’ assets, it has a clear fiduciary responsibility for these assets, and it cannot use them as ‘reserves’. In the gold or Bitcoin economy of the future, you will, of course, be free to allocate some of your money to asset managers who mange investments for you.

Conclusion

Have I been too harsh on the banks? – Maybe. The bankers, in their defence, will say that they are not the source of all these inefficiencies, that they simply help their clients deal with the inefficiencies of a state-designed and politicized monetary system – and that they reap legitimate rewards for the help they provide. – Fair enough. To some degree that may be true. But it is very clear that the size, the business models, the sources of profitability, and the problems of modern banks are uniquely and intimately linked to the present, fully elastic paper money system. As I tried to show, even if the paper money system was meant to last – and it certainly is not – the forces of capitalism, the constant search for better, more efficient and durable solutions, coupled with technological progress, would put enormous market pressures on the present banking industry in the years to come. But given that our present system is not the outcome of market forces to begin with, that a system of fully elastic, local state monies is not necessary, that it is suboptimal, inefficient, unstable, and unsustainable, and that it is already in its endgame, I have little doubt that modern banks will go the way of the dodo. They are to the next few decades what the steel and coal industries were to the decades from 1960 to 1990. They are parastatal dinosaurs, joined at the hip with the bureaucracy and politics, bloated and dependent on cheap money and state subsidy for survival. They are ripe for the taking.

The demise of the paper money system will offer great opportunities for a new breed of money entrepreneurs. In that role, I could see gold storage companies, payment technology companies, Bitcoin service providers and asset management companies. If some of these join forces, the opportunities should be great. The world is ready for an alternative monetary system, and when the present system collapses under the weight of its own inconsistencies, there would be something there to take its place.

The present fiat money economy is ripe for some Schumpeterian ‘creative destruction’.

In the meantime, the debasement of paper money continues.

This article was previously published at Paper Money Collapse.

Economics

Laundered money

Under cover of its multiplicity of fabricated wars on drugs, terror, tax evasion, and organized crime, the US government has long been waging a hidden war on cash. One symptom of the war is that the largest denomination of US currency is the $100 note, whose ever-eroding purchasing power is far below the purchasing power of the €500 note. US currency used to be issued in denominations running up to $10,000 (including also $500; $1,000; $5,000 notes). There was even a $100,000 note issued for transactions among Federal Reserve banks. The United States stopped printing large denomination notes in 1945 and officially discontinued their issuance in 1969, when the Fed began removing them from circulation. Since then the largest currency note available to the general public has a face value of $100. But since 1969, the inflationary monetary policy of the Fed has caused the US dollar to depreciate by over 80 percent, so that a $100 note in 2010 possessed a purchasing power of only $16.83 in 1969 dollars. That is less purchasing power than a $20 bill in 1969!

Despite this enormous depreciation, the Federal Reserve has steadfastly refused to issue notes of larger denomination. This has made large cash transactions extremely inconvenient and has forced the American public to make much greater use than is optimal of electronic-payment methods. Of course, this is precisely the intent of the US government. The purpose of its ongoing breach of long-established laws regarding financial privacy is to make it easier to monitor the economic affairs and abrogate the financial privacy of its citizens, ostensibly to secure their safety from Colombian drug lords, Al Qaeda operatives, and tax cheats and other nefarious white-collar criminals

Now the war on cash has begun to spread to other countries. As reported a few months ago, Italy lowered the legal maximum on cash transactions from €2,500 to €1,000. The Italian government would have preferred to set a €500 or even €300 maximum limit but reasoned that it should permit Italians time to adjust to the new limit. The rationale for this limit on the size of cash transactions is the fact that the profligate Italian government is trying to reduce its €1.9 trillion debt and views its anticash measures as a means of cracking down on tax evasion, which “costs” the government an estimated €150 billion annually.

The profligacy of the Italian ruling class is in sharp contrast to ordinary Italians who are the least indebted consumers in the eurozone and among its biggest savers. They use their credit cards very infrequently compared to citizens of other eurozone nations. So deeply ingrained is cash in the Italian culture that over 7.5 million Italians do not even have checking accounts. Now most of these “bankless” Italians will be dragooned into the banking system so that the notoriously corrupt Italian government can more easily spy on them and invade their financial privacy. Of course Italian banks, which charge 2 percent on credit-card transactions and assess fees on current accounts, stand to earn an enormous windfall from this law. As controversial former prime minister Berlusconi noted, “There’s a real danger of crossing over into a fiscal police state.” Indeed, one only need look at the United States today to see what lies in store for Italian citizens.

Meanwhile the war on cash in Sweden is accelerating, although the involvement of the state is less overt. In Swedish cities, cash is no longer acceptable on public buses; tickets must be purchased in advance or via a cell-phone text message. Many small businesses refuse cash, and some bank facilities have completely stopped handling cash. Indeed in some Swedish towns it is no longer possible to use cash in a bank at all. Even churches have begun to facilitate electronic donations from their congregations by installing electronic card readers. Cash transactions represent only 3 percent of the Swedish economy, while they account for 9 percent of the eurozone and 7 percent of the US economies.

A leading proponent of the anticash movement is none other than Bjorn Ulvaeus, former member of the pop group ABBA. The dotty pop star, whose son has been robbed three times, believes that a cashless world means greater security for the public! Others, more perceptive than Ulvaeus, point to another alleged advantage of electronic transactions: they leave a digital trail that can be readily followed by the state. Thus, unlike countries with a strong “cash culture” like Greece and Italy, Sweden has a much lower incidence of graft. As one “expert” on underground economies instructs us, “If people use more cards, they are less involved in shadowy economy activities,” in other words, secreting their hard-earned income in places where it cannot be plundered by the state.

The deputy governor of the Swedish central bank, Lars Nyberg, gloated before his retirement last year that cash will survive “like the crocodile, even though it may be forced to see its habitat gradually cut back.” But not everyone in Sweden is celebrating the dethronement of cash. The chairman of Sweden’s National Pensioners’ Organization argues that elderly people in rural areas either do not have credit or debit cards or do not know how to use them to withdraw cash. Oscar Swartz, the founder of Sweden’s first Internet provider, a supporter of the phasing out of cash, argues that without the adoption of anonymous payment methods, people who send money and make donations to various organizations can be “traced every time.” But, of course, what the artless Mr. Swartz does not see is that this is the whole point of a cashless economy — to make even the most intimate economic affairs of private citizens transparent to the state and its fiscal and monetary apparatchiks, who themselves hate and fear transparency like vampires do sunlight. And then there are the benefits that accrue to the government-privileged banking system from the demise of cash. One Swedish small businessman shrewdly noted the connection. While he gets charged 5 kronor (80¢) for every credit-card transaction, he is prevented by law from passing this on to his customers. In his words, “For them (the banks), this is a very good way to earn a lot of money, that’s what it’s all about. They make huge profits.”

Fortunately, the free market provides the prospect of an escape from the fiscal police state that seeks to stamp out the use of cash through either depreciation of central-bank-issued currency combined with unchanged currency denominations or direct legal limitation on the size of cash transactions. As Carl Menger, the founder of the Austrian School of economics, explained over 140 years ago, money emerges not by government decree but through a market process driven by the actions of individuals who are continually seeking a means to accomplish their goals through exchange most efficiently. Every so often history offers up another example that illustrates Menger’s point. The use of sheep, bottled water, and cigarettes as media of exchange in Iraqi rural villages after the US invasion and collapse of the dinar is one recent example. Another example was Argentina after the collapse of the peso, when grain contracts (for wheat, soybeans, corn, and sorghum) priced in dollars were regularly exchanged for big-ticket items like automobiles, trucks, and farm equipment. In fact Argentine farmers began hoarding grain in silos to substitute for holding cash balances in the form of depreciating pesos.

As has been widely reported recently, an unlikely crime wave has rapidly spread throughout the United States and has taken local law-enforcement officials by surprise. The theft of Tide liquid laundry detergent is pandemic throughout cities in the United States. One individual alone stole $25,000 worth of Tide detergent during a 15-month crime spree, and large retailers are taking special security measures to protect their inventories of Tide. For example, CVS is locking down Tide alongside commonly stolen items like flu medications. Liquid Tide retails for $10–$20 per bottle and sells on the black market for $5–$10. Individual bottles of Tide bear no serial numbers, making them impossible to track. So some enterprising thieves operate as arbitrageurs buying at the black-market price and reselling to the stores, presumably at the wholesale price. Even more puzzling is the fact that no other brand of detergent has been targeted.

What gives here? This is just another confirmation of Menger’s insight that the market responds to the absence of sound money by monetizing highly salable commodities. It is clear that Tide has emerged as a subsidiary local currency for black-market, especially drug, transactions — but for legal transactions in low-income areas as well. Indeed police report that Tide is being exchanged for heroin and methamphetamine and that drug dealers possess inventories of the commodity that they are also willing to sell. But why is laundry detergent being employed as money, and why Tide in particular?

Menger identified the qualities that a commodity must possess in order to evolve into a medium of exchange. Tide possesses most of these qualities in ample measure. For a commodity to emerge as money out of barter, it must be widely used, readily recognizable, and durable. It must also have a relatively high value-to-weight ratio so that it can be easily transported. Tide is the most popular brand of laundry detergent and is widely used by all socioeconomic groups. Tide also is easily recognized because of its Day-Glo orange logo. Laundry detergent can also be stored for long periods without loss of potency or quality. It is true that Tide is somewhat bulky and inconvenient to transport by hand in large quantities. But enough can be carried by hand or shopping cart for smaller transactions while large quantities can easily be transported and transferred using automobiles.

Just like the highly publicized war on drugs that the US government has been waging — and losing — for decades, it is doomed to lose its surreptitious war on cash, because the free market can and will respond to the demand of ordinary citizens for a reliable and convenient money.

This article was previously published at Mises.org.

Economics

Banking: from Goldman Sachs to David Fishwick?

Two days ago, Greg Smith, a Goldman Sachs executive director, resigned in sensational fashion, writing a column in the New York Times. In the article, he laid out the reasons for his resignation, citing the change in culture at the firm over the ten years he worked there. He wrote,

It might sound surprising to a skeptical public, but culture was always a vital part of Goldman Sachs’s success. It revolved around teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and always doing right by our clients. The culture was the secret sauce that made this place great and allowed us to earn our clients’ trust for 143 years. It wasn’t just about making money; this alone will not sustain a firm for so long. It had something to do with pride and belief in the organization.

In particular, he attacked what he sees as the 3 ways to get ahead at Goldman Sachs:

  1. “persuading your clients to invest in the stocks or other products that we are trying to get rid of because they are not seen as having a lot of potential profit.”;
  2. “get your clients — some of whom are sophisticated, and some of whom aren’t — to trade whatever will bring the biggest profit to Goldman”; and
  3. “Find yourself sitting in a seat where your job is to trade any illiquid, opaque product with a three-letter acronym”

While the article might have been dismissed as one disillusioned ex-employee’s rant, it will ring all too true across the financial sector. The Motley Fool reports Goldman Isn’t Alone in the Delicate Art of Ripping Off People. After quoting some illustrative returns, fees and rewards in the industry, the author writes:

The clients that Goldman and the rest of Wall Street rip off are skilled at ripping off their own clients, thank you very much. Each is part of the same game of inflating expectations and overcharging fees — a system summarized best by the title of Fred Schwed’s classic bookWhere Are the Customers’ Yachts?

And then he points out that the losers, the client’s clients, are people like you and me: savers, pension fund beneficiaries and retired schoolteachers. The article finishes by asserting that Goldman is just one example of “putting personal interests before clients.”

How did all this come to pass?

In 1999, just over ten years ago, Goldman Sachs went through a public listing. It had previously operated as a partnership but now it is majority owned by institutional investors.

Over on Forbes, an article explains the difference in incentives between a bank run as a partnership and one run as a traded corporation: the switch in incentives is from long-term success to short-term results. The author gives some persuasive arguments for the partnership model and says investment banks should be required to return to it. He finishes,

Real banking reform isn’t about lashing out, but about restoring the connection between bankers’ profits and the economy they serve.

Which is why, as part of my work on injustice in the financial system, I introduced my Financial Institutions (Reform) Bill. The Bill would minimise moral hazard within the financial system by ensuring that those who take risks are held personally liable for the consequences. It would realign bankers’ rewards, their risks and their actions in the real economy. I said,

Hard-working families and individuals paying tax out of typically modest incomes must never again suffer the injustice of carrying the risks, and consequences of risks, taken in the pursuit of often enormous private returns. Risks must fall to those who take them. Instead of vicarious liability of taxpayers, there must be responsibility in the banking system. The Bill represents an opportunity to free the banking sector and the public from regulatory capture and lobbying. It could raise standards from the bottom up, through the preservation and extension of commercial freedom and the development of professional, personal and mutual responsibility.

At the time, I had no idea that yesterday I would meet David Fishwick, founder of a savings and loans firm in Burnley, who is delivering just that. It began when he found people could not buy from his van business for want of credit, so he started making loans himself. He’s an entrepreneur, a self-made multi-millionaire from ordinary beginnings.

Channel 4 are now making a documentary about Dave’s attempts to start a decent bank which serves both savers and businesses.  The Lancashire Telegraph reports,

“My bank may be tiny but it will be better than a high street bank. I want to show how banking can be socially responsible and not greedy and reckless and I’m going to do what the high street banks just can’t bring themselves to do, give away any profits to charity.”

The venture will see him guarantee and underwrite all the banking activity from his personal fortune.

It’s quite a rebuff to all those who told me no-one would run a bank if they had to put their own assets at risk. As I pointed out, some of history’s greatest bankers bore their own risks without limit. Now, Dave Fishwick is demonstrating that the basic business of banking — intermediating savings to entrepreneurs through productive loans — is an enterprise which individuals will back with their own wealth.

Dave’s banking business is small. The FSA essentially won’t meet him and no wonder: they make their money from fees levied on those they regulate. Dave’s business is presumably too small to cover the FSA’s costs. So he doesn’t have a banking licence, accepting savings and making loans on a different legal basis. His business, as he tells it, is based on his personal guarantee, trust and entrepreneurship. In the terms Hazlitt explained, credit is something people bring to Dave, through running profitable businesses, and that’s what enables him to make loans out of people’s precious savings, personally underwritten by him.

Dave Fishwick may yet fail. His business may be crushed out of existence by a dull and clumsy state. But I have said time and again that we need a new generation of local financial institutions which reconnect savers and productive businesses. It seems Dave is redeveloping the teamwork, integrity, spirit of humility and sense of “always doing right by our clients” which used to engender pride and belief amongst Goldman Sachs’ staff. There will always be a place for large, sophisticated firms but, together with ideas like Funding Circle, Dave’s enterprise may indicate that a new, more responsible and productive financial system is emerging spontaneously in society.

I look forward to watching the documentary in the next couple of months.

This article was previously published at stevebaker.info.

Economics

The 2012 Baker Bill: a programme to end financial crises

Earlier today Conservative Steve Baker MP put forward a Private Member’s Bill, the Financial Institutions (Reform) Bill, which outlines a programme of radical reforms to the banking system and calls for an end to state meddling in banking. Steve is co-founder of the Cobden Centre, and has been MP for Wycombe since May 2010.

The underlying principle of his Bill is to minimize moral hazards within banking, by making those who make or preside over risk-taking as liable as possible for the consequences of that risk-taking. Since financial institutions often circumvent rules, the Bill also includes mutually reinforcing measures that minimize scope for evasion.

Within this framework, bankers would be free to do as they wished, but they would bear the consequences of their own actions.

Thus, Steve’s Bill addresses the rampant moral hazard problems within the modern banking system, and this is the central issue in putting the banking system back on its feet and restoring its integrity. Indeed, his proposals provide nothing less than a free-market solution to the current banking crisis

I would therefore ask all supporters of free markets to promote this Bill and to push for similar measures in other countries.

One key provision of the Bill is to make bank directors strictly liable for bank losses and require them to post personal bonds as additional bank capital. These measures reaffirm unlimited personal liability for bank directors, and will rule out all-too-familiar “It wasn’t my fault” excuses on their part.

The Bill also calls for bonus payments to be deferred for five years, and for the bonus pool to be first in line to cover any reported bank losses. Any reported losses would be covered first out of the bonus pool and then out of directors’ personal bonds before hitting shareholders.

These measures would provide strong incentives for key bank decision-makers to ensure responsible risk-taking, as their own wealth would now be very much at risk.

Amongst other measures, the Bill:

  • Proposes a tough bank solvency standard, and would require any insolvent bank to be automatically put into receivership;
  • Calls for the Government to propose a fast-track receivership regime for insolvent banks and to produce a plan and associated timetable to end all state involvement in the banking system;
  • Calls for accounts to be prepared using the old UK GAAP governed by Companies Act legislation, as proposed in Steve’s previous (2011) Private Member’s Bill, the Financial Services (Regulation of Derivatives) Bill. This would put an end to the various accounting shenanigans associated with IFRS accounting standards; and
  • Calls for the establishment of a Financial Crimes Investigation Unit to investigate possible crimes committed by senior bankers: this Unit would investigate all banks that have failed or received public assistance since 2007 and would replace the Financial Services Authority, which has proven to be utterly useless.

Further details of the Bill can be found on Steve’s website: