[Editor’s Note; this interview, with Cobden Centre contributor Jesus Huerta de Soto, was by Malte Fischer of Handelsblatt]
Professor Huerta de Soto, the inflation rate in the euro zone is now only 0.4 percent. Is deflation threatening us, as many experts maintain?
Deflation means that the money supply is shrinking. This is not the case in the euro zone. The M3, the broadly defined supply of money, is growing by about two percent, while the more narrowly defined money supply, M1, by more than six percent. Although the inflation rate in the euro zone is below the European Central Bank’s target of barely two percent, that’s no reason to stir up fears of deflation like some central bankers are doing.
By doing so, they are suggesting that lowering prices is something bad. That is wrong. Price deflation is not a catastrophe, but rather a blessing.
You’ll have to explain that.
Take my homeland, Spain. At the moment, the consumer prices there are decreasing. At the same time, the economy is growing by around two percent on a yearly basis. Some 275,000 new jobs were created in 2013 and unemployment fell from 26 to 23 percent. The facts contradict the horror scenarios of deflation.
Does that mean we should be happy about deflation?
Certainly. It is particularly beneficial when it results from an interplay of a stable money supply and increasing productivity. A fine example is the gold standard in the 19th century. Back then, the money supply only grew by one to two percent per year. At the same time, industrial societies generated the greatest increase in prosperity in history. That is why the ECB should use the gold standard as an example and lower the target for the growth of the M3 money supply from 4.5 to around 2.0 percent.
If the euro economy were to grow by about three percent – which it is capable of doing if it were freed from the shackles of state regulations – prices would decrease by about one percent per annum.
If deflation is so beneficial, why are people afraid of it?
I don’t believe that the average person is frightened by falling prices. It is the representatives of mainstream economics fomenting a deflation phobia. They argue that deflation allows the actual debt burden to increase, and thus strangles the overall economic demand. The deflation alarmists fail to mention that creditors benefit from deflation, which stimulates demand.
Isn’t there a danger consumers will roll back their spending if everything is cheaper tomorrow?
That is an abstruse argument you hear again and again. Look at how fast the latest smartphones sell, although consumers know that the phones will be sold at a lower cost a few months afterwards. America was dominated by deflation for decades after the Civil War. In spite of that, consumption increased. If people were to put off buying because of lower prices, they ultimately would starve to death.
But lowering prices drives down sales figures and lessens the willingness of companies to invest. Do you want to ignore that?
Sales figures are not crucial for companies, but rather their earnings, meaning the difference between revenues and costs. Sinking sales prices increase pressure to reduce costs. The companies, therefore, replace manpower with machines. That means more machines need to be produced, which increases the demand for manpower in the capital goods sector. In this way, workers who lost their jobs in the wake of price deflation find new work in the capital goods sector. The capital stock grows without resulting in mass unemployment.
Aren’t you making that too easy for yourself ? In reality, the gap between the qualifications of the unemployed and the needs of companies is, at times, quite large.
I’m not claiming the market is perfect. That means it’s crucial that the labor market is flexible enough to offer incentives for creative employers to hire new workers.
What role does politics play?
The problem is that politicians have a short time horizon. That is why we need a monetary policy framework that holds both politicians and unions in check. The euro has this job in Europe. The common currency has removed the option of governments to devalue the currency to cover for their misguided economic policies. Economic policy mistakes are seen directly in the affected country’s loss of competitiveness, which forces politicians to make harsh reforms. Two governments in Spain within one and half years have implemented reforms that I hadn’t even dared to dream of. Now, the economic situation is improving and Spain is reaping the harvest of the reforms.
You may be right in the matter of Spain, but there have been no signs of fundamental reforms in Italy and France…
Which is why conditions there will first have to get worse before reforms come. We have learned from experience that the more miserable the economic situation, the stronger the pressure to reform. The reform successes that Spain and other euro countries have achieved increase the pressure on Paris and Rome. High unemployment in Spain had pushed down labor costs. At an average of €20, or $24.90, per hour, they are now half the rate as in France. That is why the French cannot avoid a drastic economic policy cure, even if the people oppose it. Germany should hold to its budgetary consolidation to keep up pressure on France and Italy.
The ECB is coming under increasing pressure to open the monetary floodgates and devalue the euro. The pressure is coming from academics, financial markets and politicians.
The economic mainstream of Keynesianism and monetarism explains the Great Depression of the 1930s with a shortage of money, which allowed an anti-deflation mentality to develop among academics. Politicians use the academic sounding board to pressure the ECB to reinflate the economy. Governments love inflation because it gives them the opportunity to live beyond their means and pile up huge mountains of debt that the central bank devaluates through inflation. It is no wonder it just happens to be the opponents of austerity policies who warn about deflation and demonize the euro’s set of stability policy regulations. They are afraid of presenting the true costs of the welfare state to the electorate.
The head of the ECB, Mario Draghi, succumbed to the pressure with his promise to save the euro if needs be by firing up the money printing presses. A mistake?
Careful. Until now, Mr. Draghi has been mainly making promises, but has barely acted. Although the ECB has initiated generous money lending transactions, and lowered the prime lending rate, the actual yield for 10-year government bonds of ailing euro zone members is above those in America. Measured on the balance sheet totals, the ECB has done less than other Western central banks. As long as the guardians of the euro are only talking but not acting, the pressure will remain on Italy and France to reform. That is why it is crucial the ECB resists the pressure of the governments and the Anglo-Saxon financial world and buys no state bonds.
What role do the Anglo-Saxon financial markets play?
The Anglo-Saxon press and the financial markets are ostentatiously conducting a crusade against the euro and the austerity policy in continental Europe necessitated by it. I am really no believer in conspiracy theories, but the out-and-out attacks against the euro by Washington and London suggest a hidden agenda. The Americans are afraid that the days of the dollar as a global currency are numbered if the euro survives as a hard currency.
Can the euro survive without political union?
A political union will not draw majority support in the population. It also isn’t desirable because it reduces the pressure for fiscal austerity. The best monetary regime for a free society is the gold standard, with all deposits covered by full reserves and without state central banks. As long as we don’t have that, we should defend the euro because it deprives governments of access to the money printing presses and forces them to consolidate their budgets and make reforms. In a certain way, it has the effect of the gold standard.
Book Review: The Death of Money: The Coming Collapse of the International Monetary System by James Rickards
The title will no doubt give Cobden Centre readers a feeling of déjà vu, but James Rickards’ new book (The Death of Money: The Coming Collapse of the International Monetary System) deals with more than just the fate of paper money – and in particular, the US dollar. Terrorism, financial warfare and world government are discussed, as is the future of the European Union.
Though he quotes F.A. Hayek a few times, the Austrian School gets only one mildly disparaging mention in the entire book. This seems odd for an author who devotes a whole chapter to the benefits of the gold standard. His first bestselling book, Currency Wars, argues that currency wars are not just an economic or monetary concern, but a national security concern for the USA.
Rickards relies on emerging Chaos theories of economics and markets (1) to buttress his arguments in favour of sound money and prudent – limited – government. He uses the same insights, twinned with years of Wall Street experience, to explain why the “coming collapse of the dollar and the international monetary system is entirely foreseeable.”
One of Rickards’ key arguments is that exponential increases in the total size of credit markets mean exponential increases in risk. The gross size of derivative markets is the problem, irrespective of false assurances about netting, he claims. Politicians and central bankers have by and large learnt nothing from recent crises, and are still “in thrall to bank political contributions.”
He makes the case for the US federal government to reinstate Depression-era restrictions on banking activities and for most derivatives to be banned. As a former Federal Reserve Chairman, Paul Volcker, said in 2009, “the only useful thing banks have invented in 20 years is the ATM” – a sentiment Rickards would probably be sympathetic to.
The chapter dealing with the Fed’s hubris and what investment writer James Grant calls our “PhD Standard” of macroeconomic management will be familiar territory for readers of this site. The Fed is trapped between the rock of natural deflationary forces of excessive debt, an ageing population and cheap imports frustrating its efforts to generate a self-sustaining economic recovery and the hard place of annualised inflation of 2%. Rickards quotes extensively from eminent economist and Ben Bernanke mentor Frederic Mishkin, who noted in a 2013 paper titled Crunch Time: Fiscal Crises and the Role of Monetary Policy that “ultimately, the central bank is without power to avoid the consequences of an unsustainable fiscal policy.”
More interesting is the author’s attempt to map out what-happens-next scenarios. The chapter about the on-going transformation of the International Monetary Fund into the world’s central bank, and Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) into a global currency, is particularly insightful. Though Rickards doesn’t say it, Barack Obama’s former chief of staff (and current Mayor of Chicago) Rahm Emanuel’s dictum about never letting a crisis go to waste seems to apply here: hostile acts of financial warfare would lead to calls for more international regulation, and to more government intervention and monitoring of markets. Observers of the EU’s crab-like advance over the last half century will be familiar with the process.
Indeed, my only quibble with this book is Rickards’ starry-eyed take on the EU – soon to be “the world’s economic superpower” in his view. Though he makes a good argument – similar to Jesús Huerta de Soto’s – that relatively-tight European Central Bank monetary policy is forcing effective structural adjustments in the eurozone periphery, as well as in eastern states that wish to join the euro, his endorsement of other aspects of the EU seem too sweeping.
The author talks of the benefits of “efficiencies for the greater good” in supranational government, and how subsidiarity makes allowances for “local custom and practice”. But, as the regulatory débacle surrounding the Somerset floods has shown recently, EU rule frequently licenses bureaucratic idiocies that destroy effective, established national laws. Regulatory central planning for an entire continent is, I’d say, just as suspect as monetary central planning for one country.
The continent’s demographic problems are probably containable in the short-term, as Rickards says. But mass immigration is driving increasing numbers of white Europeans to far-right parties. And while there is consistently strong public support for the euro in the PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain), he’s silent on the broader question of the EU’s democratic legitimacy. No mention of those pesky ‘No’ votes in European Constitution, Maastricht and Lisbon Treaty referendums – or of the Commission’s own Eurobarometer polls, which show more and more Europeans losing faith in “the project”.
No matter I suppose: the eurocrats will rumble on regardless. But what was that quote about democracy being the worst form of government apart from all the others?
All in all though, this is a great book – even for someone like me who’s not exactly new to the economic doom ‘n’ gloom genre. As Rickards says at the end of his intro: “The system has spun out of control.”
(1) For example Juárez, Fernando (2011). “Applying the theory of chaos and a complex model of health to establish relations among financial indicators”. Procedia Computer Science 3: 982–986.
Professor Jesus Huerta De Soto sent me a copy of his new film called “In Defense of the Euro (An Austrian Perspective)”. You can watch it here.
For those truly interested in the Gold Standard as a potential solution to our monetary crises, whilst the Euro is a very weak imitation of it, it does force governments in the euro area, in the absence of any ability to mint up money out of nowhere, to confront their profligate over-expenditure and move towards being honest with their citizens over it.
We who sit in nations that can mint up new money from nowhere – the UK, USA, and Japan – can seemingly avoid the pain of confronting our profligacy, but we wither on the vine; the pain is required to and grow and prosper again. The eurozone area will be on a stronger footing, with governments living within their means, much quicker than in the nations where monetary nationalism rules the day.
To all those who trash the Euro and Euro-style solutions, you should listen to what the Professor has to say, reflect on this contrary view, and challenge your perspective. You may find that, surprisingly, the Euro could lead to smaller governments and more honest money.
Within the Austrian School of Economics there has long been disagreement and therefore occasionally fierce debate about the nature and consequences of fractional-reserve banking, from here on called simply FRB. FRB denotes the practice by banks of issuing, as part of their lending activities, claims against themselves, either in the form of banknotes or demand deposits (fiduciary media), that are instantly redeemable in money proper (such as gold or state fiat money, depending on the prevailing monetary system) but that are not fully backed by money proper. To the extent that the public accepts these claims and uses them side by side with money proper, gold or state fiat money, as has been the case throughout most of banking history, the banks add to the supply of what the public uses as money in the wider sense.
Very broadly speaking, and at the risk of oversimplifying things, we can identify two camps. There is the 100-percent reserve group, which considers FRB either outright fraud or at least some kind of scam, and tends to advocate its ban. As an outright ban is difficult for an otherwise libertarian group of intellectuals to advocate – who would ban it if there were no state? – certain ideas have taken hold among members of this group. There is the notion that without state support – which, at present, is everywhere substantial – the public would not participate in it, and therefore it would not exist, or that it constitutes a fundamental violation of property rights, and that it would thus be in conflict with libertarian law in a free society. This position is most strongly associated with Murray Rothbard, and has, to various degrees and with different shadings, been advocated by Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Jesus Huerta de Soto, and Jörg Guido Hülsmann.
The opposing view within the Austrian tradition is mainly associated with George Selgin and Larry White, although there are other notable members of this group, such as Steve Horwitz. This camp has assumed the label “free bankers” and it defends FRB against accusations of fraud and misrepresentation, maintains that FRB is a normal feature of a free society, and that no property rights violations occur in the normal conduct of it. But this group takes the defence of banking practices further, as it also maintains that FRB is not a disruptive influence on the economy, a position that may put the free bankers in conflict with the Austrian Business Cycle Theory, although the free bankers deny this. This point is different from saying that FRB is not fraudulent or suspect. We should always consider the possibility that otherwise perfectly legitimate activities could still be the cause of economic imbalances, even in a free market. If we did find that to be the case, we might still not follow from this that state intervention or bans are justified.
But the free bankers go even further than this. Not only is FRB not problematic, either on grounds of property rights nor on economic stability, FRB is even beneficial as it tends to maintain what the free bankers call short term monetary equilibrium, that is, through FRB the banks tend to adjust the supply of money (by issuing or withdrawing deposit money on the margin) in response to discretionary changes in money demand in such a way that disruptions would not occur that otherwise seem unavoidable under inelastic forms of money when changes in money demand would have to be absorbed by changes in nominal prices. FRB is thus not just legitimate, it is highly beneficial.
Purpose of this essay
As I said before, this is an old debate. Why should we reheat it? – Before I answer this question, I should briefly state my position: I am not fully in agreement with either camp. I do believe that the free bankers’ defence of FRB is largely successful but that their claims as to it being entirely innocuous and certainly their claims as to its efficiency in flexibly meeting changes in money demand are overstated. In my view, their attempts to support these claims fail.
FRB is, in principle and usually, neither fraud nor a scam, and the question to what extent the depositing public fully grasps how FRB works is not even material in settling this issue. In their 1996-paper ‘In defense of fiduciary media’, Selgin and White argue that the type of money that FRB brings into circulation has to be distinguished from fiat money; they explain that FRB is not fraudulent and that it does not necessarily involve a violation of property rights; third party effects, that is any potentially adverse effects that FRB may have on those who do not participate in it, are not materially different from adverse effects that may emanate from other legitimate market activity, and thus provide no reason for banning FRB; furthermore, Selgin and White claim that FRB is popular and that it would occur in a free market. I agree with all these points. There is no basis for banning FRB, so it should not be banned. This position is, in my view, correct, and it also happens to be obviously libertarian. I may add that I believe it is also almost impossible to ban FRB, or something like FRB, completely. We could ban FRB as practiced by banks today but in a developed financial system it is still likely that other market participants may from time to time succeed in bringing highly liquid near-money instruments into circulation, and that may cause all the problems that the 100-percent-reserve crowd associates with traditional FRB. The question is now the following: do these problems with FRB exist? The free bankers say no. FRB, in a free market, is not only not a source of instability, it is a source of stability as it manages to satisfy changes in money demand smoothly. These positive claims as to the power of FRB are the topic of this essay. I do not believe that these claims hold up to scrutiny.
Why is this relevant?
At first it does not appear to be relevant. Selgin and White declare in their 1996 paper, and I assume their position on this has not changed, that they are opposed to state fiat money and central banking. This sounds similar to the conclusions that I develop in my book, Paper Money Collapse. I advocate the strict separation of money and state. No central bank and no state fiat money. I think it is extremely likely that an entirely uninhibited free market in money and banking would again chose some kind of inflexible commodity – a natural commodity with a long tradition as a medium of exchange, such as gold, or maybe a new, man-made but scarce commodity, such as the cryptographic commodity Bitcoin, or something similar – as the basis for the financial system, and even if the market were to continue with the established denominations of dollars, yen, and so forth, as the public is, for now at least, still comfortable using them, would somehow link the issuance of these monetary units again to something inelastic that was not under anybody’s discretionary control.
In any case, if we assume that some type of ‘market-gold-standard’ would again resurface, it is very clear that under such purely market-driven, voluntary arrangements and with essentially hard money at its core, any FRB activity would be strictly limited. FRB-practicing banks would not have lender-of-last resort central banks watching their backs. There would be no limitless well of new bank reserves to bail out overstretched banks and to restart new credit cycles whenever the old ones have run their course. There would be no state-administered and tax-payer-guaranteed deposit insurance, or any other arrangement by which the cost of failure in banking could be socialized. Lowering reserve ratios and issuing additional fiduciary media (substitute money, i.e. deposit money) would be legal (the state would abstain from any involvement in monetary affairs, including the banning of any such activities) but it would come with considerable business risk, as it should be.
Would there still be FRB? Certainly. And in my view, the remaining FRB activity, adding as it does to the elasticity of the money supply at the margin and thus potentially distorting interest rate signals, is going to lead to capital misallocations to some degree, and thus initiate the occasional business cycle. That, in my view, is the price we have to pay for having a developed monetary economy and entire freedom in money and banking with all the undeniable advantages such a system brings. Importantly, I believe that these costs are unavoidable. But they are minor due to the absence of FRB-boosting state policy. – No, an entirely free market would not fulfil any dreams of uninterrupted bliss or realise the macroeconomist’s fantasy of everlasting ‘equilibrium’, both notions that Ludwig von Mises frequently rejected and ridiculed, but it would for sure be considerably better, and much more stable, than anything our present elastic monetary system can produce.
In Paper Money Collapse, I argue that inelasticity of supply is a virtue in money. That is why gold is such an excellent monetary asset. Complete inelasticity is unattainable in the real world but something like a proper gold standard is close enough. But for the ‘free bankers’ the remaining elasticity under restricted FRB (restricted by a stable commodity base) would be a boon. It would further stabilize the economy and establish…equilibrium. In my view, these claims are unsupported. But, you may say, why should we argue about the specific features of the post-fiat-money world if we are in agreement that such a post-fiat money world is in any case preferable to the present one?
The reason is simply this: how do we evaluate current policies? On this question I thought that most Austrians, as advocates of gold or something similar, and as critics of fiat money, would still be in broad agreement. But to my initial shock and my lasting amazement I found that some Austrian free bankers frequently cannot bring themselves to reject ‘quantitative easing’ and other heavy-handed central bank intervention on principle, and that they are able to embrace monetarist policy proposals, such as nominal GDP targeting by central banks, as a kind of second-best-solution that will do for as long as our first choice of separation of money and state is not realised. I believe these positions to stand in fundamental conflict with key tenets of the Austrian School of Economics and, apart from that and more importantly, to be simply unjustifiable. I think they are misguided. But it seems to me that the occasional support for them among free bankers originates in certain expectations as to what the equilibrating forces of ‘free banking’ would bring about in a free market in terms of a stable nominal GDP, and the free bankers can thus advocate certain forms of central bank activism if these are bound to generate these same outcomes. Therefore, in order to refute the idea of nominal GDP targeting we have to show that the free bankers’ expectations as to ‘monetary equilibrium’ under free banking lack a convincing analytical foundation. In this essay I want to pose some challenges for the free bankers. In a later article I hope to address NGDP-targeting as such.
Money does not need a producer
Among all goods money has a special place. It is the most liquid good and the only one that is demanded only for its exchange value, that is, its price in other goods and services. Anybody who has demand for money has demand for real money balances, that is, for effective purchasing power in the form of money. Nobody has demand for a specific quantity of the monetary asset per se, like a certain number of paper notes or a particular quantity of gold, but always for the specific purchasing power that these monetary assets convey.
In contrast to all other goods and services, changes in money demand can in theory be met by either producing additional quantities or by withdrawing and eliminating existing quantities of the monetary asset (changing the physical quantity of money), or by allowing the price of money, money’s exchange value, to change in response to the buying and selling of money versus non-money goods by the public (changing money’s purchasing power). Furthermore, it can be argued, as I do in Paper Money Collapse, that the superior market process for bringing demand for and supply of money in balance is the latter, i.e. the market-driven adjustment of nominal prices in response to the public’s buying and selling of money for non-money goods according to money demand. Why? – Well, mainly because the process of adjusting the physical quantity of money does not work. 1) We lack a procedure by which we can detect changes in money demand before they have begun to affect prices, and if prices are already beginning to change then these price changes already constitute the very process that satisfies the new money demand. This makes changing the quantity of money superfluous. 2) We lack a procedure by which we can expand and contract the supply of money without affecting the supply of credit and without changing interest rates. This makes changing the quantity of money dangerous. Money demand and loan demand are different things. Our modern fiat money systems are, in any case, not really designed for occasionally reducing the supply of money but for a continuous expansion of the money supply. As the Austrian Business Cycle Theory explains, expanding the supply of money by expanding bank credit must distort interest rates (artificially depress them) and lead to mismatches between voluntary saving and investment and thus to capital misallocations.
To this analysis the free bankers appear to voice a few objections. Before we look at the differences, however, let’s first stress an important agreement: the free bankers agree that nominal prices can do the adjusting and bring demand for and supply of money in balance. But they introduce an important condition: in the long run. In the short run, they argue, the process is not quite as smooth as many hard-money Austrians portray it to be.
Selgin and White (‘Defence’, 1996):
In the long run, nominal prices will adjust to equate supply and demand for money balances, whatever the nominal quantity of money. It does not follow, however, that each and every change in the supply of or demand for money will lead at once to a new long-run equilibrium, because the required price adjustments take time. They take time because not all agents are instantly and perfectly aware of changes in the money stock or money demand, and because some prices are costly to adjust and therefore “sticky.” It follows that, in the short run (empirically, think “for a number of months”), less than fully anticipated changes to the supply of or demand for money can give rise to monetary disequilibrium.
Thus, the first objection of the free bankers is that the account of the hard-money Austrians about the smooth adjustment of prices in response to changes in money demand is a bit superficial and slick. In the real world, not all prices will respond so quickly. Not all goods and services are being priced and re-priced in a continuous auction process, and when the public reduces money-outlays at the margin in an attempt to increase money-holdings, not every producer of goods and services will quickly adjust the price tags of his wares.
I do think some of this criticism is valid, and I am not excluding myself from it. My own account of the process of adjustment of money’s purchasing power sometimes runs the risk of glossing over the real-life frictions involved. However, to my defence, I acknowledged some of these problems in Paper Money Collapse, although I do not treat them extensively. See page 144-145:
In the absence of a flexible money supply, sudden changes in money demand will have to be fully absorbed by changes’ in money’s purchasing power. One could argue that this, too, has the potential to disrupt the otherwise smooth operation of the economy. Indeed, as we have seen, this phenomenon will also affect the prices of different goods differently. [This refers to the fact that when, for example, people try to raise their money holdings, they will reduce money-outlays on non-money goods or sell non-money goods for money, but they won’t cut every single expenditure item by an equal amount, or liquidate a tiny portion of each of their assets but will always cut the expenditure or sell the asset that is lowest on their present value scale. Downward pressure on prices from rising money demand will thus not be the same for all prices.]…A change in the demand for money will change overall prices but also relative prices and therefore the relative position of economic actors and the allocation of resources in the economy. All of this is true but it must lead to a different question: Is any of this avoidable….?
Is ‘monetary disequilibrium’ a unique phenomenon?
The free bankers are correct to point to these problems but it is also true that every change in the preferences of economic agents leads to similar problems. If consumer tastes change and money-flows are being redirected from certain products to certain other products, this, too, means that nominal spending on some items is being reduced. Profitability will decline in some parts of the economy and increase in others. This, too, will ultimate redirect resources and change the economy but all of these processes “take time because not all agents are instantly and perfectly aware …” of what is going on, and also for other reasons, including the stickiness of some prices. I think agents are never “instantly and perfectly aware” of anything, and that the slickness of economic models is never matched by reality. Accordingly, the real world is constantly in disequilibrium, and as economists we can only explain the underlying processes that tend towards equilibrium without ever reaching it. I wonder, however, if the concerns of the free bankers, valid though they are, are not just examples of the frictions that always exist in the real world, in which tastes and preferences change constantly, and change in an instant, but prices, knowledge, and resource use always move more slowly.
Furthermore, the issue of stickiness of prices should not be overstated. These days many prices do appear rather flexible and tend to adjust rather quickly: not only those of financial assets but also industrial commodities, and even many consumer goods, from used cars to hotel stays to flight tickets to everything on eBay. Discounting in response to a drop in nominal spending is the first of line of defense for almost every entrepreneur, I would guess, and if what the entrepreneur faces is indeed a higher money demand among his clientele, rather than a genuine change in consumption preferences, then sales should stabilize quickly at the lower price.
But I think the main point is this: how can the banks do better? What do the free bankers say to my two points above that changing the quantity of money is not really a viable alternative to allowing changes in nominal prices? Let’s address the first point first:
Point 1) We lack a procedure by which we can detect changes in money demand before they have begun to affect prices, and if prices are already beginning to change then these price changes already constitute the very process that satisfies the new money demand. This makes changing the quantity of money superfluous.
How do banks detect a change in money demand – before it has affected prices?
Banks have no facility to create money and money alone (deposit money, fiduciary media). New money is always a byproduct of banks’ lending operations. Banks can only create money by expanding their balance sheets. Thus, they always create an asset (a new loan) at the same time they create a new liability (the demand deposit in which the bank pays out the loan to the borrower, and which is part of the money supply). Therefore, if you suddenly experience a rise in money demand, if you suddenly feel the urge to hold more of your wealth in the form of the most fungible object (money), the bank can’t help you. Of course, you could go to the bank and borrow the money and then keep it in cash. This is a possibility but I think we all agree – and the free bankers seem to agree as well – that this is very unusual, and that it must be rare. Banks meet loan demand, not money demand, and the two are not only different, they are the opposite of one another. Borrowers do not have a high marginal demand for money; quite to the contrary, they have a high marginal demand for goods and services, i.e. non-money items (that is why they are willing to incur interest expense). The loan is in the form of money but the borrowers usually spend the money right away on whatever they really desire.
Banks are not in the money-creation business (or only in it by default – no pun intended); they are really in the lending business. The idea that rising money demand would articulate itself as higher loan demand at banks is wrong, and the free bankers do not usually make that mistake. They know (and some of them even stress) that money demand articulates itself in the markets for non-money goods and services (including, but not restricted to, financial assets). People reduce or increase spending in order to establish the desired money holdings.
To the extent that, when people experience a higher money demand, they sell financial assets to banks, the banks do indeed directly experience the heightened money demand, and if the banks increase their FRB activities in response and expand their balance sheets accordingly (the financial assets they buy enter the asset side of the balance sheet – they are the new loans – and the new demand deposits the banks issue to pay for them sit on the liability side of the balance sheet), the quantity of money is indeed being expanded in response to money demand. But to the extent that the public does not sell to FRB-practicing banks or that the public reduces other outlays or sells non-financial assets, the banks are not directly involved as counterparties. How can they still detect a rising money demand?
[As an aside, the free bankers sometimes speak of ‘the public having a higher demand for demand deposits or ‘inside money’ ’, and that the banks should be allowed to ‘accommodate’ this. I think these statements are confusing. Depositing physical cash in a bank, or conversely liquidating demand deposits to increase holdings of physical cash, are transactions between various forms of money. In a functioning FRB system, both forms of money, physical cash and bank-produced deposit money, are almost perfect surrogates. Both are used side by side, and both satisfy the demand for money. That is the precondition for FRB to work. The factors that occasionally determine preferences for a specific form of money are fundamentally different from those that affect the demand for money overall. If the public, for example, reduces demand deposits and accumulates physical cash, i.e. switches from ‘inside money’ to ‘outside money’, this may be because it is concerned about the health of the banks, and this is unrelated to the public’s demand for money, which in this case may be unchanged. As an example, in the recent crisis, the demand for physical cash increased in many countries, relative to the demand for bank deposits. At the same time, overall money demand also probably increased. But importantly, both phenomena are fundamentally different.]
The answer is this: if the public, in an attempt to raise money holdings, reduces money spending, this will slow the velocity of money, and to the banks this will be clearly visible. Money doesn’t change hands as quickly as before, and that includes transaction-ready deposit money at banks. Importantly, the slower velocity of money means a reduced risk of money outflows for each bank, in particular the likelihood of transfers to other banks that are a drain on existing bank reserves. Thus, the banks now have more scope to conduct FRB, that is, to reduce their reserve ratios, lower loan rates and issue more loans, and obviously to produce more deposit money in the process.
In the essay mentioned above, ‘In defence of fiduciary media’, this explanation appears in footnote 29, the emphasis here is different and so is the wording but the essence is the same, in my view. Banks increase FRB in response to a drop in money velocity. A rising money demand articulates itself in a lower velocity and thus a tendency for more FRB:
But how can the banks manage to expand their demand deposits, if total bank reserves have not changed? The increased demand to hold demand deposits, relative to income [increased money demand, DS], means that fewer checks are written per year per dollar of account balances. The marginal deposit dollar poses less of a threat to a bank’s reserves. Thus a bank can safely increase its ratio of deposits to reserves, increasing the volume of its deposits to the point where the rising liquidity cost plus interest and other costs of the last dollar of deposits again equals the marginal revenue from a dollar of assets.
I think this explanation is exceedingly clever and accurate. I do not, because I cannot, object to the logic. But does it help us? I have two observations:
1) Is it really probable that this process is faster and more efficient than the adjustment of nominal prices? The objection of the free bankers was that the adjustment of nominal prices takes time. But so does this process. The bankers will not be “instantly and perfectly aware” of what is happening anymore than the producers of goods and services. When the public reduces spending in order to preserve money balances the effect will be felt as soon by the producers of whatever the public now spends less money on, as by the bankers who see fewer cheques being written. Why would we assume that the bankers respond faster? Sure, prices can be sticky, but does that mean that accelerated FRB will always beat nominal price changes in terms of speed? Will the bankers always expand their loan book faster than the affected producers discount their product? It is not clear to me why this would be the case.
2) More importantly, the banks will, by definition, give the new deposit money first not to those who have a higher demand for money but to their loan clients who, we just established, have no demand for money but for goods and services, and who will quickly spend the money. From there, the money will circulate and may, finally, reach those who do indeed have a higher demand for money. But there is no escaping the fact that this is a roundabout process. For the very reason that banks can only produce money as a byproduct of their lending business, those who do demand higher money balances can only ever be reached via a detour through other markets, never directly. Bank-produced money has to go through the loan market first, and has to change hands a few times, before it can reach those who originally experienced a high money demand. There is no process as part of which we could ever hear a banker say to any of his customers: you have a higher money demand? Here, have some. – The question is now, what type of frictions or unintended consequences of this procedure of satisfying money demand do we encounter? Are these frictions likely to be smaller or even greater than the frictions inherent in allowing nominal prices to do the adjusting to meet changes in money demand?
Before we address these frictions a few words on a related topic: the free bankers sometimes seem to imply that unwanted fiduciary media (demand deposits, inside money) would return to the banks. This is not correct, or rather, it would only be correct if people wanted to exchange the demand deposit for physical cash but this is a transaction that is, as we have seen, unrelated to money demand. Claims against any specific bank may be unwanted, or demand deposits may be wanted less than physical cash, but this is unrelated to overall money demand. If deposit money is seen as a viable money good, and this is the precondition for FRB to work, any excess holding of money, whether inside money or outside money, whether cash or demand deposit, will not be returned to a bank and exchanged but will be spent! If banks increase their FRB activities and bring new fiduciary media into circulation, this money will circulate until it reaches somebody with genuine money demand. Often – when money demand has not risen simultaneously – this process involves inflation as a lower purchasing power for each monetary unit is required to get the public to voluntarily hold the new monetary units.
Is money demand a form of desired saving?
According to the free bankers, banks respond to a drop in money velocity as a result of rising money demand by engaging in extra FRB. At lower velocity, the risks inherent in FRB are smaller and this encourages banks to reduce their reserve ratios marginally, create extra loans and produce extra money, i.e. new deposit money that is now satisfying at least some of the new money demand. But what about the extra bank credit that also comes into existence? Hasn’t Mises shown that bank credit expansion is a source of economic instability; that bank credit expansion sets off business cycles? If extra loans at lower interest rates are not the result of additional voluntary saving but simply of money printing, and these loans still encourage extra investment and capital spending, then these additional projects will ultimately lack the real resources, resources that only voluntary saving can free up and redirect towards investment, that are needed to see the projects through to conclusion and to sustain them. Extra bank credit is thus bound to upset the market’s process of coordination between saving and investment – coordination that is directed via market interest rates. Would the extra FRB not start a Misesian business cycle? Would the allegedly faster and smoother process of satisfying changed money demand via FRB, via the adjustment in the nominal quantity of money rather than nominal price changes, not create new instabilities as a result of the artificially lower interest rates and the extra bank credit that are the necessary mirror image of new deposit money?
In Austrian theory, desired savings are a function of time preference. A lower time preference means the public attaches a lower importance to consumption in the near future relative to consumption in the more distant future. The discount rate at which future goods are discounted is lowered and the propensity to save rises, i.e. the willingness to reallocate income from meeting present consumption needs to meeting future consumption needs rises. The extra savings are offered on the loan markets at marginally lower rates. This encourages a marginal increase in investment. The marginally lower rates on the loan market thus accurately reflect the marginally lower time preference of the public. But lower rates as a result of credit expansion and FRB can unhinge this process. That is the core message of the Austrian Business Cycle Theory. How can the free bankers get out of this dilemma?
The free bankers counter this point by claiming that an increased demand for money reflects a lower time preference. Holding more money is a form of saving.
Although in the already quoted “Defence of Fiduciary Media”, Selgin and White at some point state that
We agree that time preference and money demand are distinct, and that a change in one does not imply a change in the other.
They also write, and this is more crucial to the case they are making, I believe,
The argument for the equilibrating properties of free banking rests in part on recognizing that an increased demand to hold claims on intermediaries, including claims in the form of banknotes and demand deposits, at the expense of holding additional consumer goods, is equivalent to an increase in desired saving.
In any case, in the examples they provide later, time preference, desired saving, and money demand always move together.
While I agree that accumulating money balances can be a form of saving (I say that much in Paper Money Collapse), it does not have to be the case, and I think it is more helpful to disentangle saving, consumption and money demand. Holding money is non-consuming, as Selgin and White point out, but it is equally non-investing.
If I sell my laptop on e-Bay so I have more readily spendable money (demand deposits) in my bank account so that I can take advantage of any unforeseen spending opportunities during my holiday in Greece, would we say that my time preference has declined, and that this is an act of saving? This is a switch from a consumption good to money, and Selgin and White would label this an act of saving, at least as I understand them. But the laptop would have delivered its use-value to me over a long period of time. Now I hold instantly spendable demand deposits instead. Has my time preference really dropped?
Here is a different example, one where we encounter a switch from investment goods to money, an example that Selgin and White put forward in their paper and where they argue that in such an operation total desired saving remains unchanged. Time preference remains the same. In the example given, the public sells bonds and accumulates cash or demand deposits instead. Both, money and bonds are non-consumption goods and thus saving-instruments in the Selgin and White definition. According to their theory, the banks would now acquire the bonds and issue deposit money against them. By doing this (increased FRB activity), the banks satisfy the demand for more money and keep interest rates from rising – which is appropriate as overall desired savings have not changed and time preference is still the same. – However, has the public’s time preference really not changed? Rather than holding a less liquid, long-term debt instrument the public now holds the most fungible asset (money). Is it fair to say that when people liquidate their bond portfolios that their time preference remains unchanged? – Maybe the public does this precisely for the reason that time preference has increased. The public may spend the money soon on consumption goods, or the public considers market interest rates too low and as no longer representative of the public’s time preference, and a drop in bond prices (rise in yields) is thus warranted to reflect this, and should not be cancelled out by the banks’ accelerated FRB.
The short run versus the long run
Furthermore, I suspect that there is an inconsistency in claiming that, in the long run, nominal price changes do bring the demand for and supply of money in line and then to argue that in the short run, money demand is best – and automatically – met by quantitative changes in the supply of money via FRB. The long run is evidently only a string of short runs, and if changes in money demand have been satisfied in the short run via FRB, how can these changes then still exercise up- or downward pressure on nominal prices in the long run?
The free bankers are correct to point to real-life frictions in the process of satisfying a changed money demand via an adjustment of nominal prices. The process is neither smooth nor instant, but then almost no market process is in reality. Their explanation that a rise in money demand will lead to a drop in money velocity and that this will, on the margin and under normal conditions, encourage additional FRB and thus an expansion of bank-produced money also strikes me as correct. Yet, the free bankers fail, in my view, to show convincingly why this process would be faster and smoother than the adjustment of nominal prices, and in particular, why the extra bank credit that also comes into existence through FRB would not generate the problems that the Austrian School under Mises has explained extensively.
If only a subset of the population, rather than the entire public, experiences a higher money demand – and this must be the more likely scenario by far – and this subset than reduces nominal spending on those goods and services that are relevant to this group, and if this then leads to a marginal drop in the prices of these goods and services, the extra demand of this group for real money balances has been met with potentially fairly limited frictions and side-effects, I would argue. By comparison, FRB can never meet money demand of any group directly. Banks always have to inject the new money into the economy via the loan market, that is, at a point where money demand is low and demand for non-money goods is high. Money demand will always be met in a roundabout way. Furthermore, the lowering of interest rates through the additional FRB activity is only unproblematic if the additional demand for real money balances is identical with desired saving and reflects a reduce time preference. These are rather heroic assumptions indeed.
Ludwig von Mises – The real free banker
The 100-percent-reserve Austrians have stuck – correctly in my view – with one of the most important insights of Austrian monetary theory as developed by the school’s most distinguished 20th century representative, Ludwig von Mises, namely the destabilizing force of credit expansion. Unfortunately, the 100-percent-reserve Austrians have taken the critique of banking too far. Claims of misrepresentation, deception, and fraud as being constituting elements of FRB go too far and remain ultimately unsupported.
The self-styled ‘free bankers’ are correct to reject these claims but they are taking their defense of FRB too far as well. By claiming that FRB could smoothly and quickly satisfy any changes in money demand they assign equilibrating properties to FRB that are ultimately unsupportable. In the process, they risk ignoring some of the most relevant Misesian insights. In particular the free bankers, it seems to me, tend to ignore that in an established FRB system, bank-produced fiduciary media (such as demand deposits) will be seen as near-perfect surrogates for money proper (such as state fiat money or gold). In such an environment the banks can (within limits) expand FRB and thus create more fiduciary media regardless of present money demand. Unwanted money (deposit money) then leads to a rise in money velocity and an upward pressure on nominal prices – it does not lead to the public exchanging deposit money for physical cash, as that would be just a switch from one form of money to another. Therefore, the unwanted bank-produced money – that entered the economy via the bank loan market – does not return to the banks. In my view, the free bankers ignore some of the dangers in FRB and overstate its equilibrating powers.
Both camps refer to Mises as an authority, albeit the ‘free bankers’ generally less so. Selgin and White, in their 1996 paper, quote Mises as a champion of free banking. I do, however, believe that the quote, taken from Human Action, has to be read in the context of Mises’ life-long and unwavering commitment to a proper gold standard. Here is the quote:
Free banking is the only method for the prevention of the dangers inherent in credit expansion. It would, it is true, not hinder a slow credit expansion, kept within very narrow limits, on the part of cautious banks which provide the public with all the information required about their financial status. But under free banking it would have been impossible for credit expansion with all its inevitable consequences to have developed into a regular – one is tempted to say normal – feature of the economic system. Only free banking would have rendered the market economy secure against crises and depressions.
Crises and depressions, in Misesian theory, do not come about because of short-term mismatches between money demand and money supply, or frictions in the adjustment of nominal prices, but because of credit expansion. In order to appreciate Mises’s concerns over credit expansion, one does not have to consider bankers fraudsters (or ‘banksters’), and I can see no evidence in Mises’ writing that he saw bankers that way. But in order to agree with him that banks should be as free as all other enterprises – which, importantly, includes the freedom to fail – you do not have to assign them mystical equilibrating powers, either.
Mises’ conclusions were consistent and his recommendations practical: introduce inelastic, inflexible, apolitical money as the basis of the financial system, a hard monetary core, such as in a proper gold standard, and then allow banks the same freedom, under the same laws of corporation, that all other businesses enjoy – no special bans and no special privileges, such as ‘lenders of last resort’ or tax-payer-backed deposit insurance – and you can allow the market to operate. I believe that this should be the policy proposal under which all Austrians can and should unite.
Any deviation from the core Misesian message also occasionally gets ‘Austrians’ into some strange political company. With their damnation of FRB and allegations of fraud, the 100-percent-reserve Austrians seem at times to play into the hands of populist anti-bank fractions that have recently grown in influence since the financial crisis started, and to inadvertently be associated with the statist proposals of organizations such as the UK’s Positive Money or IMF economists Benes and Kumhof, all of whom consider money-creation by private banks – FRB- as the root of all evil and propose full control over the monetary sphere by the state – a proposal that could not be further from Mises’ ideals.
On the other side, the free bankers are in such awe of the assumed equilibrating powers of FRB in a free market that they confidently predict a stable (or at least reasonably stable) nominal GDP – and if we do not have free banking and a free market yet, why not have today’s central banks target nominal GDP to get a similar result under today’s statist monetary infrastructure? Bizarrely, and completely indefensibly, in my view, these Austrians end up joining forces with aggregate-demand-managing Keynesians or money-supply-managing monetarists. This is not only in fundamental conflict with many tenets of the Misesian framework – it is simply misguided, even under considerations of monetary realpolitik, i.e. of what is politically practicable presently but better than the present system.
Banks should be free but can only ever be so within a proper capitalist monetary system, and that is a system with a market-chosen monetary commodity at its core, and most certainly a hard and inelastic one. No new ‘target’ for central bank policy can ever achieve results that mirror the outcome of a properly functioning monetary system and a free banking market. We do not have a gold standard and free banking at present, and under these conditions I would suggest that a central bank that imitates a gold standard as closely as possible – i.e. one that ultimately keeps the monetary base fairly stable – would be, under the circumstances, the second best’, or least worst, solution. But a full treatment of the NGDP-targeting proposal will have to wait for another blog.
In the meantime, the debasement of paper money continues.
This article was previously published at DetlevSchlichter.com.
This article was published yesterday at stevebaker.info.
Today sees the return of the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Bill to Parliament. It does not do enough.
In the book Banking 2020: A vision for the future, my essay summarises the institutional problems with our monetary and banking orthodoxy:
The features of today’s banking system
As Governor of the Bank of England Sir Mervyn King told us in 2010: ‘Of all the many ways of organising banking, the worst is the one we have today.’
Notes and coins are irredeemable: the promise to pay the bearer on demand cannot be fulfilled, except with another note or coin with the same face value. Notes and coins are tokens worth less than their face value and are issued lawfully and exclusively by the state. This is fiat money.
When this money is deposited at the bank it becomes the bank’s property and a liability. The bank does not retain a full reserve on demand deposits. In the days of gold as money, fractional reserves on demand deposits explained how banks created credit. Today, credit expansion is not bounded by the redemption of notes, coins, and bank deposits in gold.
Because banks are funded by demand deposits but create credit on longer terms, they are risky investment vehicles subject to runs in a loss of confidence. States have come to provide taxpayer-funded deposit insurance. This subsidises commercial risk, producing more of it and creating moral hazard amongst depositors who need not concern themselves with the conduct of banks.
The state also provides a privileged lender of last resort: the central bank. It lends to illiquid but solvent banks getting them through moments of crisis. In a fiat money system, central banks have the power to create reserves and otherwise intervene openly in the money markets. Today this is most evident in the purchase of government bonds with new money, so-called quantitative easing.
The central banks also manipulate interest rates in the hope of maintaining a particular rate of price inflation through just the right rate of credit expansion to match economic growth. That otherwise free-market economists and commentators support such obvious economic central planning is one of the absurdities of contemporary life.
Compounding these flaws is the limited liability corporate form. Whereas limited liability was introduced to protect stockholders from rapacious directors, its consequence today is ensuring no one taking commercial risks within banks stands to share in the downside. This creates further moral hazard.
Regulatory decisions have been taken to encourage banks to make bad loans and dispose of them irresponsibly. Among these are the US Community Reinvestment Act and the present government’s various initiatives to promote the housing market and further credit expansion.
Having insisted banks make bad loans, the regulatory state imposed the counterproductive International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) which can over-value assets and over-state the capital position of banks. This drives the creation of financial products and deals which appear profitable but which are actually loss-making. Since these notoriously involve vast quantities of instruments tied to default, the system is booby-trapped.
Amongst the many practical consequences of these policies was the tripling of the money supply (M4) in the UK from £700 billion in 1997 to £2.2 trillion in 2010. Credit expansion at this rate has had predictable and profound consequences including asset bubbles, sectoral and geographic imbalances, unjust wealth inequality, erosion of physical capital, excess consumption over saving, and the redirection of scarce resources into unsustainable uses.
Moreover, credit cannot be expanded without limit. Eventually, the real world catches up with credit not backed by tangible assets: booms are followed by busts.
The essay provides some objectives for monetary reform and sets out proposals from Dowd et al and Huerta de Soto.
I was pleased that the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards highlighted problems with incentives and accounting – the conversation is going in the right direction. At some point, when it becomes apparent that Mervyn King was right and we do have the worst possible banking system, I hope decision makers will realise that banks and the product in which they deal, money, are inseparable and that meaningful banking reform demands monetary reform.
You can download the book here.
This article was included as an expert submission to Ron Paul’s Monetary Policy Anthology.
“When you’re one step ahead of the crowd you’re a genius. When you’re two steps ahead, you’re a crackpot.”
-Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Lincoln Square Synagogue, February 1998
“I hold all idea of regulating the currency to be an absurdity; the very terms of regulating the currency and managing the currency I look upon to be an absurdity; the currency should regulate itself; it must be regulated by the trade and commerce of the world; I would neither allow the Bank of England nor any private banks to have what is called the management of the currency.
I should never contemplate any remedial measure, which left to the discretion of individuals to regulate the amount of currency by any principle or standard whatever… I should be sorry to trust the Bank of England again, having violated their principle [the Palmer rule]; for I never trust the same parties twice on an affair of such magnitude.”
Report from the Select Committee on Banks of Issue
British Parliament, April 1840
It is a great privilege to write this essay on money and banking reform to mark the retirement of Dr. Paul from Congress. We in the United Kingdom have much to thank Dr. Paul for his tireless campaigning on these issues, especially those raised in the full public glare of two Presidential campaigns, making money and banking reform resonate here as well more than it otherwise would have.
At the Cobden Centre, we have two great parliamentarians, like Dr. Paul also inspired by the Austrian School of Economics: Steve Baker, Member of Parliament (MP) for High Wycombe (my co-founder of the Cobden Centre); and Douglas Carswell, MP for Clacton. Taking the idea of full-reserve free banking, currency competition, honest accounting, and full open liability for bankers, they have produced four bills in Parliament which we will discuss next in summary.
The Financial Services (Deposit and Lending) Bill – 2010
Carswell describes the Deposit and Lending bill as follows:
My bill would give account holders legal ownership of their deposits, unless they indicated otherwise when opening the account. In other words, there would henceforth be two categories of bank account: deposit-taking accounts for investment purposes, and deposit-taking accounts for storage purposes. Banks would remain at liberty to lend on money deposited in the investment accounts, but not on money deposited in the storage accounts. As such, the idea is not a million miles away from the idea of 100% gilt-backed storage accounts proposed by other hon. Members and the Governor of the Bank of England.
Currency and Banknotes (Amendment) – 2011
Carswell describes the Currency and Banknotes Amendment as follows:
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Currency and Banknotes Act 1954 to allow banknotes in addition to those issued by the Bank of England to be legal tender; and for connected purposes. … My Bill would amend the Currency and Banknotes Act 1954 to enable a range of different currencies to be used as legal tender in Britain. The idea comes from a 1989 Treasury paper from when John Major was Chancellor. What the Treasury proposed as theoretically possible 22 years ago, the internet now makes practically achievable.
The internet has given people unprecedented choice. We have access to a greater range of music, financial services, groceries and books than ever before, so why do we have legal tender laws that create a monopoly currency?
In an email to me, Carswell expressed the influence Congressman Paul has had on his work:
Reading Ron Paul’s End the Fed gave me the confidence to speak out. I suddenly realised it wasn’t just a few of us Brits who doubted the whole fiat money/candy floss currency scam. He has given hope to those of us throughout the West.
Financial Services (Regulation of Derivatives) Bill
Steve Baker compiled the Regulation of Derivatives Bill with the help of Gordon Kerr, Tim Bush, and Kevin Dowd.  When he introduced the legislation on 15 March 2011, he described the Bill as requiring “certain financial institutions to prepare parallel accounts on the basis of the lower of historic cost and mark to market for their exposure to derivatives; and for connected purposes.” Baker explained how the accounting rules for banks incentivize trading in derivatives by enabling unrealized profits to be booked up-front, leading to large but unjustified bonuses and dividends.
More broadly, banks are producing accounts that grossly inflate their profits and capital in three ways:
(1) Using mark-to-market and mark-to-model accounting, banks record unrealized gains in investments as profits.
(2) International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) prevent banks from making prudent provision for expected loan losses by allowing recognition only of incurred losses.
(3) IFRS encourages banks not to deduct staff compensation from profits.
Taken together, these flaws mean that banks’ accounts under IFRS are at once rule-compliant and dangerously misleading. The Regulation of Derivatives Bill deals with this broad problem. For much more detail, see Gordon Kerr’s Adam Smith Institute pamphlet, “The Law of Opposites.”
Financial Institutions (Reform) Bill
Baker compiled the Financial Institutions Reform Bill with the help of Gordon Kerr and Kevin Dowd. The bill was introduced on Wednesday, 29 February 2012. The key provisions of the bill would:
(1) Enforce strict liability on directors of financial institutions;
(2) Enforce unlimited personal liability on directors of financial institutions;
(3) Require directors of financial institutions to post personal bonds as additional bank capital;
(4) Require personal bonds and bonuses to be treated as additional bank capital;
(5) Make provision for the insolvency of financial institutions; and
(6) Establish a financial crimes investigation unit.
The purpose of this Bill is to minimise moral hazard within the financial system by ensuring that those who take risks are held personally liable for the consequences. Since rules can usually be gamed by financial institutions, a principle underlying this Bill is to minimise scope for evasion.
The public are rightly incensed at the injustices we see across the financial system but our economy must have responsible, innovative and enterprising financial services. It is essential that commercial freedom is maintained while creating a system in which remuneration is a just reward for success, not the unjust product of unrealised profits and bailouts.
My Bill would make directors of financial institutions personally liable for losses. It would ensure that losses came first out of institutions’ bonus pools then directors’ personal bonds before hitting equity. Directors would also be exposed to unlimited personal liability long before any suggestion of taxpayer bailout.
With key decision makers’ own wealth at risk, they would take responsible decisions instead of expecting rewards for failure.
It’s time to tell bankers, “Yes, innovate. By all means earn large rewards for providing valuable financial services. But bear your own commercial risks. Don’t expect the rest of us to bail you out.”
Public Attitudes to Banking: A Survey Commissioned by the Cobden Centre (2010)
When we started the Cobden Centre, we all thought we knew about money and banking and all thought we knew what our fellow Brits thought about it all. To the great credit of Prof. Anthony Evans, he said let’s do some empirical testing. And so the Cobden Centre commissioned a survey. This research formed the basis of much of the work our parliamentary friends have embarked upon.
The survey was conducted by the market research company ICM with 2,000 participants. The results offer us a rather confusing array of views as to what people think banking is about.
- 74% of respondents thought that they were the legal owner of the money in their current account, as opposed to the bank being the legal owner.
- 66% of respondents answered “don’t know” when asked what proportion of their current account was used in various ways by their bank.
- 15% wanted safe-keeping services.
- 67% wanted convenient access.
- 8% knew correctly that they had lent money to the bank.
- 33% think it is wrong that the bank lends out what they view as their money.
- 61% said they would not mind the bank lending if it was done safely.
- 26% wanted reserves to match deposits.
It would seem a sizeable minority percentage would want some form of safe-keeping services. Most would want easy access, which would imply short-term borrowing matched with short-term lending, so as to avoid runs, rather than the current practice of lending long and borrowing short.
The needs of savers and borrowers would be better aligned by requiring depositors to choose, at the time of making a deposit, how much money they wished to put into plain saving (i.e., savings set aside for safe/precautionary holding as opposed to investment purposes — a distinction made by the Austrian scholar Ludwig von Mises) and how much into capitalist saving (i.e., savings set aside for investment gain as opposed to safe/precautionary savings). This would provide the setting for, and lead to, much more stable and substantial growth.
In a modern setting, the ability for banks to distinguish between plain savings, those savings that people want for safe keeping, and savings for capitalistic investment via the normal savings bonds, time deposit accounts, and so on and so forth, would allow the banking system to mediate more accurately the diverse time preferences of all savers and borrowers. (The Manchester/Lancashire system of full reserve banking and private money creation that we will discuss in the last part of this essay is a good historical example of how mediating only capitalistic savings, and not plain savings, created a system of safe credit—until it was interfered with by the Stamp Act.)
The ICM survey showed all of us that there is a need to sort out what people actually think happens with their money and banking and what actually does happen—as the two things are very different.
The Jesus Huerta De Soto Monetary Reform Proposal in Summary
Some three years ago I was fortunate enough to introduce both of our Parliamentarian friends to the greatest of all the living Austrian School economists in the full reserve tradition, Professor Jesus Huerta De Soto. His 1998 book, translated into English in 2006 as Money, Bank Credit, and Economic Cycles, is the seminal treatise on the matter.
In chapter nine, he outlines his reform proposal. (All quotes in this section are taken from chapter nine and the full book can be downloaded at http://www.cobdencentre.org/tag/downloads/.) The aims of the reform, as summarized by Prof. Huerta De Soto himself, are as follows:
[O]ur proposal is based on privatizing money in its current form by replacing it with its metallic equivalent in gold and allowing the market to resume its free development from the time of the transition, either by confirming gold as the generally accepted form of money, or by permitting the spontaneous and gradual entrance of other monetary standards.
This second element of our proposal refers to the necessity of revoking banking legislation and eliminating central banks and in general any government agency devoted to controlling and intervening in the financial or banking market. It should be possible to set up any number of private banks with complete freedom, both in terms of corporate purpose and legal form. …
Nevertheless the defense of free banking does not imply permission for banks to operate with a fractional reserve. At this point it should be perfectly clear that banking should be subject to traditional legal principles and that these demand the maintenance at all times of a 100 percent reserve with respect to demand deposits at banks. Hence free banking must not be viewed as a license to infringe this rule, since its infringement not only constitutes a violation of a traditional legal principle, but it also triggers a chain of consequences which are highly damaging to the economy. 
The crux of his reform proposal is as follows (the description is mine and made UK-specific by me — read chapter nine in full for the complete version in the Professor’s own words):
(1) All demand deposits are immaterial money, and are not the depositor’s money but a liability from the bank they deposit with to pay them back money in the same amount as deposited, on demand.
(2) Let the government back all these demand deposits for physical cash and place them as reserves against the existing demand deposits. This is virtually a costless activity on behalf of the state. It is also not inflationary, as the backing, the physical cash, cannot be spent, as it sits in reserves.
(3) The money supply can neither expand nor contract at this specific point.
(4) The banks, where they had current liabilities, now no longer have them as they are fully reserved.
(5) This generates a one-off gain to the banks in terms of their net worth. In short, so much as they had these current demand liabilities, now they have these backed with paper notes for the same value, so their net worth has gone up by the equivalent amount.
(6) The asset side of the balance sheet, their loan portfolio, stays intact.
(7) As there are over £1 trillion of demand deposits in the UK banking system, the banking system’s net worth would have risen by £1 trillion.
(8) Why give this one-off gift of largesse to the shareholders and bonus-hungry bankers? Well, don’t. Form special purpose vehicles to hold the asset side of the balance sheets of the banks to collect on these outstanding loans and you can contract out the management of this to the existing banks.
(9) By doing this, the banks’ net worth on the day after the reform is still the same as the day before the reform, but the £1 trillion loan repayments are now paying off our national debt obligations. This is a unique one-off gain and is a byproduct of this reform.
(10) The gold price would need to rise to back all the deposits with gold and then you fix all money in one of its historic anchors: gold (you could also use silver or other successful monies). Since gold increases in physical supply at the rate of approximately 2% per year, if productivity gains run at about this rate you will have stable prices; if productivity rates are greater, then a benign price deflation.
(11) Let the people spontaneously discover what their most favoured money actually is.
I have suggested my own reform proposal along this line of reasoning here: http://www.cobdencentre.org/2010/05/the-emperors-new-clothes-how-to-pay-off-the-national-debt-give-a-28-5-tax-cut/.
In short, I would have no-reserve banking, not 100% reserve. By this, I have suggested that all demand deposits should actually be swapped out for physical cash and the current liability of the bank just rubbed out. Then the people would actually own their own money on deposit and not be current creditors, thus I would question the need to perform point number two and substitute along the lines of what I just suggested.
Would 100% Reserve Free Banking be the End of Lending and the End of Commerce as We Know It?
This is the question that gets asked when most people have understood that 100% reserve banking would be the end of bank-created credit. Many credible and distinguished people attribute the creation of bank credit as the source of the Industrial Revolution itself. Such a powerful thing is alleged. The noted Daily Telegraph writer Ambrose Evans-Pritchard says in his 21 October 2012 column:
One might equally say that this opened the way to England’s agricultural revolution in the early 18th Century, the industrial revolution soon after, and the greatest economic and technological leap ever seen. But let us not quibble.
For those followers of Dr. Paul and those generally interested in monetary reform in this tradition, I did some research into the genesis of the Industrial Revolution to see if this assertion held any merit. I have focused my research into the County of Lancashire and what became the first industrial city of the world, Manchester. In this concluding historical section, I will show that in the first third of the Industrial Revolution, private credit, bills of exchange, backed by the goods and services that were being traded for and by gold and silver, was the preferred modus operandi. The taxation of this private money by the 1815 Stamp Act led to their slow decline in favour of the privileged note issue of, in particular, the Bank of England. However, by late 1874 some 45% of all credit was still private credit in the form of bills of exchange. Private credit was the preferred medium of the Industrial Revolution, and not bank-created fiduciary credit.
Early Banking in Manchester
The historian Arthur Redford in his book about merchants and foreign trade in Manchester described the early bankers of the town:
The first Manchester Bank, that of Byron, Sedgwick, Allen, and Place, was opened in 1771, in combination with an insurance office, and the Mercury welcomed it with the comment that “from the general Approbation the Scheme has met with amongst all Ranks of People, it is not questioned that it will be of infinite Utility to the Trading Part of the Town, and to the County in general.” …. It was not the only Manchester banking business, for in 1772 John Jones and Co. were “Bankers and Tea Dealers” and within thirteen years were to have offices in London from which Jones Lloyds sprang. In Liverpool also most of the early bankers, says their historian, “arose out of general merchants, some few from tea dealers, and one from linen merchants.” Even after declaring themselves bankers, the banking business was usually continued along with trading. But the use of the term banker was late, and until almost the end of our period the commerce of Liverpool, with its complex dealings in foreign exchange, and the internal trade of Lancashire seem to have been carried on mainly through the bill discounting side of the merchants’ and traders’ businesses. In Liverpool marine insurance broking was closely allied.”
The key thing I observe here is that in the first part of the Industrial Revolution the issue of notes (which were the chief means of bank fiduciary credit) was a side issue and bills of exchange were the main mechanism to facilitate this massive explosion in trade. Also, this first bank in the UK’s main industrial area was nearly 100 years behind the establishment of the Bank of England and the Scottish public banks.
Data supplied by Prof. Angus Maddison shows us that from 1700 to 1820 there is 338.38% growth in measured economic activity. The next 130 years saw 960.06% growth when the Industrial Revolution was in full flow. Nevertheless, with the initial explosion of activity in the mid- to late-1700s, to the early 1820s, we see the prime industrial county in the world exist with few or no banks and banks not providing credit services as we know them today, and clearly not to its detriment.
Economic historian T. S. Ashton quotes William Langton (a driving force behind the founding of the Manchester Statistical Society in 1833) writing later in the 19th century:
“It is exceedingly natural,” said Langton, “that those banks which still retain the privilege of issuing their own notes should desire to retain it, since it naturally adds to their profits; but it has always been recognised in the great industrial district of Lancashire that it is no essential condition to the wielding of manufacturing and commercial enterprise, and that the banks not possessing this privilege have not stinted their customers of any legitimate accommodation.”
Langton also notes their usefulness vis-a-vis other modes of money:
My personal memory of trade only extends back to the year 1820; but at that time the Liverpool merchants received nothing but bills in payment from Manchester of their cotton invoices; every such payment, if in what was called promiscuous paper, requiring a calculation of interest to make a settlement per appoint. This practice gradually disappeared with the resumption of cash payments by the Bank of England and the lowering of the standard rate of interest; but if economy of interest of money is to be taken as the special recommendation of any particular kind of circulating medium, this one surely ought to bear the palm!
W.T. Crick and J.E. Wadsworth note the significance of Manchester and the nearby City of Liverpool by observing:
Yet, in spite of Lancashire’s advanced industrial organization, banking was rather later to develop than in some other areas. No banks are recorded in Manchester until 1771 or in Liverpool until 1774, and when eventually they were formed, they do not appear to have acquired note circulations except in a few unimportant instances.
Ashton describes the special preference for bills of exchange over notes:
These are reasons explaining the ubiquity of bills of exchange at this period. The special preference of Lancashire for bills rather than notes is a matter deserving of research. It arose, no doubt, out of a high degree of commercial confidence, no less than out of a low degree of trust in note-issuers, and the fact that Lancashire bought raw material from distant places and sold products in distant markets must also have engendered a preference for a document the circulation of which was not confined to the sphere of operations of a local bank. As time went on the domestic bill came to play a smaller part in commercial transactions: the increase of the stamp duties after the Napoleonic War dealt a blow to the system; and the growth of large banks of deposits with many branches, together with the shortening of the customary terms of credit, led to a substitution of cheques for bills in inland trade during the later decades of the nineteenth century. But in the period with which we are concerned cheques were in their infancy and the bill had no serious rival as a medium of exchange between traders.
Ashton also gives us clues as to why they have almost vanished today from the commercial idiom as the stamp duty applied to them was less advantageous vis-a-vis note or chequebook issue as the latter provided quicker redemption in money possibilities.
If we dig a bit further into the historical record we see that these bills arose spontaneously to fulfill a need to be able to facilitate the smooth transmission of trade. A wonderful book written by Alfred P. Wadsworth & Julia De Lacy Mann, The Cotton Trade and Industrial Lancashire 1600-1780, documents this history quite thoroughly:
We have seen Marsden as a manufacturer, putting out cotton and yarn through his agent and debiting the materials and wages against the value of the finished goods. On the other side he maintained a London house, through which he bought his raw materials and sold his fustians, and in connection with which he conducted extensive operations as a bill discounter. Between 1688 and 1690 he was involved in a maze of lawsuits, from which some account of his business may be constructed
Having “constantly great and considerable sums of money in his hands” [Marsden] lent money to other dealers in return for their bills on London; or he “furnished them with bills of exchange for payment of considerable sums of money at London to them or their order, or to such persons as they appointed to receive the same,” either receiving cash, or, generally, giving them credit at an agreed rate of interest. When they failed to pay him for the bills he had given them, he would take an assignment of their goods at Liverpool —cotton or linen yarn, promissory notes, or bills drawn on their London debtors. But apart from his own trading credit, he had “for many years past been intrusted or employed with greate parte of the monies retorned out of the county of Lancaster to London.”
Marsden the industrialist had become the banker as well as the chief remitter of revenues back to Lancashire and the principal collector of taxes. Daniel Defoe, trader, writer, and journalist, remarked in 1727, that:
[A] very great part of the bills drawn out of the several counties in England upon the tradesmen in London, such as factors and warehousekeepers, are made payable to the General Receivers of the several taxes and duties, customs and excise, which are levied in the country in specie, and the money is remitted by those collectors and receivers on account of those duties; this generally appears by the bills or endorsements, which often mention it in these words for his Majesty’s use.
Thus credit was granted and discounted bills accepted and paid with specie, not with notes or other such fiduciary credit. The Crown accepted these bills!
In commenting upon the various inaccuracies with traders being bankers, after an extensive investigation into the disputes listed in the court records, Wadsworth and Mann conclude:
Much might be said of the use of the bill in the general system of credit, but enough, perhaps, has been suggested in earlier pages to indicate its importance. The bill on London, then as a century later the dominant form, entered at every stage, and into every form of transaction, ran from the smallest to the largest sums, and passed even more freely than cash. The financial mechanism which turned on the bill, the promissory note, and other credit instruments, and has here been summarily illustrated, bulks large in all the commercial manuals of the time. … It is apt to be forgotten that the credit machinery of industries like the textile trades was hardly less extensive before the foundation of the country banks than it became after.
Unwin, Hulme, and Taylor did a fantastic investigation into the affairs of Samuel Oldknow and his mill at Mellor. There is also some evidence to show why Lancashire rejected bills vs. notes:
Enough has been said to show the almost desperate condition of Oldknow’s affairs at the beginning of 1793. He had invested an immense capital—for those days—in the fixed forms of land, buildings, and machinery which could not yield any return without the assistance of commercial credit—and owing to the outbreak of war commercial credit had almost ceased for the time being to exist. No fewer than 872 bankruptcies were recorded between November 1792 and July 1793. The problem of credit currency became acute. The country banks, which had multiplied greatly during the previous decade, had produced an over-issue of notes, some of them for such small amounts as to provoke the derisive issue by a Newcastle cobbler of a note for two-pence. But the notes even of the sounder banks were now returned on their hands and many were obliged to close their doors.
The instability that these free banks issuing fiduciary credit afforded the industrialist in the times of crises was very destabilising, as you did not want to become a creditor to a bankrupt banker. This is one way to accelerate your own potential to become bankrupt. So commercial credit, or bills backed by real goods, was sought in preference.
Why did these Lancashire Bills Decline?
Henry Thornton, an economist, banker, and Parliamentarian, commented on the demise of bills to the favour of notes in 1802: “Some Bank of England notes have also been recently employed in the place of small bills on London, the use of which has been discouraged by the late additional duty on bills and notes.”
Redford discusses the response of Manchester merchants to the duties and taxes imposed on bills of exchange:
A much more protracted struggle, extending throughout the second quarter of the nineteenth century, was waged by the Manchester merchants against excessive stamp duties on various kinds of legal documents. … Bills of exchange and promissory notes were first subjected to stamp duties in 1782; a general Stamp Act of 1815 had increased the duties, which thenceforth discriminated between short-dated and long-dated bills. In the post-war period the average duty on all bills of less than £50 was 1/2 per cent.; but this charge was felt to be prohibitive, and had in Manchester caused bills to be almost completely replaced by bank notes. Bank notes, however, were considered to be a much more inconvenient and risky means of payment, since they were payable “to bearer” and not “to order.” The Manchester Chamber of Commerce therefore moved in 1822 for the reduction of the duties, and sent up several petitions on the subject, to the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the Houses of Parliament. The petitioners described the serious inconvenience to business which had resulted from the virtual extinction of “a description of currency of great convenience and security”; they suggested a greatly reduced scale of duties, and argued that, if this were adopted, not only the business community but also the revenue would benefit greatly, because of the increased use of bills of exchange.
The Bank of England (BoE) was still a private bank at the time. However, as the government’s favoured bank it had certain privileges and was always lobbying for more. The 1815 Stamp Act made the reissue of bills of exchange virtually impossible. Some were taxed up to 460% higher than Bank of England note issue, or subject to great penalty that made the issue of private credit by other banks more expensive than BoE note issue. In 1825 the Bank of England set up a branch in Manchester specifically to take advantage of the terrible taxation placed on private bill issue and make sure that those pioneers of the Industrial Revolution had to take BoE credit.
The significance of Manchester as the prime industrial area of the world at the time does make it a meaningful and worthy study area from which we can extrapolate, hopefully, our findings to the wider canvas of today and I submit that in the absence of bank-created credit we, like our ancestors, have nothing to fear. Indeed, like the pioneers of the Industrial Revolution, we should embrace private money solutions such as bills of exchange and rely on the lending of real savings to provide real capital to entrepreneurs and not bank credit created out of nowhere. Full-reserve systems are not only stable, but growth enhancing. Lending does not die as many advocates of fractional reserve banking dread.
 Arizona Jewish Post, 18 September 1998
 Report from Select Committee on Banks of Issue, Ordered, by The House of Commons, to be printed, 7 August 1840.
 Huerta de Soto, Jesus. Money, Credit, and Economic Cycles. 2nd edition. Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2009, pp. 739-740.
 Although the City of Manchester is now part of Greater Manchester or the Greater Manchester Urban Area, prior to 1835 it was part of the Salford Hundred of the county of Lancashire. By 1853, it had reached full City status. So for the majority of this essay’s focus, when Lancashire is referred to, it certainly should be read to be synonymous with what is the heart of Manchester City today. Also, you will see Liverpool mentioned as well, often in the same light as Manchester. This is due to their close geographic connection and the Port of Liverpool being often the import and export venue for the Manchester manufacturers.
 Dun, John. British Banking Statistics. London: E. Stanford, 1876, p. 87.
 Redford, Arthur. Manchester Merchants and Foreign Trade. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1934, p. 248.
 Ashton, Thomas Southcliffe. Economic and Social Investigations in Manchester, 1833-1933. London: P.S. King & Son, 1934.
 Langton, William qtd. in Ashton.
 Crick, W.F., and Wadsworth, J.E. A Hundred Years of Joint Stock Banking. London: Holder & Stoughton, 1936, pp. 142-143.
 Ashton, Thomas Southcliffe. An Eighteenth-Century Industrialist: Peter Stubs of Warrington 1756-1806. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1939, p. 139.
Wadsworth, Alfred P., and Mann, Julia De Lacy. The Cotton Trade and Industrial Lancashire, 1600-1780. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1931, pp. 92-93.
 Defoe, Daniel, qtd. in Wadsworth and Mann, p. 93.
 Wadsworth & Mann, p. 96.
 Unwin, George, Hulme, Arthur, and Taylor, George. Samuel Oldknow and the Arkwrights: the Industrial Revolution at Stockport and Marple. Manchester: Manchester University Press, p. 79.
 Thornton, Henry An Enquiry into the Nature and Effects of the Paper Credit of Great Britain (1802), London: George Allen and Unwin, 1939, note to p. 214.
A challenge for 2012 – part one was to read The Theory of Money and Credit by Mises on its 100th year anniversary. The 1934 preface was sadly so pertinent to today that we reproduced it as an enticement to read the whole book.
My second challenge for 2012 is to read a book written 86 years later by Jesús Huerta de Soto in its English translation called Money, Bank Credit, and Economic Cycles, which can be downloaded here.
Like The Theory of Money and Credit in its day, this book is the most comprehensive economic text on money, capital theory, business cycles and entrepreneurship written by a modern Austrian.
Here is the preface to the second English edition, written by Huerta de Soto in November 2008.
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 newlycreated 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 results: the financial bubble (“irrational exuberance”) 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 monietarist 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 realestate 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, 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 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
I follow Steve Baker’s speeches in Hansard with interest, and there have been many good ones, but his recent discourse on the IMF stands apart. It was made in the debate of the Draft International Monetary Fund (Increase in Subscription) Order 2011 by the “Second Delegated Legislation Committee”.
The unexcitingly-named proposal before this obscure-sounding committee would commit an additional £10 billion of British taxpayers’ money to the IMF.
11.39 am – Steve Baker
I begin by welcoming the Minister’s resolve and composure in what are clearly historic and contentious circumstances. We have seen today that there is broad agreement across the Committee that what matters is human prosperity, and we are all deeply worried about our constituents. I am going to make three points. First, I do not believe that we have this money and that we cannot afford the liability. I do not think that my constituents will understand why they should pick up the liability. It seems to me that one way or another, this country will end up borrowing in order to lend to fund present consumption, and funding present consumption through borrowing is simply not a route to prosperity. I wish I felt that it was not necessary to expand on that point, but it seems these days that we forget. If we consume on credit, we are in fact making ourselves poorer.
I find the notion of getting the money back quite worrying. It seems to me that we will borrow some of this money, at least, from commercial banks, inevitably monetising the debt and debasing the currency further after 40 years of continuous debasement. That will involve inflation and further distortions in the structure of the economy. In short, this measure would simply kick the can down the road. We might argue that that is the job of the IMF these days, but the Greek people are already rioting and we have to ask ourselves whether they would be any more sympathetic to such austerity measures simply because they were brought forward by the IMF. I question the action itself.
Secondly, the IMF was created as part of the Bretton Woods system of currencies. We tend to talk as though our current monetary arrangements were a fixed point and had always been the same, but the present monetary orthodoxy has evolved over the years and centuries. Bretton Woods was constructed after the catastrophe of the second world war; the dollar was redeemable in gold, and all other currencies were pegged to the dollar. The job of the IMF was to stabilise exchange rates by bridging temporary gaps in nations’ balance of payments, but the IMF now seems to serve the purpose of ensuring the repayment of reckless financial institutions.
Above all, at all stages of its history the IMF has existed to bring financial stability, which I believe it has singularly failed to do. Turning to the monetary system and stability, I encourage Members to google a chart that I can make available, which shows the price of oil-index factor 1945, the origin of Bretton Woods-brought forward to today. It prices oil in dollars and in gold. I do not like to use the G-word, but I feel that since my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough has mentioned it already, I can continue. The price of oil has been high and volatile since 1971, but only when priced in dollars. If we price oil in gold, the price has been low and stable ever since the end of the second world war.
I simply make the point that our monetary arrangements are not fixed, that the IMF has not brought stability and that in fact many of our most important commodities are far more susceptible to the effects of our present, inflationary monetary arrangements than is generally considered. I would like to finish my point about the IMF with Hayek’s words. He said:
“monetary policy all over the world has followed the advice of the stabilisers. It is high time that their influence, which has already done harm enough, should be overthrown.”
He wrote that in 1932 in the preface to “Monetary Theory and the Trade Cycle“, which hon. Members can find by googling “prices and production.”
Thirdly, I want to talk about the contemporary mainstream. With great respect to hon. and right hon. Friends, although my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham foresaw many aspects of the crisis, the majority of the mainstream did not see this coming. I have sat at lunch with eminent economists who said that nobody saw this coming, to which I simply replied that they should read Huerta de Soto’s “Money, Bank Credit and Economic Cycles“. That book, which was written in 1998, clearly set out that this would happen and why, following in the footsteps of Hayek, Mises and others. The Queen asked why no one saw this coming. If she had asked me, I would have said that it was because economists pay too little attention to time-the simple matter of the importance of time. Production takes time and, in a market, interest rates should arise from people’s time preferences for consumption. In the jargon, the contemporary mainstream lacks an adequate theory of the inter-temporal structure of capital-that is, capital goods, or the means of production.
We are at the end of an extremely long credit expansion. I depart from my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham, but that is because I follow that particular theory of capital. Hayek, it is not often known, was a socialist and confesses as much in the preface to Mises’ book, “Socialism“, but he and Mises together worked out the theory of the trade cycle. Mises wrote:
“The wavelike movement affecting the economic system, the recurrence of periods of boom which are followed by periods of depression, is the unavoidable outcome of the attempts, repeated again and again, to lower the gross market rate of interest by means of credit expansion.
There is no means of avoiding the final collapse of a boom brought about by credit expansion. The alternative is only whether the crisis should come sooner as the result of a voluntary abandonment of further credit expansion, or later as a final and total catastrophe of the currency system involved.”
That is from “Human Action“, page 572.
At this point came an intervention to delight Cobden Centre readers:
Mr Cash: My hon. Friend’s contribution is very thoughtful; he knows a great deal about such things, in the tradition of Cobden. However, is the real problem one of human nature as well as of economics? People are competing in an environment in which there is no real or comparative advantage because the new world-if I may use that expression-of the Brits has a huge advantage over the others. Good money is being thrown after bad unless the real problem is tackled: cheap credit that is not based on real, tangible economic advantage.
Steve Baker: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. He makes an excellent point with which I am in full agreement.
Mr Redwood: Before my hon. Friend sits down, I hope that he will give the Committee the benefit of his advice on the order, because we are not yet quite clear what he would do about the £9.5 billion sub.
Steve’s concluding remarks pull no punches (emphasis mine):
The Government should avoid committing that sum of money; my view is that it will not help. I made a second point about the IMF and our monetary arrangements. If this is not the time of all times to question the fundamental basis of our financial system, I do not know when we ever shall. My third point was that I am afraid that the contemporary mainstream of economics is missing some vital information, which leads it to justify the very measures that we are discussing today. As I explained, as Mises set out, as Hayek followed in his steps and as others have predicted, we risk a final and total catastrophe for our currency system.
To conclude, we are in danger of simply kicking a can down the road and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton said, ladling water into the boat. We are looking at further credit expansion, further monetisation of debts and further socialisation of risk. Throughout the western world, we are in danger of appearing as King Canute, trying to use politics to hold back the realities of social co-operation, which we usually describe as economics. The IMF is an institutional legacy from a monetary system that failed 40 years ago, and the successor to which is even now failing as well.
I looked at IFRS and how it boosts bank capital, and we found that RBS is possibly overstating its capital by £25 billion. That must meant that RBS at least is far more susceptible to financial shocks than is generally thought. It is my view, because of the weaknesses of IFRS, that all banks are substantially more susceptible to financial shocks than is generally understood. I therefore offer three points. First, the Government should please look at cross-cancellation of debt held by sovereign nations-I refer the Government to work by ESCP Europe and Dr Anthony Evans. Secondly, let us face the reality-not optional-and look at how we restructure outstanding debt. Thirdly, at this time of all times, rather than merely increasing our liability to the IMF, let us seriously rethink the foundations of the international financial system and, in particular, start planning for how to protect the payments system.
On October 21, 2008, I conducted a radio interview with professor Jesús Huerta de Soto, Professor of Political Economy at Rey Juan Carlos University in Madrid, Spain, focused on the economic crisis. Heurta de Soto is Spain’s leading Austrian economist, and author of the authoritative 876-page book, Money, Bank Credit, and Economic Cycles (Mises Institute, 2006). Time: approximately 40 minutes.
The following is Jesús Huerta de Soto’s foreword to The Tragedy of the Euro by Philipp Bagus, a friend of The Cobden Centre. You can buy or download the book here. Philipp Bagus is a professor of economics at Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid.
It is a great pleasure for me to present this book by my colleague Philipp Bagus, one of my most brilliant and promising students. The book is extremely timely and shows how the interventionist setup of the European Monetary system has led to disaster.
The current sovereign debt crisis is the direct result of credit ex- pansion by the European banking system. In the early 2000’s, credit was expanded especially in the periphery of the European Monetary Union such as in Ireland, Greece, Portugal, and Spain. Interest rates were reduced substantially by credit expansion coupled with a fall both in inflationary expectations and risk premiums. The sharp fall in inflationary expectations was caused by the prestige of the newly created European Central Bank as a copy of the Bundesbank. Risk premiums were reduced artificially due to the expected support by stronger nations. The result was an artificial boom. Asset price bubbles such as a housing bubble in Spain developed. The newly created money was primarily injected in the countries of the periphery where it financed overconsumption and malinvestments, mainly in an overextended automobile and construction sector. At the same time, the credit expansion also helped to finance and expand unsustainable welfare states.
In 2007, the microeconomic effects that reverse any artificial boom financed by credit expansion and not by genuine real savings started to show up. Prices of means of production such as commodities and wages rose. Interest rates also climbed due to inflationary pressure that made central banks reduce their expansionary stands.
Finally, consumer goods prices started to rise relative to the prices offered to the originary factors of productions. It became more and more obvious that many investments were not sustainable due to a lack of real savings. Many of these investments occurred in the construction sector. The financial sector came under pressure as mortgages had been securitized, ending up directly or indirectly on balance sheets of financial institutions. The pressures culminated in the collapse of the investment bank Lehman Brothers, which led to a full-fledged panic in financial markets.
Instead of leading market forces run their course, governments unfortunately intervened with the necessary adjustment process. It is this unfortunate intervention that not only prevented a faster and more thorough recovery, but also produced, as a side effect, the sovereign debt crisis of spring 2010. Governments tried to prop up the overextended sectors, increasing their spending. They paid subsidies for new car purchases to support the automobile industry and started public works to support the construction sector as well as the sector that had lent to these industries, the banking sector. Moreover, governments supported the financial sector directly by giving guarantees on their liabilities, nationalizing banks, buying their assets or partial stakes in them. At the same time, unemployment soared due to regulated labor markets. Governments’ revenues out of income taxes and social security plummeted. Expenditures for unemployment subsidies increased. Corporate taxes that had been inflated artificially in sectors like banking, construction, and car manufacturing during the boom were almost completely wiped out. With falling revenues and increasing expenditures governments’ deficits and debts soared, as a direct consequence of governments’ responses to the crisis caused by a boom that was not sustained by real savings.
The case of Spain is paradigmatic. The Spanish government subsidized the car industry, the construction sector, and the bank- ing industry, which had been expanding heavily during the credit expansion of the boom. At the same time a very inflexible labor market caused official unemployment rates to rise to twenty percent. The resulting public deficit began to frighten markets and fellow EU member states, which finally pressured the government to announce some timid austerity measures in order to be able to keep borrowing.
In this regard, the single currency showed one of its “advantages.” Without the Euro, the Spanish government would have most certainly devalued its currency as it did in 1993, printing money to reduce its deficit. This would have implied a revolution in the price structure and an immediate impoverishment of the Spanish population as import prices would have soared. Furthermore, by devaluing, the government could have continued its spending without any structural reforms. With the Euro, the Spanish (or any other troubled government) cannot devalue or print its currency directly to pay off its debt. Now these governments had to engage in austerity measures and some structural reforms after pressure by the Commission and member states like Germany. Thus, it is possible that the second scenario for the future as mentioned by Philipp Bagus in the present book will play out. The Stability and Growth Pact might be reformed and enforced. As a consequence, the governments of the European Monetary Union would have to continue and intensify their austerity measures and structural reforms in order to comply with the Stability and Growth Pact. Pressured by conservative countries like Germany, all of the European Monetary Union would follow the path of traditional crisis policies with spending cuts.
In contrast to the EMU, the United States follows the Keynesian recipe for recessions. In the Keynesian view, during a crisis the government has to substitute a fall in “aggregate demand” by increasing its spending. Thus, the US engages in deficit spending and extremely expansive monetary policies to “jump start” the economy. Maybe one of the beneficial effects of the Euro has been to push all of the EMU toward the path of austerity. In fact, I have argued before that the single currency is a step in the right direction as it fixes exchange rates in Europe and thereby ends monetary nationalism and the chaos of flexible fiat exchange rates manipulated by governments, especially, in times of crisis.
My dear colleague Philipp Bagus has challenged me on my rather positive view on the Euro from the time when he was a student in my class, pointing correctly to the advantages of currency competition. His book, The Tragedy of the Euro, may be read as an elaborated exposition of his arguments against the Euro. While the single currency does away with monetary nationalism in Europe from a theoretical point of view, the question is: just how stable is the single currency in actuality? Bagus deals with this question from two angles, providing at the same time the two main achievements and contributions of the book: a historical analysis of the origins of the Euro and a theoretical analysis of the workings and mechanisms of the Eurosystem. Both analyses point in the same direction. In the historical analysis, Bagus deals with the origins of the Euro and the ECB. He uncovers the interests of national governments, politicians and bankers in a similar way that Rothbard does in relation to the origin of the Federal Reserve System in The Case against the Fed. In fact, the book could also have been analogously titled The Case against the ECB. Considering the political interests, dynamics and circumstances that led to the introduction of the Euro, it becomes clear that the Euro might in fact be a step in the wrong direction; a step towards a pan-European inflationary fiat currency aimed to push aside limits that competition and the conservative monetary policy of the Bundesbank had imposed before. Bagus’s theoretical analysis makes the inflationary purpose and setup of the Eurosystem even clearer. The Eurosystem is unmasked as a self-destroying system that leads to massive redistribution across the EMU, with incentives for governments to use the ECB as a device to finance their deficits. He shows that the concept of the Tragedy of the Commons, which I have applied to the case of fractional reserve banking, is also applicable to the Eurosystem, where different Euro- pean governments can exploit the value of the single currency.
I am glad that this book is being made available to the public by the Mises Institute. The future of Europe and the world depends on the understanding of the monetary theory and the workings of monetary institutions. This book provides strong tools toward understanding the history of the Euro and its perverse institutional setup. Hopefully, it can help to turn the tide toward a sound monetary system in Europe and worldwide.
Today, Estonia adopted the Euro.
Copyright © 2010 by the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Published under the Creative Commons Attribution License 3.0: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/