“What will futurity make of the Ph.D. standard ? Likely, it will be even more baffled than we are. Imagine trying to explain the present-day arrangements to your 20-something grandchild a couple of decades hence – after the Crash of, say, 2016, that wiped out the youngster’s inheritance and provoked a central bank response so heavy-handed as to shatter the confidence even of Wall Street in the Federal Reserve’s methods.
“I expect you’ll wind up saying something like this: “My generation gave former tenured economics professors discretionary authority to fabricate money and to fix interest rates. We put the cart of asset prices before the horse of enterprise. We entertained the fantasy that high asset prices made for prosperity, rather than the other way around. We actually worked to foster inflation, which we called ‘price stability’ (this was on the eve of the hyperinflation of 2017). We seem to have miscalculated.”
– Excerpt from James Grant’s November 2014 Cato speech. Hat-tip to Alex Stanczyk.
You can be for gold, or you can be for paper, but you cannot possibly be for both. It may soon be time to take a stand. The arguments in favour of gold are well known, and just as widely ignored by the paperbugs, who have a belief system at least as curious because its end product is destined to fail – we just do not know precisely when. The price of gold is weakly correlated to other prices in financial markets, as the last three years have clearly demonstrated. Indeed gold may be the only asset whose price is being suppressed by the monetary authorities, as opposed to those sundry instruments whose prices are being just as artificially inflated to offer the illusion of health in the financial system (stocks and bonds being the primary financial victims). Beware appearances in an unhinged financial system, because they can be dangerously deceptive. It is quite easy to manipulate the paper price of gold on a financial futures exchange if you never have to make delivery of the physical asset and are content to play games with paper. At some point that will change. Contrary to popular belief, gold is supremely liquid, though its supply is not inexhaustible. It is no-one’s liability – this aspect may be one of the most crucial in the months to come, as and when investors learn to start fearing counterparty risk all over again. Gold offers a degree of protection against uncertainty. And unlike paper money, there are fundamental and finite limits to its creation and supply.
What protection ? There is, of course, one argument against gold that seems to trump all others and blares loudly to sceptical ears. Its price in US dollars has recently fallen. Not in rubles, and not perhaps in yen, of course, but certainly in US dollars. Perhaps gold is really a currency, then, as opposed to a tiresome commodity ? But the belief system of the paperbug dies hard.
The curious might ask why so many central banks are busily repatriating their gold ? Or why so many Asian central banks are busily accumulating it ? It is surely not just, in Ben Bernanke’s weasel words, tradition ?
If you plot the assets of central banks against the gold price, you see a more or less perfect fit going back at least to 2002. It is almost as if gold were linked in some way to money. That correlative trend for some reason broke down in 2012 and has yet to re-emerge. We think it will return, because 6,000 years of human history weigh heavily in its favour.
Or you can put your faith in paper. History, however, would not recommend it. Fiat money has a 100% failure rate.
Please note that we are not advocating gold to the exclusion of all else within the context of a balanced investment portfolio. There is a role for objectively creditworthy debt, especially if deflation really does take hold – it’s just that the provision of objectively creditworthy bonds in a global debt bubble is now vanishingly small. There is a role for listed businesses run by principled, decent management, where the market’s assessment of value for those businesses sits comfortably below those businesses’ intrinsic worth. But you need to look far and wide for such opportunities, because six years of central and commercial banks playing games with paper have made many stock markets thoroughly unattractive to the discerning value investor. We suggest looking in Asia. There is a role for price momentum strategies which, having disappointed for several years, though not catastrophically so, now appear to be getting a second wind, from the likes of deflating oil prices, periphery currencies, and so on.
As investors we are all trapped within a horrifying bubble. We must play the hand we’ve been dealt, however bad it is. But there are now growing signs of end-of-bubble instability. The system does not appear remotely sound. Since political vision in Europe, in particular, is clearly absent, the field has been left to central bankers to run amok. The only question we cannot answer is: precisely when does the centre fail ? The correct response is to recall the words of the famed value investor Peter Cundill, when he confided in his diary:
“The most important attribute for success in value investing is patience, patience, and more patience. THE MAJORITY OF INVESTORS DO NOT POSSESS THIS CHARACTERISTIC.”
But the absence of patience by the majority of investors is fine, because it leaves more money on the table for the rest of us. The only question remaining is: in what exact form should we hold that money ?
Be patient, and do please set aside thirty minutes to listen to James Grant’s quietly passionate and wonderfully articulate Cato Institute speech. It will be time well spent.
Each commodity market has its own story to tell: oil prices are falling because OPEC can’t agree production cuts, steel faces a glut from overcapacity, and even the price of maize has fallen, presumably because of good harvests.
In local currencies this is not so much the case. Of course, the difference between prices in local currencies and prices in US dollars is reflected in the weakness of most currencies against the dollar in the foreign exchange markets. This tells us that whatever is happening in each individual commodity and in each individual currency the common factor is the US dollar.
This is obvious perhaps, but the fall in commodity prices and the rise in the US dollar have to be seen in context. We should note that for most of the global population, the concern that we are facing global deflation (by which is commonly meant falling prices) is not yet true. Nor is a conclusion that the fall in the oil price indicates a sudden collapse in demand for energy. When the dollar price of oil began to slide, so did the exchange rates for all the other major currencies, confirming a significant part of oil’s price move came from dollar strength, which would have also been true of commodity prices generally.
All we can say is that on average there has been a shift of preferences towards holding dollars and away from holding commodities. Looked at in this light we can see that a trend of destocking can develop solely for financial rather than business reasons, because businesses which account in dollars face financial losses on excess inventory. It is the function of speculators to anticipate these decisions, which is what we have seen in recent months.
Macro-economists, who are Keynesian or monetarist by definition, are beginning to interpret falling commodity prices and a rising dollar as evidence of insufficient aggregate demand, which left unchecked will lead to deflation, increasing unemployment, bankruptcies, falling asset prices, and bank insolvencies. It is, they say, an outcome to be avoided at all costs by ensuring that aggregate demand is stimulated so that none of this happens.
Whether or not they are right in this assessment is not the point. They neglect to allow that some of the move in commodity prices is due to the currency itself as the numéraire of all prices.
For evidence of this we need look no further than the attitude of the Fed and every other central bank that targets price inflation as part of their monetary policy. In forming monetary policy there is no allowance for the possibility, nay likelihood, that in future there will be a change in preferences against the dollar, or any other currency for that matter, and in favour of anything else. The tragedy of this lack of market comprehension is that it’s a fair bet that monetary policy will not only succeed in limiting the rise of the dollar as it is designed to do, but end up undermining it when preferences shift the other way.
The moral of the story is that the Fed may be able to fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but worst of all they are fooling themselves. And we should bear in mind that dollar strength is only a trend which can easily reverse at any time.
“Sir, Martin Wolf in his article “Radical cures for unusual economic ills” suggests an abandonment of free market capitalism, as it has been practised these past couple of hundred years, and instead wants some kind of witch-doctoring economic quackery to take its place. Savings are the capital that forms the basis of capitalism. You can’t have capitalism without capital. And without interest rates pegged at levels that encourage savings, you won’t generate the quantities of savings necessary to sustain a capitalist economy.
“We need to stop the insanity. For example, savings rates in the US fluctuate around zero per cent along with interest rates set by the Fed. To hide this stab in the back to savers, the Federal Reserve simulates savings with ersatz monetary hokum like quantitative easing designed to create the illusion of a solvent economy that can run fine without actually having any savings.
“Despite the evidence proving the failure of this approach, Mr Wolf continues to recommend attacking savers, including the so-called “savings glut” held by countries in the east that hold large cash reserves as protection against the reckless policies like those suggested by Mr Wolf, who appears ignorant of the history of why these reserves exist in the first place: to protect these countries and currencies from the unorthodox (read “failed”) policy suggestions of pundits and academics who would do us all a great favour by simply admitting that their prescriptions for global growth have completely, unequivocally, failed.”
– Letter to the Financial Times from Mr Max Keiser, London W1, 28 November 2014.
So the Swiss have decided not to force their central bank into underpinning its reserves with harder assets than increasingly worthless euros. At least they had the chance to vote. But in the bigger picture, the rejection of the “Save Our Swiss Gold” initiative flies in the face of a broader trend towards repatriation and consolidation of sovereign bullion holdings – following on the heels of similar attempts by the Bundesbank, the Dutch central bank, for example, recently announced that it had moved a fifth of its total gold reserves from New York to Amsterdam. And the physical metal continues its inexorable exodus eastwards, into stronger hands that are unlikely to relinquish it any time soon.
The Swiss vote was preceded by some fairly extraordinary black propaganda, most notoriously by Willem Buiter of the banking organisation that now styles itself ‘Citi’. Once again we were treated to the intriguing claim that gold is nothing more than “a six thousand year-old bubble”, and a “fiat commodity currency” (whatever that might mean) that has “insignificant intrinsic value”. Izabella Kaminska for the FT’s Alphaville republished much of Buiter’s ‘research’; the resultant to-and-fro between FT readers on the paper’s website makes for a fascinating scrap between goldbugs and paperbugs. Among the highlights was Vlady, who wrote:
“When a social construct (gold as money) survives for 6,000 years I would expect curious people to inquire as to whether it is tied to some immutable underlying law, or otherwise investigate if there is something more here than meets the eye. Not so curiously inclined, our court economists prefer to write this off as a 6,000 year old delusion. That says a lot about the sorry state of the economics discipline today.”
Another was the artfully named ‘Financially Repressed by Central Banks’, who wrote:
“I think that the reason bankers and governments dislike gold backed hard currencies is that it limits their ability to devalue their fiat currency and redistribute wealth in order to stay in power.
The governmental solution to all the debt in the world is to try to inflate it away and slowly take money away from the people via currency depreciation and manipulating interest rates such savers and forced owners of government debt (such as pension schemes) make a negative return.
I think this is robbery – Pure and simple. The market is not free, it is controlled.
A move away from fiat currency and back to using gold backed currency would remove the ability of governments to print money and this in turn would remove their ability constantly try to avoid facing the consequences of building up huge debts, which in term means they would have to face the music and actually have a plan to repay it.
It is the central banks and private banks who are complicit in this government sponsored process of stealing and their rewards are their ability themselves big bonuses and the occasional tax payer funded rescue..
Mr Buiter works for a bank. What a surprise that he dislikes Gold and is presumably very concerned when a central bank (Switzerland) looks like it might do something silly like buying some gold. Don’t they realize that in acknowledging the concerns of holders of fiat currency (the people of Switzerland) that their actions might encourage others to think that maybe just maybe fiat currency is not quite as useful as gold?
/ rant on / I am not a gold bug, but I am a hard working tax payer who is getting pretty fed up with having my savings earning no interest and possibly being devalued (see Japan) and of not being able to find any sensible place to invest my hard earned due to central bank policies making it impossible to make any return anywhere without taking crazy risks. / rant off /” [Emphasis ours.]
The financial markets feel increasingly unhinged. All-time low bond yields co-exist with all-time high stock markets. Oil has collapsed along with much of the commodities complex. Emerging market currencies have been hit for six. China threatens the West with another strong deflationary impulse. Speaking of matters Chinese, Doug Nolandwrites:
“With global “hot money” now on the move in major fashion, it’s time to start paying close attention to happenings in China. It’s also time for U.S. equities bulls to wake up from their dream world. There are trillions of problematic debts in the world, including some in the U.S. energy patch. There are surely trillions more engaged in leveraged securities speculation. Our markets are not immune to a full-fledged global “risk off” dynamic. And this week saw fragility at the global bubble’s periphery attain some significant momentum. Global currency and commodities markets are dislocating, portending global instability in prices, financial flows, credit and economies.”
Gold is difficult to value at the best of times, in large part because it’s not a productive asset, and partly because it’s conventionally priced in a currency (the dollar) that, like all others, is destined to lose its purchasing power over time. Viewed purely through the prism of price, gold increasingly feels like something close to a ‘value’ investment, given that ‘value’ investing is essentially about picking up dollar bills for something closer to fifty cents. We’re currently reading Christopher Risso-Gill’s biography of the legendary ‘value’ investor Peter Cundill, and some of Cundill’s diary entries seem to be peculiarly relevant to this strange, dysfunctional environment in which we are all trapped. One in particular stands out, which Cundill himself wrote in upper case to make his point:
“THE MOST IMPORTANT ATTRIBUTE FOR SUCCESS IN VALUE INVESTING IS PATIENCE, PATIENCE, AND MORE PATIENCE. THE MAJORITY OF INVESTORS DO NOT POSSESS THIS CHARACTERISTIC.”
And there’s another, originally from Horace, that was also used by the godfather of ‘value’ investing, Ben Graham himself:
“Many shall be restored that now are fallen, and many shall fall that are now held in honour.”
[Editor’s Note: The “Money Creation and Society” debate, which took place in the UK Parliament on Thursday the 20th November 2014, is shown below in both video and transcribed text formats.]
Steve Baker (Wycombe) (Con): I beg to move,
That this House has considered money creation and society.
The methods of money production in society today are profoundly corrupting in ways that would matter to everyone if they were clearly understood. The essence of this debate is: who should be allowed to create money, how and at whose risk? It is no wonder that it has attracted support from across the political spectrum, although, looking around the Chamber, I think that the Rochester and Strood by-election has perhaps taken its toll. None the less, I am grateful to right hon. and hon. Friends from all political parties, including the hon. Members for Clacton (Douglas Carswell) and for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) and the right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher), for their support in securing this debate.
One of the most memorable quotes about money and banking is usually attributed to Henry Ford:
“It is well enough that people of the nation do not understand our banking and monetary system, for if they did I believe there would be a revolution before tomorrow morning.”
Let us hope we do not have a revolution, as I feel sure we are all conservatives on that issue.
How is it done? The process is so simple that the mind is repelled. It is this:
“Whenever a bank makes a loan, it simultaneously creates a matching deposit in the borrower’s bank account, thereby creating new money.”
I have been told many times that this is ridiculous, even by one employee who had previously worked for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation of the United States. The explanation is taken from the Bank of England article, “Money creation in the modern economy”, and it seems to me it is rather hard to dismiss.
Today, while the state maintains a monopoly on the creation of notes and coins in central bank reserves, that monopoly has been diluted to give us a hybrid system because private banks can create claims on money, and those claims are precisely equivalent to notes and coins in their economic function. It is a criminal offence to counterfeit bank notes or coins, but a banking licence is formal permission from the Government to create equivalent money at interest.
There is a wide range of perspectives on whether that is legitimate. The Spanish economist, Jesús Huerta de Soto explains in his book “Money, Bank Credit and Economic Cycles” that it is positively a fraud—a fraud that causes the business cycle. Positive Money, a British campaign group, is campaigning for the complete nationalisation of money production. On the other hand, free banking scholars, George Selgin, Kevin Dowd and others would argue that although the state might define money in terms of a commodity such as gold, banking should be conducted under the ordinary commercial law without legal privileges of any kind. They would allow the issue of claims on money proper, backed by other assets—provided that the issuer bore
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all of the risk. Some want the complete denationalisation of money. Cryptocurrencies are now performing the task of showing us that that is possible.
The argument that banks should not be allowed to create money has an honourable history. The Bank Charter Act 1844 was enacted because banks’ issue of notes in excess of gold was causing economic chaos, particularly through reckless lending and imprudent speculation. I am once again reminded that the only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.
Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab): I welcome today’s debate. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point about learning from history. Does he agree with me that we should look seriously at putting this subject on the curriculum so that young people gain a better understanding of the history of this issue?
Steve Baker: That is absolutely right. It would be wonderful if the history curriculum covered the Bank Charter Act 1844. I would be full of joy about that, but we would of course need to cover economics, too, in order for people to really understand the issue. Since the hon. Gentleman raises the subject, there were ideas at the time of that Act that would be considered idiocy today, while some ideas rejected then are now part of the economic mainstream. Sir Robert Peel spent some considerable time emphasising that the definition of a pound was a specific quantity and quality of gold. The notion that anyone could reject that was considered ridiculous. How times change.
One problem with the Bank Charter Act 1844 was that it failed to recognise that bank deposits were functioning as equivalent to notes, so it did not succeed in its aim. There was a massive controversy at the time between the so-called currency school and the banking school. It appeared that the currency school had won; in fact, in practice, the banks went on to create deposits drawn by cheque and the ideas of the banking school went forward. The idea that one school or the other won should be rejected; the truth is that we have ended up with something of a mess.
We are in a debt crisis of historic proportions because for far too long profit-maximising banks have been lending money into existence as debt with too few effective restraints on their conduct and all the risks of doing so forced on the taxpayer by the power of the state. A blend of legal privilege, private interest and political necessity has created, over the centuries, a system that today lawfully promotes the excesses for which capitalism is so frequently condemned. It is undermining faith in the market economy on which we rely not merely for our prosperity, but for our lives.
Thankfully, the institution of money is a human, social institution and it can be changed. It has been changed and I believe it should be changed further. The timing of today’s debate is serendipitous, with the Prime Minister explaining that the warning lights are flashing on the dashboard of the world economy, and it looks like quantitative easing is going to be stepped up in Europe and Japan, just as it is being ramped out in America—and, of course, it has stopped in the UK. If anything, we are not at the end of a great experiment
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in monetary policy; we are at some mid point of it. The experiment will not be over until all the quantitative easing has been unwound, if it ever is.
We cannot really understand the effect of money production on society without remembering that our society is founded on the division of labour. We have to share the burden of providing for one another, and we must therefore have money as a means of exchange and final payment of debts, and also as a store of value and unit of account. It is through the price system that money allows us to reckon profit and loss, guiding entrepreneurs and investors to allocate resources in the way that best meets the needs of society. That is why every party in the House now accepts the market economy. The question is whether our society is vulnerable to false signals through that price system, and I believe that it is. That is why any flaws in our monetary arrangements feed into the price system and permeate the whole of society. In their own ways, Keynes and Mises—two economists who never particularly agreed with one another—were both able to say that currency debasement was the best way in which to overturn the existing basis of society.
Even before quantitative easing began, we lived in an era of chronic monetary inflation, unprecedented in the industrial age. Between 1991 and 2009, the money supply increased fourfold. It tripled between 1997 and 2010, from £700 billion to £2.2 trillion, and that accelerated into the crisis. It is simply not possible to increase the money supply at such a rate without profound consequences, and they are the consequences that are with us today, but it goes back further. The House of Commons Library and the Office for National Statistics produced a paper tracing consumer price inflation back to 1750. It shows that there was a flat line until about the 20th century, when there was some inflation over the wars, but from 1971 onwards, the value of money collapsed. What had happened? The Bretton Woods agreement had come to an end. The last link to gold had been severed, and that removed one of the most effective restraints on credit expansion. Perhaps in another debate we might consider why.
Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the end of the gold standard and the increased supply of money enabled business, enterprise and the economy to grow? Once we were no longer tied to the supply of gold, other avenues could be used for the growth of the economy.
Steve Baker: The hon. Gentleman has made an important point, which has pre-empted some of the questions that I intended to raise later in my speech. There is no doubt that the period of our lives has been a time of enormous economic, social and political transformation, but so was the 19th century, and during that century there was a secular decline in prices overall.
The truth is that any reasonable amount of money is adequate if prices are allowed to adjust. We are all aware of the phenomenon whereby the prices of computers, cars, and more or less anything else whose production is not determined by the state become gently lower as productivity increases. That is a rise in real living standards. We want prices to become lower in real terms compared to wages, which is why we argue about living standards.
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Sir William Cash (Stone) (Con): My hon. Friend is making an incredibly important speech. I only wish that more people were here to listen to it. I wonder whether he has read Nicholas Wapshott’s book about Hayek and Keynes, which deals very carefully with the question that he has raised. Does he agree that the unpleasantness of the Weimar republic and the inflationary increase at that time led to the troubles with Germany later on, but that we are now in a new cycle which also needs to be addressed along the lines that he has just been describing?
Steve Baker: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. What he has said emphasises that the subject that is at issue today goes to the heart of the survival of a free civilisation. That is something that Hayek wrote about, and I think it is absolutely true.
If I were allowed props in the Chamber, Mr Speaker, I might wave this 100 trillion Zimbabwe dollar note. You can hold bad politics in your hand: that is the truth of the matter. People try to explain that hyperinflation has never happened just through technocratic error, and that it happens in the context of, for example, extremely high debt levels and the inability of politicians to constrain them. In what circumstances do we find ourselves today, when we are still borrowing broadly triple what Labour was borrowing?
Ann McKechin (Glasgow North) (Lab): I am interested to hear what the hon. Gentleman is saying. He will be aware that the balance between wages and capital has shifted significantly in favour of capital over the past 30 years. Does he agree that the way in which we tax and provide reliefs to capital is key to controlling that balance? Does he also agree that we need to do more to increase wage levels, which have historically been going down in relation to capital over a long period of time?
Steve Baker: I think I hear the echoes of a particularly fashionable economist there. If the hon. Lady is saying that she would like rising real wage levels, of course I agree with her. Who wouldn’t? I want rising real wage levels, but something about which I get incredibly frustrated is the use of that word “capital”. I have heard economists talk about capital when what they really mean is money, and typically what they mean by money is new bank credit, because 97% of the money supply is bank credit. That is not capital; capital is the means of production. There is a lengthy conversation to be had on this subject, but if the hon. Lady will forgive me, I do not want to go into that today. I fear that we have started to label as capital money that has been loaned into existence without any real backing. That might explain why our capital stock has been undermined as we have de-industrialised, and why real wages have dropped. In the end, real wages can rise only if productivity increases, and that means an increase in the real stock of capital.
To return to where I wanted to go: where did all the money that was created as debt go? The sectoral lending figures show that while some of it went into commercial property, and some into personal loans, credit cards and so on, the rise of lending into real productive businesses excluding the financial sector was relatively moderate. Overwhelmingly, the new debt went into mortgages and the financial sector. Exchange and the distribution of wealth are part of the same social process. If I buy an apple, the distribution of apples and money will change. Money is used to buy houses, and we
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should not be at all surprised that an increased supply of money into house-buying will boost the price of those homes.
Mr Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley) (Lab): This is a great debate, but let us talk about ordinary people and their labour, because that involves money as well. To those people, talking about how capitalism works is like talking about something at the end of the universe. They simply need money to survive, and anything else might as well be at the end of the universe.
Steve Baker: The hon. Gentleman is quite right, and I welcome the spirit in which he asks that question. The vast majority of us, on both sides of the House, live on our labour. We work in order to obtain money so that we can obtain the things we need to survive.
The hon. Gentleman pre-empts another remark that I was going to make, which is that there is a categorical difference between earning money through the sweat of one’s brow and making money by lending it to someone in exchange for a claim on the deeds to their house. Those two concepts are fundamentally, categorically different, and this goes to the heart of how capitalism works. I appreciate that very little of this would find its way on to an election leaflet, but it matters a great deal nevertheless. Perhaps I shall need to ask my opponent if he has followed this debate.
My point is that if a great fountain of new money gushes up into the financial sector, we should not be surprised to find that the banking system is far wealthier than anyone else. We should not be surprised if financing and housing in London and the south-east are far wealthier than anywhere else. Indeed, I remember that when quantitative easing began, house prices started rising in Chiswick and Islington. Money is not neutral. It redistributes real income from later to earlier owners—that is, from the poor to the rich, on the whole. That distribution effect is key to understanding the effect of new money on society. It is the primary cause of almost all conflicts revolving around the production of money and around the relations between creditors and debtors.
Sir William Cash: My hon. Friend might be aware that, before the last general election, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) and I and one or two others attacked the Labour party for the lack of growth and expressed our concern about the level of debt. If we add in all the debts from Network Rail, nuclear decommissioning, unfunded pension liabilities and so on, the actual debt is reaching extremely high levels. According to the Government’s own statements, it could now be between £3.5 trillion and £4 trillion. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is extremely dangerous?
Steve Baker: It is extremely dangerous and it has been repeated around the world. An extremely good book by economist and writer Philip Coggan, of The Economist, sets out just how dangerous it is. In “Paper Promises: Money, Debt and the New World Order”; a journalist from The Economist seriously suggests that this huge pile of debt created as money will lead to a wholly new monetary system.
I have not yet touched on quantitative easing, and I will try to shorten my remarks, Mr Speaker, but the point is this: having lived through this era where the
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money supply tripled through new lending, the whole system, of course, blew up—the real world caught up with this fiction of a monetary policy—and so QE was engaged in. A paper from the Bank of England on the distributional effects of monetary policy explains that people would have been worse off if the Bank had not engaged in QE—it was, of course, an emergency measure. But one thing the paper says is that asset purchases by the Bank
“have pushed up the price of equities by as least as much as they have pushed up the price of gilts.”
The Bank’s Andy Haldane said, “We have deliberately inflated the biggest bond market bubble in history.”
Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): What is the hon. Gentleman’s view of QE? How does he see it fitting into the great scheme of things?
Steve Baker: As I am explaining, QE is a great evil; it is a substitute for proper reform of the banking system. But this is the point: if the greatest bubble has been blown in the bond markets and equities have been pushed up by broadly the same amount, that is a terrible risk to the financial system.
Mr MacNeil: Surely there is a difference depending on where the QE goes. In an economy that has a demand deficit and needs demand to be stimulated, if QE goes into the pockets of those who are going to spend the money, surely QE can create some more motion in the economy, but if QE goes into already deep pockets and makes them larger and deeper, that is a very different thing.
Steve Baker: Again, the hon. Gentleman touches on an interesting issue. Once the Bank legitimises the idea of money creation and giving it to people in order to get the economy going, the question then arises: if you are going to create it and give it away, why not give it to other people? That then goes to the question: what is money? I think it is the basis of a moral existence, because in our lives we should be exchanging value for value. One problem with the current system is that we are not doing that; something is being created in vast quantities out of nothing and given away. The Bank explains that 40% of the assets that have been inflated are held by 5% of households, with 80% held by people over 45. It seems clear that QE—a policy of the state to intervene deeply in money—is a deliberate policy of increasing the wealth of people who are older and wealthier.
Mr MacNeil: One word the hon. Gentleman used was “moral”, and he touches on what the economist Paul Krugman will say: some on the right see the recession and so on as a morality play, and confuse economics and morals. Sometimes getting things going economically is not about the straightforward “morality” money the hon. Gentleman has touched on. That could be one reason why the recovery is taking so long.
Steve Baker: I am conscious that I have already used slightly more time than I intended, Mr Speaker, and I have a little more to say because of these interventions. All these subjects, as my bookshelves attest, are easily
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capable of being explained over hundreds of pages. My bottom line on this is: I want to live in a society where even the most selfish person is compelled by our institutions to serve the needs of other people. The institution in question is called a free market economy, because in a free market economy people do not get any bail-outs and do not get to live at somebody else’s expense; they have to produce what other people want. One thing that has gone wrong is that those on the right have ended up defending institutions that are fundamentally statist.
Douglas Carswell (Clacton) (UKIP): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this important subject to the attention of the House. Does he agree that, far from shoring up free market capitalism, the candy floss credit system the state is presiding over replaces it with a system of crony corporatism that gives capitalism a bad name and undermines its very foundations?
Steve Baker: I am delighted to agree with my hon. Friend—he is that, despite the fact I will not be seeing Nigel later. We have ended up pretending that the banking system and the financial system is a free market when the truth is that it is the most hideous corporatist mess. What I want is a free market banking system, and I will come on to discuss that.
I wanted to make some remarks about price signals, but I will foreshorten them, and try to cover the issue as briskly as I can—it was the subject of my maiden speech. Interest rates are a price signal like any other. They should be telling markets about people’s preferences for goods now compared with goods later. If they are deliberately manipulated, they will tell entrepreneurs the wrong thing and will therefore corrupt people’s investment decisions. The bond and equity markets are there to allocate capital. If interest rates are manipulated and if new money is thrown into the system, prices get detached from the real world values they are supposed to be connected to—what resources are available, what technology is available, what people prefer. The problem is that these prices, which have been detached from reality, continue to guide entrepreneurs and investors, but if they are now guiding entrepreneurs and investors in a direction that takes them away from the real desires of the public and the available resources and the technology, we should not then be surprised if we end up with a later disaster.
In short, after prices have been bid up by a credit expansion, they are bound to fall when later the real world catches up with it. That is why economies are now suffering this wrecking ball of inflation followed by deflation, and here is the rub: throughout most of my life, the monetary policy authorities have responded to these corrections by pumping in more new money—previously through ever cheaper credit, and now through QE. This raises the question of where this all goes, and brings me back to the point my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) provoked from me: that this might be pointing towards an end of this monetary order. That is not necessarily something to be feared, because the monetary order changed several times in the 20th century.
We have ended up in something of a mess. The Governor said about the transition once interest rates normalise:
“The orderliness of that transition is an open question.”
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I believe the Governor is demonstrating the optimism appropriate to his role, because I think it is extremely unlikely that we will have an orderly transition once interest rates start to normalise. The problem is basically that Governments want to spend too much money. That has always been the case throughout history. Governments used to want to fund wars. Now, for all good, moral, decent, humanitarian reasons, we want to fund health, welfare and education well beyond what the public will pay in taxes. That has meant we needed easy money to support the borrowing.
What is to be done? A range of remedies are being proposed. Positive Money proposes the complete nationalisation of the production of money, some want variations on a return to gold, perhaps with free banking, and some want a spontaneous emergence of alternative moneys like Bitcoin.
I would just point out that Walter Bagehot is often prayed in aid of central banking policy, but his book “Lombard Street” shows that he did not support central banking; he thought it was useless to try to propose any change. What we see today is that, with alternative currencies such as Bitcoin spontaneously emerging, it is now possible through technology that, within a generation, we will not all be putting our money in a few big mega-banks, held as liabilities, issued out of nothing.
I want to propose three things the Government can practically do. First, the present trajectory of reform should be continued with. After 15 years of studying these matters, and now having made it to the Treasury Committee, I am ever more convinced that there is no way to change the present monetary order until the ideas behind it have been tested to destruction—and I do mean tested to destruction. This is an extremely serious issue. It will not change until it becomes apparent that the ideas behind the system are untenable.
Secondly, and very much with that in mind, we should strongly welcome proposals from the Bank’s chief economist, Andy Haldane, that it will commission “anti-orthodox research”, and it will
“put into the public domain research and analysis which as often challenges as supports the prevailing policy orthodoxy on certain key issues.”
That research could make possible fundamental monetary reform in the event of another major calamity.
Thirdly, we should welcome the Chancellor’s recent interest in crypto-currencies and his commitment to make Britain a “centre of financial innovation.” Imperfect and possibly doomed as it may be, Bitcoin shows us that peer-to-peer, non-state money is practical and effective. I have used it to buy an accessory for a camera; it is a perfectly ordinary legal product and it was easier to use than a credit card and it showed me the price in pounds or any other currency I liked. It is becoming possible for people to move away from state money.
Every obstacle to the creation of alternative currencies within ordinary commercial law should be removed. We should expand the range of commodities and instruments related to those commodities that are treated like money, such as gold. That should include exempting VAT and capital gains tax and it should be possible to pay tax on those new moneys. We must not fall into the same trap as the United States of obstructing innovation. In the case of the Liberty Dollar and Bernard von NotHaus, it
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seems that a man may spend the rest of his life in prison simply for committing the supposed crime of creating reliable money.
Finally, we are in the midst of an unprecedented global experiment in monetary policy and debt. It is likely, as Philip Coggan set out, that this will result in a new global monetary order. Whether it will be for good or ill, I do not know, but as technology and debt advance, I am sure that we should be ready for a transformation. Society has suffered too much already under the present monetary orthodoxy; free enterprise should now be allowed to change it.
Mr Michael Meacher (Oldham West and Royton) (Lab): I, too, strongly congratulate the hon. Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) on securing this debate, which everyone recognises is vital and which has not been debated in this House for 170 years, since Sir Robert Peel’s Bank Charter Act 1844. The hon. Gentleman drew that fact to my attention when we were last speaking in a similar debate. That Act prohibited the private banks from printing paper money. In light of the financial crash of 2008-09 and the colossal expansion of money supply that underpinned it—no less than a twenty-two-fold increase in the 30 neo-liberal years between 1980 and 2010—the issue is whether that prohibition should be extended to include electronic money.
It is unfortunate that it is so little understood by the public that money is created by the banks every time they make a loan. In effect, the banks have a virtual monopoly—about 97%—over domestic credit creation, so they determine how money is allocated across the economy. That has led to the vast majority of money being channelled into property markets and the financial sector. According to Bank of England figures for the decade to 2007, 31% of additional money created by bank lending went to mortgage lending, 20% to commercial property, and 32% to the financial sector, including to mergers and acquisitions and trading and financial markets. Those are extraordinary figures.
Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): Given what my right hon. Friend has just said, is there not an argument, in this situation of unlimited credit from banks, for the Bank of England to intervene?
Mr Meacher: My hon. Friend anticipates the main line of my argument, so if he is patient I think I will be able to satisfy him. Crucially, only 8% of the money referred to went to businesses outside the financial sector, with a further 8% funding credit cards and personal loans.
Mr MacNeil: I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says about money going into building, housing and mortgages, but is that not because the holders of money reckon that they can get a decent return from that sector? They would invest elsewhere if they thought that they could get a better return. One reason why the UK gets a better return from that area than, say, Germany is that we have no rent controls. As a result, money is more likely to go into property than into developing industry, which is more likely to happen in Germany.
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Mr Meacher: I very much agree with that argument. Again, I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will return to that matter later in my speech. He is absolutely right that the reason is the greater returns that the banks can get from the housing and rental sector. Our rental sector, which is different from that in Germany and other countries, is the cause of that.
It is only this last 16%—the 8% lent to businesses and the 8% to consumer credit—that has a real impact on GDP and economic growth. The conclusion is unavoidable: we cannot continue with a system in which so little of the money created by banks is used for the purposes of economic growth and value creation and in which, instead, to pick up on the point made by the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil), the overwhelming majority of the money created inflates property prices, pushing up the cost of living.
In a nutshell, the banks have too much power and they have greatly abused it. First, they have been granted enormous privileges since they can create wealth simply by writing an accounting entry on a register. They decide who uses that wealth and for what purpose and they have used their power of credit creation hugely to favour property and consumption lending over business investment because the returns are higher and more secure. Thus the banks maximise their own interests but not the national interest.
Secondly, if they fail to meet their liabilities, the banks are not penalised. Someone else pays up for them. The first £85,000 of deposits are covered by a guarantee underwritten by the state and in the event of a major financial crash they are bailed out by the implicit taxpayer guarantee—
Mr Meacher: Let me finish, and I will of course give way.
The banks have been encouraged by that provision into much more risky, even reckless, investment, especially in the case of exotic financial derivatives—
Mr Jim Cunninghamrose—
Mr Meacher: Members are beginning to queue up to intervene, but let me finish my point first.
The banks have been encouraged even to the point at which after the financial crash of 2008-09 the state was obliged to undertake the direct bail-out costs of nearly £70 billion as well as to provide a mere £1 trillion in support of loan guarantees, liquidity schemes and asset protection arrangements.
Steve Baker: I wholly agree with the right hon. Gentleman. The moral hazard problem is absolutely enormous and one of the most fundamental problems. However, the British Bankers Association picked me up when I said it was a state-funded deposit insurance scheme and told me it was industry-funded. I think the issue now is that nobody really believes for a moment that the scheme will not be back-stopped by the taxpayer.
Mr Meacher: As always, I am grateful for the intervention from the hon. Gentleman—let me call him my hon. Friend, as I think that on this issue he probably is.
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Mr Jim Cunningham: On the question of banks investing in the property market, does my right hon. Friend think we could learn anything from the United States and the collapse of Fannie Mae? Are we in a similar situation?
Mr Meacher: Again, that takes me down a different path, but there is considerable read-across.
Douglas Carswell: The right hon. Gentleman has been absolutely magnificent in diagnosing the problem, but when it comes to the solution and passing power away from banks, rather than passing the power upwards to a regulator or to the state, would he entertain the idea of empowering the consumer who deposits money with the bank? Surely the real failure is that the Bank Charter Act 1844 does not give legal ownership of deposits to the person paying money into the bank. The basis of fractional-reserve banking is the legal ownership the bank has when money is paid in. If we tackle that, the power will pass from the big state-subsidised corporations and banks outwards to the wider economy.
Mr Meacher: I have great sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman is saying—
Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney North and Stoke Newington) (Lab)rose—
Mr Meacher: One at a time, please. I was going to say a little bit more than that I had sympathy with what the hon. Member for Clacton (Douglas Carswell) said.
I will argue that the capacity to regulate an increasingly and exceedingly complex financial sector is not the proper way, and I will propose an alternative solution. I am strongly in favour of structural changes that enable people to achieve greater control over the money that they have contributed.
Ms Abbott: I was intrigued to hear my right hon. Friend mention depositor protection. Is he saying that he is against any form of depositor protection?
Mr Meacher: The protection of deposits is up to £85,000 and is underwritten by the state.
Ms Abbott: Is my right hon. Friend against?
Mr Meacher: I am neither for nor against. I am making the point that the arrangement encourages the banks to increase their risk taking. If they are caught out, for each depositor £85,000 is guaranteed by the state. I agree with the hon. Member for Wycombe that we need much wider structural change. It is not a question of tweaking one thing here or there.
The question at the heart of the debate is who should create the money? Would Parliament ever have voted to delegate power to create money to those same banks that caused the horrendous financial crisis that the world is still suffering? I think the answer is unambiguously no. The question that needs to be put is how we should achieve the switch from unbridled consumerism to a framework of productive investment capable of generating a successful and sustainable manufacturing and industrial base that can securely underpin UK living standards.
Two models have hitherto been used to operate such a system. One was the centralised direction of finance, which was used extremely successfully by several Asian countries, especially the south-east Asian so-called tiger
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economies, after the second world war, to achieve take-off. I am not suggesting that that method is appropriate for us today. It is not suited to advanced industrial democracies. The other method was to bring about through official “guidance” the rationing of bank credit in accordance with national targets and, where necessary, through quantitative direct controls. In the post-war period, that policy worked well in the UK for a quarter of a century, until the 1970s when it was steadily replaced by the purely market system of competition and credit control based exclusively on interest rates. In our experience of the past 30 or 40 years, that has proved deeply unstable, dysfunctional and profoundly costly.
Since then there have been sporadic attempts to create a safer banking system, but these have been deeply flawed. Regulation under the dictates of the neo-liberal ideology has been so light-touch—by new Labour just as much as by the other Government—that it has been entirely ineffective. Regulation has been too detailed. I remind the House that Basel III has more than 400 pages, and the US Dodd-Frank Bill has a staggering 8,000 pages or more. It is impossibly bureaucratic and almost certainly full of loopholes. Other regulation has been so cautious—for example, the Vickers commission proposal for Chinese walls between the investment and retail arms of a bank—that it missed the main point. Whatever regulatory safeguards the authorities put in place faced regulatory arbitrage from the phalanx of lawyers and accountants in the City earning their ill-gotten bonuses by unpicking or circumventing them.
Mr Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is always very good on these subjects. Would I be going too far if I were to suggest that we should nationalise the City, nationalise the banks and run ourselves a Government on behalf of the people?
Mr Meacher: Public ownership of the banks is a significant issue, but I am not going to propose it in my speech. It would be a mistake to return RBS and Lloyds to the private sector, and the arguments about Barclays and HSBC need to be made, but not in this debate. I shall suggest an alternative solution that removes the power of money creation from the banks and puts it in different hands to ensure better results in the national interest.
Against that background, there are solid grounds for examining—this is where I come to my proposal—the creation of a sovereign monetary system, as recommended by several expert commentators recently. Martin Wolf, who, as everyone in this House will know, is an influential chief economics commentator for the Financial Times, wrote an article a few months ago—on 24 April, to be precise—entitled, “Strip private banks of their power to create money”. He recommends switching from bank-created debt to a nationalised money supply.
Lord Adair Turner, the former chair of the Financial Services Authority, delivered a speech about 18 months ago, in February 2013, discussing an alternative to quantitative easing that he termed “overt money finance,” which is also known as a from of sovereign money. Such a system—I will describe its main outline—would restrict the power to create all money to the state via the central bank. Changes to the rules governing how banks operate would still permit them to make loans, but would make it impossible for them to create new money in the
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process. The central bank would continue to follow the remit set by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, which is currently to deliver price stability, which is defined at the present time as an inflation target of 2%. The central bank would be exclusively responsible for creating as much new money as was necessary to support non-inflationary growth. Decisions on money creation would be taken independently of Government by a newly formed money creation committee or by the existing Monetary Policy Committee, either of which would be accountable to the Treasury Committee. Accountability to the House is crucial to the whole process.
Mr Jim Cunningham: Going back to the question I asked my right hon. Friend earlier, what would be the role of the Bank of England?
Mr Meacher: I will come on to explain that. The Bank of England has an absolutely crucial role to play. If my hon. Friend listens to the last bit of my speech, he will get a full answer to that question.
A sovereign money system thus offers—if I may say this—a clear thermostat to balance the economy, which is notoriously lacking at present. In times when the economy is in recession or growth is slow, the money creation committee would be able to increase the rate of money creation, to boost aggregate demand. If growth is very high and inflationary pressures are increasing, it could slow down the rate of money creation. That would be a crucial improvement over the current system, whereby the banks either produce too much mortgage credit in a boom because of the high profit prospects, which produces a housing bubble and raises house prices, or produce too little credit in a recession, which exacerbates the lack of demand.
Lending to businesses is central to this whole debate.
Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab): I want to take my right hon. Friend back to when he mentioned accountability to Parliament and the Select Committee. Could he enlarge on that point? On accountability, what powers would Parliament have to ensure that his proposal was being followed through properly and the rules were being laid down?
Mr Meacher: The purpose of accountability to the Treasury Committee would be to enable Parliament fully to explore the manner in which the money creation committee or the Monetary Policy Committee was working. I would anticipate a full three-hour discussion with the leading officials of those committees before the Treasury Committee, and if necessary they could be given a hard time. Certainly, the persons in this House who are most competent to deal with the matter would make clear their priorities, and where they thought the money creation committee was not paying sufficient attention to the way in which it was operating, and they would suggest changes. They would not have the power formally to compel the money creation committee to change, but I think the whole point about Select Committees, which are televised and discussed in the media, is that they have a very big effect. That would be a major change compared with what we have at present. Like all systems, if it is inadequate it can be modified, changed and increasingly enforced.
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Sir William Cash: With reference to the Treasury Committee, does the right hon. Gentleman see a potential role for some form of joint Committee, perhaps with the Public Accounts Committee, whose origins are to do with taxation and spending? Does he think that broadening scrutiny a little in that direction might be helpful so that we get the full benefit of the all-party agreement of both Committees?
Mr Meacher: That is a helpful intervention. Although it is a relatively big part of what I am proposing, it is not for me to suggest exactly what the structure of accountability should be. I would be strongly in favour of increasing it as the hon. Gentleman proposes. Until this House is content that it has a proper channel of accountability which is effective in terms of the way our financial system is run, we should bring in further changes to the structure of accountability as may be necessary, such as along the lines that he suggests.
On lending to businesses, the experience that we have had in the past half-decade has been very unsatisfactory. Under a sovereign monetary system, the central bank would be empowered to create money for the express purpose of that funding role. The money would be lent to banks with the requirement that the funds were used for productive purposes, whereas lending for speculative purposes—for example, to purchase pre-existing assets, either financial or property—would not be allowed. The central bank could also create and lend funds to other intermediaries—the hon. Member for Wycombe referred to this—such as regional or publicly owned business banks, which would ensure that a floor could be placed under the level of lending to businesses, which would be a great relief to British business, guaranteeing support for the real economy.
To avoid misunderstanding, I should add that within the limits imposed by the central bank on the broad purposes for which money may be lent, lending decisions would be entirely at the discretion of the lending institutions, not of the Government or the central bank.
I believe that a sovereign monetary system offers very considerable advantages over the current system. First, it would create a better and safer banking system because banks would have an incentive to take lower levels of risk, as there would be no option of a bail-out or rescue from taxpayers and thus moral hazard would be reduced. Secondly, it would increase economic stability because money creation by banks tends to be pro-cyclical, as I explained, whereas money creation by the central bank would be counter-cyclical. Thirdly, sovereign money crucially supports the real economy, whereas under the current system 83% of lending does not at present go into productive investment. I underline that three times.
Ann McKechin: My right hon. Friend said that the aim would be to reduce risk and for banks to be more cautious, but if we are to encourage innovation in manufacturing, would we not require an investment bank at state level that could fund the riskier levels of innovation to ensure that they get to market, because they are not at the point where they would be commercially viable?
Mr Meacher: That is an extremely important point and, again, I strongly support it. The current Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills has been
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struggling to introduce a Government-supported business investment bank and has recently announced something along those lines. I think that should be greatly expanded. The book by Mariana Mazzucato, which I hope most of us have read, “The Entrepreneurial State”, shows the degree to which funding for major innovation, not just in this country but in many other countries which she cites, has been financed through the state because the private sector was not willing to take on board the risk involved. One understands that, but one does need to recognise that the role of the state is extremely important, and under a Labour Government I would like to see something like this being brought in.
Ian Murray (Edinburgh South) (Lab): My right hon. Friend makes a tremendous case for money creation and what we should be considering in this House, but I wonder whether there is also a cultural issue. Many businesses and lenders tell me that there is a cultural problem in the United Kingdom for businesses, particularly entrepreneurial businesses that we have heard about from my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin), with regard to giving away equity rather than creating debt—funding businesses through equity rather than debt. Other countries throughout Europe that are incredibly successful at giving away equity rather than creating debt have much more growth in their entrepreneurial economy.
Mr Meacher: That is perfectly true, and my hon. Friend makes an important point. The proposals that I am making would support that. There is a very different climate in this country, largely brought about by the churning in the City of London where profits have to be increased or reach a relevant size within a very short period, such as three or six months. Most entrepreneurial businesses cannot possibly produce a decent profit within that period, so the current financial system does not encourage what my hon. Friend wants. These proposals would make money creation available to those we really want to support much more fully than at present.
Fourthly, under the current system, house price bubbles transfer wealth, as we all know, from the young to the old and from those who cannot get on the property ladder to existing house owners, which increases wealth inequality, while removing the ability of banks to create money should dampen house price rises and thus reduce the rate of wealth inequality.
My fifth and last point, which I think is very important, is that sovereign money redresses a major democratic deficit. Under the current system, around just 80 board members across the largest five banks make decisions that shape the entire UK economy, even though these individuals have no obligation or mandate to consider the needs of society or the economy as a whole, and are not accountable in any way to the public: it is for the maximisation of their own interests, not the national interest. Under sovereign money, the money creation committee would be highly transparent—we have discussed this already—and accountable to Parliament.
For all those reasons, the examination of the merits of a sovereign monetary system is now urgently needed, and I call on the Government to set up a commission on money and credit, with particular reference to the potential benefits of sovereign money, which offers a way out of
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the continuing and worsening financial crises that have blighted this country and the whole international economy for decades.
Mr Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): It is a pleasure, as always, to follow the right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher), who gave us a characteristically thoughtful and radical speech. I do not necessarily start from the same premises as him, but what he says is an important contribution to the debate, on the securing of which I credit my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker). He has done the House and the country a service by forcing us to focus on the issue of where money comes from and what banks do. He did so in an insightful way. Above all, he showed that he sees, as our old universities used to see, economics as a branch of moral sciences. It is not just a narrow, analytical, economic issue, but a moral, philosophical and ultimately a theological issue, which he illuminated well for the House.
A lot has been made of the ignorance of Members of Parliament of how money is created. I suspect that that ignorance, not just in Members of Parliament but in the intellectual elite in this country, explains many things, not least why we entered the financial crisis with a regulatory system that was so unprepared for a banking crisis. I suspect that it is because people have not reflected on why banks are so different from all other capitalist companies. They are different in three crucial respects, which is why they need a very different regulatory system from normal companies.
First, all bankers—not just rogue bankers but even the best, the most honourable and the most honest—do things that would land the rest of us in jail. Near my house in France is a large grain silo. After the harvest, farmers deposit grain in it. The silo gives them a certificate for every tonne of grain that they deposit. They can withdraw that amount of grain whenever they want by presenting that certificate. If the silo owner issued more certificates than there was grain kept in his silo, he would go to jail, but that is effectively what bankers do. They keep as reserves only a fraction of the money deposited with them, which is why we call the system the fractional reserve banking system. Murray Rothbard, a much neglected Austrian economist in this country, said very flatly that banking is therefore fraud: fractional reserve banking is fraud; it should be outlawed; banks should be required to keep 100% reserves against the money they lend out. I reject that conclusion, because there is a value in what banks do in transforming short-term savings into long-term investments. That is socially valuable and that is the function banks serve.
We should recognise the second distinctive feature of banks that arises directly from the fact that they have only a fraction of the reserves against the loans they make: banks, individually and collectively, are intrinsically unstable. They are unstable because they borrow short and lend long. I have been constantly amazed throughout the financial crisis to hear intelligent people say that the problem with Northern Rock, RBS or HBOS, or with the German, French, Greek and other banks that ran into problems, was the result of their borrowing short and lending long, and they should not have been doing it, as if it was a deviation from their normal role. Of course banks borrow short and lend long. That is what
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banks do. That is what they are there for. If they had not done that they would not be banks. Banking works so long as too many depositors do not try to withdraw their funds simultaneously. However, if depositors, retail or wholesale, withdraw or refuse to renew their short-term deposits, a bank will fail.
If normal companies fail, there is no need for the Government to intervene. Their assets will be redeployed in a more profitable use or taken over by a better-managed company. But if one bank fails, depositors are likely to withdraw deposits from other banks, about which there may also be doubts. A bank facing a run, whether or not initially justified, would be forced to call in loans or sell collateral, causing asset prices to fall, thereby undermining the solvency of other banks. So the failure of one bank may lead to the collapse of the whole banking system.
The third distinctive feature of banks was highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe: banks create money. The vast majority of money consists of bank deposits. If a bank lends a company £10 million, it does not need to go and borrow that money from a saver; it simply creates an extra £10 million by electronically crediting the company’s bank account with that sum. It creates £10 million out of thin air. By contrast, when a bank loan is repaid, that extinguishes money; it disappears into thin air. The total money supply increases when banks create new loans faster than old loans are repaid. That is where growth in the money supply usually comes from, and it is the normal situation in a growing economy. Ideally, credit should expand so that the supply of money grows sufficiently rapidly to finance growth in economic activity. When a bank or banks collapse, they will call in loans, which will reduce the money supply, which in turn will cause a contraction of activity throughout the economy.
In that respect, banks are totally different from other companies—even companies that also lend things. If a car rental company collapses, it does not lead to a reduction in the number of cars available in the economy. Its stock of cars can be sold off to other rental companies or to individuals. Nor does the collapse of one rental company weaken the position of other car rental companies; on the contrary, they then face less competition, which should strengthen their margins.
The collapse of a car rental company has no systemic implications, whereas the collapse of a bank can pull down the whole banking system and plunge the economy into recession. That is why we need a special regulatory regime for banks and, above all, a lender of last resort to pump in money if there is a run on the banks or a credit crunch, yet this was barely discussed when the new regulatory structure of our financial and banking system was set up in 1998. The focus then was on consumer protection issues. Systemic stability and the lender-of-last-resort function were scarcely mentioned. That is why the UK was so unprepared when the credit crunch struck in 2007. Nor were these aspects properly considered when the euro was set up. As a result, a currency and a banking system were established without the new central bank being given the power to act as lender of last resort. It has had to usurp that power, more or less illegally, but that is its own problem.
This analysis is not one of those insights that come from hindsight. Some while ago, Michael Howard, now the noble Lord Howard, reminded Parliament—and
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indeed me; I had completely forgotten—that I was shadow Chancellor when the Bill that became the Bank of England Act 1998 was introduced. He pointed out that I then warned the House that
“With the removal of banking control to the Financial Services Authority…it is difficult to see how…the Bank remains, as it surely must, responsible for ensuring the liquidity of the banking system and preventing systemic collapse.”
And so it turned out. I added:
“setting up the FSA may cause regulators to take their eye off the ball, while spivs and crooks have a field day.”—[Official Report, 11 November 1997; Vol. 300, c. 731-32.]
So that turned out, too. I could foresee that, because the problem was not deregulation, but the regulatory confusion and the proliferation of regulation introduced by the former Chancellor, which resulted from a failure to focus on the banking system’s inherent instability, and to provide for its stability.
This failure to focus on the fundamentals was not a peculiarly British thing. The EU made the same mistakes in spades when setting up the euro, and at the very apogee of the world financial system, they deluded themselves that instability was a thing of the past. In its “Global Financial Stability Report” of April 2006, less than 18 months before the crisis erupted, the International Monetary Fund, no less, said:
“There is growing recognition that the dispersion of credit risk by banks to a broader and more diverse group of investors, rather than warehousing such risk on their balance sheets, has helped to make the banking and overall financial system more resilient…The improved resilience may be seen in fewer bank failures and more consistent credit provision. Consequently, the commercial banks…may be less vulnerable today to credit or economic shocks.”
The supreme irony is that those at the pinnacle of the world regulatory system believed that the very complex derivatives that contributed to the collapse of the financial system would render it immune to such instability. We need constantly to be aware that banks are unstable, and are the source of money. If instability leads to a crash, that leads to a contraction in the money supply, and that can exacerbate and intensify a recession.
Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): I am listening carefully to my right hon. Friend. Does that mean that the banks are uncontrollable, as things stand?
Mr Lilley: No; they can and should be controlled. They are controlled both by being required to have assets, and ultimately by the measures that Government should take to ensure that they do not expand lending too rapidly. That is the point that I want to come on to, because a failure to focus on the nature of banking and money creation causes confusion about the causes of inflation and the role of quantitative easing.
As too many people do not understand where money comes from, there is confusion about quantitative easing. To some extent, the monetarists, of whom I am one, are responsible for that confusion. For most of our lifetime, the basic economic problem has been inflation. There have been great debates about its causes. Ultimately, those debates were won by the monetarists. They said, “Inflation is caused by too much money—by money growing more rapidly than output. If that happens, inevitably and inexorably, prices will rise.” The trouble was that all too often, monetarists used the shorthand
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phrase, “Inflation is caused by Government printing too much money.” In fact, it is caused not by Government printing the money, but by banks lending money and then creating new money at too great a rate for the needs of the economy. We should have said, “Inflation follows when Governments allow or encourage banks to create money too rapidly.” The inflationary problem was not who created the money, but the fact that too much money was created.
The banks are now not lending enough to create enough money to finance the growth and expansion of the economy that we need. That is why the central bank steps in with quantitative easing, which is often described as the bank printing money. Those who have been brought up to believe that printing money was what caused inflation think that quantitative easing must, by definition, cause inflation. It only causes inflation if there is too much of it—if we create too much money at a faster rate than the growth of output, and therefore drive up prices—but that is not the situation at present.
Mr MacNeil: The right hon. Gentleman is giving a very good explanation of the different circumstances in which money is created. He has spoken about the morality, and about quantitative easing. When there is demand, what is his view of the theory of helicopter money, and where that money gets spread to?
Mr Lilley: As a disciple of Milton Friedman, I am rather attracted to the idea of helicopter money; I think it was he who introduced the metaphor, and said that it would be just as effective if money were sprayed by a helicopter as if it were created by banks. Hopefully, as I live quite near the helicopter route to Battersea, I would be a principal recipient. I do not think that there is a mechanism available that would allow us to do that, but I am not averse to that in principle, if someone could do it. My point is that the banks, either spontaneously or encouraged by the central bank through quantitative easing, must generate enough money to ensure that the economy can grow steadily and stably.
Mr MacNeil: Could it not be argued that increasing welfare payments would be a form of helicopter money, because the people most likely to spend money are those with very little money? If we put money in the pockets of those who have little money, it would be very positive, because of the economic multiplier; the money would be spent, and would circulate, very quickly.
Mr Lilley: There are far better reasons for giving money to poor people than because their money will circulate more rapidly—and there is no evidence for that; I invite the hon. Gentleman to read Milton Friedman’s “A Theory of the Consumption Function”, which showed that that is all nonsense. There are good reasons for giving money to poor people, namely that they are poor and need money. Whether the money should be injected by the Government spending more than they are raising, rather than by the central bank expanding its balance sheet, is a moot point.
All I want to argue today is that we should recognise that the economy is as much threatened by a shortage of money as it is by an excess of money. For most of our lifetimes the problem has been an excess, but now it is a shortage. We therefore need to balance in either occasion
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the rate of growth of money with the rate of growth of output if we are to have stability of prices and stable economic activity. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe on bringing these important matters to the House’s attention.
Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) (Lab): I welcome this debate and congratulate hon. Friends on securing it, because we have not debated this matter for over 100 years, and it is time we did so. This House and the Government are obsessed with money and the economy, but we never debate the creation of money or credit, and we should, because, when it comes to our present economic situation and the way the banks and the economy are run, that is the elephant in the room. It is time to think not outside the box, but outside the banks; it is time to think about the creation of credit and money.
I speak as a renegade social creditor who is still influenced by social credit thinking; I do not pledge total allegiance to Major Douglas, but I am still influenced by him. As has just been pointed out, 93% of credit is created by the banks, and a characteristic of what has happened to the economy since the ’70s is the enormous expansion of that credit. I have here a graph from Positive Money showing that the money created by the banks was £109 billion in 1980. Thanks to the financial reforms and the huge increase in the power of the banks since then, by 2010 that figure had risen to £2,213 billion, whereas the total cash created by the Government—the other 3%—had barely increased at all. Since 2000 we have seen the amount of money created by the banks more than double.
That has transformed the economy, because it has financialised everything and made money far more important. It has created debt-fuelled growth followed by collapse. It is being controlled by the banks, which have directed the money into property and financial speculation. Only 8% of the credit created has been lent to new businesses. The Government talk about the march of the makers, but the makers are not marching into the banks, because the banks are turning them away. Even commercial property is more important than makers. That has created a very lop-sided economy, with a weak industrial base that cannot pay the nation’s way in the world because investment has been directed elsewhere, and a very unequal society, which has showered wealth on those at the top, as Piketty shows, and taken it away from those at the bottom.
A very undesirable situation is being created. We have built an unstable economy that is very exposed to risk and to bubble economics, thanks to the financialisation process that has gone on since 1979. The state allocates all credit creation to the banks and then has to bail them out and guarantee them, at enormous expense and with the creation of debt for the public, when the bubble bursts and they collapse.
Some argue—Major Douglas would have argued this—that credit should therefore be issued only by the state, through the Bank of England. That would probably be a step too far in the present situation, given our present lack of education, but we can and should create the credit issued by the banks. We can and should separate the banks’ utility function—servicing our needs, with cheque books, pay and so on—and their speculative
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role. The Americans have moved a step further, with the Volcker rule, but it is not quite strong enough. In this country we tend to rely on Chinese walls, which are not strong at all. I think that only a total separation of the banks’ utility and speculative arms will do it, because Chinese walls are infinitely penetrable and are regularly penetrated.
We can limit the credit creation by the banks by increasing the reserve ratios, which are comparatively low at the moment—the Government have been trying to edge them up, but not sufficiently—or we could limit their power to create credit to the amount of money deposited with the banks as a salutary control. We could tax them on the hidden benefit they get from creating credit, because they get the signorage on the credit they create. If credit is created by banknotes and cash issued by the Government, the Government get the profit on that—the signorage. The banks just take the signorage on all the credit they issue and stash it away as a kind of hidden benefit, so why not tax that and give some of the profit from printing money to the state?
Martin Wolf, in an interesting article cited by my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher), has argued that only central banks should create new money and that it should be regulated by a public credit authority, rather like the Monetary Policy Committee. I think that that would be a solution and a possible approach. Why should we not regulate the issue of credit in that fashion?
That brings us back to the old argument about monetarism: whether credit creation is exogenous or endogenous. The monetarists thought that it was exogenous, so all we have to do is cut the supply of money into the economy in order to bring inflation under control. That was a myth, of course, because we cannot actually control the supply of money; it is endogenous. The economy, like a plant, sucks in the money it needs. But that can be regulated by a public credit authority so that the supply matches the needs of the economy, rather than being excessive, as it has been over the past few years. I think that that kind of credit authority needs to be created to regulate the flow of credit.
That brings me to the Government’s economic policy. The Government tell us that they have a long-term economic plan, which of course is total nonsense. Their only long-term economic plan is slash and burn. The only long-term economic planning that has been done is by the Bank of England.
Mr MacNeil: To quote Harry S. Truman, the worst thing about economists is that they always say, “On the other hand”. The hon. Gentleman talks about limiting and regulating how much money is to be sucked in by the economy, but who would decide that? The difficulty is that although the economy might be overheating in a certain part of the country, such as the south-east of England, it could be very cool in others, such as the north of Scotland. What might be the geographical effects of limiting the money going into the economic bloodstream if some parts of the plant—I am extending his metaphor—need the nutrients while other parts are getting too much?
Austin Mitchell: The hon. Gentleman often asks tricky questions, but this one is perfectly clear-cut. The credit supply for the peripheral and old industrial parts of the
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economy, which include Scotland, but also Grimsby, has been totally inadequate, and the banks have been totally reluctant to invest there. I once argued for helicopter money, as Simon Jenkins has proposed, whereby we stimulate the economy by putting money into helicopters and dropping it all over the country so that people will spend it. I would agree to that, provided that the helicopters hover over Grimsby, but I would have them go to Scotland as well, because it certainly deserves its share, as does the north of England. However, I do not want to get involved in a geographical dispute over where credit should be created.
The only long-term plan has been that of the Bank of England, which has kept interest rates flat to the floor for six years or so—an economy in that situation is bound to grow—and has supplemented that with quantitative easing. We have created £375 billion of money through quantitative easing. It has been stashed away in the banks, unfortunately, so it has served no great useful purpose. If that supply of money can be created for the purpose of saving the banks and building up their reserve ratios, it can be used for more important purposes—the development of investment and expansion in the economy. This is literally about printing money. Those of us with a glimmering of social credit in our economics have been told for decades, “You can’t print money—it would be terrible. It would be disastrous for the economy to print money because it leads to inflation.” Well, we have printed £375 billion of money, and it has not produced inflation. Inflation is falling.
Austin Mitchell: I am sorry—I am mid-diatribe and do not want to be interrupted.
It has proved possible to print money. The Americans have done it—there has been well over $1 trillion of quantitative easing in the United States. The European Central Bank is now contemplating it, as Mr Draghi casts around for desperate solutions to the stagnation that has hit the eurozone. The Japanese, surprisingly, did it only last week. If all can do it, and if it has been successful here and has not led to inflation, we should be able to use it for more useful and productive economic purposes than shoring up the banks.
If we go on creating more money through quantitative easing, we should channel it through a national investment bank into productive investment such as contracts for house building and new town generation. Through massive infrastructure work—although I would not include HS2 in that—we can stimulate the economy, stimulate growth, and achieve useful purposes that we have not been able to achieve. This is a solution to a lot of the problems that have bedevilled the Labour party. How do we get investment without the private finance initiative and the heavy burden that that imposes on health services, schools, and all kinds of activities? Why not, through quantitative easing, create contracts for housing or other infrastructure work that have a pay-off point and produce assets for the state?
I mentioned the article in which Martin Wolf advocates the approach of the Monetary Policy Committee. That is how we should approach this. I welcome this debate because it has to be the beginning of a wider debate in
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which we open our minds to the possibilities of managing credit more effectively for the better building of the strength of the British economy.
Zac Goldsmith (Richmond Park) (Con): I want to put on record my gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) for having initiated this debate, and to his supporters from various parties. Having heard his speech—or most of it; I apologise for being late—I am even more satisfied that it was right to cast my vote for him to join the Treasury Committee.
My hon. Friend has introduced an incredibly important debate. As we have heard, this issue has not been debated here for well over a century. We would not be having it were it not for the fact that we are still in the midst of tumultuous times. We had the banking crash and the corresponding crash in confidence in the banking system and in the wider economy, and now, partly as a consequence, we have the problem of under-lending, particularly to small and medium-sized businesses. This subject could not be more important.
The right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher)—I will call him my right hon. Friend because we work together on many issues—pointed out at the beginning of his speech that this issue is not well understood by members of the public. As I think he said later—if not, I will add it—it is also not well understood by Members of Parliament. I would include myself in that. I suspect that most people here would be humble enough to recognise that the banking wizardry we are discussing is such a complex issue that very few people properly understand it.
Bob Stewart: I totally associate myself with my hon. Friend’s comments about ignorance and include myself in that. It seems to me that the system is broken. The banks will not lend money because the Government have told them that they have to keep reserves. We do not like quantitative easing because that means that the banks are not lending. There is something very wrong with the system. It is not a case of “if the system isn’t broke, don’t fix it”, but “the system is broke, and someone’s got to fix it”.
Zac Goldsmith: My hon. Friend makes a valuable point that I will come to later.
If Members of Parliament do not really understand how money is created—I believe that that is the majority position, based on discussions that I have been having—how on earth can we be confident that the reforms that we have brought in over the past few years are going to work in preventing repeated collapses of the sort that we saw before the last election? In my view, we cannot be confident of that. The problem is the impulsive position taken by ignorant Members. I do not intend to be rude; as I said, I include myself in that bracket. For too many people, the impulse has been simply to call for more regulation, as though that is going to magic away these problems. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe said, there are 8,000 pages of guidance in relation to one aspect of banking that he discussed. The problem is not a lack of regulation; it is the fact that the
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existing regulations miss the goal in so many respects. Banking has become so complex and convoluted that we need an entirely different approach.
When we talk to people outside Parliament about banking, the majority have a fairly simple view—the bank takes deposits and then lends, and that is the way it has always been. Of course, there is an element of truth in that, but it is so far removed from where we are today that it is only a very tiny element.
Steve Baker: My hon. Friend mentions the idea of straightforward, carry-through lending. When people talk about shadow banking, they are usually talking about asset managers who are lending and are passing funds straight through—similarly with peer-to-peer lenders. I am encouraged by the fact that when people are freely choosing to get involved with lending, they are not using the expansionary process but lending directly. Whereas the banks are seen simultaneously to fail savers and borrowers, things like peer-to-peer lending are simultaneously serving them both.
Zac Goldsmith: That is a really important point. There is a move towards such lending, but unfortunately it is only a fringe move that we see in the credit unions, for example. It is much closer to what original banking—pure banking or traditional banking—might have looked like. We even see it in some of the new start-ups such as Metro bank; I hesitate to call it a start-up because it is appearing on every high street. Those banks have much more conservative policies than the household-name banks that we have been discussing.
Most people understand the concept of fractional reserve banking even if they do not know the term—it is the idea that banks lend more than they can back up with the reserves they hold.
Guy Opperman (Hexham) (Con): My hon. Friend mentioned Metro, whose founder is setting up a bank—in which I should declare an interest—called Atom in the north-east. It is one of some 22 challenger banks of which Metro was the first. I missed the opening of the debate, so I have not heard everything that has been said, but I do not accept that it is all doom and gloom in banking. Does he agree that these new developments are proof that the banking system is changing and the old big banks are being replaced with the increased competition that we all need?
Zac Goldsmith: I certainly agree with the sentiment expressed. I am excited by the challengers, but I do not believe that it is enough. Competition has to be good because it minimises risk. I know that my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary has dwelt on and looked at this issue in great detail.
Even fractional reserve banking is only the start of the story. I will not repeat in detail what we have already heard, but banks themselves create money. They do so by making advances, and with every advance they make a deposit. That is very poorly understood by people outside and inside the House. It has conferred extraordinary power on the banks. Necessarily, naturally and understandably, banks will use and have used that power in their own interests. It has also created extraordinary risk and, unfortunately, because of the size and interconnectedness of the banks, the risk is on us. That
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is why I am so excited by the challengers that my hon. Friend has just described. As I have said, that is happening on the fringe: it is right on the edge. It is extraordinary to imagine that at the height of the collapse the banks held just £1.25 for every £100 they had lent out. We are in a very precarious situation.
When I was much younger, I listened to a discussion, most of which I did not understand, between my father and people who were asking for his advice. He was a man with a pretty good track record on anticipating turbulence in the world economy. He was asked when the next crash would happen, and he said, “The last person you should ask is an economist or a business man. You need to ask a psychiatrist, because so much of it involves confidence.” The point was proven just a few years ago.
The banking system and the wider economy have become extraordinarily unhinged or detached from reality. I would like to elaborate on the extraordinary situation in which it is possible to imagine economic growth even as the last of the world’s great ecosystems or the last of the great forests are coming down. The economy is no longer linked to the reality of the natural world from which all goods originally derive. That is probably a debate for another time, however, so I will not dwell on it.
Mr MacNeil: The hon. Gentleman is making a good point that we should remember. It was brought home to me by Icelandic publisher Bjorn Jonasson, who pointed out that we are not in a situation where volcanoes have blown up or there have been huge national disasters, famines or catastrophes brought on by war; as a couple of the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues have said, this is about a system failure within the rules, and it is worth keeping that in mind. Although there is much gloom in relation to the banking system, in many ways that should at the same time give us some hope.
Zac Goldsmith: The hon. Gentleman is right, but a growing number of commentators and voices are anticipating a much larger crash than anything we have seen in the past few years. I will not add to or detract from the credence of such statements, but it is possible to imagine how such a collapse might happen, certainly in the ecological system. We are talking about the banking system, but the two systems are not entirely separate.
We had a wake-up call before the election just a few years ago. My concern is that we have not actually woken up. It seems to me that we have not introduced any significant or meaningful reforms that go to the heart of the problems we are discussing. We have been tinkering on the edges. I do not believe that Parliament has been as closely involved in the process as it should be, partly because of the ignorance that I described at the beginning of my speech.
I want to put on the record my support for the establishment of a meaningful monetary commission or some equivalent in which we can examine the pros and cons of shifting from a fractional reserve banking system to something closer to a full reserve banking system, as some hon. Members have said. We need to understand the pros and cons of such a move, how possible it is, and who wins and who loses. I do not think that many people fully know the answers.
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We need to look at quantitative easing. I think that hon. Members on both sides of the House have accepted that it is not objective. Some believe that it is good and others believe that it is bad, but no one believes that it is objective. If the majority view is that quantitative easing is necessary, we need to ask this question: why not inject those funds into the real economy—into housing and energy projects of the kind that Opposition Members have spoken about—rather than using the mechanism in a way that clearly benefits only very few people within the world of financial and banking wizardry that we are discussing?
The issues need to be explored. The time has come to establish a monetary commission and for Parliament to become much more engaged. This debate is a very small step in that direction, and I am very grateful to its sponsors. I wish more Members were in the Chamber—I had intended to listen, not to speak—but, unfortunately, there have not been many speakers. This is a beginning, however, and I hope that we will have many more such debates.
Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): I rise to endorse the very significant points made by hon. Members. In particular, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) for securing the debate and for opening it so strongly. From hearing him speak in Public Bill Committees on banking reform and related questions, I know that he is dubious about our having almost feng shui arguments on the regulatory furniture when there are fundamental questions to be asked about the very foundations of the system. He amplified that point in his speech.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) made the point that the whole approach to quantitative easing—several Members have questioned it at a number of levels—proves that the underlying logic of sovereign money creation is feasible and workable. It is strange that some of the people who would dispute or refute the case for sovereign money creation sometimes defend quantitative easing in its existing form and with its current features.
In many ways, quantitative easing has shown that if we are to use the facility of the state—in this situation, the state’s main tool is the Bank of England—to alter or prime the money supply in a particular way, we could choose a much better way of doing so than through quantitative easing. It is meant to have increased the money supply, but where have people felt that in terms of business credit, wages or the stimulus that consumer power can provide?
When we look back at the financial crash and its aftermath, we can see evidence—not just in the UK, but in Ireland and elsewhere—showing that much of what we were told about the worth or the wealth of various sectors in the economy up until the crash has turned out to be vacuous, while the poverty lying in its trail has been vicious. The worth or the wealth was not real, but the poverty is real. People in organisations such as Positive Money in the UK or Sensible Money in Ireland are therefore saying, rightly, that politics—those of us charged with overseeing public policy as it affects the
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economy—need to have more of a basic look at how we treat the banking system and at the very nature of money creation.
As someone who grew up in Northern Ireland, I am very used to the idea of having different banknotes—banks issuing their own money—but we do not think much about that, because we think that all that happens in the Bank of England or under its licence. As a member of the Financial Services Public Bill Committee and the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Public Bill Committee, it seems to me that although it has been recognised that some regulatory powers should go back to the Bank of England, the arrangements for regulation and the Bank of England’s role are still very cluttered.
In fact, in trying to correct the regulatory deficiencies that existed before the crash, there is a risk that we have perhaps created too many conflicting and confusing roles for the Bank of England. Given the various personages, different roles and job descriptions that attach to some of those committees, it seems to me that there is potential for clutter in the Treasury. The common denominator and reference point in the range of different committees and bodies and the things they do, is the Treasury. When the Treasury exercises its powers, influences judgments, and informs the criteria and considerations of those different committees under the Bank of England, there is not enough scrutiny or back play through Parliament.
I endorse the points made by other hon. Members about ensuring more accountability, whether through more formal reference to the Treasury Committee or some other hybrid, as suggested in an intervention on the right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton. There should be more parliamentary insight—and definitely parliamentary oversight—on these matters. We cannot suddenly be shocked that all the confidence in various regulatory systems turned out to have been badly placed. That was our experience the last time, when people who now criticise the previous Government for not having had enough regulation were saying that there was too much regulation and calling for more deregulation.
If we in this Parliament have produced a new regulatory order, we must be prepared to face and follow through the questions that arise. It is not good enough to ensure that the issue returns to Parliament only the next time there is a crisis, when we will have to legislate again. We should do more to be on our watch. The hon. Member for Wycombe and other hon. Members who secured this debate have done us a service. We want more of a parliamentary watch window on these issues.
There is a necessary role for banks in the creation of money and quantitative easing, but we must entrust them with the right role and with the appropriate controls and disciplines. That is fundamental. It is not good or strong enough that we leave it to the whims of the banks and their lending—supposedly reinforced and stimulated by quantitative easing—to profile the performance of the economy.
If quantitative easing works on the basis of the Bank of England, through the asset purchase facility, essentially using money that it creates under quantitative easing to buy gilts from a pension fund whose bank account is with RBS—which in essence is owned by the Bank of England—then RBS’s bank account with the Bank of England goes up by the value of that gilt purchase. Simultaneously, the bank account of the pension fund
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goes up by that amount, and we are told that the UK money supply has increased. Yes, in theory the pension fund can purchase other assets—is that what is happening?—but while 1% of the big money holders and players appear to have been advantaged through quantitative easing, where is the trickledown to the rest of the economy? It is not there.
The sovereign money creation model seems to be primed much more specifically on a view of the total economy and providing a broad, stable and more balanced approach to stimulus and economic performance. We have had the slowest recovery coming out of a recession with quantitative easing. I do not say that to get some voice-activated reaction from the Government about how good the recovery and performance is, but in broader historical terms it is the slowest recovery, which also leaves questions about quantitative easing.
We heard from the Prime Minister about red warning lights on the dashboard of the world economy, and I wonder whether he would ever say that, to his mind, those warning lights include the degree to which global banks are now playing heavily in derivatives again, and there needs to be more action. That raises issues not just of regulation at national level, but at international level.
Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) on his thoughtful and thorough opening speech, as well as my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) on his remarks. In their absence I also congratulate the hon. Members for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) and for Clacton (Douglas Carswell) on securing today’s important debate.
This debate follows a significant campaign by Positive Money, which has raised important issues about how we ensure financial stability, and how we as parliamentarians and members of the public can gain a greater understanding of the way our economy works, in particular how money is supplied not just in this country but around the world.
Some important questions have been highlighted in the debate, although not all have been answered. There are questions about how money is created, how money or credit is used by banks and others, how our financial system can be more transparent and accountable, and particularly how it can benefit the country as a whole. That latter point is something that Labour Members have been acutely focused on. How do we re-work our economy, whether in banking or in relation to jobs and wages, so that it works for the country as a whole?
It is worth reflecting on our current system and what it means for money creation. As the hon. Member for Wycombe set out eloquently in his opening speech, we know that currency is created in the conventional sense of being printed by the Bank of England, but commercial banks can create money through account holders depositing money in their accounts, or by issuing loans to borrowers. That obviously increases the amount of money available to borrowers and within the wider economy. As the Bank of England made clear in an article accompanying its first quarterly bulletin in 2014:
“When a bank makes a loan to one of its customers it simply credits the customer’s account with a higher deposit balance. At that instant, new money is created.”
Bank loans and deposits are essentially IOUs from banks, and therefore a form of money creation.
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Commercial banks do not have unlimited ability to create money, and monetary policy, financial stability and regulation all influence the amount of money they can create. In that sense, banks are regulated by the Prudential Regulation Authority, part of the Bank of England, and the Financial Conduct Authority. Those regulators, some of which are—rightly—independent, are the stewards of “safety and soundness” in financial institutions, especially regarding banks’ money-creating practices.
Banks are compelled to manage the liabilities on their balance sheets to ensure that they have capital and longer-term liabilities precisely to mitigate risks and prevent them from effectively having a licence to print money. Banks must adhere to a leverage ratio—the limit on their balance sheets, compared with the actual equity or capital they hold—and we strongly support that. Limiting a bank’s balance sheet limits the amount of money it can create through lending or deposits. There are a series of checks and balances in place when it comes to creating money, some of which the Opposition strongly supported when we debated legislative changes in recent years. It remains our view that the central issue, the instability of money supply within the banking system, is less to do with the powers banks hold and how they create money than with how they conduct themselves and whether they act in the public interest in other ways too.
We believe the issues relate to the incentives in place for banks to ensure that loans and debts are repaid, and granted only when there is a strong likelihood of repayment. When the money supply increases rapidly with no certainty of repayment, that is when real risks emerge in the economy. Those issues were debated at great length when the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Act 2013 made its way through Parliament, following recommendations from Sir John Vickers’ Independent Commission on Banking and the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, which considered professional standards and culture in the industry. The 2013 Act created the Prudential Regulation Authority and gives regulators the power to split up banks to safeguard their future, to name just two examples of changes that were made. However, we feel that it did not go far enough.
The Opposition’s concern is that the Government’s actions to date in this area have fallen short of the mark. They have failed to boost sufficient competition in the banking industry to raise those standards and to create public confidence in the sector. As hon. Members with an interest in this area know, we tabled a number of amendments to try to strengthen the Bill, and to prevent banks from overreaching themselves and taking greater risks, by ensuring that the leverage ratio is effective. That goes to the heart of many of the issues we are debating today. The Government rejected our proposals to impose on all those working in the banking industry a duty of care to customers. That would help to reform banking so that it works in the interests of customers and the economy, and not solely those of the banks. Those are the areas on which we still feel that reform is needed in the sector.
It is clear from this debate that there is a whole range of issues to consider, but our focus is that the banks need to be tightly and correctly regulated to ensure that they work for the whole economy, including individuals
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and small and large businesses. That is the key issue that we face at present. Only when the banks operate in that way and work in the interests of the whole economy will we find our way out of the cost of living crisis that so many people are facing.
I thank hon. Members for securing this very important debate and for the very interesting contributions that have been made from all sides of the House. I am pretty certain that this is not the end of the conversation. The debate will go on.
The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Andrea Leadsom): I too congratulate hon. Members on securing this fascinating debate. It is long overdue and has allowed us to consider not just what more we can do to improve what we have but whether we should be throwing it away and starting again. I genuinely welcome the debate and hope that many more will follow. In particular, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker), who now sits on the Treasury Committee on which I had the great honour to serve for four years. I am sure that his challenge to orthodoxy will have been extremely welcomed by the Committee and by many others. I wish him good luck on that.
Steve Baker: May I just say how much I am enjoying my hon. Friend’s place on the Committee? I congratulate her on her promotion once again.
Andrea Leadsom: I am grateful to my hon. Friend.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley) gave a fantastic explanation that I would commend to anybody who wants to understand how money is created. He might consider delivering it under the financial education curriculum in schools. It was very enlightening, not least because it highlighted the appalling failure of regulation in the run-up to the financial crisis that is still reverberating in our economy today. All hon. Members made interesting points on what we can do better and whether we should be thinking again. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) for his good explanation of the Positive Money agenda, which is certainly an idea worthy of thought and I will come on to it.
Money creation is an important and complex aspect of our economy that I agree is often misunderstood. I would therefore like quickly to set out how the system works. The money held by households and companies takes two forms: currency, which is banknotes and coins, and bank deposits. The vast majority, as my hon. Friend pointed out, is in the form of bank deposits. He is absolutely right to say that bank deposits are primarily created by commercial banks themselves each time they make a loan. Whenever a bank makes a loan, it credits the borrower’s bank account with a new deposit and that creates “new money”. However, there are limits to how much new money is created at any point in time. When a bank makes a loan, it does so in the expectation that the loan will be repaid in the future—households repay their mortgages out of their salaries; businesses repay their loans out of income from their investments.
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In other words, banks will not create new money unless they think that new value will also in due course be created, enabling that loan to be paid back.
Ultimately, money creation depends on the policies of the Bank of England. Changes to the bank rate affect market interest rates and, in turn, the saving and borrowing decisions of households and businesses. Prudential regulation is used if excessive risk-taking or asset price bubbles are creating excessive lending. Those checks and balances are an integral part of the system.
I agree fully that the regulatory system was totally unfit in the run-up to the financial crisis. We saw risky behaviour, excessive lending and a general lack of restraint on all sides. The key problem was that the buck did not stop anywhere. When there were problems in the banking system, regulators looked at each other for who was responsible. We all know that the outcome was the financial crisis of 2008. I, too, see the financial crisis as a prime example of why we need not just change but a better banking culture: a culture where people do not spend their time thinking about how to get around the rules; a culture where there is no tension between what is good for the firm and what is good for the customer; and a culture where infringements of the rules are properly and seriously dealt with.
I will touch on what we are doing to change the regulations and the culture, but first I will set out why we do not believe that the right solution is the wholesale replacement of the current system by something else, such as a sovereign monetary system. Under a sovereign monetary system, it would be the state, not banks, that creates new money. The central bank, via a committee, would decide how much money is created and this money would mostly be transferred to the Government. Lending would come from the pool of customers’ investment account deposits held by commercial banks.
Such a system would raise a number of very important questions. How would that committee assess how much money should be created to meet the inflation target and support the economy? If the central bank had the power to finance the Government’s policies, what would the implications be for the credibility of the fiscal framework and the Government’s ability to borrow from the market if they needed to? What would be the impact on the availability of credit for businesses and households? Would not credit become pro-cyclical? Would we not incentivise financing households over businesses, because for businesses, banks would presumably expect the state to step in? Would we not be encouraging the emergence of an unregulated set of new shadow banks? Would not the introduction of a totally new system, untested across modern advanced economies, create unnecessary risk at a time when people need stability?
Steve Baker: I do not actually support Positive Money’s proposals, although I am glad to work with it because I support its diagnosis of the problem. Of course, this argument could have been advanced in 1844 and it was not. I have not proposed throwing away the system and doing something radically new; I have proposed getting rid of all the obstacles to the free market creating alternative currencies.
Andrea Leadsom: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing that out. I must confess that before the debate I was puzzled that such an intelligent and extremely
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sensible person should be making the case for a sovereign monetary system, which I would consider to be an extraordinarily state-interventionist proposal. I am glad to hear that is not the case. In addition, of course, bearing in mind our current set of regulators, presumably we would then be looking at a committee of middle-aged, white men deciding what the economy needs, which would also be of significant concern to me.
Mr Meacher: Before the Minister leaves the question of a sovereign monetary system, which she obviously totally opposes and to which she raised several objections that I cannot answer in an intervention, does she not believe that the system of bank money creation is highly pro-cyclical and has enormously benefited property and financial sectors to the disadvantage of the vast range of industries outside the financial sector?
Andrea Leadsom: As I said, I sincerely congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on raising this matter; it is certainly worthy of discussion, and I look forward to him responding to some of my arguments. I agree that where we were in the run-up to the financial crisis was entirely inappropriate, and I will come to some of the steps we have taken to improve—not throw away the baby with the bathwater—what we have now, rather than throwing it away and starting again.
I know that some of my hon. Friends and Opposition Members have a particular concern about quantitative easing—I have made it clear that I do too—specifically about how we might unwind it. However, they must agree that at least it can be unwound, unlike the proposal for “helicopter money”, which would seem to be a giant step beyond QE—a step where money would be created by the state with no obvious way to rein it back if necessary.
If the tap in my bathroom breaks, rather than wrenching the sink off the wall, I would prefer to fix the tap. As Martin Wolf said last week,
“nobody can say with confidence”
how a monetary system should be structured and what laws and regulations it should have. Given that and the economic tumult across the world, we should be devoting our energies to fixing the system we have—mending the problems but keeping what works. For that reason, the Government have taken significant steps to improve the banking sector, making sure it fulfils its core purpose of keeping the wheels of the economy well oiled.
We are creating a better, safer financial system, with the Financial Policy Committee, created in this Parliament, focused on macro-prudential analysis and action. As the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) pointed out, the FPC has been given counter-cyclical tools to require more capital to be held and to increase the leverage ratio and the counter-cyclical capital buffers when the economy is over-exuberant in order to push back against it—as the previous Governor of the Bank of England said, to remove the punch bowl while the party is still in full flow. That is incredibly important. We are also reducing dependence on debt. Since the financial crisis, the UK banking system has been forced significantly to strengthen its capital and liquidity position, and it is continuing to do so.
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I must stress, however, that regulation alone will never be enough, which is why the Government are promoting choice, competition and diversity. I am delighted that 25 new banks are talking to the Prudential Regulatory Authority about getting a bank licence. We are also making strong efforts to promote the mutual sector; to enhance the capacity of credit unions to serve the real economy better; to enable booster funding for small businesses; to help families; and to improve customer service. We have put in place schemes to help the transmission of money from banks to customers, including the funding for lending scheme, which has lowered the price and increased the availability of credit for small and medium-sized businesses. As I think the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North said, we have also created the British business bank, which is helping finance markets work better for small firms, and are investing much resource and effort to build that up and help businesses in our economy.
We also have a programme of measures to increase competition in the SME lending market, including flagship proposals to open up access to SME credit information, which will help challengers to get in on the act, and to have banks pass on declined applications for finance to challenger banks. In addition, we now have an appeals process whereby small businesses turned down for funding can get a second chance, which has secured an additional £42 million of lending since its launch. These are all measures to help small businesses access finance. Then, to mitigate the problem of house price bubbles, we are putting in place supply-side reforms to promote home building and home owning, as well as measures enabling the PRA to limit the amount of lending that households can take on.
I agree with Members on both sides of the House, however, that we should not be content with the system as it stands. We must seek to improve it and make it function better. In Mark Carney, we have an excellent central banker who has the experience and knowledge to put the right reforms in place and see them through. As he says:
“Reform should stop only when industry and society are content, and finance justifiably proud.”
In the medium to long term, we need to create a culture where research and analysis do not shy away from going against the orthodoxy. As hon. Members across the House have said, we need to consider alternatives, and we should be having that discussion; it is healthy to do so, because that is how to make progress. For that reason, the call from Andy Haldane, the Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, for a broader look at new and existing monetary ideas is exactly right.
Mr Meacher: I am pleased the Minister thinks that alternative ways of improving the monetary system should be explored. Will she support the idea of a setting up a commission to examine the alternatives, as recommended by the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), as well as by me—so there is some cross-part support on this? Is that not an idea whose time has come?
Andrea Leadsom: I think that an organisation such as the Treasury Committee, of which my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe is member, would be entirely the right place to have such a discussion, and of course we
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also had the Vickers commission, which looked at what went wrong and what measures could be put in place, and the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, which specifically addressed the issue of incentives and motivations in banking. I would not normally advocate the establishment of great new commissions; we already have the bodies to look further at different orthodoxies, and as Andy Haldane has said, the Bank itself will be looking at, and encouraging, the exploration of alternative views.
Of course, we also need to continue embracing innovation, both in the “software” of how payments are made and in the “hardware” of new currencies, such as crypto-currencies and digital currencies—both could open up competition and give customers greater choice and access to funding—but we must do so with caution. In November, we published a call for information inviting views and evidence on the benefits and risks of digital currencies so that digital currency businesses can continue to set up in the UK and people can expect to use them safely.
I am the last person who could be described as statist, but I accept that we must always be ruthless in our determination to regulate new ideas that come to the fore, because as sure as night follows day, as new ideas come in, through shadow banking, new lending ideas and so on, some people will seek to manipulate new schemes and currencies for fraudulent purposes. I am absolutely alive to that fact. It is important, therefore, that the Government carry out the necessary research.
The Government believe that the current system, modified and improved with far greater competition, can service the economy best. However, reform is vital. Again as Andy Haldane puts it:
“Historically, flexing policy frameworks has often been taken as a sign of regime failure. Quite the opposite ought to be the case”.
We need banks to lend—to young families wanting to buy houses and repay out of future labour income rather than relying on the bank of mum and dad, and to businesses wanting to seize opportunities, gain new markets and create jobs and growth. We have an existing system that offers a forward-looking and dynamic framework in which tomorrow’s opportunities are not wholly reliant on yesterday’s savings and which builds on banks’ expertise in assessing risk and making the lending decisions we badly need. During my 25 years at
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the heart of the industry, I saw the sector at its best, but sometimes sadly also at its worst. We are trying to remedy the worst, but let us also keep the best.
Steve Baker: This debate has been a joy at times, and I am extremely grateful to right hon. and hon. Members who helped me to secure it. The right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) made clear his support for sovereign money. One of the great advantages of such a system is that it would make explicit what is currently hidden—that it is the state that is trying to steer the monetary system—and if such a system failed, it would at least be clear that it was a centrally planned monetary order that had failed.
The hon. Member for Clacton (Douglas Carswell) talked about the ownership of deposits, and I was glad to support his private Member’s Bill. I am reminded of the intervention from the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), who talked about deposit insurance. One of the problems, as seen in Cyprus in the context of depositor “bail-ins”, is that deposits are akin to a share in a risky investment vehicle, so a little more clarity about what a deposit means and what risks depositors take could go a long way.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley) highlighted one of the greatest controversies among free marketeers—whether or not fractional reserve deposit taking is legitimate.
The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) mentioned Major Douglas, which he will have seen put a smile on my face. Major Douglas was dismissed as a crank, even by Keynes who dismissed him in his writing as a “private”. This highlights the fact that the possible range of debate is enormous.
I would like to leave my final words with Richard Cobden, the Member representing Stockport back in the time when this was also a big issue. He said:
“I hold all idea of regulating the currency to be an absurdity; the very terms of regulating the currency…I look upon to be an absurdity”.
The currency, for him,
“should be regulated by the trade and commerce of the world.”
I wholeheartedly agree.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered money creation and society.
According to the ECB’s Bank Lending Survey for October banks eased their credit standards in the last quarter, while their risk perceptions increased.
This apparent contradiction suggests that the 137 banks surveyed were at the margin competing for lower-quality business, hardly the sign of a healthy lending market. Furthermore, the detail showed enterprises were cutting borrowing for fixed investment sharply and required more working capital instead to finance inventories and perhaps to cover trading losses.
This survey follows bank lending statistics since the banking crisis to mid-2014, which are shown in the chart below (Source: ECB).
It is likely that some of the contraction in bank lending has been replaced with bond finance by the larger credit-worthy corporations, and Eurozone banks have also preferred buying sovereign bonds. Meanwhile, the Eurozone economy obviously faces a deepening crisis.
There are some global systemically important banks (G-SIBs) based in the Eurozone, and this week the Financial Stability Board (FSB) published a consultation document on G-SIBs’ capital ratios in connection with the bail-in procedures to be considered at the G20 meeting this weekend. The timing is not helpful for the ECB, because the FSB’s principle recommendation is that G-SIBs’ Tier 1 and 2 capital should as a minimum be double the Basel III level. This gives operational leverage of between 5 and 6.25 times risk-weighted assets, compared with up to 12.5 times under Basel III.
The FSB expects the required capital increase to be satisfied mostly by the issue of qualifying debt instruments, so the G-SIBs will not have to tap equity markets. However, since Eurozone G-SIBs are faced with issuing bonds at higher interest rates than the returns on sovereign debt, they will be tempted to scale back their balance sheets instead. Meanwhile bank depositors should note they are no longer at the head of the creditors’ queue when their bank goes bust, which could affect the non-G-SIB banks with higher capital ratios.
If G-SIBs can be de-geared without triggering a bank lending crisis the world of finance should eventually be a safer place: that’s the intention. Unfortunately, a bail-in of a large bank is unlikely to work in practice, because if an important bank does go to the wall, without the limitless government backing of a bail-out, money-markets will almost certainly fail to function in its wake and the crisis could rapidly become systemic.
Meanwhile, it might appear that the ECB is a powerless bystander watching a train-wreck in the making. Businesses in the Eurozone appear to only want to borrow to survive, as we can see from the October Bank Lending Survey. Key banks are now being told to halve their balance sheet gearing, encouraging a further reduction in bank credit. Normally a central bank would respond by increasing the quantity of narrow money, which the ECB is trying to do despite the legal hurdles in its founding constitution.
However, it is becoming apparent that the ECB’s intention to increase its balance sheet by up to €1 trillion may not be nearly enough, given that the FSB’s proposals look like giving an added spin to contraction of bank credit in the Eurozone.
China first delegated the management of gold policy to the People’s Bank by regulations in 1983.
This development was central to China’s emergence as a free-market economy following the post-Mao reforms in 1979/82. At that time the west was doing its best to suppress gold to enhance confidence in paper currencies, releasing large quantities of bullion for others to buy. This is why the timing is important: it was an opportunity for China, a one-billion population country in the throes of rapid economic modernisation, to diversify growing trade surpluses from the dollar.
To my knowledge this subject has not been properly addressed by any private-sector analysts, which might explain why it is commonly thought that China’s gold policy is a more recent development, and why even industry specialists show so little understanding of the true position. But in the thirty-one years since China’s gold regulations were enacted, global mine production has increased above-ground stocks from an estimated 92,000 tonnes to 163,000 tonnes today, or 71,000 tonnes* ; and while the west was also reducing its stocks in a prolonged bear market all that gold was hoarded somewhere.
The period I shall focus on is between 1983 and 2002, when gold ownership in China was finally liberated and the Shanghai Gold Exchange was formed. The fact that the Chinese authorities permitted private ownership of gold suggests that they had by then acquired sufficient gold for monetary and strategic purposes, and were content to add to them from domestic mine production and Chinese scrap thereafter rather than through market purchases. This raises the question as to how much gold China might have secretly accumulated by the end of 2002 for this to be the case.
China’s 1983 gold regulations coincided with the start of a western bear market in gold, when Swiss private bankers managing the largest western depositories reduced their clients’ holdings over the following fifteen years ultimately to very low levels. In the mid-eighties the London bullion market developed to enable future mine and scrap supplies to be secured and sold for immediate delivery. The bullion delivered was leased or swapped from central banks to be replaced at later dates. A respected American analyst, Frank Veneroso, in a 2002 speech in Lima estimated total central bank leases and swaps to be between 10,000 and 16,000 tonnes at that time. This amount has to be subtracted from official reserves and added to the enormous increase in mine supply, along with western portfolio liquidation. No one actually knows how much gold was supplied through the markets, but this must not stop us making reasonable estimates.
Between 1983 and 2002, mine production, scrap supplies, portfolio sales and central bank leasing absorbed by new Asian and Middle Eastern buyers probably exceeded 75,000 tonnes. It is easy to be blasé about such large amounts, but at today’s prices this is the equivalent of $3 trillion. The Arabs had surplus dollars and Asia was rapidly industrialising. Both camps were not much influenced by western central bank propaganda aimed at side-lining gold in the new era of floating exchange rates, though Arab enthusiasm will have been diminished somewhat by the severe bear market as the 1980s progressed. The table below summarises the likely distribution of this gold.
Today, many believe that India is the largest private sector market, but in the 12 years following the repeal of the Gold Control Act in 1990, an estimated 5,426 tonnes only were imported (Source: Indian Gold Book 2002), and between 1983 and 1990 perhaps a further 1,500 tonnes were smuggled into India, giving total Indian purchases of about 7,000 tonnes between 1983 and 2002. That leaves the rest of Asia including the Middle East, China, Turkey and South-East Asia. Of the latter two, Turkey probably took in about 4,000 tonnes, and we can pencil in 5,000 tonnes for South-East Asia, bearing in mind the tiger economies’ boom-and-bust in the 1990s. This leaves approximately 55,000 tonnes split between the Middle East and China, assuming 4,850 tonnes satisfied other unclassified demand.
The Middle East began to accumulate gold in the mid-1970s, storing much of it in the vaults of the Swiss private banks. Income from oil continued to rise, so despite the severe bear market in gold from 1980 onwards, Middle-Eastern investors continued to buy. In the 1990s, a new generation of Swiss portfolio managers less committed to gold was advising clients, including those in the Middle East, to sell. At the same time, discouraged by gold’s bear market, a western-educated generation of Arabs started to diversify into equities, infrastructure spending and other investment media. Gold stocks owned by Arab investors remain a well-kept secret to this day, but probably still represents the largest quantity of vaulted gold, given the scale of petro-dollar surpluses in the 1980s. However, because of the change in the Arabs’ financial culture, from the 1990s onwards the pace of their acquisition waned.
By elimination this leaves China as the only other significant buyer during that era. Given that Arab enthusiasm for gold diminished for over half the 1983-2002 period, the Chinese government being price-insensitive to a western-generated bear market could have easily accumulated in excess of 20,000 tonnes by the end of 2002.
China’s reasons for accumulating gold
We now know that China had the resources from its trade surpluses as well as the opportunity to buy bullion. Heap-leaching techniques boosted mine output and western investors sold down their bullion, so there was ample supply available; but what was China’s motive?
Initially China probably sought to diversify from US dollars, which was the only trade currency it received in the days before the euro. Furthermore, it would have seemed nonsensical to export goods in return for someone else’s paper specifically inflated to pay them, which is how it must have appeared to China at the time. It became obvious from European and American attitudes to China’s emergence as an economic power that these export markets could not be wholly relied upon in the long term. So following Russia’s recovery from its 1998 financial crisis, China set about developing an Asian trading bloc in partnership with Russia as an eventual replacement for western export markets, and in 2001 the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation was born. In the following year, her gold policy also changed radically, when Chinese citizens were allowed for the first time to buy gold and the Shanghai Gold Exchange was set up to satisfy anticipated demand.
The fact that China permitted its citizens to buy physical gold suggests that it had already acquired a satisfactory holding. Since 2002, it will have continued to add to gold through mine and scrap supplies, which is confirmed by the apparent absence of Chinese-refined 1 kilo bars in the global vaulting system. Furthermore China takes in gold doré from Asian and African mines, which it also refines and probably adds to government stockpiles.
Since 2002, the Chinese state has almost certainly acquired by these means a further 5,000 tonnes or more. Allowing the public to buy gold, as well as satisfying the public’s desire for owning it, also reduces the need for currency intervention to stop the renminbi rising. Therefore the Chinese state has probably accumulated between 20,000 and 30,000 tonnes since 1983, and has no need to acquire any more through market purchases given her own refineries are supplying over 500 tonnes per annum.
All other members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation** are gold-friendly or have increased their gold reserves. So the west having ditched gold for its own paper will now find that gold has a new role as Asia’s ultimate money for over 3 billion people, or over 4 billion if you include the South-East Asian and Pacific Rim countries for which the SCO will be the dominant trading partner.
“Sir, Your editorial “A Nobel award for work of true economic value” (October 15) cites the witty and memorable line of JM Keynes about wishing that economists could be “humble, competent people, on a level with dentists”, which concludes his provocative 1930 essay on the economic future. You fail to convey, however, the irony and condescension of the original text of the arrogant, intellectual elitist Keynes, who, while superlatively competent, was assuredly not humble. With the passage of 84 years, the irony has changed directions, for modern dentistry is based on real science, and has made huge advances in scientific knowledge, applied technology and practice, to the great benefit of mankind. It is obviously far ahead of economics in these respects, and it is indeed unlikely that economics will ever be able to rise to the level of dentistry.”
Letter to the FT from Alex J. Pollock of the American Enterprise Institute, 20th October 2014.
Changing people’s minds, apparently, has very little to do with winning the argument. Since people tend to make decisions emotionally, ‘evidence’ is a secondary issue. We are attempting to argue that the policy of QE, quantitative easing, is not just pointless but expensively pointless. Apparently, instead of using cold logic, we will have to reframe our argument as follows:
Agree with our argumentative opponents;
Reframe the problem;
Introduce a new solution;
Provide a way to “save face”.
In terms of argumentative opponents, they don’t come much bigger than the former Fed chairman himself, Ben Bernanke. And it was Bernanke himself who rather pompously declared, shortly before leaving the Fed this year, that
“The problem with QE is it works in practice, but it doesn’t work in theory.”
There is, of course, no counter-factual. We will never know what might have happened if, say, the world’s central banks had elected not to throw trillions of dollars at the world’s largest banks and instead let the free market work its magic on an overleveraged financial system. But to suggest credibly that QE has worked, we first have to agree on a definition of what “work” means, and on what problem QE was meant to solve. If the objective of QE was to drive down longer term interest rates, given that short term rates were already at zero, then we would have to concede that in this somewhat narrow context, QE has “worked”. But we doubt whether that objective was front and centre for those people – we could variously call them “savers”, “investors”, “the unemployed” or “honest workers” – who are doubtless wondering when the economy will emerge from its current state of depression. As James Grant recently observed in the FT (“Low rates are jamming the economy’s vital signals”), it’s quite remarkable how, thus far, savers in particular have largely suffered in silence.
So yes, QE has “succeeded” in driving down interest rates. But we should probably reframe the problem. The problem isn’t that interest rates were or are too high. Quite the reverse: interest rates are clearly already too low – at least for savers, and for that matter investors in the euro zone and elsewhere. All the way out to 3 year maturities, investors in German government bonds, for example, are now faced with negative interest rates, and still they’re buying. This isn’t monetary policy success; this is madness. We think the QE debate should be reframed: has QE done anything to reform an economic and monetary system urgently in need of restructuring ? We think the answer, self-evidently, is “No”. The answer is also “No” to the question: “Can you solve a crisis of too much indebtedness by a) adding more debt to the pile and simultaneously b) suppressing interest rates ?” The toxic combination of more credit creation and global financial repression will merely make the ultimate Minsky moment that much more spectacular.
What accentuates the problem is market noise. @Robustcap fairly points out that there are (at least) four groups at play in the markets – and that at least three of them aren’t adding to the sum of human wisdom:
Group 1 comprises newsletter writers, and other dogmatic “End of the world newsletter salesmen” using every outlet to say “I told you so…” (even though some of them have been saying so for the last 1000 S&P handles..).
Group 2 comprises Perma-Bulls and other Wall Street product salesmen, offering “This is a buying opportunity” and other standard from-the-hip statements whenever the Vix index reaches 30 and the market trades 10% off from its high, at any time.
Group 3 includes “any moron with a $1500 E-trade account, twitter, Facebook etc…”, summing to roughly 99% nonsense and noise.
Group 4, however, comprises “True investors and traders” asking questions such as, “Is this a good price ?”; “Is this a good level ?”; “What is my risk stepping in here, on either side ?”; “Am I getting better value than I am paying for ?”; “What is the downside / upside ?” etc.
“With the “magnification” of noise by social media and the internet in general, one must shut off the first three groups and try to engage, find, follow, communicate with the fourth group only, those looking at FACTS, none dogmatic, understand value, risk, technicals and fundamentals and most importantly those who have no agenda and nothing to sell.”
To Jim Rickards, simply printing money and gifting it to the banks through the somewhat magical money creation process of QE is like treating cancer with aspirin: the supposed “solution” does nothing to address the root cause of the problem. The West is trapped in a secular depression and “normal” cyclical solutions, such as monetary policy measures, are not just inappropriate, but damnably expensive for the rest of us. Only widespread economic restructuring will do. And that involves hard decisions on the part of politicians. Thus far, politicians have shown themselves predictably not up to the task. Or in the words of Jean-Claude Juncker,
“We all know what to do; we just don’t know how to get re-elected after we’ve done it.”
And let’s not forget that other notable Junckerism,
“When it becomes serious, you have to lie.”
No cheers for democracy, then.
So, back to the debate:
Yes, QE has driven down long term interest rates.
But the problem wasn’t the cost of capital. The problem was, and remains, an oversupply of debt, insufficient economic growth, and the risk, now fast becoming realised, of widespread debt deflation. To put it another way, the world appears to be turning Japanese after all, despite the best efforts of central bankers and despite the non-efforts of politicians.
The solution is fundamental economic restructuring along with measures that can sustainedly boost economic growth rather than just enriching the already rich through artificial financial asset price boosterism. Government spending cuts will not be optional, although tax cuts might be. The expansion of credit must end – or it will end in an entirely involuntary market-driven process that will be extraordinarily messy.
How to “save face” ?
This is where we start to view the world, once again, through the prism of investments – not least since we’re not policy makers. For those wondering why a) markets have become that much more volatile recently (and not just stocks – see the recent wild trading in the US 10 year government bond) and b) inflation (other than in financial asset prices) seems weirdly quiescent – the answer has been best expressed by both Jim Rickards and by the good folk at Incrementum. The pertinent metaphor is that of the tug of war. The image below (source: Incrementum) states the case.
The blue team represents the markets. The markets want deflation, and they want the world’s unsustainable debt pile to be reduced. There are three ways to reduce the debt pile. One is to engineer sufficient economic growth (no longer feasible, in our view) to service the debt. The second is to default (which, in a debt-based monetary system, amounts to Armageddon). The third brings us over to the red team: explicit, state-sanctioned inflationism, and financial repression. The reason why markets have become so volatile is that from day to day, the blue and red teams of deflationary and inflationary forces are duking it out, and neither side has yet been convincingly victorious. Who ultimately wins ? We think we know the answer, but the outcome will likely be a function of politics as much as investment forces (“markets”). While we wait for the outcome, we believe the most prudent and pragmatic course of action is to seek shelter in the least overpriced corners of the market. For us, that means explicit, compelling value and deep value equity. Nothing else, and certainly nothing by way of traditional government or corporate debt investments, or any form of equity or bond market index-tracking, makes any sense at all.
“There are two ways of learning how to ride a fractious horse; one is to get on him and learn by actual practice how each motion and trick may be best met; the other is to sit on a fence and watch the beast a while, and then retire to the house and at leisure figure out the best way of overcoming his jumps and kicks. The latter system is the safest; but the former, on the whole, turns out the larger proportion of good riders. It is very much the same in learning to ride a flying machine; if you are looking for perfect safety, you will do well to sit on a fence and watch the birds, but if you really wish to learn, you must mount a machine and become acquainted with its tricks by actual trial.”
Wilbur Wright, quoted by James Tobin in ‘To Conquer the Air’.
“So, too, for the stock market. It is easy to study stock tables in solitude from the comfort of your office and declare the market efficient. Or you can be a full-time investor for a number of years and, if your eyes are open, learn that it is not. As with the Wrights, the burden of proof is somehow made to fall on the practitioner to demonstrate that he or she has accomplished something the so-called experts said could not be done (and even he may find himself explained away as aberrational). Almost none of the burden seems to fall on the armchair academics, who cling to their theories even in the face of strong evidence that they are wrong.”
Seth Klarman, in ‘A Response to Lowenstein’s Searching for Rational Investors In a Perfect Storm’.
Days of miracle and wonder in the bond markets.. but not necessarily in any good way. Last week we highlighted the seeming anomaly that even as there has never been so much debt in the history of the world, it has also never been so expensive. Between 2000 and 2013, the value of outstanding tradeable debt rose from $33 trillion to $100 trillion, according to research from Incrementum AG. (Over the same period, total equity market capitalisation rose “merely” from $49 trillion to $66 trillion.) Although we would suggest there is now no semblance of traditional value in conventional government debt whatsoever, it could yet get more expensive still.
Albert Edwards of SocGen deserves some credit for maintaining his ‘Ice Age’ thesis over a sustained period of widespread scepticism from other market participants. He summarises it as follows:
“First, that the West would drift ever closer to outright deflation, following Japan’s template a decade earlier. And second, financial markets would adjust in the same way as in Japan. Government bonds would re-rate in absolute and relative terms compared to equities, which would also de-rate in absolute terms..
“Another associated element of the Ice Age we also saw in Japan is that with each cyclical upturn, equity investors have assumed with child-like innocence that central banks have somehow ‘fixed’ the problem and we were back in a self-sustaining recovery. These hopes would only be crushed as the next cyclical downturn took inflation, bond yields and equity valuations to new destructive lows. In the Ice Age, hope is the biggest enemy..
“Investors are beginning to see how impotent the Fed and ECB’s efforts are to prevent deflation. And as the scales lift from their eyes, equity, credit and other risk assets trading at extraordinarily high valuations will take their next Ice Age stride towards the final denouement.”
It is certainly staggering that even after expanding its balance sheet by $3.5 trillion, the Fed has been unable to trigger visible price inflation in anything other than financial assets. One dreads to contemplate the scale of the altogether less visible private sector deleveraging that has cancelled it out. One notes that while bonds are behaving precisely in line with the Ice Age thesis, stock markets – by and large – are not quite following the plot. But there were signs last week that they may finally have got a copy of the script.
The tragedy of our times, unfolding slowly but surely via ever-lower bond yields, is that there is a vacuum at the heart of the political process where bold action – not least to grasp the debt nettle – should reside. Since nature abhors the vacuum, central bankers have filled it. They say that to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To a central banker facing the prospect of outright deflation, the answer to everything is the printing of ex nihilo money and the manipulation of financial asset prices. The by-product of these malign trends is that it makes rational investment and asset allocation, indeed more narrowly the pursuit of real capital preservation, impossible.
Since the integrity of the debt (and currency) markets is clearly at risk, we have long sought alternatives that offer much diminished credit and counterparty risk. The time-honoured alternative has been gold. As the chart below (via Nick Laird) shows, between 2000 and 2011, gold
tracked the expansion in US debt pretty handily. In 2008 and then in 2011/2012 gold became overextended relative to US debt. Beginning in 2013 gold then decoupled in the opposite direction. As things stand today, if one expects that relationship to resume – and we do – then gold looks anomalously cheap relative to the gross level of US debt, which clearly is not going to contract any time soon.
A second rationale for holding gold takes into account the balance sheet expansion of the broader universe of central banks:
If one accepts that gold is not merely an industrial commodity but an alternative form of money (and central banks clearly do, or they would not be holding it in the form of reserves), than it clearly makes sense to favour a money whose supply is growing at 1.5% per annum over monies whose supply is growing at between 8% and 20% per annum. It then merely comes down to biding one’s time and waiting for Albert Edwards’ “final denouement” (or simply the next phase of the global financial crisis that never really went away).
Two recent tweets from George Cooper on the topic of bond investing are also worthy of republication here:
“The combination of indexing / rating agencies and syndication means that collectively the investment industry does not provide effective discipline to borrowers.”
This is a clear example of market failure brought about by institutional fund managers and the consultants that “guide” their institutional investor clients. There is simply no punishment for ill-disciplined government borrowers (i.e., all of them). To put it another way, where have the bond vigilantes gone ? And,
“The best thing the ECB could do here is state clearly that it has reached the limit of monetary policy and the rest is up to politicians.”
It is not as if politicians asleep at the wheel have gone entirely unnoticed. Twohigh-profile reports have been published this year drawing attention to the debt problems gnawing away at the economic vitality of the West. Perhaps the most damning response to date has come from the euro zone’s pre-eminent political cynic, Jean-Claude Juncker:
“We all know what to do, we just don’t know how to get re-elected after we’ve done it.”
No discussion of the bond market could possibly be complete without a brief mention of the defenestration of the so-called ‘Bond King’, Bill Gross, from Pimco. For the benefit of anyone living under a rock these past weeks, the manager of the world’s largest bond fund jumped ship before he could be shoved overboard. Pimco’s owners, Allianz, must surely regret having allowed so much power to be centralised in the form of one single ‘star’ manager. In a messy transfer that nobody came out of well, Janus Capital announced that Bill Gross would be joining to run a start-up bond fund, before he had even announced his resignation from Pimco (but then Janus was a two-faced god). This was deliriously tacky behaviour from within a normally staid backwater of the financial markets. Some financial media reported this as a ‘David vs Goliath’ story; in reality it is anything but. The story can be more accurately summarised as ‘Bond fund manager leaves gigantic asset gatherer for other gigantic asset gatherer’ (Janus Capital’s $178 billion in client capital being hardly small potatoes). This is barely about asset management in the truest, aspirational sense of the phrase. This writer recalls the giddy marketing of a particularly new economy-oriented growth vehicle called the ‘Janus Twenty’ fund in the UK back in 2000. Between March 2000 and September 2001, that particular growth vehicle lost 63% of its value. Faddish opportunism is clearly still alive and well. This gross behaviour may mark a market top for bonds, but probably not. But it’s difficult to shake off the suspicion that navigating the bond markets profitably over the coming months will require almost supernatural powers in second-guessing both central banks and one’s peers – especially if doing so on an indexed basis. For what it’s worth this is a game we won’t even bother playing. Our pursuit of the rational alternative – compelling deep value in equity markets – continues.
Orders for US non-military capital goods excluding aircraft rose by 0.6% in August after a 0.2% decline in July to stand at $73.2 billion. Observe that after closing at $48 billion in May 2009 capital goods orders have been trending up.
Most commentators regard this strengthening as evidence that companies are investing both in the replacement of existing capital goods and in new capital goods in order to expand their growth.
There is no doubt that an increase in the quality and the quantity of tools and machinery i.e. capital goods, is the key for the expansion of goods and services. But is it always good for economic growth? Is it always good for the wealth generation process?
Consider the case when the central bank is engaging in loose monetary policy i.e. monetary pumping and an artificial lowering of the interest rate structure. Such type of policy sets the platform for various non-productive or bubble activities.
In order to survive these activities require real funding, which is diverted to them by means of loose monetary policy. (Once loose monetary policy is set in motion this allows the emergence of various bubble activities).
Note various individuals that are employed in these activities are the early recipients of money; they can now divert to themselves various goods and services from the pool of real wealth.
These individuals are now engaging in the exchange of nothing for something. (Individuals that are engage in bubble activities don’t produce any meaningful real wealth they however by means of the pumped money take a slice from the pool of real wealth. Again note that these individuals are contributing nothing to this pool).
Now bubble activities like any non-bubble activity also require tools and machinery i.e. capital goods. So various capital goods generated for these activities is in fact a waste of real wealth. Since the tools and machinery that are generated here are going to be employed in the production of goods and services that without the monetary pumping of the central bank would never emerge. (Wrong infrastructure has emerged).
These activities do not add to the pool of real wealth, they are in fact draining it. (This amounts to economic impoverishment). The more aggressive the central bank’s loose monetary stance is the more drainage of real wealth takes place and the less real wealth left at the disposal of true wealth generators. If such policy persists for too long this could slow or even shrink the pool of real wealth and set in motion a severe economic crisis.
We suggest that the strong bounce in capital goods orders since May 2009 is on account of extremely loose monetary stance of the Fed. Note that the wild fluctuations in our monetary measure AMS after a time lag followed by sharp swings in capital goods orders.
An increase in the growth momentum of money followed by the increase in capital goods orders to support the increase in various bubble activities. Conversely, a decline in the growth momentum of money supply followed by a decline in capital goods orders.
We suggest that a down-trend in the growth momentum of money supply since October 2011 is currently on the verge of asserting its dominance. This means that various bubble activities are likely to come under pressure. Slower monetary growth is going to slow down the diversion of real wealth to them from wealth generating activities.
Consequently capital goods orders are going to come under pressure in the months ahead. (The build-up of a wrong infrastructure is going to slow down – a fewer pyramids will be built).
If there is one concept that illustrates the difference between a top-down macro-economic approach and the reality of everyday life it is the velocity of circulation of money. Compare the following statements:
“The collapse in velocity is testament to the substantial misallocation of capital brought about by the easy money regimes of the past 20 years.” Broker’s research note issued September 2014; and
“The mathematical economists refuse to start from the various individuals’ demand for and supply of money. They introduce instead the spurious notion of velocity of circulation according to the pattern of mechanics.” Ludwig von Mises, Human Action.
This article’s objective is not to disagree with the broker’s conclusion; rather it is to examine the basis upon which it is made.
The idea of velocity of circulation referred to arose from the quantity theory of money, which links changes in the quantity of money to changes in the general level of prices. This is set out in the equation of exchange. The basic elements are money, velocity and total spending, or GDP. The following is the simplest of a number of ways it has been expressed:
Amount of Money x Velocity of Circulation = Total Spending (or GDP)
Assuming we can quantify both money and total spending, we end up with velocity. But this does not tell us why velocity might vary: all we know is that it must vary in order to balance the equation. You could equally state that two completely unrelated quantities can be put into a mathematical equation, so long as a variable is included whose only function is to always make the equation balance. In other words the equation of exchange actually tells us nothing per se.
This gives analysts a problem, not resolved by the modern reliance on statistics and computer models. The dubious gift to us from statisticians is their so-called progress made in quantifying the economy, so much so that at the London School of Economics a machine called MONIAC (monetary national income analogue computer) used fluid mechanics to model the UK’s economy. This and other more recent computer models give unwarranted credence to the idea that the economy can be modelled, derivations such as velocity explained, and valid conclusions drawn.
Von Mises’s criticism is based on the philosopher’s logic that economics is a social and not a physical science. Therefore, mathematical relationships must be strictly confined to accounting and not be confused with economics, or as he put it human action. Unfortunately we now have the concept of velocity so ingrained in our thinking that this vital point usually escapes us. Indeed, the same is true of GDP, or the right hand side of the equation of exchange.
GDP is only an accounting identity: no more than that. It ranks gin with golf-balls by reducing them both to a monetary value. Statisticians select what’s included so it is biased in favour of consumer goods and against capital investment. Crucially it does not tell us about an ever-changing economy comprised of successes, failures, and hard-to-predict human needs and wants, which taken all together is economic progress. And because it is biased in its composition and says nothing about progress the value of this statistic is grossly exaggerated.
The only apparent certainty in the equation of exchange is the quantity of money, assuming it is all recorded. No one seems to allow for unrecorded money such as shadow banking, but we shall let that pass. If the money is sound, as it was when the quantity theory of money was devised, one could assume that an increase in its quantity would tend to raise prices. This was experienced following Spain’s importation of gold and silver from the new world in the sixteenth century, and following the gold mining booms in California and South Africa. But relating an increase in the quantity of gold to prices in general is at best a summary of a number of various factors that drive the price relationship between money and goods.
Today we no longer have sound money, whose purchasing power was regulated by human preferences across national boundaries. Instead we have fiat currencies whose purchasing power is formalised in foreign exchanges. When the Icelandic krona on 8th October 2008 halved in value, it had nothing to do with changes in the quantity of money or Iceland’s GDP. Yet if we try to interpret velocity in this case, we will find ourselves pleading a special case to explain its substantial increase as domestic prices absorbed the shock imparted through the foreign exchanges.
Iceland’s currency collapse is not an isolated event. The purchasing power of a fiat currency varies constantly, even to the point of losing it altogether. The truth of the matter is the utility of a fiat currency is entirely dependent on the subjective opinions of individuals expressed through markets, and has nothing to do with a mechanical quantity relationship. In this respect, merely the potential for unlimited currency issuance or a change in perceptions of the issuer’s financial stability, as Iceland discovered, can be enough to destabilise it.
According to the equation of exchange, this is not how things should work. The order of events is first you have an increase in the quantity of money and then prices rise, because monetarist logic states that prices rise as a result of the extra money being spent, not as a result of money yet to be spent. With a mechanical theory there can be no room for subjectivity.
It is therefore nonsense to conclude that velocity is a vital signal of some sort. Monetarism is at the very least still work-in-progress until monetarists finally discover velocity is no more than a factor to make their equation balance. The broker’s analyst quoted above would have been better to confine his statement to the easy money regimes of the past 20 years being responsible for the substantial misallocation of capital, and leaving out the bit about velocity entirely.
A small slip perhaps on the way to a sensible conclusion; but it is indicative of the false mechanisation of human behaviour by modern macro-economists. However it should also be noted that is impossible to square the concept of velocity of circulation with one simple fact of everyday life: we earn our salaries once and we dispose of it. That’s a constant velocity of roughly one.