Phases of the crisis – are we approaching the endgame?

Phase 1: Greenspan, the arch money crank

The Greenspan “put”, and the collective adoption by most central bankers of low interest rates after the dot-com bust and 9/11, caused one of the largest injections of bank credit in history. Since bank credit circulates as money, we can say public policy has created the largest amount of new money in history.

This should never be confused with creating new wealth. That is what entrepreneurs do when they use the existing factors of production — land, labour and capital — in better ways, to make new and better products. The money unit facilitates this exchange.

Now to a money crank.  He will assume that new money will raise prices simultaneously and proportionately, so the net effect of the economy is that all the ships rise with the tide at the same rate. He’ll say that money is neutral and does not have any effect on the workings of the economy.

One of the great insights of the older classical economists, and in particular the Austrian School, is that new money has to enter the economy somewhere.  Injected money causes a rise in the price levels associated with the industry, businesses, or people who are fortunate enough to be in receipt of the new money. Prices change and move relative to other prices. It is often quite easy to see where the new money enters into the economy by observing where the booms are.

Suppose a banker sells government bonds to another part of the government (as has been the case with UK QE policy).  For selling, say, £30bn of government debt to the Bank of England, he gets a staggering, eye-popping bonus. With his newly minted money, he buys a new £10m house in Chelsea, a £5m yacht in Southampton, some diamonds for the wife to keep her happy, and lives a happy and rich life. The estate agent spends his commission on a luxury car, and some more humdrum items that mere mortals buy.  At each point in time, the prices of the goods favoured by the recipients of new money are being bid up relative to what they are not spending on.  Eventually these distortions ripple through the economy, and the people furthest from the injection of new money — those on fixed income, pensioners, welfare recipients — end up paying inflated prices on the basic goods and services they buy. A real transfer of wealth takes place, from the poorest members of society to the richest. You could not make this up. I am no fan of the “progressive” income tax, but I certainly can’t support a regressive wealth transfer from the poor to the rich!

Even when the government was not creating new money itself, it was setting the interest rate, or the costs of loanable funds, well underneath what would naturally be agreed between savers and borrowers.  Bankers are exclusively endowed with the ability to loan money into existence, so they welcome the low rates and happily lend, charging massive fees to enrich themselves in the process.

After the dot-com bubble, it was property prices that went up and up.  Not only do we have the richer first recipients of new money benefiting at the expense of the poor, we have a massive mis-allocation of capital to “boom” industries that can only be sustained so long as we keep the new money creation growing.

Our present monetary system is both unethical and wasteful of scarce resources. We do not let counterfeiters lower our purchasing power, and we should not let governments and bankers do it.

Phase 2: Bush & Brown – private debt nationalised by the Sovereign

This flood of new money brought more marginal lending possibilities onto the horizon of the bankers.

They devised a range of exotic products whose names are now familiar: CDO, MBS, CDO-squared, Synthetic CDO, and many more — all created to get lower quality risk off the issuing bank’s balance sheet, and onto anyone’s but theirs!

In 2007/2008, bankers started to wake up to the fact that everyone’s balance sheets were stuffed with candyfloss money, at which point they suddenly got the jitters and refused to lend to each other.  As we know, bankers are the only people on the planet who do not have to provide for their current creditors; they can lend long and borrow short. Thus, the credit crunch happened when the demand for overnight money to pay short-term creditor obligations ran dry.

Our political masters then decided that we could not let our noble bankers go bust; we had instead to make them the largest welfare state recipients this world has ever known! Not the £60 per week and housing benefit kind for these characters, but billions of full-on state support to bail out their banks. They failed at their jobs and bankrupted many, but they kept their jobs with 6, 7, or 8 figure salaries!

Bush told us that massive state intervention was needed to save the free market. Brown said the same. We were told that there would be no cash in the ATMs and society would most certainly come to an end if heroic action was not taken to “save the world”, as Brown so memorably put it (though he seemed to think he had accomplished this feat singlehandedly). Thank God for Gordon!

Now in Iceland, a country I was trading with at the time, their banks did go bust; no one could bail them out. But within days the Krona had re-floated itself and payments continued; within weeks they had a functioning economy.

Within days the good assets of Lehman Bros had been re-allocated, sold to better capitalists than they.

But with these notable exceptions, socialism was the order of the day. Bank’s inflated balance sheets were assumed by sovereign states. Like lager louts on a late night binge, after a Vindaloo as hot as hell itself, heads of government seemed to care little for the inevitable pain that would follow, as states tried to digest what they had so hastily ingested. Indeed, the failed organs of the nationalised banks survive only on life support, enjoying continuous subsidy through the overnight discount window.

But the sovereign governments, under various political colours, had a history of binging. In our case the Labour Party spent more than it could possibly ever raise off the people in open taxes, and the Tories offer “cuts” which in reality mean that the budgets of some departments will not increase as quickly as they were planned to.

Phase 3: King Canute, sovereign default

Default is the word that can’t be mentioned. In reality, we should embrace default. This debt is never going to be repaid. Never, that is, in purchasing power terms.

S&P ratings agency have hinted at this with the recent US rating downgrade. They know the American government can always mint up what it needs so long as it has a reserve currency. They also know that this is a soft default. In real terms, people seem likely to get back less than they put in.

Hard default should be embraced by the smaller nations like Greece and Ireland, so they can rid themselves of obligations they cant afford to pay. This will be good for taxpayers in the richer countries of Europe, as they will no longer be bailing out those who foolishly lent to these countries. It will be good, too, for the debtor nations, as they can remove themselves from the Euro and devalue until they are competitive again. They will, however, need to learn to live within their means. Honest politicians need to come to the fore to effect this.

Yes, this will be painful and the people who lent these profligate and feckless politicians the money will get burnt.

However, the FT has recently seen prominent advocates for a steady 4%-6% inflation target. This is the debtors’ choice and the creditors’ nightmare, with collateral damage for those on fixed or low incomes, for the reasons mentioned above. Should we let the Philosopher Kings have their way?

“Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings. For there is none worthy of the name but God, whom heaven, earth and sea obey”.

So spoke King Canute the Great, the legend says, as waves lapped round his feet. Canute had learned that his flattering courtiers claimed he was “so great, he could command the tides of the sea to go back”. Now Canute was not only a religious man, but also a clever politician. He knew his limitations – even if his courtiers did not – so he had his throne carried to the seashore and sat on it as the tide came in, commanding the waves to advance no further. When they didn’t, he had made his point: though kings may appear ‘great’ in the minds of men, they are powerless against the fundamental laws of Nature.

King Canute, where are you today? We need honest politicians and brave men to step forward and point out the folly of trying paper over the cracks. Unless banks write off under-performing (or never-to-perform) securities from both the private sector and the public sector, we will progressively impoverish more and more people.

Let better business people buy the good assets of the bust banks, and let them provide essential banking services.

Let the sovereigns that can’t pay their way go bust and not impoverish us any further with on-going bailouts. In all my years in business, your first loss is always your best loss.

Yes, this will be painful. Politicians, fess up to the people: you do not have a magic bullet and you can’t offer sunshine today, tomorrow and forever.

I fear that if we do not do this, we approach the end game: the total destruction of paper money. Since August the 15th 1971, paper money has not been rooted in gold. It is the most extreme derivative product, entirely detatched from its underlying asset. Should the failure of this derivative come to pass, we will have to wait for the market to create something else. Will we be reduced to barter, as the German people were in the 20s?

A process of wipe out for all will be a hell of a lot harder than sensible action now.  It is still not too late.


Why all Banks are Insolvent

Why Even the Best Banks are Insolvent and Inherently Dishonest

We are told that Barclays is a good bank and it did well not to take the taxpayers shilling. We are told that it has recovered and is prospering and this indeed is a sign of the economic recovery.

Part of the mission of the Honest Money Movement is to explore and expose these fallacies.

Banks only exist with entrenched legal and accountancy privilege. Privilege for all sectors of the political spectrum is a bad thing. Trade Union privilege to operate  a closed shop cuts back on employment and price gouges the customers who buy the goods that the closed shop workers produce. A group of countries who restrict the price of say oil will push up the price of oil and gouge their customers and so on and so forth. All privilege is bad.

Contrast Normal Commercial Activity…

Any business in this country from the plumber to BP will have current creditors, those people it owes money to such as suppliers and current debtors, those people who owe it money for the goods and services sold. It is a legal offense to not pay your assets and your liabilities as and when they fall due. Indeed as a company director you become personally liable should you trade in this position whilst you are insolvent.

…With That of a Bank

A bank has current creditors: on the whole, these are people like you and me who have our salaries or savings paid or deposited into our accounts on our behalf. We do not actually “own our money” that is deposited in the bank. The bank does.

This may come as a surprise to you. However this is a very well established point of law. Since 1811 in Carr v Carr, this has been the case. So you and I are the current creditors to the bank i.e. we are owed money by the bank. In fact your bank statement is just an IOU from the bank acknowledging that it owes you however much it says on the statement on demand.

The assets of the bank are those people to whom the bank has lent its (formerly your) money to i.e. all the borrowers of loans. As has been so clearly displayed during this crisis, they have lent their money out (formerly yours) over 33 times on average to borrowers. I explain the money credit creation multiplier here for a refresher on understanding this process. So when more than 1 of 33 of us wish to withdraw our money that is on demand, the bank can not pay it back as it does not have it.

I enclose a link to the balance sheet of the UK’s largest company, BP here here.   Page 106 has the balance sheet.

Non-current assets £161,854M
Current assets £66,384M
Total Assets £228,238M
Current liabilities £69,793M
Non Current liabilities £136,129M
Net Assets £92,109M

This would suggest that BP has current liabilities marginally greater than their current assets. No doubt the timing of the payment to suppliers is carefully balanced off otherwise their auditors could not sign off the accounts if they thought the company could not pay off its assets as and when they fall due.

Contrast this with the Barclays Bank full year 2009 results  shown on this spreadsheet.

See tab 4 where we have the consolidated balance sheet.  There are just assets and liabilities and there is not a distinction in their accounts between current liabilities i.e. your and my money that has been deposited that is on demand now and a long term liability such as a mortgage to pay off a loan on some property they may occupy etc over a long period of time. There is £322 billion of money on deposit in current creditors that could be withdrawn “on demand” as that is what the bank tells you that you can do with it. Indeed you only deposit it that way because you need to make sure payments happen on demand. They have no requirement to provide you with the ability to make this happen despite the fact that you may have deposited money there!

So unlike BP and any commercial business from the lowest one man band plumber to the mighty BP, who have to account for keeping payments set aside to cover their current liabilities, a bank is not required to. Indeed, it is specifically allowed not to by accounting law and legal privilege under law. If the deposit base of Barclays wanted what it thought was “its” money back i.e. it wanted the £322 billion redeemed into cash or taken out of the bank and moved to another, then as there is no corresponding current asset to pay for this and only assets that have long term payment implications, it would have to suspend redemptions as North Rock did and hope people would wait until it could try to sell some of its long term assets or collect in its loans. In reality, this would be a run on a bank. Barclays by its very nature is inherently insolvent and can only exist by this accounting / legal privilege that does not apply to any other non bank business in the UK!

One of the first things you will ever learn in a law of contract course is that an agreement is reached between parties and a contract established when an offer is accepted with a mirror image of understanding , from the Latin “pacta sunt servanda” or agreements must be kept. So it would strike me that as the vast majority of people think that they deposit their money and it remains their money in a bank and that the law and accounting standards say otherwise, there is a very good argument that there is not a contract in place between any depositor and bank. Certainly as most depositors also want easy access.

I commissioned a survey for the Cobden Centre in Oct 2009 with ICM over 2,000 people. 74% of people think that they are the legal owner of the money in their current account rather than the bank. Paradoxically 61% know that their money is lent out even though 67% want convenient (now) on demand access. The full results of this survey will be published shortly in another paper.

Now we can understand how the banks have the biggest salaries, the biggest bonuses , the biggest offices, the most plush terms and conditions of employment and so on and so forth. If you do not have to provide for your creditors then you can use their money to do what you like with and this is what happens!

Just to give you an idea what this would mean for me in my company Seafood Holdings Ltd if I was allowed to do what the banks are allowed to do. As of December 2009, I had trade current creditors of £8.276m against trade debtors of £12.275m. If I was a bank, I could pick up the full £8.276m and pay a dividend or bonus and still be lawful. I could build a megalomaniac size corporate head office and stick a gold plated statue with me dressed in a Roman Caesar like uniform to please my demented ego! I could behave like the worst most vulgar of City bankers.

We must always remember their key service other than the safe keeping of our money is to act as an intermediary between saver and borrower. This is “Captain Mannering” style boring banking. Like and estate agent who mediates between buyer and seller of houses, he has a High Street presence like most providing a consumer service. Places like the City of London / Canary Wharf  and Wall Street etc can only exist as they do today on this legal privilege and on the welfare state of credit whereby we allow them to exist at the tax payers’ expense.