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Economics

The infantilisation of financial services

Via Bank plans to cap risky mortgages – Telegraph:

Mortgage lending would be “capped” to stop borrowers taking out risky loans under radical Bank of England plans to prevent a repeat of the credit crisis, a senior official has disclosed.

But why did borrowers wish to borrow so much, so riskily? And why did lenders wish to lend so much, at such risk?

In the first place, credit has been too cheap for too long. Low interest rates are bound to encourage people to borrow more and save less. Therefore, people saved less and borrowed more. This was the result of the Bank of England’s decisions.

House prices kept rising because people kept borrowing and pumping money into housing. Housing was excluded from the Bank’s measure of inflation, so rates stayed low.

The appearance of inevitable and uninterrupted house price rises gave the impression that we were in a new era within which the old rules did not apply: borrowing caps could be raised to excessively risky levels and borrowers could rely on price increases to deal with the capital.

Lenders used models which fundamentally understated risk. For example, markets do not behave within the Gaussian or “normal” distribution: extreme events happen more often than a normal distribution predicts. Furthermore, the risk of mortgage default correlates across similar mortgages when the economic environment changes. Still, the models said risks were lower than they were, so more credit could be extended.

Since the lenders were neither, on the whole, mutuals or partnerships with open-ended liabilities and since the employees making the decisions shared only in the upside, there was insufficient motivation to manage to the true level of risk.

Moreover, securitisation of mortgage pools and so forth palmed off the risk onto hapless investors who probably trusted the risk models and the market environment created by excessively cheap credit. And, “Hey, look at the returns!” The personal touch was missing from the relationships between borrowers, ultimate lenders and intermediaries, further corrupting the system.

Of course when the pantomime ended, the taxpayer was forced to pick up the bill. And still bonuses were paid in bailed-out banks!

Now, having created the boom with cheap credit and moral hazard, the Bank plans, not to fix the root problems, but to pile intervention upon intervention…

There is much else to be said, for which I recommend The Alchemists of Loss and Money, Bank Credit, and Economic Cycles. However, on the face of it, the Bank’s present proposals merely extend the infantilisation of the financial services sector.

Later this week, I will indicate ten serious plans for financial reform.

Economics

Good article on Naked Capitalism

By way of nakedcapitalism.com this excellent article from washingtonsblog.com on “Fictional Reserve Banking”:

But whatever you think about fractional reserve banking, whether or not you agree with its critics, the truth is that we no longer have it.

As the above-linked NY Fed article notes:

In practice, the connection between reserve requirements and money creation is not nearly as strong as the exercise above would suggest. Reserve requirements apply only to transaction accounts, which are components of M1, a narrowly defined measure of money. Deposits that are components of M2 and M3 (but not M1), such as savings accounts and time deposits, have no reserve requirements and therefore can expand without regard to reserve levels.

And as Steve Keen notes – citing Table 10 in Yueh-Yun C. OBrien, 2007. “Reserve Requirement Systems in OECD Countries”, Finance and Economics Discussion Series, Divisions of Research & Statistics and Monetary Affairs, Federal Reserve Board, 2007-54, Washington, D.C:

The US Federal Reserve sets a Required Reserve Ratio of 10%, but applies this only to deposits by individuals; banks have no reserve requirement at all for deposits by companies.

So huge swaths of loans are not subject to any reserve requirements.

Welcome to the new financial landscape…

Read more.

Economics

The Crack-up Boom

This post is excerpted from Mises’ “The Causes of the Economic Crisis and Other Essays Before and After the Great Depression” which is available to buy here and download here. Both Andreas Acavalos and Toby Baxendale supported the production of this book.

Emphasis mine.

On covering government deficits by creating new money (pp 2-3):

If the practice persists of covering government deficits with the issue of notes, then the day will come without fail, sooner or later, when the monetary systems of those nations pursuing this course will break down completely. The purchasing power of the monetary unit will decline more and more, until finally it disappears completely. To be sure, one could conceive of the possibility that the process of monetary depreciation could go on forever. The purchasing power of the monetary unit could become increasingly smaller without ever disappearing entirely. Prices would then rise more and more. It would still continue to be possible to exchange notes for commodities. Finally, the situation would reach such a state that people would be operating with billions and trillions and then even higher sums for small transactions. The monetary system would still continue to function. However, this prospect scarcely resembles reality.

On credit expansion by banks, its effects on the economy and the ensuing crisis (pp 113-115):

The crisis breaks out only when the banks alter their conduct to the extent that they discontinue issuing any more new fiduciary media and stop undercutting the “natural interest rate.” They may even take steps to restrict circulation credit. When they actually do this, and why, is still to be examined. First of all, however, we must ask ourselves whether it is possible for the banks to stay on the course upon which they have embarked, permitting new quantities of fiduciary media to flow into circulation continuously and proceeding always to make loans below the rate of interest which would prevail on the market in the absence of their interference with newly created fiduciary media.

If the banks could proceed in this manner, with businesses improving continually, could they then provide for lasting good times? Would they then be able to make the boom eternal?

They cannot do this. The reason they cannot is that inflationism carried on ad infinitum is not a workable policy. If the issue of fiduciary media is expanded continuously, prices rise ever higher and at the same time the positive price premium also rises. (We shall disregard the fact that consideration for (1) the continually declining monetary reserves relative to fiduciary media and (2) the banks’ operating costs must sooner or later compel them to discontinue the further expansion of circulation credit.) It is precisely because, and only because, no end to the prolonged “flood” of expanding fiduciary media is foreseen, that it leads to still sharper price increases and, finally, to a panic in which prices and the loan rate move erratically upward.

Suppose the banks still did not want to give up the race? Suppose, in order to depress the loan rate, they wanted to satisfy the continuously expanding desire for credit by issuing still more circulation credit? Then they would only hasten the end, the collapse of the entire system of fiduciary media. The inflation can continue only so long as the conviction persists that it will one day cease. Once people are persuaded that the inflation will not stop, they turn from the use of this money. They flee then to “real values,” foreign money, the precious metals, and barter.

Sooner or later, the crisis must inevitably break out as the result of a change in the conduct of the banks. The later the crack-up comes, the longer the period in which the calculation of the entrepreneurs is misguided by the issue of additional fiduciary media. The greater this additional quantity of fiduciary money, the more factors of production have been firmly committed in the form of investments which appeared profitable only because of the artificially reduced interest rate and which prove to be unprofitable now that the interest rate has again been raised.

Great losses are sustained as a result of misdirected capital investments. Many new structures remain unfinished. Others, already completed, close down operations. Still others are carried on because, after writing off losses which represent a waste of capital, operation of the existing structure pays at least something.

The crisis, with its unique characteristics, is followed by stagnation. The misguided enterprises and businesses of the boom period are already liquidated. Bankruptcy and adjustment have cleared up the situation. The banks have become cautious. They fight shy of expanding circulation credit. They are not inclined to give an ear to credit applications from schemers and promoters. Not only is the artificial stimulus to business, through the expansion of circulation credit, lacking, but even businesses which would be feasible, considering the capital goods available, are not attempted because the general feeling of discouragement makes every innovation appear doubtful. Prevailing “money interest rates” fall below the “natural interest rates.”

When the crisis breaks out, loan rates bound sharply upward because threatened enterprises offer extremely high interest rates for the funds to acquire the resources, with the help of which they hope to save themselves. Later, as the panic subsides, a situation develops, as a result of the restriction of circulation credit and attempts to dispose of large inventories, causing prices [and the “money interest rate”] to fall steadily and leading to the appearance of a negative price premium. This reduced rate of loan interest is adhered to for some time, even after the decline in prices comes to a standstill, when a negative price premium no longer corresponds to conditions. Thus, it comes about that the “money interest rate” is lower than the “natural rate.” Yet, because the unfortunate experiences of the recent crisis have made everyone uneasy, the incentive to business activity is not as strong as circumstances would otherwise warrant. Quite a time passes before capital funds, increased once again by savings accumulated in the meantime, exert sufficient pressure on the loan interest rate for an expansion of entrepreneurial activity to resume. With this development, the low point is passed and the new boom begins.

Further reading

Economics

Buchanan: The Constitutionalization of Money

James M. Buchanan (Nobel Laureate, economics, 1986) on reform of the monetary regime through constitutional 100% reserves:

The market will not work effectively with monetary anarchy. Politicization is not an effective alternative. We must commence meaningful dialogue with acceptance of these elementary verities. Far too much has been said and written in elaboration of the first statement, which too often is taken to be equivalent to the assertion that “capitalism” or “the market” has failed. Admittedly claims for market efficacy without qualifiers can be found. But economists should know that anarchy can only generate disorder rather than its opposite.

Later:

It follows that there is no economic reason why any money system, in an idealized setting, would allow for leverage at any level. No holder of a unit of money, as an entry in a balance sheet, should be authorized to lend more than the face value of this unit, quite independent of probabilistically determined expectations concerning potential redemptions.

Why not? Because to allow separate banks to create short-term liabilities to a multiple of the base money on the asset side of the account removes from the issuing authority some of the control of the aggregate amount of that value treated as money in the economy without offsetting benefits, thereby making the financial structure vulnerable to unpredictable shifts among instruments, which, in turn, generate changes in real values.

The modern dilemma is that we are left with a massive resource-using, financial- banking structure that has a functional purpose quite different from that which is widely accepted. The system in existence emerged from a historical process, the characteristics of which were partially appropriate for a monetary standard defined in terms of some commodity base, but which, ultimately, make no sense under a fiat system.

Finally:

Let us not waste this set of crises by exclusive recourse to jerry-built efforts to patch up the failed monetary anarchy we have witnessed.

Read more: http://www.mps2009.org/files/Buchanan.pdf

Economics

A day of reckoning: how to end the banking crisis now

Drawing on the work of Nobel Laureates in economics from three traditions, plus numerous other distinguished scholars, Cobden Centre Chairman, economist and successful entrepreneur Toby Baxendale presents an informal introduction to our proposal for honest money and the benefits consequent on the reform. See also our precis of Irving Fisher’s 100% Money.

Fact

  • The average overhang of credit to money of all banks in the United Kingdom is 34 x to its reserves i.e. its actual money base1.
  • If more than one person in 34 walks into all banks simultaneously to withdraw their deposits, there will be a system wide bank run and a mass liquidity event with systematic default and insolvency.
  • We saw the start of this with Northern Rock in the summer of 2007.
  • We attempt to paper over the cracks and restore confidence in the banking system still today – with little success2.
Sterling Liquid Assets (BoE FSR, Jun 2009)

Sterling Liquid Assets (BoE FSR, Jun 2009)

A practical, politically-acceptable proposal

Our proposal is, as Irving Fisher wrote, “The opposite of radical”:

  • Require 100% cash reserves to be held against all demand deposits; there can never be a crisis if a bank always holds 100% cash against all its demand deposits.
  • Parliament can do this with one Act.

A similar Act took place in 1844. The Bank Charter Act or “Peel’s Act” established a 100% reserve requirement for bank notes that were issued claiming to be redeemable in gold. The reality was that there were 23 notes in issue for every one unit of gold at the time, creating instability, “panic” and general economic chaos. Not a too dissimilar situation from today where we have 34 claims on money to one unit of money. Politicians in the 19th century did not see the creation of unbacked credit through accounting entries as a problem, since it was only done on a very small scale. The problem then was rampant note issue (claims to real money) well over and above the monetary base, as this was the preferred method the bankers used at the time.

It is often forgotten but when you place £1m in a savings account (in cash) in say the Royal Bank of Scotland, which has no legal reserve requirement, they then lend £970k (in credit) , keeping on average 3% of cash back in reserves, to an entrepreneur in say HSBC, who then deposits that money in HSBC. We now have one claim to the original £1m and one claim to the £970k. The money supply has moved from £1m to £1.97m – just like magic! This is credit expansion.

The reality is that across all the banks in the United Kingdom licensed by the Bank of England, we have for every £1 of money (in cash), £34 in claims to money (credit)!

Peel’s problem was the over issue of notes to gold: our problem is the over issue of credit to money.

Continue reading “A day of reckoning: how to end the banking crisis now”

  1. See the Bank of England’s Financial Stability Report. Oral evidence from Sir Fred Goodwin (RBS) and Mr Andy Hornby (HBOS) to the Treasury Select Committee was at variance with our calculations:
    Q1864 Mr Love: Sir Fred, can I ask you, following on from those questions, how leveraged was RBS at the time of the Lehman’s dissolution?
    Sir Fred Goodwin: I think there would have been a variety of different ways of looking at the leverage ratio.

    Q1865 Mr Love: I am just looking for a rough idea, order of magnitude.
    Mr Fred Goodwin: Towards the higher end but there would be others higher than us. We would have loans to deposit.

    Q1866 Mr Love: What was the ratio?
    Sir Fred Goodwin: 110% but there would be others similar to that, there would be some higher and some lower. We were to the right of the middle, we were at the higher end of the middle.

    Q1867 Mr Love: Mr Hornby, can you tell us what it was for HBOS?
    Mr Hornby: Yes, our loans and advances were around £450 million, our customer deposits were about £250 million, therefore the percentage of one to the other was around 57%.

    See http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200809/cmselect/cmtreasy/144/144i.pdf – Page EV246, Q1864 []

  2. See for example, Caithness, ”My Lords, the Banking Bill which we are currently discussing in the House is very complex and detailed, but it does nothing to resolve the current banking crisis, which lies at the heart of our economic problems. The noble Lord, Lord Peston, has just said that it is the fault of the bankers. I agree with him up to a point, but would go further and say that the fault that really needs correcting is our whole banking system.” []
Economics

Moneyweek: Japan leads the way… through a minefield

Over at Moneyweek, Bill Bonner argues in a subscriber-only article that ersatz money is a flop.

Bonner describes John Law‘s disastrous paper money scheme and the origins of ‘our current experiment with paper’. He identifies the features of the long credit boom, which has come to an end, with reserves of dollars worlwide, over consumption and over production. Bonner argues that Japan blew up first and that the planet-wide bubble burst in 2007. He says we are now all following Law’s example.

Bonner quotes — as emphasised below — Mises in Human Action:

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.

I recommend the article, which can be read by taking a free trial.

Economics

The kindness of geniuses

I once saw an advertisement for a book that would apparently reveal the secret of making a profit in the foreign exchange markets. I did not buy it. Someone who knew such a secret could use it to make billions for himself. He would not sell his secret, and thereby render it worthless (currency trading is a zero-sum game), for £9.99.

You should be sceptical of those who claim to be giving away something very valuable, including their extraordinary knowledge or skills. Yet that is precisely what our political leaders are now asking us to believe of financial regulators.

The big new idea in banking regulation is that regulators should force banks to hold more capital when their lending is causing the price of assets (such as houses) to get too high: that is, to reach levels from which they must crash. The Obama administration now has a similar idea concerning commodities, such as oil. They want regulators to intervene in commodity markets to counteract speculation that they believe is making prices too high or too low.

Let us not argue about whether it makes sense to say that a price can be too high when people are willing to pay it, nor whether any human, even computer-assisted, could possibly know that it is. Suppose that some people really do know such things. Why would they work for the government on a salary of less than £50 million?

Knowing that the market has over-priced oil, for example, is extraordinarily valuable. You could take a massive short position and make a killing when the price falls from the heights it wrongly occupies. Or, if you knew that house prices are too low, you could buy shares in real estate investment trusts and soon be rolling in money. For someone who knows whether tradable assets are over- or under-valued, massive wealth is assured.

Perhaps I underestimate the benevolence of those blessed with such amazing skills, but it is hard to believe that they would forgo great wealth for the sake of working in a government department. My guess is that the people who will end up occupying the envisaged regulatory roles will be ordinary human beings. They will know no more about the proper value of things than any other well informed market participant, such as an investment banker guided by his economic research team.

Intelligent, informed people disagree about the value of things. Market prices reflect the balance of disagreement between those willing to put their money where their mouths are. If you think a panel of government employees with no “skin in the game” can do a better job … well, I wonder if you would like to buy this sensational new book …

Economics

Bastiat’s Iceberg: A Sean Corrigan Masterpiece for Christmas

Sean Corrigan of Diapason Commodities Management packs more sound applied economics into this report than ever: Toby Baxendale provides a commentary. This is a great Christmas read for us all: download the report here.

Bastiat's Iceberg

Bastiat's Iceberg

On the Errors of GDP Accounting

  • For the USA economy, Corrigan shows the utter futility of using the conventional GDP measure. The same applies for any of the OECD countries who use the same measure.
  • Business spending in 2006 in the USA was $31 trillion vs a GDP of $13.4 trillion.
  • Businesses were spending $4.30 for every $1 spend on personal consumption.
  • Policy makers from around the world, if any of you are reading this article, please take note of the significance of this fact!
  • This focuses on something that all Austrian economists know: the desire by the mainstream economists is not to double-count. In the end, they do not count much at all!
  • As a catering fish monger myself, I buy fish off farms, boats and auctions around the world. I cut and prepare the fish and send it to my customers, the hotels and restaurants of the UK. Yet none of my spending exists in the GDP figures! My wealth and that of my suppliers does not exist as far as the authorities are concerned. I only wish that I could get the tax man to take this view like his economist colleagues in the Revenue Department!
  • I had this discussion with a member of the MPC some months ago: how if my salmon was bought at the fish farm for £1 per kg and we put a £1 mark-up on after cutting it up and the end user put a £1 mark up on, it is double counting as far as he was concerned. He reasoned that to count all of the stages of production when it only finally gets sold for £3 would be an overstatement as the price of the inputs is in the final price of £3. They miss out the significance that I and my supplier have our profit to the spend in the wider economy after we have spent our companies’ resources on continuing investment and consumption. This is all real activity! This is the danger of having statisticians running the economy.
  • All that matters, we are told, is that GDP is composed of 70% of final consumption expenditure. In reality, the final consumption element is more like a quarter of real GDP, once the production sector is included.
  • As I have always said, the health of the production sector is driven by its ability to invest in replacement capital to make more efficient production techniques, to supply more goods and services to people at better prices and with better service levels. This is the essence of entrepreneurship, the essence of wealth creation and the essence of the recovery: magic tricks perpetrated by the economic witch doctors, who wish to pursue a policy of QE or similar, will only consume capital and not replace it with some better means of production.

Continue reading “Bastiat’s Iceberg: A Sean Corrigan Masterpiece for Christmas”

Economics

There’s only one escape from our debt trap – Telegraph

Via Edmund Conway at The Telegraph we learn that the debt today cannot be inflated away:

In fact, around four fifths of the state’s debt bill is inflation-proof. The only way ministers and mandarins could inflate their way out of the crisis would be to rip up all the contracts that tie these debts to inflation: possible in the case of the state pension (which is one reason why Gordon Brown’s pledge to link it to earnings is probably doomed), difficult for all the rest.

Thankfully, James Tyler has explained How to deal with the Banksters, a proposal in the tradition of Fisher, de Soto and others which just happens to deal with the debt too.

Economics

What is wrong with banking, part 1: the legal nature of banking contracts

This article gives a summary of the legal nature of banking contracts as presented by Jesús Huerta de Soto in Money, Bank Credit and Economic Cycles (PDF). A second article will discuss artificial credit expansion and its effects.

In his speech in the 2009 Banking Bill debate, the Earl of Caithness, one of the most experienced Conservative peers, said:

My Lords, the Banking Bill which we are currently discussing in the House is very complex and detailed, but it does nothing to resolve the current banking crisis, which lies at the heart of our economic problems. [...]

The Banking Bill fails to address the fault which has led to every major banking and currency crisis during the past 200 years, including this one. It merely, lazily and weakly, papers over the cracks. Like Lilliputians, we are trying to tie down Gulliver with ever more strands of rope. It did not work then; it has not worked since 1811; and it will not work now.

He went on to explain that no Act of Parliament established the present banking system but that it emanates from a base of judicial decisions:

Prior to 1811, title to the money in depositors’ accounts belonged to the depositor. However, in that year, decisions in Carr v Carr and, in 1848, Foley v Hill gave legal status to the banking practice of removing depositors’ money from their accounts and lending it to others. Since then, title to depositors’ money has transferred from the depositor to the bank at the moment when the deposit is made.

Bankers have always seen it as their job to invest as much of their depositors’ money as they prudently can, in order to earn income for themselves while, at the same time, maintaining sufficient cash flow to be able to honour depositors’ cheques when presented and to meet withdrawals when demanded. If new deposits fail to materialise in sufficient strength or if borrowers fail to repay on time or at all, banks need to be rescued or they will fail. Historically, bank failures then led to a demand for central banks to act as lenders of last resort to save imprudent bankers who got caught short.

These judicial decisions meant that, from then until now, money deposited belonged to the bank and not the depositor, thereby allowing bankers to use customers’ deposits as they saw fit, always provided that they could manage cash flow so as to meet depositors’ requirements. In good times, that enabled them to take greater risks. Then, with the advent of central banks as lenders of last resort, the bankers soon learned they could take even greater risks with virtual impunity. When their lending became too aggressive and their reserves and deposit receipts were less than required to meet cash flow, they began to lend to each other. Banks with excess reserves would lend on the overnight market to those with a shortfall. With all these supposed safety mechanisms to protect them, bankers came to believe they could become even more aggressive in their lending, enabling them to make increased profits for themselves.

The provision of these safety mechanisms had, in some cases, merely encouraged them to take excessive risks. Further, these two judicial decisions overlooked or failed to consider the fact that when banks lend depositors’ funds, more than one receipt for the same deposit is issued. This was not done intentionally by individual banks or it would immediately have been seen as fraudulent. Rather, it was done by the system as a whole. This process continued to the present. It is as a result that our UK money supply has grown from £31 billion in 1971, when President Nixon closed the gold window, to in excess of £1,700 billion today. Let us consider the implications of those last two figures. They mean that every year since 1971 the banking system has created, on average, for its own use, in excess of £44 billion. That is more per year than the entire money supply which had, until 1971, sustained our economy since recorded history and through two world wars. Is it any wonder that we have suffered such serious inflation over that period? It is clear that the normal, everyday onward lending of depositors’ funds by retail banks has been the principal producer of inflation.

Now, the 1844 Bank Charter Act ended the overissue of notes over specie but it did not deal with the overissue of demand deposits drawn by cheque. This omission, combined with the judicial decisions described by Caithness, left open the possibility of the same mechanism which was known to cause economic crises in the nineteenth century and which has caused the crisis we are in today: artificial expansion of credit.

This article deals with the legal principles under which banking should operate; a second article will explain artificial credit expansion and its consequences.

Continue reading “What is wrong with banking, part 1: the legal nature of banking contracts”