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Economics

My Journey to Austrianism via the City


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”

Economics

The Staggering Economic Errors Behind The Policy of Quantitative Easing

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:

Measures of the UK money stock

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:

MA vs GDP, 12 month lag
MA vs Retail Sales, 12 month lag

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.

Conclusion

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.

Further reading

Economics

HM Treasury’s Press Release on Reforms to Financial Regulation

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.

Economics

An easy £10 bn of deficit reduction and £200 bn off the National Debt

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:

  1. The crisis always starts by Public Spending in excess of what we can afford.
  2. Deficit Spending then occurs, with no understanding that this risks the collapse of the economy.
  3. Denial of Any Problem is writ large amongst the incumbent ruling politicians.
  4. There follows a Lack of Political Will to do what needs to be done.
  5. 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?

Further reading

The Crack-up Boom, a review of Mises’ The Causes of the Economic Crisis and Other Essays Before and After the Great Depression.

Economics

The Emperor’s New Clothes: How to Pay off the National Debt & Give a 28.5% Tax Cut

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Mandate all banks to hold your cash (100% reserved) on demand at all times.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

Economics

Arden Partners — Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts

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.

Economics

On the IMF’s bank tax proposals

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.

Economics

Laurence Kotlikoff’s “Jimmy Stewart is Dead”

Jimmy Stewart plays George Bailey who is cast as the “honest” and trustworthy banker in the classic Hollywood film, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Kotlikoff’s book laments that in the real world of modern banking, such characters no longer exist.

Kotlikoff himself is a Professor of Economics at Boston. Several Nobel Prize winners have endorsed the book: George Akerlof, Robert Lucas, Robert Fogel, Edward Prescott, and Edmund Phelps. I count 36 endorsements from the great and the good of the academic world on the back cover and front pages. I do not recall ever seeing this in a book.

The book is written for the layman. It is very light on economic theory, but does reference some otherworldly models. It is very good at explaining what on the face of it appear to be complex financial phenomena, but are in fact con tricks that in any other industry would earn you a prison sentence. Kotlikoff shows his readers how the financial system has failed in its fiduciary duty, and presents a very simple and elegant solution for its salvation called Limited Purpose Banking (LPB). He also proposes a reduction of the financial service sector regulators in the USA from its current 115 down to one: the Federal Financial Authority (FFA).

In his opening remarks he discusses the Modigliani-Miller Theorem, written in 1958, showing in elegant maths how in the absence of bankruptcy costs, leverage does not matter. If a company takes on more risk by borrowing more, its owners will offset that risk by borrowing less, leaving total debt in the economy unchanged.  Kotlikoff makes no mention of the fact that leverage in itself is not a bad thing if it is made up of people forgoing their consumption today, i.e. saving and committing it to projects that will deliver up goods in the future.   This glaring omission does not impede him from telling the story of our financial meltdown and making a solid policy recommendation for this crisis. It does, however, prevent him from seeing the elephant in the room: that the credit creation process itself is the source of the boom and the bust.

The nature of fractional reserve banking is such that if you deposit your cash in a bank, it will lend it out many times over. This means that multiple claims come to exist on the original real money that was deposited. If you deposit £100 in bank A, which lends it to an entrepreneur who deposits it in Bank B, both you and the entrepreneur now have £100! Like magic, we have £200 in the system, with £100 of it created ex novo by the banking system itself! In the UK, with no legal reserve requirement, we have a only £3 on average kept in deposit for every £100 of IOU’s promised by the banking system.

Kotlikoff provides a mainstream justification for fractional reserve banking, citing the Diamond-Dybvig Model, which holds that we value immediate liquidity for emergencies. We do not need that money all the time, so banks can use this and get us a higher return in the meantime. Therefore, governments must do everything to prevent a bank run if more people want their money back than actually exists in the bank vaults.

This is the theoretical understanding we have today and the model is used to justify all sorts of bank bailouts, as we have seen.

Kotlikoff points out that whilst the bailouts have prevented a collapse of the system of fractional reserve banking, the bailouts do not preserve the purchasing power of money. They just guarantee that the money unit will still exist. This is a very good point. All the bailouts are being funded by more claims on the future taxpayer.  In the UK, we have a system of money debasement called Quantitative Easing, which will just debase and reduce our purchasing power.

In effect, the bailouts do not do what they say they do on the tin, and daily our purchasing power is getting weaker. It is hard enough to get politicians in the UK to acknowledge the scale of our official national debt, but we owe at least as much again “off balance sheet”, in unfunded pension liabilities and Private Finance Initiative obligations.  Debasement will be the most popular way forward for all future governments as they will not want to overtly extract more wealth from us. Dishonesty will be the preferred policy.

Limited purpose banking would be a simple solution to all of this. Banks would be limited to their main purpose of matching savers to borrowers.  All financial companies would act as pass though mutual fund companies. They would be middle men, never would they own the financial assets. They could thus never fail in the “run on the bank” sense — i.e. depositors wishing to withdraw money — but only if they were very bad at business.  This is thus as near as you will get to risk-free banking. Never again would the economy be held liable to bail out the bankers.

Kotlikoff foresees at least two mutual funds being offered, with custodians holding the assets: one that holds cash and one that holds insurance funds. He does stress that innovation could still happen, with a multiplicity of funds being offered.  The Federal Financial Authority (FFA) would regulate the custody element of the safe keeping of the various mutual fund assets. He assumes that regulators will be able to opine, like the current rating agencies, on the soundness of the assets that have been bought by the fund. He would trust the government over the rating agencies. I personally would trust neither! In my industry, selling meat and fish, we have a number of free market created quality assurance bodies such as the British Soil Association for organic certification, the Marine Stewardship Council for fish sustainability that require no government sanction.  These have the confidence of both the consumer and producer. I would suggest that this and not a super regulator is the way forward.

Cash funds are nice and easy; they hold cash and are 100% reserved. They can never go up or down in value. These cash mutual funds represent the demand deposits of the new spec banking system.  All services such as cheque writing and paying bills is done via this vehicle.

I have written about 100% reserve banking here and Steve Baker has specifically examined the 100% reserve banking proposal of Irving Fisher, to which Kotlikoff refers.  He notes that the current economic profession considers these ideas to be “crackpot”; the Diamond-Dybvig model remains dominant.  He goes go on to say, “I want to be clear that I am not an advocate of narrow banking in of itself. Narrow banking is a small feature of limited purpose banking and would hardly suffice to deal with today’s multifaceted financial problems.”

He notes that with the many cash mutual funds in place, the money measure in the USA, MI, would correspond exactly with what the government had printed. So to cover all obligations, a massive print up in US dollars would need to take place — many trillions of dollars to truly purge the system. What Kotlikoff misses is De Soto’s insight, based on the work of Fisher, that there will be a unique moment in history when instead of causing debasement, the printed money would cover all unfunded demand deposits, swapping them out for cash. Wipe out or retire these demand deposits and the banking system has no current creditors, only assets. Take out the equivalent amount of assets from the banking system, so the banking system has the same net worth as before, then put these assets into the mutuals and pay off the national debt. This is not inflationary, requires no debasement, and will help deliver up safe banking.  This is summarised in our Day of Reckoning article.

Insurance mutuals would have all the other banking instruments such as CDO’s in them and could market these funds to whomever they wished. These are essentially what we would term a hedge fund today, though Kotlikoff proposes that these be closed end. This means you have to sell your shares in the fund to redeem your money. Consequently, long term lending can take place in these funds without the fear of a maturity mismatch. The only money this type of fund can lose is what is invested in it. It could never in itself pull down the banking system.

I sense that the author does not feel comfortable with the 100% reserve label, with its “crackpot” associations. In discussing the transfer of Citigroup he says,

“Here we’d need to swap all of CitiGroup’s debt for equity and prevent it from ever borrowing again to fund risky investments. We can now think of CitiGroup as a huge mutual fund with lots of different assets, one big commercial bank with 100 percent capital requirement, or one LPB with a large number of different mutual funds corresponding to the different Citigroup asset classes.”

He also points out that LPB could not actually be that far away if you take into account all the reserves that have been created already. This is something George Reisman has also pointed out.

Kotlikoff defensively shows how LPB would not reduce liquidity. It would not reduce real credit, i.e. savers forwarding money to borrowers. It would stop credit created out of thin air via the banking system, the prime cause of the crisis, but this is not mentioned in his book. It would lead to an optimal size financial sector. Our cash assets would be safe as you can get. Government could still monetise debt as it could still create cash from nothing. The currency and thus the purchasing power of money could not collapse by the actions of the banking system, but only by the actions of the government.

Kotlikoff concludes,

Limited purpose banking is the answer. This simple and easily-implemented pass-though mutual fund system, with its built in firewalls, would preclude financial crises of the type we’re now experiencing. The system will rely on independent rating by the government, but private rating as well. It would require full disclosure and provide maximum transparency. Most important, it would make clear that risk is ultimately born by people, not companies, and that most people need, and have a right, to know what risks, including fiscal risk, they are facing. Finally, it would make clear what risks are, and are not, diversifiable. It would not pretend to insure the uninsurable or guarantee returns that can’t be guaranteed. In short, the system would be honest, and because of that, it would be safe-safe for ourselves and safe for our children.

Although I think he has failed to identify the state sponsored banking system, with its fractional reserve credit creation point as the cause of booms and busts, his solution has many merits and many similarities with the solution proposed by Fisher, De Soto, and others. He missed what I call the golden opportunity, or unique moment in history, to actually enact a reform that delivers up 100% reserve of LPB and pays off the national debt and other unfunded obligations at the same time. My own solution is the De Soto 100% reserve free banking solution with banks working within the existing commercial law to which all non-bank companies must adhere. However, both systems have the same effects and would do the job needed: to sort out the banking system, provide stability, and let capitalism flourish. Yet another workable solution has been proposed by our very own Paul Birch. Kotlikoff’s contribution to the debate, with all the Nobel endorsements, is timely, and I hope policy makers give due attention to innovative solutions like these.

Economics

De Soto and the Relevance of his Banking Reform Proposal Today

This has been copied from Money, Bank Credit, and Economic Cycles which can be downloaded here or bought here.

PREFACE TO THE SECOND ENGLISH EDITION

I am happy to present the second English edition of Money, Bank Credit, and Economic Cycles. Its appearance is particularly timely, given that the severe financial crisis and resulting worldwide economic recession I have been forecasting, since the first edition of this book came out ten years ago, are now unleashing their fury.

The policy of artificial credit expansion central banks have permitted and orchestrated over the last fifteen years could not have ended in any other way. The expansionary cycle which has now come to a close began gathering momentum when the American economy emerged from its last recession (fleeting and repressed though it was) in 2001 and the Federal Reserve reembarked on the major artificial expansion of credit and investment initiated in 1992. This credit expansion was not backed by a parallel increase in voluntary household saving. For many years, the money supply in the form of bank notes and deposits has grown at an average rate of over 10 percent per year (which means that every seven years the total volume of money circulating in the world has doubled). The media of exchange originating from this severe fiduciary inflation have been placed on the market by the banking system as newly created loans granted at very low (and even negative in real terms) interest rates. The above fueled a speculative bubble in the shape of a substantial rise in the prices of capital goods, real-estate assets and the securities which represent them, and are exchanged on the stock market, where indexes soared.

Curiously, like in the “roaring” years prior to the Great Depression of 1929, the shock of monetary growth has not significantly influenced the prices of the subset of consumer goods and services (approximately only one third of all goods). The last decade, like the 1920s, has seen a remarkable increase in productivity as a result of the introduction on a massive scale of new technologies and significant entrepreneurial innovations which, were it not for the injection of money and credit, would have given rise to a healthy and sustained reduction in the unit price of consumer goods and services. Moreover, the full incorporation of the economies of China and India into the globalized market has boosted the real productivity of consumer goods and services even further. The absence of a healthy “deflation” in the prices of consumer goods in a stage of such considerable growth in productivity as that of recent years provides the main evidence that the monetary shock has seriously disturbed the economic process. I analyze this phenomenon in detail in chapter 6, section 9.

As I explain in the book, artificial credit expansion and the (fiduciary) inflation of media of exchange offer no short cut to stable and sustained economic development, no way of avoiding the necessary sacrifice and discipline behind all high rates of voluntary saving. (In fact, particularly in the United States, voluntary saving has not only failed to increase in recent years, but at times has even fallen to a negative rate.) Indeed, the artificial expansion of credit and money is never more than a short-term solution, and that at best. In fact, today there is no doubt about the recessionary quality the monetary shock always has in the long run: newly-created loans (of money citizens have not first saved) immediately provide entrepreneurs with purchasing power they use in overly ambitious investment projects (in recent years, especially in the building sector and real estate development). In other words, entrepreneurs act as if citizens had increased their saving, when they have not actually done so. Widespread discoordination in the economic system exerts a harmful effect on the real economy, and sooner or later the process reverses in the form of an economic recession, which marks the beginning of the painful and necessary readjustment. This readjustment invariably requires the reconversion of every real productive structure inflation has distorted. The specific triggers of the end of the euphoric monetary “binge” and the beginning of the recessionary “hangover” are many, and they can vary from one cycle to another. In the current circumstances, the most obvious triggers have been the rise in the price of raw materials, particularly oil, the subprime mortgage crisis in the United States, and finally, the failure of important banking institutions when it became clear in the market that the value of their liabilities exceeded that of their assets (mortgage loans granted).

At present, numerous self-interested voices are demanding further reductions in interest rates and new injections of money which permit those who desire it to complete their investment projects without suffering losses. Nevertheless, this escape forward would only temporarily postpone problems at the cost of making them far more serious later. The crisis has hit because the profits of capital-goods companies (especially in the building sector and in real-estate development) have disappeared due to the entrepreneurial errors provoked by cheap credit, and because the prices of consumer goods have begun to perform relatively less poorly than those of capital goods. At this point, a painful, inevitable readjustment begins, and in addition to a decrease in production and an increase in unemployment, we are now still seeing a harmful rise in the prices of consumer goods (stagflation).

The most rigorous economic analysis and the coolest, most balanced interpretation of recent economic and financial events support the conclusion that central banks (which are true financial central-planning agencies) cannot possibly succeed in finding the most advantageous monetary policy at every moment. This is exactly what became clear in the case of the failed attempts to plan the former Soviet economy from above. To put it another way, the theorem of the economic impossibility of socialism, which the Austrian economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich A. Hayek discovered, is fully applicable to central banks in general, and to the Federal Reserve—(at one time) Alan Greenspan and (currently) Ben Bernanke—in particular. According to this theorem, it is impossible to organize society, in terms of economics, based on coercive commands issued by a planning agency, since such a body can never obtain the information it needs to infuse its commands with a coordinating nature. Indeed, nothing is more dangerous than to indulge in the “fatal conceit”—to use Hayek’s useful expression—of believing oneself omniscient or at least wise and powerful enough to be able to keep the most suitable monetary policy fine tuned at all times. Hence, rather than soften the most violent ups and downs of the economic cycle, the Federal Reserve and, to some lesser extent, the European Central Bank, have most likely been their main architects and the culprits in their worsening. Therefore, the dilemma facing Ben Bernanke and his Federal Reserve Board, as well as the other central banks (beginning with the European Central Bank), is not at all comfortable. For years they have shirked their monetary responsibility, and now they find themselves in a blind alley. They can either allow the recessionary process to begin now, and with it the healthy and painful readjustment, or they can escape forward toward a “hair of the dog” cure. With the latter, the chances of even more severe stagflation in the not-too-distant future increase exponentially. (This was precisely the error committed following the stock market crash of 1987, an error which led to the inflation at the end of the 1980s and concluded with the sharp recession of 1990–1992.) Furthermore, the reintroduction of a cheap-credit policy at this stage could only hinder the necessary liquidation of unprofitable investments and company reconversion. It could even wind up prolonging the recession indefinitely, as has occurred in Japan in recent years: though all possible interventions have been tried, the Japanese economy has ceased to respond to any monetarist stimulus involving credit expansion or Keynesian methods. It is in this context of “financial schizophrenia” that we must interpret the latest “shots in the dark” fired by the monetary authorities (who have two totally contradictory responsibilities: both to control inflation and to inject all the liquidity necessary into the financial system to prevent its collapse). Thus, one day the Federal Reserve rescues Bear Stearns, AIG, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac or Citigroup, and the next it allows Lehman Brothers to fail, under the amply justified pretext of “teaching a lesson” and refusing to fuel moral hazard. Then, in light of the way events were unfolding, a 700-billion-dollar plan to purchase the euphemistically named “toxic” or “illiquid” (i.e., worthless) assets from the banking system was approved. If the plan is financed by taxes (and not more inflation), it will mean a heavy tax burden on households, precisely when they are least able to bear it. Finally, in view of doubts about whether such a plan could have any effect, the choice was made to inject public money directly into banks, and even to “guarantee” the total amount of their deposits, decreasing interest rates to almost zero percent.

In comparison, the economies of the European Union are in a somewhat less poor state (if we do not consider the expansionary effect of the policy of deliberately depreciating the dollar, and the relatively greater European rigidities, particularly in the labor market, which tend to make recessions in Europe longer and more painful). The expansionary policy of the European Central Bank, though not free of grave errors, has been somewhat less irresponsible than that of the Federal Reserve. Furthermore, fulfillment of the convergence criteria involved at the time a healthy and significant rehabilitation of the chief European economies. Only the countries on the periphery, like Ireland and particularly Spain, were immersed in considerable credit expansion from the time they initiated their processes of convergence. The case of Spain is paradigmatic. The Spanish economy underwent an economic boom which, in part, was due to real causes (liberalizing structural reforms which originated with José María Aznar’s administration in 1996). Nevertheless, the boom was also largely fueled by an artificial expansion of money and credit, which grew at a rate nearly three times that of the corresponding rates in France and Germany. Spanish economic agents essentially interpreted the decrease in interest rates which resulted from the convergence process in the easy-money terms traditional in Spain: a greater availability of easy money and mass requests for loans from Spanish banks (mainly to finance real estate speculation), loans which these banks have granted by creating the money ex nihilo while European central bankers looked on unperturbed. When faced with the rise in prices, the European Central Bank has remained faithful to its mandate and has tried to maintain interest rates as long as possible, despite the difficulties of those members of the Monetary Union which, like Spain, are now discovering that much of their investment in real estate was in error and are heading for a lengthy and painful reorganization of their real economy.

Under these circumstances, the most appropriate policy would be to liberalize the economy at all levels (especially in the labor market) to permit the rapid reallocation of productive factors (particularly labor) to profitable sectors. Likewise, it is essential to reduce public spending and taxes, in order to increase the available income of heavily-indebted economic agents who need to repay their loans as soon as possible. Economic agents in general and companies in particular can only rehabilitate their finances by cutting costs (especially labor costs) and paying off loans. Essential to this aim are a very flexible labor market and a much more austere public sector. These factors are fundamental if the market is to reveal as quickly as possible the real value of the investment goods produced in error and thus lay the foundation for a healthy, sustained economic recovery in a future which, for the good of all, I hope is not long in coming.

We must not forget that a central feature of the recent period of artificial expansion was a gradual corruption, on the American continent as well as in Europe, of the traditional principles of accounting as practiced globally for centuries. To be specific, acceptance of the International Accounting Standards (IAS) and their incorporation into law in different countries (in Spain via the new General Accounting Plan, in effect as of January 1, 2008) have meant the abandonment of the traditional principle of prudence and its replacement by the principle of fair value in the assessment of the value of balance sheet assets, particularly financial assets. In this abandonment of the traditional principle of prudence, a highly influential role has been played by brokerages, investment banks (which are now on their way to extinction), and in general, all parties interested in “inflating” book values in order to bring them closer to supposedly more “objective” stockmarket values, which in the past rose continually in an economic process of financial euphoria. In fact, during the years of the “speculative bubble,” this process was characterized by a feedback loop: rising stock-market values were immediately entered into the books, and then such accounting entries were sought as justification for further artificial increases in the prices of financial assets listed on the stock market.

In this wild race to abandon traditional accounting principles and replace them with others more “in line with the times,” it became common to evaluate companies based on unorthodox suppositions and purely subjective criteria which in the new standards replace the only truly objective criterion (that of historical cost). Now, the collapse of financial markets and economic agents’ widespread loss of faith in banks and their accounting practices have revealed the serious error involved in yielding to the IAS and their abandonment of traditional accounting principles based on prudence, the error of indulging in the vices of creative, fair-value accounting.

It is in this context that we must view the recent measures taken in the United States and the European Union to “soften” (i.e., to partially reverse) the impact of fair-value accounting for financial institutions. This is a step in the right direction, but it falls short and is taken for the wrong reasons. Indeed, those in charge at financial institutions are attempting to “shut the barn door when the horse is bolting”; that is, when the dramatic fall in the value of “toxic” or “illiquid” assets has endangered the solvency of their institutions. However, these people were delighted with the new IAS during the preceding years of “irrational exuberance,” in which increasing and excessive values in the stock and financial markets graced their balance sheets with staggering figures corresponding to their own profits and net worth, figures which in turn encouraged them to run risks (or better, uncertainties) with practically no thought of danger. Hence, we see that the IAS act in a pro-cyclic manner by heightening volatility and erroneously biasing business management: in times of prosperity, they create a false “wealth effect” which prompts people to take disproportionate risks; when, from one day to the next, the errors committed come to light, the loss in the value of assets immediately decapitalizes companies, which are obliged to sell assets and attempt to recapitalize at the worst moment, i.e., when assets are worth the least and financial markets dry up. Clearly, accounting principles which, like those of the IAS, have proven so disturbing must be abandoned as soon as possible, and all of the accounting reforms recently enacted, specifically the Spanish one, which came into effect January 1, 2008, must be reversed. This is so not only because these reforms mean a dead end in a period of financial crisis and recession, but especially because it is vital that in periods of prosperity we stick to the principle of prudence in valuation, a principle which has shaped all accounting systems from the time of Luca Pacioli at the beginning of the fifteenth century to the adoption of the false idol of the IAS.

In short, the greatest error of the accounting reform recently introduced worldwide is that it scraps centuries of accounting experience and business management when it replaces the prudence principle, as the highest ranking among all traditional accounting principles, with the “fair value” principle, which is simply the introduction of the volatile market value for an entire set of assets, particularly financial assets. This Copernican turn is extremely harmful and threatens the very foundations of the market economy for several reasons. First, to violate the traditional principle of prudence and require that accounting entries reflect market values is to provoke, depending upon the conditions of the economic cycle, an inflation of book values with surpluses which have not materialized and which, in many cases, may never materialize. The artificial “wealth effect” this can produce, especially during the boom phase of each economic cycle, leads to the allocation of paper (or merely temporary) profits, the acceptance of disproportionate risks, and in short, the commission of systematic entrepreneurial errors and the consumption of the nation’s capital, to the detriment of its healthy productive structure and its capacity for long-term growth. Second, I must emphasize that the purpose of accounting is not to reflect supposed “real” values (which in any case are subjective and which are determined and vary daily in the corresponding markets) under the pretext of attaining a (poorly understood) “accounting transparency.” Instead, the purpose of accounting is to permit the prudent management of each company and to prevent capital consumption [1], by applying strict standards of accounting conservatism (based on the prudence principle and the recording of either historical cost or market value, whichever is less), standards which ensure at all times that distributable profits come from a safe surplus which can be distributed without in any way endangering the future viability and capitalization of the company. Third, we must bear in mind that in the market there are no equilibrium prices a third party can objectively determine. Quite the opposite is true; market values arise from subjective assessments and fluctuate sharply, and hence their use in accounting eliminates much of the clarity, certainty, and information balance sheets contained in the past. Today, balance sheets have become largely unintelligible and useless to economic agents. Furthermore, the volatility inherent in market values, particularly over the economic cycle, robs accounting based on the “new principles” of much of its potential as a guide for action for company managers and leads them to systematically commit major errors in management, errors which have been on the verge of provoking the severest financial crisis to ravage the world since 1929.

In chapter 9 of this book (pages 789–803), I design a process of transition toward the only world financial order which, being fully compatible with the free-enterprise system, can eliminate the financial crises and economic recessions which cyclically affect the world’s economies. The proposal the book contains for international financial reform has acquired extreme relevance at the present time (November 2008), in which the disconcerted governments of Europe and America have organized a world conference to reform the international monetary system in order to avoid in the future such severe financial and banking crises as the one that currently grips the entire western world. As is explained in detail over the nine chapters of this book, any future reform will fail as miserably as past reforms unless it strikes at the very root of the present problems and rests on the following principles:

  1. the reestablishment of a 100-percent reserve requirement on all bank demand deposits and equivalents;
  2. the elimination of central banks as lenders of last resort (which will be unnecessary if the preceding principle is applied, and harmful if they continue to act as financial central-planning agencies); and
  3. the privatization of the current, monopolistic, and fiduciary state-issued money and its replacement with a classic pure gold standard.

This radical, definitive reform would essentially mark the culmination of the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and real socialism, since the reform would mean the application of the same principles of liberalization and private property to the only sphere, that of finance and banking, which has until now remained mired in central planning (by “central” banks), extreme interventionism (the fixing of interest rates, the tangled web of government regulations), and state monopoly (legal tender laws which require the acceptance of the current, state-issued fiduciary money), circumstances with very negative and dramatic consequences, as we have seen.

I should point out that the transition process designed in the last chapter of this book could also permit from the outset the bailing out of the current banking system, thus preventing its rapid collapse, and with it the sudden monetary squeeze which would be inevitable if, in an environment of widespread broken trust among depositors, a significant volume of bank deposits were to disappear. This short-term goal, which at present, western governments are desperately striving for with the most varied plans (the massive purchases of “toxic” bank assets, the ad hominem guarantee of all deposits, or simply the partial or total nationalization of the private banking system), could be reached much faster and more effectively, and in a manner much less harmful to the market economy, if the first step in the proposed reform (pages 791–98) were immediately taken: to back the total amount of current bank deposits (demand deposits and equivalents) with cash, bills to be turned over to banks, which from then on would maintain a 100-percent reserve with respect to deposits. As illustrated in chart IX-2 of chapter 9, which shows the consolidated balance sheet for the banking system following this step, the issuance of these banknotes would in no way be inflationary (since the new money would be “sterilized,” so to speak, by its purpose as backing to satisfy any sudden deposit withdrawals). Furthermore, this step would free up all banking assets (“toxic” or not) which currently appear as backing for demand deposits (and equivalents) on the balance sheets of private banks. On the assumption that the transition to the new financial system would take place under “normal” circumstances, and not in the midst of a financial crisis as acute as the current one, I proposed in chapter 9 that the “freed” assets be transferred to a set of mutual funds created ad hoc and managed by the banking system, and that the shares in these funds be exchanged for outstanding treasury bonds and for the implicit liabilities connected with the public social-security system (pp. 796–97). Nevertheless, in the current climate of severe financial and economic crisis, we have another alternative: apart from canceling “toxic” assets with these funds, we could devote a portion of the rest, if desired, to enabling savers (not depositors, since their deposits would already be backed 100 percent) to recover a large part of the value lost in their investments (particularly in loans to commercial banks, investment banks, and holding companies). These measures would immediately restore confidence and would leave a significant remainder to be exchanged, once and for all and at no cost, for a sizeable portion of the national debt, our initial aim. In any case, an important warning must be given: naturally, and I must never tire of repeating it, the solution proposed is only valid in the context of an irrevocable decision to reestablish a free-banking system subject to a 100-percent reserve requirement on demand deposits. Any of the reforms noted above, if adopted in the absence of a prior, firm conviction and decision to change the international financial and banking system as indicated, would be simply disastrous: a private banking system which continued to operate with a fractional reserve (orchestrated by the corresponding central banks), would generate, in a cascading effect, and based on the cash created to back deposits, an inflationary expansion like none other in history, one which would eventually finish off our entire economic system.

The above considerations are crucially important and reveal how very relevant this treatise has now become in light of the critical state of the international financial system (though I would definitely have preferred to write the preface to this new edition under very different economic circumstances). Nevertheless, while it is tragic that we have arrived at the current situation, it is even more tragic, if possible, that there exists a widespread lack of understanding regarding the causes of the phenomena that plague us, and especially an atmosphere of confusion and uncertainty prevalent among experts, analysts, and most economic theorists. In this area at least, I can hope the successive editions of this book which are being published all over the world [2] may contribute to the theoretical training of readers, to the intellectual rearmament of new generations, and eventually, to the sorely needed institutional redesign of the entire monetary and financial system of current market economies. If this hope is fulfilled, I will not only view the effort made as worthwhile, but will also deem it a great honor to have contributed, even in a very small way, to movement in the right direction.

Jesús Huerta de Soto
Madrid
November 13, 2008

_________________________________________________________

[1] See especially F. A. Hayek, “The Maintenance of Capital,” Economica 2 (August 1934), reprinted in Profits, Interest and Investment and Other Essays on the Theory of Industrial Fluctuations(Clifton, N.J.: Augustus M. Kelley, 1979; first edition London: George Routledge & Sons, 1939). See especially section 9, “Capital Accounting and Monetary Policy,” pp. 130–32.

[2] Since the appearance of the first English-language edition, the third and
fourth Spanish editions have been published in 2006 and 2009. Moreover,
Tatjana Danilova and Grigory Sapov have completed a Russian translation, which has been published as Dengi, Bankovskiy Kredit i Ekonomicheskie Tsikly (Moscow: Sotsium Publishing House, 2008). Three thousand copies have been printed initially, and I had the satisfaction of presenting the book Octo- ber 30, 2008 at the Higher School of Economics at Moscow State University. In addition, Professor Rosine Létinier has produced the French translation, which is now pending publication. Grzegorz Luczkiewicz has completed the Polish translation, and translation into the following languages is at an advanced stage: German, Czech, Italian, Romanian, Dutch, Chinese, Japan- ese, and Arabic. God willing, may they soon be published.

Economics

Arden Partners – Equities to Win

We are indebted to Ewen Stewart of Arden Partners for permission to publish his report: A Game of Two Halves – Equities to Win. Please see that report for full detail.

Summary

2009 was a remarkable year for the global economy and a remarkable year for equities. In this note we try to explain why 2009 turned out as it did and examine the prospects for 2010 and beyond.

We have called this note ‘A Game of Two Halves – Equities to Win’ because we believe that although the short-term trends for the UK economy are improving the longer-term forecast looks troubled indeed. Despite this, we believe the outlook for UK equities remains positive.

The first few months of 2010 may well surprise on the upside in terms of employment, house prices, consumer-spend and even, ultimately, GDP. But this is no ‘V’ shaped recovery.

We argue that trend growth, longer term, is likely to significantly disappoint. We argue that the UK’s superior growth, relative to many other developed nations, in the noughties was largely an illusion and we struggle to find the dynamo for growth over the next few years. We believe that the unwinding of the extraordinary fiscal and monetary stimulus, is a necessity, but will also be very difficult to achieve painlessly.

We believe the markets are still underestimating the structural problems with the public sector deficit and that politicians of all colours will be forced to deal with it. The consequences of not doing so would result in rising interest rates and a collapse in international confidence. The deficit remains the key issue for the UK and it may well bring substantial political challenges in itself. Indeed perhaps we should not have called this ‘A Game of Two Halves’ but a ‘Back to the Future – Welcome Mr Heath and the 1970s’?

Despite this, we are not bears of equities. It is true that current valuations are not particularly cheap by historic standards but the UK stock market is fairly defensive and internationally diverse. We believe equities look attractive against cash, bonds and, ultimately, real estate. We are concerned about a potential rise in inflation and again equities are a good hedge.

We have set a year end target of 5750 for the FTSE 100. Sector valuations do not follow a clear pattern and we believe this offers a number of anomalies. We have outlined our suggested sector weights below. As a generalisation, we seek overseas earnings – especially the US$, moderate leverage and strong cash flow as the place to be in 2010 with a return to M&A being more pronounced than perhaps expected.

Policy reaction

The extreme cannot become the norm?

It may be a blessing that Ben Bernanke made the study of the 1930s great depression his speciality. We say may because, while the unprecedented global response undoubtedly has alleviated economic implosion, it does remain to be seen if the ‘nationalisation’ of deficits, the eclipse of moral hazard and the unique policy of both near-zero global interest rates and, in many parts of the globe, with quantitative easing (QE), has succeeded in sending growth back on an inflation-free growth projectory or whether the underlying malaise has been merely kicked into the medium grass. These issues are global, with substantial government deficits, trade and growth imbalances impacting upon different regions.

Source: Bank of England Stability Report, December 2009.


The economic policy reaction in the UK has been greater and more prolonged than any G20 nation, which is partially demonstrated by the chart above. The Bank of England cut interest rates to 0.5% (the lowest since the foundation of the Bank in 1694); 2009 saw a programme of QE to the tune of £200bn (equivalent to 25% of all outstanding gilt stock) and government spending was accelerated, despite plummeting tax receipts. The fiscal deficit is forecast by the Treasury to peak at 12.6% of GDP – a figure roughly twice as large as the UK’s 1975-1977 IMF crisis, and on a par with Greece.

Read on: A Game of Two Halves – Equities to Win