“Central bankers control the price of money and therefore indirectly influence every market in the world. Given this immense power, the ideal central banker would be humble, cautious and deferential to market signals. Instead, modern central bankers are both bold and arrogant in their efforts to bend markets to their will. Top-down central planning, dictating resource allocation and industrial output based on supposedly superior knowledge of needs and wants, is an impulse that has infected political players throughout history. It is both ironic and tragic that Western central banks have embraced central planning with gusto in the early twenty-first century, not long after the Soviet Union and Communist China abandoned it in the late twentieth. The Soviet Union and Communist China engaged in extreme central planning over the world’s two largest countries and one-third of the world’s population for more than one hundred years combined. The result was a conspicuous and dismal failure. Today’s central planners, especially the Federal Reserve, will encounter the same failure in time. The open issues are, when and at what cost to society ?”
- James Rickards, ‘The death of money: the coming collapse of the international monetary system’, 2014. [Book review here]
“Sir, On the face of it stating that increasing the inheritance tax allowance to £1m would abolish the tax for “all except a very small number of very rich families” (April 5) sounds a very reasonable statement for the Institute for Fiscal Studies to make, but is £1m nowadays really what it used to be, bearing in mind that £10,000 was its equivalent 100 years ago ?
“A hypothetical “very rich” person today could have, for example, a house worth £600,000 and investments of £400,000. If living in London or the South East, the house would be relatively modest and the income from the investments, assuming a generous 4 per cent return, would give a gross income of £16,000 a year, significantly less than the average national wage.
“So whence comes the idea that nowadays such relatively modest wealth should be classified as making you “very rich” ? The middle-aged should perhaps wake up to the fact that our currency has been systematically debased, though it may be considered impolite to say so as it challenges the conventional political and economic wisdom. To be very rich today surely should mean you have assets that give you an income significantly higher than the national average wage ?”
- Letter to the editor of the Financial Times from Mr John Read, London NW11, 12 April 2014
“The former coach house in Camberwell, which has housed the local mayor’s car, was put on the market by Southwark council as a “redevelopment opportunity”. At nearly £1,000 per square foot, its sale value is comparable to that of some expensive London homes.”
- ‘London garage sells for £550,000’ by Kate Allen, The Financial Times, 12 April 2014.
“Just Eat, online takeaway service, slumped below its float price for the first time on Tuesday as investors dumped shares in a raft of recently floated web-based companies amid mounting concern about their high valuations..
“Just Eat stunned commentators last week when it achieved an eye-watering valuation of £1.47 billion, more than 100 times its underlying earnings of £14.1 million..
““They have fallen because the company was overvalued. Just Eat was priced at a premium to Dominos, an established franchise that delivers and makes the pizzas and has revenues of £269 million. Just Eat by comparison is a yellow pages for local takeaways where there is no quality control and no intellectual property and made significantly less revenues of £96.8 million. A quality restaurant does not need to pay 10 per cent commission to Just Eat to drive customers through the door,” Michael Hewson, chief market analyst at CMC Markets said.”
- ‘Investors lose taste for Just Eat as tech stocks slide’ by Ashley Armstrong and Ben Martin,
The Daily Telegraph, 8 April 2014.
Keep interest rates at zero, whilst printing trillions of dollars, pounds and yen out of thin air, and you can make investors do some pretty extraordinary things. Like buying shares in Just Eat, for example. But arguably more egregious was last week’s launch of a €3 billion five-year Eurobond for Greece, at a yield of just 4.95%. UK “investors” accounted for 47% of the deal, Greek domestic “investors” just 7%. Just in case anybody hasn’t been keeping up with current events, Greece, which is rated Caa3 by Moody’s, defaulted two years ago. In the words of the credit managers at Stratton Street Capital,
“The only way for private investors to justify continuing to throw money at Greece is if you believe that the €222 billion the EU has lent to Greece is entirely fictional, and will effectively be converted to 0% perpetual debt, or will be written off, or Greece will default on official debt while leaving private creditors untouched.”
In a characteristically hubris-rich article last week (‘Only the ignorant live in fear of hyperinflation’), Martin Wolf issued one of his tiresomely regular defences of quantitative easing and arguing for the direct state control of money. One respondent on the FT website made the following comments:
“The headline should read, ‘Only the EXPERIENCED fear hyperinflation’. Unlike Martin Wolf’s theorising, the Germans – and others – know only too well from first-hand experience exactly what hyperinflation is and how it can be triggered by a combination of unforeseen circumstances. The reality, not a hypothesis, almost destroyed Germany. The Bank of England and clever economists can say what they like from their ivory towers, but meanwhile down here in the real world, as anyone who has to live on a budget can tell you, every visit to the supermarket is more expensive than it was even a few weeks ago, gas and electricity prices have risen, transport costs have risen, rents have risen while at the same time incomes remain static and the little amounts put aside for a rainy day in the bank are losing value daily. Purchasing power is demonstrably being eroded and yet clever – well paid – people would have us believe that there is no inflation to speak of. It was following theories and forgetting reality that got us into this appalling financial mess in the first place. Somewhere, no doubt, there’s even an excel spreadsheet and a powerpoint presentation with umpteen graphs by economists proving how markets regulate themselves which was very convincing up to the point where the markets departed from the theory and reality took over. I’d rather trust the Germans with their firm grip on reality any day.”
As for what “inflation” means, the question hinges on semantics. As James Turk and John Rubino point out in the context of official US data, the inflation rate is massaged through hedonic quality modelling, substitution, geometric weighting and something called the Homeowners’ equivalent rent. “If new cars have airbags and new computers are faster, statisticians shave a bit from their actual prices to reflect the perception that they offer more for the money than previous versions.. If [the price of ] steak is rising, government statisticians replace it with chicken, on the assumption that this is how consumers operate in the real world.. rising price components are given less relative weight.. homeowners’ equivalent rent replaces what it actually costs to buy a house with an estimate of what homeowners would have to pay to rent their homes – adjusted hedonically for quality improvements.” In short, the official inflation rate – in the US, and elsewhere – can be manipulated to look like whatever the authorities want it to seem.
But people are not so easily fooled. Another angry respondent to Martin Wolf’s article cited the “young buck” earning £30K who wanted to buy a house in Barnet last year. Having saved for 12 months to amass a deposit for a studio flat priced at £140K, he goes into the estate agency and finds that the type of flat he wanted now costs £182K – a 30% price increase in a year. Now he needs to save for another 9 years, just to make up for last year’s gain in property prices.
So inflation is quiescent, other than in the prices of houses, shares, bonds, food, energy and a variety of other financial assets.
The business of rational investment and capital preservation becomes unimaginably difficult when central banks overextend their reach in financial markets and become captive to those same animal spirits. Just as economies and markets are playing a gigantic tug of war between the forces of debt deflation and monetary inflation, they are being pulled in opposite directions as they try desperately to anticipate whether and when central bank monetary stimulus will subside, stop or increase. Central bank ‘forward guidance’ has made the outlook less clear, not more. Doug Noland cites a recent paper by former IMF economist and Reserve Bank of India Governor Raghuram Rajan titled ‘Competitive Monetary Easing: Is It Yesterday Once More ?’ The paper addresses the threat of what looks disturbingly like a modern retread of the trade tariffs and import wars that worsened the 1930s Great Depression – only this time round, as exercised by competitive currency devaluations by the larger trading economies.
Conclusion: The current non-system [a polite term for non-consensual, non-cooperative chaos] in international monetary policy [competitive currency devaluation] is, in my view, a source of substantial risk, both to sustainable growth as well as to the financial sector. It is not an industrial country problem, nor an emerging market problem, it is a problem of collective action. We are being pushed towards competitive monetary easing. If I use terminology reminiscent of the Depression era non-system, it is because I fear that in a world with weak aggregate demand, we may be engaged in a futile competition for a greater share of it. In the process, unlike Depression- era policies, we are also creating financial sector and cross-border risks that exhibit themselves when unconventional policies come to an end. There is no use saying that everyone should have anticipated the consequences. As the former BIS General Manager Andrew Crockett put it, ‘financial intermediaries are better at assessing relative risks at a point in time, than projecting the evolution of risk over the financial cycle.’ A first step to prescribing the right medicine is to recognize the cause of the sickness. Extreme monetary easing, in my view, is more cause than medicine. The sooner we recognize that, the more sustainable world growth we will have.
The Fed repeats its 2% inflation target mantra as if it were some kind of holy writ. 2% is an entirely arbitrary figure, subject to state distortion in any event, that merely allows the US government to live beyond its means for a little longer and meanwhile to depreciate the currency and the debt load in real terms. The same problem in essence holds for the UK, the euro zone and Japan. Savers are being boiled alive in the liquid hubris of neo-Keynesian economists explicitly in the service of the State.
Doug Noland again:
“While I don’t expect market volatility is going away anytime soon, I do see an unfolding backdrop conducive to one tough bear market. Everyone got silly bullish in the face of very serious domestic and global issues. Global securities markets are a problematic “crowded trade.” Marc Faber commented that a 2014 crash could be even worse than 1987. To be sure, today’s incredible backdrop with Trillions upon Trillions of hedge funds, ETFs, derivatives and the like make 1987 portfolio insurance look like itsy bitsy little peanuts. So there are at this point rather conspicuous reasons why Financial Stability has always been and must remain a central bank’s number one priority. Just how in the devil was this ever lost on contemporary central bankers?”
Editor’s note: This article was previously published here at Goldmoney.com. It is republished with thanks.
Geopolitical and market background
I have been revisiting estimates of the quantities of gold being absorbed by China, and yet again I have had to revise them upwards. Analysis of the detail discovered in historic information in the context of China’s gold strategy has allowed me for the first time to make reasonable estimates of vaulted gold, comprised of gold accounts at commercial banks, mine output and scrap. There is also compelling evidence mine output and scrap are being accumulated by the government in its own vaults, and not being delivered to satisfy public demand.
The impact of these revelations on estimates of total identified demand and the drain on bullion stocks from outside China is likely to be dramatic, but confirms what some of us have suspected but been unable to prove. Western analysts have always lagged in their understanding of Chinese demand and there is now evidence China is deliberately concealing the scale of it from us. Instead, China is happy to let us accept the lower estimates of western analysts, which by identifying gold demand from the retail end of the supply chain give significantly lower figures.
Before 2012 the Shanghai Gold Exchange was keen to advertise its ambitions to become a major gold trading hub. This is no longer the case. The last SGE Annual Report in English was for 2010, and the last Gold Market Report was for 2011. 2013 was a watershed year. Following the Cyprus debacle, western central banks, seemingly unaware of latent Chinese demand embarked on a policy of supplying large quantities of bullion to break the bull market and suppress the price. The resulting expansion in both global and Chinese demand was so rapid that analysts in western capital markets have been caught unawares.
I started following China’s gold strategy over two years ago and was more or less on my own, having been tipped off by a contact that the Chinese government had already accumulated large amounts of gold before actively promoting gold ownership for private individuals. I took the view that the Chinese government acted for good reasons and that it is a mistake to ignore their actions, particularly when gold is involved.
Since then, Koos Jansen of ingoldwetrust.ch has taken a specialised interest in the SGE and Hong Kong’s trade statistics, and his dedication to the issue has helped spread interest and knowledge in the subject. He has been particularly successful in broadcasting market statistics published in Chinese to a western audience, overcoming the lack of information available in English.
I believe that China is well on the way to having gained control of the international gold market, thanks to western central banks suppression of the gold price, which accelerated last year. The basic reasons behind China’s policy are entirely logical:
- China knew at the outset that gold is the west’s weak spot, with actual monetary reserves massively overstated. For all I know their intelligence services may have had an accurate assessment of how much gold there is left in western vaults, and if they had not, their allies, the Russians, probably did. Representatives of the People’s Bank of China will have attended meetings at the Bank for International Settlements where these issues are presumably openly discussed by central bankers.
- China has significant currency surpluses under US control. By controlling the gold market China can flip value from US Treasuries into gold as and when it wishes. This gives China ultimate financial leverage over the west if required.
- By encouraging its population to invest in gold China reduces the need to acquire dollars to control the renminbi/dollar rate. Put another way, gold purchases by the public have helped absorb her trade surplus. Furthermore gold ownership insulates her middle classes from external currency instability which has become an increasing concern since the Lehman crisis.
For its geopolitical strategy to work China must accumulate large quantities of bullion. To this end China has encouraged mine production, making the country the largest producer in the world. It must also have control over the global market for physical gold, and by rapidly developing the SGE and its sister the Shanghai Gold Futures Exchange the groundwork has been completed. If western markets, starved of physical metal, are forced at a future date to declare force majeure when settlements fail, the SGE and SGFE will be in a position to become the world’s market for gold. Interestingly, Arab holders have recently been recasting some of their old gold holdings from the LBMA’s 400 ounce 995 standard into the Chinese one kilo 9999 standard, which insures them against this potential risk.
China appears in a few years to have achieved dominance of the physical gold market. Since January 2008 turnover on the SGE has increased from a quarterly average of 362 tonnes per month to 1,100 tonnes, and deliveries from 44 tonnes per month to 212 tonnes. It is noticeable how activity increased rapidly from April 2013, in the wake of the dramatic fall in the gold price. From January 2008, the SGE has delivered from its vaults into public hands a total of 6,776 tonnes. This is illustrated in the chart below.
This is only part of the story, the part that is in the public domain. In addition there is gold imported through Hong Kong and fabricated for the Chinese retail market bypassing the SGE, changes of stock levels within the SGE’s network of vaults, the destination of domestic mine output and scrap, government purchases of gold in London and elsewhere, and purchases stored abroad by the wealthy. Furthermore the Chinese diaspora throughout South East Asia competes with China for global gold stocks, and its demand is in addition to that of China’s Mainland and Hong Kong.
The Shanghai Gold Exchange (SGE)
The SGE, which is the government-owned and controlled gold exchange monopoly, runs a vaulting system with which westerners will be familiar. Gold in the vaults is fungible, but when it leaves the SGE’s vaults it is no longer so, and in order to re-enter them it is treated as scrap and recast. In 2011 there were 49 vaults in the SGE’s system, and bars and ingots are supplied to SGE specifications by a number of foreign and Chinese refiners. Besides commercial banks, SGE members include refiners, jewellery manufacturers, mines, and investment companies. The SGE’s 2010 Annual Report, the last published in English, states there were 25 commercial banks included in 163 members of the exchange, 6,751 institutional clients accounting for 81% of gold traded, and 1,778,500 clients of the commercial banks with gold accounts. The 2011 Gold Report, the most recent available, stated that the number of commercial bank members had increased to 29 with 2,353,600 clients, and given the rapid expansion of demand since, the number of gold account holders is likely to be considerably greater today.
About 75% of the SGE’s gold turnover is for forward settlement and the balance is for spot delivery. Standard bars are Au99.95 3 kilos (roughly 100 ounces), Au99.99 1 kilo, Au100g and Au50g. The institutional standard has become Au99.99 1 kilo bars, most of which are sourced from Swiss refiners, with the old Au99.95 standard less than 15% of turnover today compared with 65% five years ago. The smaller 100g and 50g bars are generally for retail demand and a very small proportion of the total traded. Public demand for smaller bars is satisfied mainly through branded products provided by commercial banks and other retail entities instead of from SGE-authorised refiners.
Overall volumes on the SGE are a tiny fraction of those recorded in London, and the market is relatively illiquid, so much so that opportunities for price arbitrage are often apparent rather than real. The obvious difference between the two markets is the large amounts of gold delivered to China’s public. This has fuelled the rapid growth of the Chinese market leading to a parallel increase in vaulted bullion stocks, which for 2013 is likely to have been substantial.
By way of contrast the LBMA is not a regulated market but is overseen by the Bank of England, while the SGE is both controlled and regulated by the People’s Bank of China. The PBOC is also a member of both its own exchange and of the LBMA, and deals actively in non-monetary gold. While the LBMA is at arm’s length from the BoE, the SGE is effectively a department of the PBOC. This allows the Chinese government to control the gold market for its own strategic objectives.
Identifiable demand is the sum of deliveries to the public withdrawn from SGE vaults, plus the residual gold left in Hong Kong, being the net balance between imports and exports. To this total must be added an estimate of changes in vaulted bullion stocks.
SGE gold deliveries
Gold deliveries from SGE vaults to the general public are listed both weekly and monthly in Chinese. The following chart shows how they have grown on a monthly basis.
Growth in public demand for physical gold is a reflection of the increased wealth and savings of Chinese citizens, and also reflects advertising campaigns that have encouraged ordinary people to invest in gold. Advertising the attractions of gold investment is consistent with a deliberate government policy of absorbing as much gold as possible from western vaults, including those of central banks.
Hong Kong provides import, export and re-export figures for gold. All gold is imported, exports refer to gold that has been materially altered in form, and re-exports are of gold transited more or less unaltered. Thus, exports refer mainly to jewellery which in China’s case is sold directly into the Mainland without going through the SGE, and re-exports refer to gold in bar form which we can assume is delivered to the SGE. Some imported gold remains on the island, and some is re-exported from China back to Hong Kong. This gold is either vaulted in Hong Kong or alternatively turned into jewellery and sold mostly to visitors from the Mainland buying tax-free gold.
The mainstream media has reported on the large quantities of gold flowing from Switzerland to Hong Kong, but this is only part of the story. In 2013, Hong Kong imported 916 tonnes from Switzerland, 190 tonnes from the US, 176 tonnes from Australia and 150 tonnes from South Africa as well as significant tonnages from eight other countries, including the UK. She also imported 337 tonnes from Mainland China and exported 211 tonnes of it back to China as fabricated gold.
Hong Kong is not the sole entry port for gold destined for the Mainland. The table below illustrates how Hong Kong’s gold trade with China has grown, and its purpose is to identify gold additional to that supplied via Hong Kong to the SGE. Included in the bottom line, but not separately itemised, is fabricated gold trade with China (both ways), as well as the balance of all imports and exports accruing to Hong Kong.
The bottom line, “Additional supply from HK” should be added to SGE deliveries and changes in SGE vaulted gold to create known demand for China and Hong Kong.
SGE vaulted gold
The increase in SGE vaulted gold in recent years can only be estimated. However, it was reported in earlier SGE Annual Reports to amount to 519.55 tonnes in 2008, 582.6 tonnes in 2009, and 841.8 tonnes in 2010. There have been no reported vault figures since.
The closest and most logical relationship for vaulted gold is with actual deliveries. After all, public demand is likely to be split between clients maintaining gold accounts at member banks, and clients taking physical possession. The ratios of delivered to vaulted gold were remarkably stable at 1.05, 1.03, and 0.99 for 2008, 2009 and 2010 respectively. On this basis it seems reasonable to assume that vaulted gold has continued to increase at approximately the same amount as delivered gold on a one-to-one basis. The estimated annual increase in vaulted gold is shown in the table below.
The benefits of vault storage, ranging from security from theft to the ability to use it as collateral, seem certain to encourage gold account holders to continue to accumulate vaulted metal rather than take personal possession.
Supply consists of scrap, domestically mined and imported gold
Scrap is almost entirely gold bars, originally delivered from the SGE’s vaults into public hands, and subsequently sold and resubmitted for refining. Consequently scrap supplies tend to increase when gold can be profitably sold by individuals in a rising market, and they decrease on falling prices. There is very little old jewellery scrap and industrial recycling is not relatively significant. Official scrap figures are only available for 2009-2011: 244.5, 256.3 and 405.8 tonnes respectively. I shall therefore assume scrap supplies for 2012 at 430 tonnes and 2013 at 350 tonnes, reflecting gold price movements during those two years.
Scrap is refined entirely by Chinese refiners, and as stated in the discussion concerning mine supply below, the absence of SGE standard kilo bars in Hong Kong is strong evidence that they are withheld from circulation. It is therefore reasonable to assume that scrap should be regarded as vaulted, probably held separately on behalf of the government or its agencies.
China mines more gold than any other nation and it is generally assumed mine supply is sold through the SGE. That is what one would expect, and it is worth noting that a number of mines are members of the SGE and do indeed trade on it. They act as both buyers and sellers, which suggests they frequently use the market for hedging purposes, if nothing else.
Typically, a mine will produce doré which has to be assessed and paid for before it is forwarded to a refinery. Only when it is refined and cast into standard bars can gold be delivered to the market. Broadly, one of the following procedures between doré and the sale of gold bars will occur:
- The refiner acts on commission from the mine, and the mine sells the finished product on the market. This is inefficient management of cash-flow, though footnotes in the accounts of some mine companies suggest this happens.
- The refiner buys doré from the mine, refines it and sells it through the SGE. This is inefficient for the refiner, which has to find the capital to buy the doré.
- A commercial bank, being a member of the SGE, finances the mine from doré to the sale of deliverable gold, paying the mine up-front. This is the way the global mining industry often works.
- The government, which ultimately directs the mines, refiners and the SGE, buys the mine output at pre-agreed prices and may or may not put the transaction through the market.
I believe the government acquires all mine output, because it is consistent with the geopolitical strategy outlined at the beginning of this article. Furthermore, two of my contacts, one a Swiss refiner with facilities in Hong Kong and the other a vault operator in Hong Kong, tell me they have never seen a Chinese-refined one kilo bar. Admittedly, most one kilo bars in existence bear the stamp of Swiss and other foreign refiners, but nonetheless there must be over two million Chinese-refined kilo bars in existence. Either Chinese customs are completely successful in stopping all ex-vault Chinese-refined one kilo bars leaving the Mainland, or the government takes all domestically refined production for itself, with the exception perhaps of some 100 and 50 gram bars. Logic suggests the latter is true rather than the former.
Since the SGE is effectively a department of the PBOC, it must be at the government’s discretion if domestic mine production is put through the market by the PBOC. Whether or not Chinese mine supply is put through the market is impossible to establish from the available statistics, and is unimportant: no bars end up in circulation because they all remain vaulted. It is material however to the overall supply and demand picture, because global mine supply last year drops to about 2,490 tonnes assuming Chinese production is not available to the market.
Geopolitics suggests that China acquires most, if not all of its own mine and scrap production, which accumulates in the vaulting system. This throws the emphasis back on the figures for vaulted gold, which I have estimated at one-for-one with delivered gold due to gold account holder demand. To this estimate we should now add both Chinese scrap and mine supply. This would explain why vaulted gold is no longer reported, and it would underwrite my estimates of vaulted gold from 2011 onwards.
Further comments on vaulted gold
From the above it can be seen there are three elements to vaulted gold: gold held on behalf of accountholders with the commercial banks, scrap gold and mine supply. The absence of Chinese one kilo bars in circulation leads us to suppose scrap and mine supply accumulate, inflating SGE vault figures, but a moment’s reflection shows this is too simplistic. If it was included in total vaulted gold, then the quantity of gold held by accountholders with the commercial banks, as reported in 2009-11, would have fallen substantially to compensate. This cannot have been the case, as the number of accountholders increased substantially over the period, as did interest in gold investment.
Therefore, scrap and mined gold must be allocated into other vaults not included in the SGE network, and these vaults can only be under the control of the government. It will have been from these vaults that China’s sudden increase in monetary gold of 444 tonnes in the first quarter of 2009 was drawn, which explains why the total recorded in SGE vaults was obviously unaffected. So for the purpose of determining the quantity of vaulted gold, scrap and mined gold must be added to the gold recorded in SGE vaults.
Though it is beyond the scope of this analysis, the existence of government vaults not in the SGE network should be noted, and given cumulative mine production over the last thirty years, scrap supply and possibly other purchases of gold from abroad, the bullion stocks in these government vaults are likely to be very substantial.
Western gold flows to China
We are now in a position to estimate Chinese demand and supply factors in a global context. The result is summarised in the table below.
Chinese demand before 2013 had arrived at a plateau, admittedly higher than generally realised, before expanding dramatically following last April’s price drop. Taking the WGC’s figures for the Rest of the World gives us new global demand figures, which throw up a shortfall amounting to 9,461 tonnes since the Lehman crisis, satisfied from existing above-ground stocks.
This figure, though shocking to those unaware of these stock flows, could well be conservative, because we have only been able to address SGE deliveries, vaulted gold and Hong Kong net flows. Missing from our calculations is Chinese government purchases in London, demand from the ultra-rich not routed through the SGE, and gold held by Chinese nationals abroad. It is also likely that demand from the Chinese diaspora in SE Asia and Asian is also underestimated by western analysts.
There are assumptions in this analysis that should be clear to all. But if it only serves to expose the futility of attempts in western capital markets to manage the gold price, the exercise has been worthwhile. For much of 2013 commentators routinely stated that Asian demand was satisfied from ETF redemptions. But as can be seen, ETF sales totalling 881 tonnes covered only one quarter of the west’s shortfall against China, the rest coming mostly from central bank vaults. Anecdotal evidence from Switzerland is that the four major refiners have been working round-the-clock turning LBMA 400 ounce bars into one kilo 9999 bars for China. They are even working with gold bars that are battered and dusty, which suggests the west is not only digging into deep storage to satisfy Chinese demand at current prices, but digging a hole for itself as well.
Following his recent paper The law of opposites: Illusory profits in the financial sector, TCC Advisory Board member and founder of Cobden Partners Gordon Kerr appeared on Bloomberg. The video is here.
Click for video
Gordon dealt with the flaws in IFRS, the reasons for the debt crisis, the case for hardening money, the need for international money in support of trade and more.
Later in the day, I said in the Commons that the Government’s response to the ICB report seemed to take accounting for granted, asking the Chancellor to consider the issue seriously in the forthcoming white paper.
Another classic article, brought forward. This is a speech by James Tyler to the Adam Smith Institute Next Generation Group on 6 October 2009. This speech is also available on hedgehedge.com.
I have spent the best part of the last two decades pitting my wits against the market. It’s an unforgiving game: I’ve seen ups and downs, and many of my rivals buried under an avalanche of hubris, passion, illogical thought and unchecked emotion.
I have witnessed the sheer folly of the ERM crisis, the Asian crisis, the failure of the Gods at Long Term Capital Management and the insanity of the tech boom.
I have enjoyed the ‘NICE’ decade (Non-Inflationary Constant Expansion), and scared myself silly during the credit crisis.
I am a trader.
I risk my own money and live or die by my decisions, and face the threat of personal bankruptcy every time I switch my screens on. I get no salary – indeed I turn up at the start of the month with a large office overhead – a ‘negative’ salary. I have no fancy company pension scheme, no lucrative monopoly or franchise.
I eat what I kill.
Mistakes cost me my livelihood, so, above all, my decisions have to be rooted in practical and logical decision making.
Some have called my kind parasitic, but I would have said that I bring order, efficiency, predictability, stability and deep liquidity to a crucial process: a process that makes the whole world keep ticking.
I make money work.
I make the market in interest rate derivatives: a market born out of the neo classical revolution in finance fostered in Chicago during the 1970s. I am a child of Friedman, Fisher Black, Myron Scholes and the modern international financial system.
My analysis was steeped in the neo-classical, efficient markets paradigm.
Friedman’s ideal was working. Enlightened central bankers guided the free market with gentle nudges and short term liquidity infusions, free floating currencies gently adjusted themselves to the constant flow of new information and efficient and rational markets took all in their stride.
Credit flowed, people got wealthier, economies developed and all was well.
And then the crisis struck.
Continue reading “My Journey to Austrianism via the City”
In September of last year, I placed this article up on our web site detailing the theoretical errors behind the policy of quantitative easing. Clearly, as the MPC has now been given the green light by our chancellor, we expect this currency debasement to be starting soon. All it will “achieve” is a wealth transfer from those lucky enough to get the newly minted money, from those not luckily enough. I aimed to expose the faulty crank-economics that lies behind such thought processes last year and did not think a Tory government would be so foolish to let this happen under their watch, especially as they condemned it under a Labour government. Sadly, articles like this one need to be reproduced so that a new set of readers can hopefully have influence on the present administration.
The mainstream economists hold that the volume of money in circulation, times its velocity is equal to the prices of all goods and services added up. This is the famous Theory of Exchange, MV=PT, or the mechanistic Quantity Theory of Money, where:
- M is the stock of money,
- V is the velocity of circulation: the number of times the monetary unit changes hands in a certain time period,
- P is the general price level,
- and T is the “aggregate” of all quantities of goods and services exchanged in the period.
It is held by the overwhelming majority of all economists, that if the velocity of money falls, the price level will fall and thus it is the duty of government, the monopoly issuer of money, the chief Central Planner of the Money Supply, to create more money to keep the price level where it is and thus preserve the existing spending habits of the nation.
Error One — the stock of money
It is held that if you can count the monetary units in the economy and their velocity, you can say what the price level is. As people find it very difficult to count the money in an economy, they cannot see the statistical relationship showing up mechanistically in the price level as expected: the authorities do not have a measure of the money supply which correlates to economic activity.
Working from a sound theoretical basis, I and my colleague Anthony Evans can show you how to count money exactly and how that measure of the money stock correlates to economic activity:
Note that changes in the mainstream measures — M0 and M4 — are quite different to changes in our measure — MA. However, it is MA which shows the best correlation to economic activity and not the measures used by the Bank of England and HM Treasury:
The monetary authorities do not have an adequate measure of the money supply.
Error Two — the velocity of circulation
Velocity is defined as the average number of times during a period that a monetary unit (I will call this MU) is exchanged for a good or service. It is said that a 5% increase in money does not necessarily show itself up with a 5% increase in the price level. It is argued that this is because the velocity of money changes. The trick is to measure by how much the velocity has declined and then create new money — cross your fingers, pray to the Good Lord, do a rain dance around a fire, and hope that the new money will be spent — to fill in this gap left by the fall in velocity.
When you buy a house, we do not say it “circulates”: money is exchanged against real bricks and mortar. The printer who sold me books would have had to sell printed things (i.e. real goods) and saved (forgone consumption) for the future purchase (act of consumption) of the house. Imagine selling your house backwards and forwards between say you and your wife 10 times: the mainstream would argue that the velocity of circulation had risen!
Yes as daft as it sounds, this is the present state of economics.
Thus, if the velocity has gone up by a factor of 10, the price level has increased by the same factor. Here is the suggested rub: therefore, when the velocity of circulation falls, if you increase the money supply by the same factor that the velocity of circulation has fallen by, the price level will stay the same.
Note, as explained above and in detail here, the mainstream do not actually know what money is. Well, let us be clear: it is the final good for which (all) other goods exchange. All of us who are productive make things for sale or sell services, even if it is only our own labour. We sell goods and services which we produce or offer for other goods and services we need. The most marketable of all commodities, money, is accepted by you and other citizens and facilitates exchange of your goods and services for other goods and services. Note that, at all times, money facilitates the exchange of real goods for other real goods.
Party one and a counterparty exchanging or “selling” the house between one another 10 times causing an “increase in velocity” and thus an increase in the price level as an idea is utter garbage. If one party had sold real goods and saved in anticipation of buying the house — real bricks and mortar via the medium of money — this would facilitate a transaction of something (the party’s saved real goods) for something (the counterparty’s real house). Printing money to make sure the price level stays stable to facilitate the “circulating” house in the first example will facilitate a transfer of nothing (the paper) for something (the house). This is commonly called counterfeiting.
This may be another helpful example of why velocity is utterly meaningless. Consider a dinner party: Guest A has a £1. He lends it to Guest B at dinner, who lends it to Guest C who lends it to Guest D. If Guest D pays it back to Guest C, who pays it back to Guest B pays Guest A, the £1 is said to have done £4’s worth of work. The bookkeeping of this transaction shows that £1 was lent out 4 times and they all cancel each other out! Just to be clear, £1 has done £1’s work and not £4’s work. No real wealth or value is created.
The velocity of circulation makes no economic sense.
Error Three — the general price level
Since the monetary authorities have no means to sum the price and quantity of every individual transaction, they must work instead with the “general price level”, ignoring the vital role of changes in relative prices.
As early as 1912, Ludwig von Mises demonstrated that new money must change the structure of relative prices. As anyone who has lived through the past year could tell you, new money is not distributed equally to everyone in the economy. It is injected over time and in specific locations: new money redistributes income to those who receive it first. This redistribution of income not only alters people’s subjective perception of value, it also alters their weight in the marketplace. These factors can only lead to changes in the structure of relative prices.
Mainstream economists believe that “money is neutral in the long run”. They do not have a theory of the capital structure of production which can account for the effects of time and relative prices. They believe increases in the money supply affect all sectors uniformly and proportionately. This is manifestly untrue: look at changes in the Bank of England’s balance sheet and your bank statement.
Hayek wrote that his chief objection to this theory was that it paid attention only to the general price level and not to the structure of relative prices. He indicated that, in consequence, it disregarded the most harmful effects of increasing the money supply: the misdirection of resources and specifically unemployment. Furthermore, this wilful ignorance of relative prices explains the mainstream’s lack of an adequate theory of business cycles, something Hayek provided.
The general price level aggregates away a vital factor: the relative structure of prices.
Error Four — the aggregate quantities of goods and services sold
Since the sum of price times quantity for every individual transaction is not available, the authorities must use the “aggregate quantity of goods and services sold”. This is nonsense: the quantities to be added together are incompatible. It makes no sense to add a kilogram of potatoes to a kilogram of copper to a litre of petrol to a day’s software consultancy to a 30-second television advert.
The aggregate quantity of goods and services sold is an impossible sum.
Error Five — the equation is no more than a tautology
Consider this, if I buy 10 copies of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations from a printing company for 7 monetary units (or MU), an exchange has been made: I gave up 7 MU’s to the printer, and the printer transferred 10 sets of printed works to me. The error that the mainstream make is that “10 sets of printed works have been regarded as equal to 7 MU, and this fact may be expressed thus: 7 MU = 10 printed works multiplied by 0.7 MU per set of printed works.” But equality is not self-evident.
There is never any equality of values on the part of the two participants in exchange. The assumption that an exchange presumes some sort of equality has been a delusion of economic theory for many centuries. We only exchange if each party thinks he is getting something of greater value from the other party than he has already. If there was equality in value, no exchange would happen! Value is subjective and utility is marginal: each party values the other’s goods or services more highly than their own.
Thus, while the mainstream believe that there is a causal link between the “money side” of the equation and the “value of goods and services side”, it is just a tautology from which no economic knowledge can be gained. All we are saying, if the Quantity Theory holds, is that “7 MU’s = 10 sets of printed works X 0.7 MU’s per set of printed works”: in other words, “7 MU = 7 MU”. Thus what is paid is what is received. This is like announcing to the world that you have discovered the fabulous fact that 2=2.
The mechanistic Quantity Theory of Money is not a causal relation but a tautology.
The mechanistic Quantity Theory only provides us with a tautology and every term of “MV = PT” is seriously flawed. Public policy should not rest on the foundation of this bad science.
If the money supply contracts as it has done so spectacularly since late 2008 (see the chart above), you will have less goods and services supporting less economic activity. This for sure is bad. We now have less money and less exchanging of real goods and services for other real goods and services.
The only way to get more goods and services offered for exchange is if entrepreneurs get hold of their factors of production — land, labour and capital — and reorganise them to meet the new demands of the consumers in a more efficient way than before. The only thing that the government can do is to make sure it provides as little regulatory burden as possible and the lightest tax regime that it can run in order to allow entrepreneurs to facilitate this correction.
Certainly in my business of the supply of fish and meat to the food service sector — www.directseafoods.co.uk — I have never witnessed such an abrupt change in consumption patterns as people have traded down from more expensive species and cuts to less expensive ones. Thus I have to reorganise my offer to my customers and potential customers. No amount of fiddling about with the level of newly minted money in the economy will help this reorganisation of my factors of production: they need to be retuned to the new needs and desires of my customers.
Quantitative easing, as I have said before, is firmly based on a belief in the so called “internal truths” held in the Quantity Theory of Money. I hope any reader can see that this belief is based on very faulty logic. Bad logic gives us bad policy. A policy of QE says that because the velocity of circulation has fallen, we can print newly minted money, out of thin air, at the touch of a computer key, and create more demand for the exchange of goods and services.
Money has been historically rooted in gold and silver because these cannot “vanish” overnight as we are seeing under our present state monopoly of money — fiat money, money by decree, i.e. bits of paper we are forced to use as legal tender. Remember, since 1971 when Nixon broke the gold link, money is just bits of paper, notwithstanding a promise to pay the bearer on demand. In the near future, this will no doubt remain the case. Indeed, anyone who dares to mention that the final good, for which all goods exchange, should be a real good that is scarce (hard to manipulate it, hard to destroy it) unlike paper and electronic journal entries (easy to manipulate, easy to destroy) is considered a lunatic!
On a point of history, it is worthwhile remembering that, as we have mentioned here, the 1844 Peel Act did remove the banks’ practice of issuing promissory notes (paper money) over and above their reserves of gold (the most marketable commodity i.e. money) as this was causing bank runs, “panic”, boom and bust. They did not resolve the issues of demand deposits to be drawn by cheque. Both features allow banks to issue new money — i.e. certificates that have no prior production of useful economic activity such as our printer printing books or my selling of meat and fish — while retaining real money — claims to the printing of books and selling of my meat and fish — only to a percentage of the deposited money, i.e. the Reserve Requirement of the bank. In the UK, there is no Reserve Requirement anymore as far as I am aware, hence banks going for massive levels of leverage. It is no surprise that the house of cards has fallen down.
Our proposal for a 100% reserve requirement is offered for discussion as the only sure-fire way of delivering lasting stability. Listening to economists talking about the “velocity of circulation” falling and thus suggesting that we should conduct large scale Quantitative Easing to hold the price level is not economics, but the policy of the Witch Doctor and the Mystic.
It is staggering that so much garbage, posing as sound knowledge, hinges on these grave errors.
A reader has sent in his thoughts about the recent proposals to reform the regulatory apparatus of the UK banking system:
Last Friday I had a quick view at the report by HM Treasure on a proposal to reshuffle the institutional setting for financial system regulation and oversight in the UK. The introduction (4 pages) is interesting but sometimes depressing. It openly recognised that UK authorities (Bank of England and FSA) failed to see the problems coming and to react adequately. Good. However, the solution it proposes is not to improve the understanding of the building up of bubbles and imbalances, or to reinvigorate the political will so it can make decisions even if those affect the banking status, or to stop trying to achieve the unachievable (a big apparatus able to foresee everything in the system as a whole), but… just rearranging chairs… (every one else in the world, G20, ECB, FED, is rearranging chairs too, so this reshuffling is quite mainstream). However, maybe in the case of the UK there is a possibility to introduce sound thinking in this new Bank of England-based structure (and stop the endogamic kind of thinking within current monetary authorities), through the external members of the newly created “Financial Policy Committee”. The report says (p. 17) among other things:
2.43 It will be important to ensure that the external members of the FPC are able to provide sufficient levels of expertise and challenge to the Committee’s deliberations – this will not only include experience of banking, but also other financial sectors such as insurance and investment banking and, of course, macroeconomic expertise.
2.44 In addition to the chief executive of the CPMA, the Chancellor will appoint four external members of the FPC using a similar recruitment process to that used for the MPC. The Government will look carefully at the best way to ensure that external members demonstrate ample relevant knowledge and experience and the ability to work constructively in a committee environment, without conflicts of interest that would prevent them participating fully in the work of the Committee.”
My take on this is that the external members of the FPC have to be radically different in make up than the internal members of the current MPC i.e. usually a academic, or some who has come from that background. Entrepreneurs, great business leaders and representatives from the SME sector , all who operate at the coal face would have more of an idea about what is and is not actually going on in the economy, better still, why not think about reforming the whole system anyway so we do not rely of 20 or so central planners to determine the value of our very currency, arguably with language, the foundation of civil , peaceful society.
Above all, if we are only tinkering and not radically reforming, he concluded “please appoint those WHO DID SEE it coming and who have a sound theoretical framework behind it (and kick out those who were clueless…)”
Bravo to that, we can name a number of Austrian School economists and Austrian influenced fund managers and entrepreneurs who could do this job.
I praise the Coalition government for their first brave attempt to tackle the £156 bn deficit with their £6 bn of net cuts. This, as we know, is scratching the surface of the problem.
I was speaking to a back bencher who used to have a senior role as an advisor to a current Cabinet member: he told me that their main objective was to cut the “structural deficit.” This is estimated to be about £70 bn. I get worried when the ambition is so low and assumes that growth will build up substantially this year, enough to bring in an extra £80 bn of tax revenue to “plug the gap.”
So I believe we will finish the year with £900 bn of national debt. This is forecast to cost £40 bn a year in interest service costs. This is nearly 30% of all income tax revenue. This is more than what we pay for the education of our children. What a shocking waste of our resources and a desperately onerous burden on the taxpayer.
If you follow this link to the Debt Management Office, you will see the perplexing sight that our very own Bank of England, part of the apparatus of the state, owns £190 bn of all outstanding debt. This is shown on the very first page, bottom left hand chart.
I say perplexing as it may have dawned upon you now that one side of the government issues new debt while the other part “buys” it with newly minted money. We the taxpayers get the privilege of paying the interest on this newly minted money that is now owed to the government!
Currently at the end of Q4 2009 the national debt was £796 bn, so £200 bn is 25% of this debt. Suffice it to say, I would think it reasonable to assume that ¼ of the £40 bn debt interest service is then totally unnecessary!
Our Chief Secretary to the Treasury, David Laws, is involved in the papers today with a £40k personal expenses scandal. This makes the front page of all major papers. This is nothing compared with this £200 thousand million debt problem and the £10 thousand million interest bill problem that this oddity generates! Yet no mention of this on the front pages!
This means £10 bn could be saved at a flick of a switch on a key board, with no economic consequences other than to relieve the burden of the taxpayer of having to pony up £10 bn in cold-blooded tax extractions. This savings could also be the equivalent of a 7% cut in income tax.
Now that would be popular.
I wonder if the real reason why one arm of Government must “buy” so much of the debt of another arm is to keep the illusion going that there is a market for UK debt. This then begs the question, “Did a bond strike happen a long time ago?”
Readers to this site know that I favour a solution that would totally eliminate the national debt as mentioned in these two articles:
However, today, this modest “pressing the button” reform could be done and should be done with no debate, and yet it is not!
The general lack of economic knowledge does concern me more and more. A timely reminder of this was in yesterday’s letter section of the FT, May the 28th .
‘Reminder of repressive US gold rush
‘Sir, Martin Wolf asks “How likely is financial repression?” (May 25). Based on the historical record, as he suggests, it’s pretty likely.
‘He does not mention a most egregious case of financial repression: the confiscation of all their gold from American citizens by their government in the 1930s, so they could be forced to hold depreciated fiat dollars. (The Federal Reserve Banks had their gold confiscated, too, and still own none.)
‘This was followed by default on the gold bonds of the US. For its citizens to own gold was made criminal by the American government, an outrageous and oppressive act that remained in force for decades.
‘Yes, when pushing comes to shoving, never underestimate what coercive measures governments will undertake. Mr Wolf’s reminder is timely.
Alex J. Pollock, Resident Fellow, American Enterprise Institute, Washington, DC, US’
I could not put this better myself.
We should all remember the following:
- The crisis always starts by Public Spending in excess of what we can afford.
- Deficit Spending then occurs, with no understanding that this risks the collapse of the economy.
- Denial of Any Problem is writ large amongst the incumbent ruling politicians.
- There follows a Lack of Political Will to do what needs to be done.
- Finally, Monetisation of the Debt. This always means your purchasing power goes down and a wealth transfer takes place from you to any of the programmes that the government is funding at the time. This is the best we can realistically hope for.
At the other extreme, we must hope the repressive measures of the Depression-era US authorities are not considered by modern British and European governments. But if the government lacks either the will or the knowledge to bag this easy £10 bn of savings, then it is hard not to infer that they actually want that money from the taxpayer in interest.
You then have to start wondering: where is this going to end up?
The Crack-up Boom, a review of Mises’ The Causes of the Economic Crisis and Other Essays Before and After the Great Depression.
I offer a £1,000 reward for anyone who can tell me why this logically won’t work, practical politics, for now, being another matter.
What follows is an attempt to show you that this can be done.
Remember the story about the Emperor whose only concern was not the welfare of his people but the state of his clothes? Lacking a new outfit for his procession, he instructs the finest clothe-makers to propose designs. Step forward Slimus and Slick, promising that only clever people will be able to see their splendiferous garments; they will be invisible to anyone stupid. In exchange for gold coin – real money – they make something special for the King. The King, seeing nothing when presented with these designs made out of thin air, worries that he must be stupid because he pretended to the fraudsters that they were wonderful. Word goes round that only clever people can see the garments, so everyone cheers the naked King during his procession. It takes a small child, on top of his father’s shoulders, to exclaim: “the Emperor has got nothing on!” Everyone falls silent. Then, one by one, they start muttering, “the Emperor is naked!”
I am going to tell you that our Emperor – the government – has no clothes and is indeed naked with respect to our money. The sooner we realise this the better. Then we can make real progress and prevent the imminent misery. Indeed, the realisation of its nakedness should reveal that we have a unique moment in history to do something very special: to make banking secure, pay off the national debt, and even enable a 28.5% income-tax cut.
We all know what notes and coins are: money, or cash. It allows us to exchange the fruits of our work for the goods of others. When we deposit cash in Bank A – say £100 – we lend this money to the bank. This may come as a surprise to most, as we think what we deposit in a bank actually remains “ours” beyond this point. But as soon as you make a deposit it becomes the bank’s i.e. “theirs.” They then lend what is called credit of £100 to an entrepreneur, who banks it in bank B. Like magic, we now have you, who have a claim to “your” £100, and the entrepreneur, who also has an equally valid claim to “his” £100. This happens 33 times for every £100 deposited in the UK economy on average, meaning that for every £100 deposited, it is lent out to 33 people. Some of the banks did this up to 60 times. This cash cannot exist in two places at the same time, let alone 60 places at once. So what bank A does, is write you an IOU. Yes, your bank-statement is a mere IOU, the bank saying “ bank A owes you £100 on demand.” This is called a demand-deposit. We now see that demand-deposits are created out of thin air! Indeed, these are just ledger-entries from one bank customer to another.
Tesco groceries can be paid by electronic transfer. All we are doing is moving our bank’s IOU to Tesco’s bank in exchange for their groceries. This is how the world works. Do we care that we are buying goods and services out of thin air? Like the Emperor, does he care – as long as all believe he is clothed? Well, the customers of Northern Rock did. So when more than a small percentage of them asked for their IOUs from Northern Rock to be repaid – or, as they thought, for “their” money back – it could not be, as the bank had already lent it many times, making it impossible to reimburse all they owed. Indeed, if the government had not pledged to underwrite all deposits, then there would be a very good chance that the whole system would have collapsed.
If we accept that the Emperor is naked then the path to solving all our current financial problems becomes clearer.
Consider this following programme of reform:
- Print cash and replace all the demand-deposits/IOUs that exist in the system with that cash. This means the government printing approx £850 billion in cash and injecting it directly into the vaults of the banks and into the accounts of individuals. Thus, if you deposited £100 once thinking it was “yours,” it now really exists in cash, with the bank acting as custodian of your money.
- Mandate all banks to hold your cash (100% reserved) on demand at all times.
- Wipe from the bank ledgers all the demand-deposits/IOUs as banks would not owe you money anymore. This means the “thin air” money disappears, to be replaced exactly with cash money. Note: this is not inflationary, as the cash replaces the demand-deposit which acted as money. As we have established, it is only thin-air that the banking system has created to facilitate the multiplicity of lending of the same bit of money, so its total replacement with cash would mean the money supply stays exactly the same.
- Require all banks to lend real savings that people knowingly place with banks to lend to businesses to get a return of interest and capital back when the business repays that loan. This is nice, simple and safe utility banking. This is what Mervyn King advocates.
- As you are not a creditor of the bank anymore, the banking system will only have its assets and its capital, i.e. no liabilities. This means that there never again could be a bank run.
- As for the banks, not having you the depositor as a liability anymore, they will suddenly be £850 billion better off, with no current liabilities and only assets (loans to business etc), post reform. The government can now put those assets into Mutuals, which would then immediately pay off the national debt, and leave the banks in exactly the same position net worth wise as they were prior to the reform, owned by their existing shareholders. As the national debt is still just under the £850 billion, which would be available as surplus assets of the banks, this could still be achieved.
- No national debt means no interest costs (currently £40 billion p.a) associated with paying for our borrowing. Therefore, give an immediate 28.5% income-tax cut. Total income-tax raised is £142 billion.
The boy in the story stood on his father’s shoulders. I stand on the shoulders of great men who have advocated part of this reform: Irving Fisher, the greatest American economist, the Nobel Prize winners Soddy, Hayek, Buchanan, Tobin, and Allais. Recently, Kotlikoff of Boston University has published an excellent book, “Jimmy Stewart is Dead” advocating a similar reform. It is endorsed by more Nobel Winners: Akerlof, Lucas, Fogel, Prescott, and Phelps. I count 36 endorsements from the great and the good for the book. All endorse Kotlikoff’s move to what he calls Limited Purpose Banking which is another way to get 100% reserved (i.e. secure) deposits backed by cash rather than thin-air.
The Economist Huerta De Soto, in “Money, Bank Credit & Economic Cycles,” has seen the opportunity that presents itself to reform for 100% money while also paying off the National Debt. Following on from this, I suggest a substantial wealth-creating tax cut for the people. Just like the boy in the story, I do hope that people start to realise that the emperor really has no clothes, and that an enlightened approach can address this.
The brilliant economist Ewen Stewart of Arden Partners sadly shows we are going the way of Greece, not Ireland:
We call the UK the ‘tixylix society’ after the sugary-sweet medicine used to mask the symptoms of a chill in young children. The nation has become lethargic on easy credit asset inflation and delusory levels of public sector debt. The choice ahead is essentially political, although not party political. We can either choose the Irish option of austerity but maintain bond market support and a platform for longer-term growth, through regained competitiveness and a reversal of the trend to crowd out the private sector, or this tixylix society can continue to pretend that there is not a problem and we can spend beyond our means. The consequences of this latter option could well prove catastrophic.
Read the full report.
The BBC reports that the IMF has unveiled its interim proposals on a new international tax on the financial sector, ahead of a meeting of finance ministers this weekend.
In fact, the IMF’s paper suggests two new taxes. The first, a ‘financial stability contribution’ would be levied on all financial institutions, initially at a flat rate, to help cover the ‘fiscal cost of any future government support to the sector’. The second, is a ‘financial activities tax’, which would be levied ‘on the sum of the profits and remuneration of financial institutions’.
The first point to be made is that justifying these taxes on the grounds that the proceeds will help governments deal with future crises is a straightforward con. The proceeds of the first tax could either ‘accumulate in a fund to facilitate the resolution of weak institutions or be paid into general revenue’ say the IMF, but you don’t need to be psychic to work out which of those is more likely – governments will just spend the money on current expenditure, as they always do. The second tax doesn’t even come with an either/or fig leaf – proceeds will go into general revenue, for governments to spend as they see fit.
So it is pretty clear that what we have here isn’t so much a policy to ensure financial stability, but rather to bail out profligate governments. Moreover, this could in itself worsen financial instability by making fiscal policy even more pro-cyclical (revenues would be highest during financial booms), and exacerbating boom and bust cycles.
There are other problems too. For example, the idea of compulsory ‘insurance’ against failure for banks (this is the direction the ‘financial stability contribution’ moves us in) is likely to make moral hazard – already a major issue – an even more severe problem. Even now, government guarantees to banks are largely implicit, but the IMF’s tax proposal would make them explicit. Indeed, the ‘financial stability contribution’ is not just an overt indication that irresponsible banks will be bailed out – it could easily be read as creating an obligation that they must be bailed out. And that’s hardly a way to encourage less risk-taking.
It is also problematic that these taxes will be applied to all financial institutions (including insurers, hedge funds and so on), most of which had little to do with the financial crisis. They are thus likely to damage the wider financial economy, without actually doing anything much to deal with the real offenders.
Which brings me neatly to the most depressing aspect of these proposals: the complete lack of understanding they exhibit about the actual causes of the financial crisis – loose monetary policy, ramped up by unrestrained fractional reserve banking, and amplified by fiscal incontinence. The saddest thing is that the world’s financial system desperately does need reform. Without a radically new approach to controlling the money supply and taming the credit cycle, history is doomed to repeat itself. But the IMF’s proposals do not even qualify as a step in the right direction.