Swiss National Bank policy and its implications for currencies, assets and central banking
The SNB unpegged from the Euro and sustained balance sheet losses, they will survive
The Euro has been helped lower but rumours of a new SNB target are rife
The long run appreciation of the Swiss Franc (CHF) is structural and accelerating, the Swiss economy will adjust
If G7 central bank balance sheets expanded to Swiss levels, relative to GDP, QE would triple
On Thursday 15th January the Swiss National Bank (SNB) finally, and unexpectedly, threw in the towel and ceased their foreign exchange intervention to maintain a pegged rate of EURCHF 1.20. The cap was introduced in September 2011 after a 28% appreciation in the CHF since the beginning of the Great Financial Crisis (GFC) – from 1.68 to 1.20. After plumbing the depths of 0.85 the EURCHF rate settled at 0.99 – around 18% higher in a single day. This is a huge one day move for a G10 currency and has inflicted collateral damage on leveraged traders, their brokers and those who borrowed in CHF to finance asset purchases in other currencies.Citibank estimates that is has also cost the SNB CHF 60bln. Here is a 10 year chart of EURCHF: –
The Swiss SMI stock Index declined from 9259 to 8400 (-9.2%) whilst the German DAX Index rose from 9933 to 10,032 (+1.1%). Swiss and German bond yields headed lower. Swiss bonds now exhibit negative nominal yields out to 15 years – the table below is from Wednesday 4th February:-
Swiss inflation is running at -0.3% so the real-yields are fractionally better due to the mild deflation seen in the past couple of months. I expect this deflation to deepen and persist.
The Swiss National Bank (SNB) has decided to discontinue the minimum exchange rate of CHF 1.20 per euro with immediate effect and to cease foreign currency purchases associated with enforcing it. The minimum exchange rate was introduced during a period of exceptional overvaluation of the Swiss franc and an extremely high level of uncertainty on the financial markets. This exceptional and temporary measure protected the Swiss economy from serious harm. While the Swiss franc is still high, the overvaluation has decreased as a whole since the introduction of the minimum exchange rate. The economy was able to take advantage of this phase to adjust to the new situation. Recently, divergences between the monetary policies of the major currency areas have increased significantly – a trend that is likely to become even more pronounced. The euro has depreciated substantially against the US dollar and this, in turn, has caused the Swiss franc to weaken against the US dollar. In these circumstances, the SNB has concluded that enforcing and maintaining the minimum exchange rate for the Swiss franc against the euro is no longer justified.
Interest rate lowered
At the same time as discontinuing the minimum exchange rate, the SNB will be lowering the interest rate for balances held on sight deposit accounts to –0.75% from 22 January. The exemption thresholds remain unchanged. Further lowering the interest rate makes Swiss-franc investments considerably less attractive and will mitigate the effects of the decision to discontinue the minimum exchange rate. The target range for the three-month Libor is being lowered by 0.5 percentage points to between –1.25% and –0.25%.
Outlook for inflation and the economy
The inflation outlook for Switzerland is low. In December we presented a conditional inflation forecast, which predicts inflation of –0.1% for this year. Since this forecast was published, the oil price has once again fallen significantly, which will further dampen the inflation outlook for a time. However, lower oil prices will stimulate growth globally, and this will influence economic developments in Switzerland positively. Swiss franc exchange rate movements also impact inflation and the economic situation.
The SNB remains committed to its mandate of ensuring medium-term price stability while taking account of economic developments. In concluding, let me emphasise that the SNB will continue to take account of the exchange rate situation in formulating its monetary policy in future. If necessary, it will therefore remain active in the foreign exchange market to influence monetary conditions.
On Tuesday 27th January the CHF fell marginally after SNB Vice President Jean-Pierre Danthine told Swiss newspaper Tages Anzeiger – Die Presse war voller Spekulationen, that the SNB remains ready to intervene in the currency market. One comment worthy of consideration, with apologies for the “google-translate”, is:-
Q. Does the SNB did not develop a new monetary policy? Just as Denmark, which has tied its currency to the euro in 30 years? Or as Singapore, which manages its currency based on a trade-weighted basket of currencies?
A. Denmark is the euro zone financially and politically closer than Switzerland. The binding to Europe is a long standing. Means that this solution is for Switzerland hardly considered. The arrangement of Singapore is worthy of consideration. But what is decisive is the long-term. Apart from Switzerland and other small and open economies such as Sweden and Norway are done well over the years with a flexible exchange rate.
Rumours of a new unofficial corridor of EURCHF 1.05-1.10 are now circulating – strikingly similar to the level reached prior to the September 2011 peg.
Breaking the Bank
Another rumour to have surfaced after the currency move was that the SNB had become concerned about the size of their balance sheet relative to Swiss GDP. The chart below is from 2013 but it shows the relative scale of SNB QE:-
Source: SNB and snbchf.com
Estimates of the loss sustained by the SNB, due to the appreciation of the CHF, vary, but, rather like countries, central banks don’t tend to “go bust”. The Economist – Broke but never Busttakes up the subject (my emphasis in bold):-
…For one thing central banks are far bigger. Between 2006 and 2014 central-bank balance-sheets in the G7 jumped from $3.4 trillion to $10.5 trillion, or from 10% to 25% of GDP. And the assets they hold have changed. The SNB, aiming to protect Swiss exporters from an appreciating currency, has built up a huge stock of euros, bought with newly created francs.
…Bonds that paid 5% or more ten years ago now yield nothing, and other investments have performed badly (the SNB was stung by a drop in the value of gold in 2013 and cut its dividend to zero). Concerned that its euro holdings might lose value the SNB shocked markets on January 15th by abruptly ending its euro-buying spree.
…With capital of €95 billion supporting a €2.2 trillion balance-sheet, the Eurosystem (the ECB and the national banks that stand behind it) is 23 times levered; a loss of 4% would wipe out its equity. Since two central banks have suffered devastating crunches recently (Tajikistan in 2007, Zimbabwe in 2009) the standard logic seems to apply: capital-eroding losses must be avoided.
But the worries are overdone. For one thing central banks are healthier than they appear. On top of its equity, the Eurosystem holds €330 billion in additional reserves. These funds are designed to absorb losses as assets change in value. Even if the ECB were to buy all available Greek debt—around €50 billion—and Greece were to default, the system would lose just 15% of these reserves; its capital would not be touched.
And even if a central bank’s equity were wiped out it would not go bust in the way high-street lenders do. With liabilities outweighing its assets it might seem unable to pay all its creditors. But even bust central banks retain a priceless asset: the power to print money. Customers’ deposits are a claim on domestic currency, something the bank can create at will. Only central banks that borrow heavily in foreign currencies they cannot mint (as in Tajikistan) or in failing states (Zimbabwe) get into deep trouble.
The Economist goes on to highlight the risk that going “cap in hand” to their finance ministries will weaken central banks’ “independence” and might prove inflationary. In the current environment inflation would be a nice problem for the SNB, or, for that matter, the ECB or BoJ to have. As for the limits of central bank balance sheet expansion, the SNB – at 80% of GDP – have blazed a trail for their larger peers to follow.
Is it the money supply?
A further unofficial explanation of the SNB move concerns the unusually large expansion of Swiss money supply since the GFC. In early January an article from snbchf.com – The Risks on the Rising SNB Money Supply – discussed how the SNB might be thinking (my emphasis): –
Since the financial crisis central banks in developed nations increased their balance sheets. The leading one was the American Federal Reserve that increased the monetary base (“narrow money”), followed by the Bank of Japan and recently the ECB. Only partially the extension of narrow money had an effect on banks’ money supply, so called “broad money”. For the Swiss, however, the rising money supply concerns both narrow and broad money. Broad money in Switzerland rises as strong as it did in Spain or Ireland before the financial crisis.
They go on to discuss the global effects of QE:-
…The SNB had the choice between a stronger currency and, secondly, an excessive appreciation of the Swiss assets. With the introduction of the euro floor, it opted for the second alternative and increased its monetary base massively in order to absorb foreign currency inflows. Implicitly the central bank helped to push up asset prices even further. Hence it was rather foreign demand for Swiss assets that helped to increase the demand for credit and money in the real economy.
…The SNB printed a lot of money especially in the years before and just after the euro introduction until 2003, to weaken the franc and the “presumed slow” Swiss growth. The money increase, however, did not affect credit growth more than it should have: investors preferred other countries to Switzerland to buy assets. Finally the central bank increased interest rates a bit and reduced money supply between 2006 and 2008. Be aware that in 2006/2007 there is a statistical effect with the inclusion of “Raiffeisen” group banks into M3. Since 2009, things have changed M3 is rising with an average of 7.7% per year, while before 2009 it was 3% per year. Banking lending to the private sector is increasing by 3.9% per year while it was 1.7% between 1995 and 2005.
…Since April 2014, money supply M3 has suddenly stopped at around 940 billion CHF. Before it had increased by 80 bln. CHF per year from 626 bln. in each year since 2008. We explained before that Fed’s QE translated in higher lending in dollars, dollars that found their way into emerging markets. The same thing happens in Switzerland with newly created Swiss francs. Not all of them remained in the Swiss economy, but they were loaned out to clients from Emerging Markets. Hence the second risk does not directly concerns the Swiss economy and the euro, but the relationship between its banks and emerging markets and the risks of a strong franc for banks’ balance sheets.
Here is a chart of M3 and bank lending in Switzerland, the annotation is from snbchf.com:-
Source: SNB and snbchf.com
The SNBs decision to unpeg seems a brutal way to impose discipline on the domestic lending market and an unusual way to test increased bank capital requirements, however, I believe this was the least bad time to escape from the corner into which they had boxed themselves. The recent fall in M3 should put some upward pressure on the CHF – until growth slows and reverses the process.
The expansion of the money supply witnessed since the beginning of the financial and economic crisis is mainly attributable to bank lending. An examination of components of the M3 monetary aggregate and its balance sheet counterparts, based on the consolidated balance sheet of the banking sector, shows that approximately70% of the increase in the M3 monetary aggregate between October 2008 and October 2014 (CHF 311 billion) was attributable to the increase in domestic Swiss franc lending (CHF 216 billion). The remaining 30% of the M3 increase was due in part to households and companies switching their portfolio holdings from securities and foreign exchange into Swiss franc sight deposits.
Stable mortgage lending growth in the third quarter
In the third quarter of 2014 – as in the previous quarter – banks’ mortgage claims, which make up four-fifths of all domestic bank lending, were up 3.8% year-on-year. Mortgage lending growth thus continued to slow, as it has for some time now, despite the fact that mortgage rates have fallen to a historic low. A breakdown by borrower shows that the growth slowdown has taken place in mortgage lending to households as well as companies.
This slower growth in mortgage lending may be attributed to various measures taken since 2012 to restrain the banks’ appetite for risk and strengthen their resilience. These include the banks’ own self-regulation measures, which subject mortgage lending to stricter minimum requirements. Moreover, at the request of the SNB, the Federal Council activated the countercyclical capital buffer in 2013 and increased it this year. This obliges the banks to back their mortgage loans on residential property with additional capital. The SNB’s bank lending survey also indicates that lending standards have been tightened and demand for loans among households and companies has declined.
…Growing ratio of bank lending to GDP
The strong growth in bank lending recorded in recent years is reflected in the ratio of bank loans to nominal GDP. After a sharp rise in the 1980s, this ratio remained largely unchanged until mid-2008. Since the onset of the financial and economic crisis, it has increased again substantially. This increase suggests that banks’ lending activities have supported aggregate demand. However, strong lending growth also entails risks for financial stability. In the past, excessive growth in lending has often been the root cause of later difficulties in the banking industry.
Switzerland’s banking sector is truly multi-national, deposits continue to arrive, despite penal “negative” rates, meanwhile, many CHF bank loans have been made to international clients. The sharp appreciation of the CHF will force the banking sector to make additional provisions for non-performing international loans. Further analysis of the effect of relative money supply growth, between Switzerland and the Eurozone (EZ) on the EURCHF exchange rate, can be found in this post by Frank Shostak – Post Mortem on the Swiss Franc’s Euro-Peg. He makes an interesting “Austrian” case for a weakening of the CHF versus the EUR over-time.
Swiss Francs in the long run
My first ever journey outside the UK was to Switzerland, that was back in 1971 when a pound sterling bought CHF 10.5. The Swiss economy has had to deal with a constantly rising exchange rate ever since. The chart below of the CHF Real Trade-Weighted value shows this most clearly: –
This chart only goes up to mid-2013, since then the USDCHF has moved from 0.88 and 0.99 by early January – after the unpegging the rate is near to its mid-point at 0.93. According to theGuardian – What a $7.54 Swiss Big Mac tells us about global currencies – the Swiss currency is now 33% overvalued. Exporters will be hit hard and the financial sector is bound to be damaged by commercial bank lending policies associated with pegging the CHF to a declining EUR. On Monday Bank Julius Baer (BAER.VX) announced plans to cut costs by CHF 100mln, domestic job cuts were also indicated – more institutions are sure to follow their lead. Meanwhile, there are bound to be emerging market borrowers which default. The Swiss economy will slow, exacerbating deflationary forces, but lower prices will improve the purchasing power of the domestic population. Switzerland’s trade balance hit a record high in July 2014 and came close to the same level in November:-
Source: Trading Economics and Swiss Customs
In a recent newsletter – The Swiss Release the Kraken – John Maudlin quoted fellow economist Charles Gave in a tongue in cheek assessment of the SNB’s action:-
They [the SNB] didn’t mind pegging the Swiss franc to the Deutsche mark, but it is becoming more and more obvious that the euro is more a lira than a mark. A clear sign is the decline of the euro against the US dollar.
Mr. Draghi has been trying to talk the euro down for at least a year. This should not come as a surprise. After all, in the old pre-euro days, every time Italy had a problem, the solution was always to devalue.
But the Swiss, not being as smart as the Italians, do not believe in devaluations. You see, in Switzerland they have never believed in the ‘euthanasia of the rentier’, nor have they believed in the Keynesian multiplier of government spending, nor have they accepted that the permanent growth of government spending as a proportion of gross domestic product is a social necessity. The benighted Swiss, just down from their mountains where it was difficult to survive the winters, have a strong Neanderthal bias and have never paid any attention to the luminaries teaching economics in Princeton or Cambridge. Strange as it may seem, they still believe in such queer, outdated notions as sound money, balanced budgets, local democracy, and the need for savings to finance investments. How quaint!
Of course, the Swiss are paying a huge price for their lack of enlightenment. For example, since the move to floating exchange rates in 1971, the Swiss franc has risen from CHF4.3 to the US dollar to CHF0.85 and appreciated from CHF10.5 to the British pound to CHF1.5. Naturally, such a protracted revaluation has destroyed the Swiss industrial base and greatly benefited British producers [not!]. Since 1971, the bilateral ratio of industrial production has gone from 100 to 175…in favor of Switzerland.
And for most of that time Switzerland ran a current account surplus, a balanced budget, and suffered almost no unemployment, all despite the fact that nobody knows the name of a single Swiss politician or central banker (or perhaps because nobody knows a single Swiss politician or central banker, since they have such limited power? And that all these marvelous results come from that one simple fact: their lack of power.)
The last time I looked, the Swiss population had the highest standard of living in the world – another disastrous long-term consequence of not having properly trained economists of the true faith.
Swiss unemployment has been trending higher recently (3.4% in December) and this figure may rise as sectors such as banking and tourism adjust to the new environment, however, this level of unemployment is still enviable by comparison with other developed countries.
The following charts give an excellent insight into the nature of trade in the Swiss economy. Firstly, exports:-
The importance of the EZ is evident (46.4% excluding UK) however the next chart shows a rather different perspective:-
The relative importance of the USA is striking – 11% of exports but nearly half of the trade surplus – so too, is the magnitude of the deficit with Germany, in fact, within Europe, only Spain and the UK are export surplus markets.
A closer look at the break-down of Imports and Exports by sector provides an additional dimension:-
The SNB already highlighted the import of energy as a significant factor – Switzerland’s energy bill is now much lower than it was in July 2014. The export of pharmaceuticals has always been of major importance – many of these products are inherently price inelastic, the rise in the currency will have less impact on Switzerland than it might do on other developed economies.
Conclusion and investment opportunities
“The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” Mark Twain
Contrary to what several commentators have been suggesting, I do not believe the SNB capitulation marks the beginning of the end of central bank omnipotence – they were never that omnipotent in the first place. The size of the SNB balance sheet is also testament to the limits of QE – if the other G7 central banks expand to 80% of GDP the total QE would more than triple from $10.5 trln to $33.6 trln – and what is to say that 80% of GDP is the limit?
Switzerland will benefit from a floating currency in the longer term, although the recent abrupt appreciation may lead to a recession – which in turn should reduce upward pressure on the CHF. Criticism of the SNB for creating greater volatility within the Swiss economy is only partially justified, the excessive rise of the CHF effective exchange rate was due to external factors and the SNB felt it needed to be managed, the subsequent rise in the US$ has brought the CHF back to a more realistic level but the current environment of zero interest rate policy adopted by several major central banks has parallels with the conditions seen after the collapse of Bretton Woods.
I believe the SNB anticipates an acceleration in the long term trend rate of appreciation of the CHF. Swiss exports, even to the US, will be impaired but German imports will be cheaper – with a record trade surplus, this is a good time to start the adjustment of market expectations about the value of the CHF going forward. Swiss companies are used to planning within a framework which incorporates a steadily rising value of their currency – now they must anticipate an acceleration in that trend.
The money and bond markets will remain distorted and, in the event of another EZ crisis, the SNB may increase the penalties for access to the “safe-haven” Switzerland represents: and, as indicated, they may intervene again if the capital flows become excessive. 20 year, or longer, Confederation Bonds, alone, offer positive carry, buying call spreads on shorter maturities is a strategy worth considering.
The SMI Index is likely to lag the broader European market, but negative bond yields offer little alternative to stocks and domestic investors will exhibit a renewed cognizance of the risk of foreign currency investments. The SMI Index, at around 8550, is only 7.6% below the level it was trading prior to the SNB announcement. Swiss stocks will undoubtedly benefit from any export led European economic recovery. Meanwhile, the relative strength of the US economy appears in tact – the Philadelphia Fed Leading Indexes for December – released earlier this week – suggest economic expansion in 49 states over the next six months.
The EZ has already been aided by the departure of its strongest “shadow” member; combined with the ECB’s Expanded Asset Purchase Programme (EAPP) this should drive the EUR lower. European stocks have already taken heart, fuelled by the new liquidity and international competitiveness.
European bond spreads continue to compress. Fears of peripheral countries exiting the single currency area will provide volatility but for the major countries – France, Italy and Spain – any weakness is still a buying opportunity, but at these, often negative real-yields, they should be viewed as a “trading” rather than an “investment” asset
Colin has worked in the financial and commodity markets since 1981. He started his career in physical commodities moving on to a futures and options brokerage in 1987. Here he focused on servicing bank proprietary traders, global macro and relative-value fixed income hedge funds together with managed futures advisors. He was also instrumental in the development of interest rate and credit default swaps businesses.
In December 2013 he launched a macroeconomic newsletter – In the Long Run – focussing on macroeconomics and financial markets.
He has recently became a director of AAIN - Asian Alternative Investments Network – a non-profit industry group with which he has been involved since its inception in 2007. | Contact us
8 February 15 | Tags: Central Banking, deflation, monetary policy, Money, money supply, Switzerland | Category: Money | Comments are closed
With Cobden Centre contributor Dominic Frisby’s book on Bitcoin now a number 1 bestseller on Amazon in Online Trading and Investing, and certainly the best book on the market for those looking for an outline on how Bitcoin works and how it may just radically change the financial system, we asked him a few questions on how he thinks the technology will develop.
What first attracted you to crypto-currencies?
I first heard about Bitcoin in 2010. If only I’d listened.
The major theme of my first book, Life After The State, is that governments couldn’t do the things they’ve done over the past 100 years without control of money. So the solution to too much government is to use money over which they have no control – independent money in other words. Bitcoin was the logical next book to write. And I knew I’d be able to write a better book on it than anyone else.
Had you read about the theoretical foundations for private money previously, for instance Hayek’s work in this area from the ’70s?
Yes. Cryptos are a modern manifestation of all that stuff.
Bitcoin has attracted a huge range of aficionados from computer coders and techies, to drug dealers, to economists, to anarchists, to libertarians. I suppose I came at it from a kind of libertarian economist viewpoint. In the course of writing the book, my eyes were opened in a way that I didn’t expect. Because what is so amazing about this, in a technological sense– What is so amazing about this technology is that in solving the problem of digital cash. Let me just explain quickly what that problem was. If I’m standing next to you in a room, I can give you– I can hand you cash, and there’s no middle man. Whereas if I want to spend any kind of digital money, whether it’s supermarket reward points or dollars or air miles. Whatever kind of digital money it is, you’re always going through a middle man. For years, people have been trying to technologically replicate or digitally replicate that process of handing cash directly from one person to another. Nobody has been able to do it. That was the genius of Bitcoin. All sorts of digital cash have been before, but they all involve the middle-man. And suddenly thanks to this tech at the centre of Bitcoin known as Blockchain, this problem of digital cash was solved, and suddenly the process of handing one thing direct to somebody else with no middle-man was able to be done online. Obviously the implications of a new form of money for Government and banks and all the rest of it is incredibly exciting, but this technology– the Bitcoin developers are looking at this technology and thinking, “Right, we’ve successfully cut out governments and banks from the creation and transfer of money, what other middle-man can we cut out?” And this whole movement is known as disintermediation. So we’ve disintermediated Governments and banks from money, what else can we disintermediate? And the implications of disintermediation are simply immense.
How do you see the technology developing in the future?
The technology behind bitcoin effectively removes middle men. It’s known as disintermediation. In the coming years, you’re not only going to see governments and banks cut out of the money creation and transfer process, but you’re going to see the likes of gmail and yahoo disintermediated from emails, Twitter cut out of tweeting, Facebook cut out of social networking, brokers cut out of the transfer of financial assets, stock markets disintermediated, even health and education services just completely bypassed. The tech is so mind-boggling disruptive. And hardly anybody can see what’s coming.
When the Blockchain is downloaded, (it can be downloaded by all the users)… I just downloaded it some time ago and I think it was about 50 gigabytes. Obviously if something like YouTube was a Blockchain it would be exabytes or whatever you get to after that. So how would that work in terms of just the sheer number of– the sheer amount of memory required for that kind of thing?
I’m not entirely sure, and it’s still very very theoretical at this stage, but the whole way the internet works– I mean the internet is just basically one huge middle-man. Just a melange of middlemen. Amazon is a middleman, YouTube is a middleman, Facebook is a middleman, they’re all different kinds of middlemen, and this– through this kind of watershed tech – which is the Blockchain – which basically disintermediates everything. And I’m not like one of these people who’s out to destroy the middleman, because middlemen play an incredibly useful role, and I have an agent who represents me for work and I’m sure everyone who wants to hire me would rather not have to go through the agent, the agent does a very god job for me and I’m happy to give him 15% of everything I earn, because of the job that he does do for me. But the– It’s incredibly subversive and disruptive basically, and all those– The wonderfully exciting thing, if you like subversion, about the internet is that all the old monopolies, whether it the newspapers or television or music industries, they were all subverted and disrupted and they either had to adapt or die, and then all these new, groovy businesses came along. But suddenly 10 years on, 15 years on, they’ve all got these vast monopolies, so I think it’s– They probably don’t even realise it yet, but the monopoly that is Google or Facebook or YouTube, or whatever it is, could well be disrupted and subverted within ten years or something.
What threat do governments and regulatory bodies pose to crypto-currencies?
About as much as they did to the internet in 1991, to steam-power in the 18th century or fossil-fueled locomotion in the 19th – or the wheel whenever that was invented. They’ll be like a snail reacting to a speeding car whizzing past.
I guess another interesting question on this, on the down side perhaps, is the ability for enabling crime. If you’re a libertarian then presumably you should be more or less in favour of drug legalisation or whatever. That side of things isn’t so bad if it’s not hurting other people, but with some of the assassinations and so on…
You’re opening up so many cans of worms, but there are so many laws that in my view are just– shouldn’t be the law. The law is doing more damage than those who break the law are, with people’s lives. Then if some kind of new technology comes along and subverts that then that is a good thing in my opinion. But yes, that’s a moral argument. And like you say, Bitcoin enables crime. It enables money laundering, money transfer. All sorts of horrible things get sold on the Darknet. They’re horrible, quite frankly. Bitcoin facilitates takes that, but so did the internet when it came along. It’s exactly the same dynamics. Black markets are much faster. They’re much more flexible than other types of markets. They’re very quick to embrace new technologies and make them work on a practical day-to-day basis, because black markets can’t gobble up loads of venture capital and survive on that kind of backing. They need to turn a profit pretty quickly. They’ve embraced Bitcoin. If you want to take the kind of, “Bitcoin should be illegal because it facilitates illegal activity,” I get that argument. I think it’s a puritanical small-minded argument.
What about Satoshi himself…?
Again, when I started writing this book – and everyone who’s new to Bitcoin I think goes through this as part of the journey – they decide they want to know who Satoshi Nakamoto is, the guy who invented it. It became slightly obsessive for me. The more I found out, the more I realized I didn’t know. I put a lot of sleeping hours in trying to work out who he was, probably more than anyone else. There might be one guy in America, a blogger who’s done more hours than me trying to figure out who he is, but I think I’ve got the answer right, and now that I’ve got the answer right I say it– I write about it. But I’m not sure not we actually need to know anymore. There is a certain amount of importance in knowing, but in the– he controls about probably 10% of all the Bitcoins there is, and therefore what he does can have great– in the same way you’d want to know what Steve Jobs is doing with his Apple shares or something. So there is some importance from that point of view, but the guy is a genius, and I don’t use that word lightly. And to come along– the sheer depth and specificity of knowledge required. Bitcoin isn’t something you just come along a just suddenly code on a whim like this if you’re 22-years old and you’re a genius with code. You need huge experience of– huge knowledge of money, you need knowledge of data bases, computer coding, economic history, how to maintain your anonymity on the Internet. There was just so many different skills that this guy brought into play at an extremely high level and his achievement is nothing short of monumental.
Like I say, I think I’ve worked out who it is and I do write about it at great length in the book, but there’s a certain amount of apology and regret in saying what I’ve said once I’ve said it. But once I did it, I could not say it. Because I’ve actually been in extensive contact with the guy who I think is Satoshi and we seem to have quite a good relationship. He denies it’s him, but then he wouldn’t say anything else and I sent him a copy of the book and I hope he likes it.
Do you see crypto-currencies as part of a wider shift online towards “digital anarchy”?
Yup. Already you have things like Bitmessage which is an ability to send an email from A to B without having to go through Gmail or Yahoo or whoever it is. There are all sorts of implications for privacy as well. You have Twister, which is like Twitter but with no central body organizing all the tweets. It’s a much more effective way to, say, organise an Arab Spring or indulge in a bit too much free speech. The stock markets can be put on the Blockchain. Financial assets can be traded directly with no middle man. That has huge implications for stock markets, share registrars, brokers, the whole financial industry. We could register car ownership. You can even put the land registry on the Blockchain. The land registry badly needs a boot up its backside. Something like 50% of land in the UK is still unregistered according to a book about 10 years ago by a guy called Kevin Cahill. And even things like YouTube put on a Blockchain, and that has huge implications for the movie industry, copyright, television.
What are your thoughts on the boarder philosophical themes surrounding cryptocurrencies, ranging from libertarianism to cypherpunk philosophy?
The European Central Bank (ECB) is planning to pump 1.1 trillion euro’s into the banking system to fend off price deflation and revive economic activity. The ECB president and his executive board are planning to spend 60 billion euro’s a month from March 2015 to September 2016.
Most experts hold that the ECB must start acting aggressively against the danger of deflation. The yearly rate of growth of the consumer price index (CPI) fell to minus 0.2% in December last year from 0.3% in November and 0.8% in December 2013.
Many commentators are of the view that the ECB should initiate an aggressive phase of monetary pumping along the lines of the US central bank. Moreover the balance sheet of the ECB has in fact been shrinking. On this the yearly rate of growth of the ECB balance sheet stood at minus 2.1% in January against minus 8.5% in December. Note that in January last year the yearly rate of growth stood at minus 24.4%.
Why is a declining rate of inflation bad for economic growth? According to the popular way of thinking declining price inflation sets in motion declining inflation expectations. This, so it is held, is likely to cause consumers to postpone their buying at present and that in turn is likely to undermine the pace of economic growth.
In order to maintain their lives and well being individuals must buy present goods and services, so from this perspective a fall in prices as such is not going to curtail consumer outlays. Furthermore, a fall in the growth momentum of prices is always good for the economy.
An expansion of real wealth for a given stock of money is going to manifest in a decline in prices (remember a price is the amount of money per unit of real stuff), so why should this be regarded as bad for the economy?
After all, what we have here is an expansion of real wealth. A fall in prices implies a rise in the purchasing power of money, and this in turn means that many more individuals can now benefit from the expansion in real wealth.
Now, if we observe a decline in prices on account of an economic bust, which eliminates various non-productive bubble activities, why is this bad for the economy?
The liquidation of non-productive bubble activities – which is associated with a decline in the growth momentum of prices of various goods previously supported by non-productive activities – is good news for wealth generation.
The liquidation of bubble activities implies that less real wealth is going to be diverted from wealth generators. Consequently, this will enable them to lift the pace of wealth generation. (With more wealth at their disposal they will be able to generate more wealth).
So as one can see a fall in price momentum is always good news for the economy since it reflects an expansion or a potential expansion in real wealth.
Hence a policy aimed at reversing a fall in the growth momentum of prices is going to undermine and not strengthen economic growth.
We hold that the various government measures of economic activity reflect monetary pumping and have nothing to do with true economic growth.
An increase in monetary pumping may set in motion a stronger pace of growth in an economic measure such as gross domestic product. This stronger growth however, should be regarded as a strengthening in the pace of economic impoverishment.
It is not possible to produce genuine economic growth by means of monetary pumping and an artificial lowering of interest rates. If this could have been done by now world poverty would have been erased.
Summary and conclusion
The European Central Bank (ECB) is planning to pump 1.1 trillion euro’s into the banking system to fend off price deflation and revive economic activity in the Euro-zone. Most experts are supportive of the ECB’s plan. We question the whole logic of the monetary pumping.
A fall in the growth momentum of prices either on account of real wealth expansion or on account of the demise of bubble activities is always good news for wealth producers.
Hence any policy that is aimed at preventing a fall in prices is only likely to strengthen bubble activities and undermine the process of wealth generation.
“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
20 Nov 2014 : Column 468
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.
G20 gatherings of world leaders on the surface are all the same: they conclude with a meaningless anodyne statement that everyone can agree with. But these meetings do serve a purpose: they allow the world leaders to meet informally and exchange views.
Since the last G20 in St Petersburg in 2013 when there was a high degree of conviction that economic growth would return, the global economic outlook has instead deteriorated significantly. Instead of last time’s mutual bonhomie over the prospect of their collective success, the world’s leaders this time are almost certainly worried. They would have learned about the failure of monetary policy everywhere. They would have had this first-hand from Japan’s delegation, which is on its way to financial and currency destruction. The despair in the European delegations would have been obvious as well.
The problem is that post-war monetary theories have failed to deliver. Lower interest rates and increased quantities of money in order to promote economic growth no longer work. The abandonment of the laws of the markets in favour of stimulating consumer demand by monetary means has turned out to be a blind alley. Time will tell, but if the global economy is heading for a slump, the banking system will become overburdened with defaulting borrowers, and government deficits will rise uncontrollably, especially in the welfare nations. This cannot be permitted to happen under any circumstances. It is therefore quite likely that the alternative to monetary-driven policy, accelerated government deficit spending as a pre-emptive measure, will be tried instead. And in this respect the relative success of the British and American economies will be attributed to their large budget deficits, while the misery of austerity is identified with the problems in France and the southern Eurozone.
These are bad and confused arguments, but they will be emotionally attractive to the political class, while the central bankers probably feel it is time the politicians took responsibility for economic management. Furthermore, it is surely becoming obvious that monetary solutions only enrich the bankers. And the most effective way of countering deflation, economists will argue, will be for demand-led price rises for consumer products, which have a better chance of coming about through increased government spending. And do not be surprised if economists argue that governments need to take over the debt-creation process to kick-start the business cycle.
We might look back on Brisbane as a milestone in global economic policy, when governments and central banks changed the emphasis of economic management from monetary stimulation through the financial system towards a greater emphasis on direct government intervention. In the process two things are likely to happen: currencies will begin to lose their purchasing power with respect to everyday goods, and government bond yields are likely to rise, undermining financial asset valuations.
This will certainly puff up GDP, because government spending is a significant part of it. But the idea that controlled price inflation can be engineered flies in the face of all experience. If the emphasis does shift from monetary solutions towards more aggressive government spending the risk will also shift towards an uncontrollable decline in purchasing power for currencies. It will be very good for inflation hedges like gold.
Together with colleagues spanning four parties – Michael Meacher (Lab), Caroline Lucas (Green), Douglas Carswell (UKIP) and David Davis (Con) – I have secured a debate on Money Creation and Society for Thursday 20 November. Here’s a quick guide to understanding the debate.
First, we have a system of paper or “fiat” money: it exists due to legal mandate as opposed to being a physical commodity like gold. Reserves, notes and coins are created by the state but claims on money are created by the banks when they lend. Most of the money we have was created by banks lending.
I published a short paper on what is wrong with the current system and what to do about it, first inBanking 2020 and then Jesús Huerta de Soto kindly republished it in his journal Procesos De Mercado Vol.X nº2 2013. A further monetary economist privately reviewed the paper but errors and omissions remain my own. You can download it here:
Recent emergency monetary policy has been dominated by Quantitative Easing: the Bank of England has provided a report on The distributional effects of asset purchases (PDF). However, the financial system has been chronically inflationary throughout my lifetime, ever since the Bretton Woods currency system ended.
If QE has distributional effects, why not all money creation?
Why are we in this debt crisis? I have just checked the M4 money supply figures—I am sorry to return to aggregates, but needs must. When Labour came to power the money supply was about £700 billion and it is now about £2.1 trillion, so it has tripled over the past 14 years. Unfortunately, most economists talk about money flowing into the economy as if it were water poured into a tank that found its own level immediately, but what if it is like treacle or honey? What if it builds up in piles when poured into the economy and takes a while to spread out? What if that money was loaned into existence in response to individual choices led by the excessively low interest rates pushed by the central bank? What if it was loaned into existence in particular sectors, such as the housing sector, where prices have more than doubled over the same period, and what if it was the financial sector that received the benefit of that new money first? Would that not explain why financiers and bankers are so much wealthier than everyone else, and why economic activity and wealth has been reorientated towards the south-east?
This debate will explore the effects on society of long-term money creation by private banks’ lending in the context of the present financial system.
Later today, I will be speaking at this year’s Cato Annual Monetary Conference in Washington, DC. The theme of this year’s conference is positively eye-watering for proponents of private money: “Alternatives to Central Banking: Toward Free-Market Money.” I will be speaking on the first session, “The Bitcoin Revolution”. So will I be expanding on how bitcoin will revolutionise money and change the world as we know it? Well, not exactly. My topic is: Bitcoin will bite the dust. Bitcoin will collapse, and probably soon.
The core of the argument is simple. To work as intended, the Bitcoin system requires atomistic competition on the part of the ‘miners’ who validate transactions blocks in their search for newly minted bitcoins. However, the mining industry is characterized by large economies of scale. In fact, these economies of scale are so large that the industry is a natural monopoly. The problem is that atomistic competition and a natural monopoly are inconsistent: the inbuilt centralization tendencies of the naturalmonopoly mean that mining firms will become bigger and bigger – and eventually produce an actualmonopoly unless the system collapses before then. The implication is that the Bitcoin system is not sustainable. Since what cannot go on will stop, one must conclude that the Bitcoin system will inevitably collapse. The only question is when.
I could go on at length about how this centralizing tendency will eventually destroy every single component of the Bitcoin value proposition, knocking them down like a row of dominos: the first domino to fall will be distributed trust, Bitcoin’s most notable attraction; instead, the system will come to depend on trust in the dominant player not to abuse its power. This player will become a point of failure for the system as whole, so the ‘no single point of failure’ feature of the system will also disappear. Then anonymity will go, as the dominant player will be forced to impose the usual anti-anonymity regulations justified as means to stop money laundering and such like, but in reality intended to destroy financial privacy. Even the Bitcoin protocol, the constitution of the system, will eventually be subverted. Every component of the Bitcoin value proposition will be destroyed. For bitcoin users and investors, there will be no reason to stay with the system. Plus the large mining pools, or at least one of them, are already a major threat to the system and the system has no effective way of dealing with this threat.
The whole thing is a house of cards: there will be nothing left within the system to maintain confidence in the system. If you have money invested in Bitcoin, best get out now before it collapses, because collapse it will.
Before going further, let me stress that I have not changed my support for private money one jot: researching and promoting private money has been my life’s work. Am I against Bitcoin? No. I just don’t think it is unsustainable. Am I against the alt currencies, the blockchain etc? Not at all. For the record: I support all experimentation in the private money space. My point is that some experiments will fail, and Bitcoin will be one of them.
Informal feedback on my and Martin Hutchinson’s paper on which the presentation is based leaves me in no doubt that our message will provoke outrage amongst the more extreme Bitcoiners: indeed, it already has. We have no axe to grind against Bitcoin and no desire to offend the Bitcoin lunatic fringe. However, one has to follow the logic of one’s argument as one sees it: Hier stehe ich, ich kann nicht anders. If others disagree, well, that’s just the way it is.
I would ask everyone involved in this controversy to note that Martin and I are making a prediction, made before the event: Bitcoin will bite the dust. The more extreme Bitcoiners say it won’t: they say that Bitcoin will reach the moon. They are welcome to their views, but only one side of this argument is going to be proven right. So let’s wait and see who is right and who gets egg on their face. If we have to eat humble pie afterwards, then so be it, but we don’t think so.
Our best guess is that we are facing a mass extinction in the cryptocurrency ecosystem. However, the competition for market share will continue and we expect that that ecosystem will soon repopulate. If the experience of life on earth offers any guide, we could expect to see such cycles of proliferation and extinction occurring again and again. For all we know, cryptocurrencies might still be in their Ediacaran Period, when a wonderful diversity of multicellular life had first colonized the seas, but many of these organisms are about to become extinct. No, correction: many of the alts have alreadybitten the dust – the mass extinction is well under way.
The undeniable achievement of Bitcoin is that it demonstrates the practical possibilityof fully decentralized monetary systems based on the principle of distributed trust rather than central authority: it shows that they can fly, but the problem is that it does not demonstrate that they can stay in the air for too long. Where Bitcoin falls short is that its model is not sustainable thanks to the contradiction between the decentralization on which it depends to work properly and its inbuilt tendencies toward centralization. I therefore regard Bitcoin as an instructive creative failure, but I am hopeful that the lessons to be drawn from its impending demise will lead to superior cryptocurrencies that are free of its major design flaws. Designing such systems would be a challenge worthy of a new Satoshi Nakamoto – or possibly the old one if he is still out there somewhere and looking to complete the project that he didn’t quite get right the first time.
Pity about the conference date though. Had the conference been yesterday, I could have gone dressed as Guy Fawkes or a Catherine wheel.
Professor Kevin Dowd is a Senior Fellow with the Cobden Centre and a long-standing free market economist whose main work has been on free banking and unregulated monetary systems. Over the years, he has written extensively on the history and theory of free banking, the mechanics of monetary systems without the state and the failings of central banking and financial regulation. | Contact us
6 November 14 | Tags: Bitcoin, Bitcoin Hack, Bitcoin Mining, Money | Category: Money | 3 comments
As stated in the preceding column, here, eminent labor economist Jared Bernstein recently called, in the New York Times, for the dethroning of “King Dollar,” claiming that the reserve currency status of the dollar has cost the United States as many as “six million jobs in 2008, and these would tend to be the sort of high-wage manufacturing jobs.”
Six million is about as many jobs as presidents Bush and Obama together, over 13+ years, created. So this is a big claim. Whether or not one accepts the magnitude of the jobs deficit proclaimed by Dr. Bernstein, reserve currency status comes with heavy costs.
The advantages of reserve currency status for the dollar are well known. The world’s willingness to accumulate dollar reserves in the post World War II period first removed and later reduced the requirement of maintaining balance of payments equilibrium, or, more specifically, current account balance. By removing or weakening this restraint, U.S. policymakers had more freedom than policymakers in other countries to pursue strictly domestic objectives. We ran current account deficits year after year, balanced, or paid for, by capital inflows from our trading partners. The good side of that was that we could import real goods and services for domestic consumption or absorption and pay for them with paper, or the electronic equivalent. In other words, our contemporary standard of living was enhanced by others’ willingness to hold our currency without “cashing it in” for goods and services, or, before 1971, gold.
The bad side of our reserve currency status, although seldom recognized, was that the very leeway that enhanced our current standard of living built up debt (and/or reduced foreign assets) to dangerous levels. I remember well when, in 1985, the United States ceased being a net creditor nation to the rest of the world and, instead, became a net debtor nation. Our net indebtedness has only grown over the years, and hangs over us like the legendary sword of Damocles.
[W]hen one country’s currency — the dollar reserve currency of today — is used to settle international payments, the international settlement and adjustment mechanism is jammed — for that country — and for the world. This is no abstract notion. …
The reality behind the “twin deficits” is simply this: the greater and more permanent the Federal Reserve and foreign reserve facilities for financing the U.S. budget and trade deficits, the greater will be the twin deficits and the growth of the Federal government. All congressional, administrative and statutory attempts to end the U.S. deficit have proved futile, and will prove futile, until the crucial underlying flaw — namely the absence of an efficient international settlements and adjustment mechanism — is remedied by international monetary reform inaugurating a new international gold standard and the prohibition of official reserve currencies.
By pinning down the future price level by gold convertibility, the immediate effect of international monetary reform will be to end currency speculation in floating currencies, and terminate the immense costs of inflation hedging. Gold convertibility eliminates the very costly exchange of currencies at the profit-seeking banks. Thus, new savings will be channeled out of financial arbitrage and speculation, into long-term financial markets.
Increased long-term investment and improvements in world productivity will surely follow, as investment capital moves out of unproductive hedges and speculation — made necessary by floating exchange rates — seeking new and productive investments, leading to more quality jobs.
The sobering views expressed by McTeer and by Lehrman more than neutralize Heritage Foundation’s Bryan Riley and William Wilson’s valiant championship of the dollar’s reserve currency status, in opposition to Bernstein. Heritage’s championship is gallant but … unpersuasive.
John Mueller, who served as gold standard advocate Jack Kemp’s chief economist and now as the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s Lehrman Institute Fellow in Economics and Director, Economics and Ethics Program, crisply observes in an interview for this column:
As Kenneth Austin lucidly reminded us, it is a necessity of double-entry bookkeeping that any increase in foreign official dollar reserves equals the increase in combined US current and private capital account deficits. Denying the connection requires magical thinking. The entire decline in the international investment position since 1976 is due to Congress’s borrowing from foreign central banks–that is, the dollar’s official reserve currency role–while the books of private US residents with the rest of the world have remained close to balance.
There are differing schools of thought among the gold standard’s most prominent adherents as to the significance of merchandise deficit account. Their theoretical differences about current accounts are likely to prove, operationally, immaterial.
Both the Forbes and Lehrman schools share mortal opposition to mercantilism. Both passionately oppose the cheapening of the dollar. Both see the gold standard as a critical mechanism to restoring the brisk growth of, as Lehrman termed it, “quality jobs” … and the restoration of median family income growth that began, profoundly, to stagnate with Nixon’s destruction of Bretton Woods.
In this columnist’s own earnest, if much less erudite, view the most significant element of the reserve currency curse derives from how it subtracts capital from the real, e.g. goods and services, economy. Corporate earnings are taken, in return for local currency, into the coffers of the relevant international central bank. That central bank then promptly loans the proceeds directly to the federal government of the United States by purchase of treasury instruments.
The way the world of central banking works thus subverts a process extolled by Adam Smith (in the context of his analysis of the benefits of fractional reserve money) in Wealth of Nations. Smith:
When, therefore, by the substitution of paper, the gold and silver necessary for circulation is reduced to, perhaps, a fifth part of the former quantity, if the value of only the greater part of the other four-fifths be added to the funds which are destined for the maintenance of industry, it must make a very considerable addition to the quantity of that industry, and, consequently, to the value of the annual produce of land and labour.
The mechanics of the reserve currency system preempt these funds’ ready availability for “the maintenance of industry.” The mechanics of the dollar as a reserve asset, therefore, finance bigger government while insidiously preempting productivity, jobs, and equitable prosperity.
This columnist agrees wholeheartedly with Bernstein on what seem his three most important points. The reserve currency status of the dollar causes American workers, and the world, big problems. The exorbitant privilege deserves and demands far more attention than it receives. Moving the dollar away from being the world’s reserve currency would be a great deal easier than many now assume.
Bernstein, in his blog, identifies four mechanisms as “out there” (without explicitly endorsing, or critiquing, them): by legislation (which this columnist views as playing with tariff fire); taxation (thereby “raising the price of currency management,” which this columnist finds hardly an obvious source of job creation); reciprocity (demanding the right to buy foreign treasuries); and an international reserve currency.
Mueller says of Bernstein’s legislative and tax proposals, “you simply can’t solve a monetary problem with a fiscal solution.”
As for reciprocity, the United States Treasury, even under a Joe Biden or even a Bernie Sanders presidency, is never going to turn away ready lenders. This homely truth seems about as self-evident as it gets. Beyond that, even if China were to undertake market-oriented reforms — and, according to the Wall Street Journal, the political winds seem to be blowing the other way just now — the RMB accounts for only 1.64% of global payments. It is not even close to being a power player. Beyond the beyond … it is well beyond dubious to expect international central banks enthusiastically to bulk up on the debt instruments of the People’s Republic of China for the indefinite future.
An “international reserve currency,” however, is a sound proposition if well designed. Proposing SDRs for that role does not hold up. As then-Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, during a hearing of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations on March 9, 2011, stated, “There is no risk of the SDR playing that [a reserve currency] role. The SDR is not a currency. It’s a unit of account. And it can’t provide the role that many people aspire to it. There is no risk of that happening.” Mueller, elucidating why this is so, states:
It’s not possible to solve the problems caused by tying other nations’ domestic currencies to one nation’s inconvertible domestic currency (the dollar), by tying them all to a basket of inconvertible domestic fiat currencies–that is, to a subset of themselves. The result has no anchor. And the world economy always gravitates to a single “final asset,” because using several multiplies transactions costs.
There appear to be but two technically plausible ways of getting there. One is Nobel economics laureate Robert Mundell’s proposal of a world currency. The other, of course, represents a sort of “reversion to the mean.” Restore a 21st century international gold standard.
While the gold standard is very unfashionable it by no means is absurd. Then-World Bank Group president Robert Zoellick, in 2010, was dead on when he observed in an FT column that “Although textbooks may view gold as the old money, markets are using gold as an alternative monetary asset today.” About a year later, the Bank of England issued a startling but meticulous white paper demonstrating that the “Federal Reserve Note standard” materially has underperformed, in every area considered, both the Bretton Woods gold-exchange standard and the classical gold standard itself.
Concrete objects have served as money for most of human history; we may therefore speak of commodity money. A great deal of trust was placed in particular in precious and rare metals – gold first and foremost – due to their assumed intrinsic value. In its function as a medium of exchange, medium of payment and store of value, gold is thus, in a sense, a timeless classic.
The gold standard, notwithstanding Churchill’s not-to-be-repeated 1925 blunder, is in no way a prescription for austerity. The classical gold standard, properly constructed, is a recipe for workers, and median income families, to flourish economically.
We have not flourished, consistently, since its last remnants were destroyed by President Nixon on August 15, 1971. So… what to do?
The first thing to do is to address the important issue, squarely. By shrewdly posing the right question Jared Bernstein has raised the odds, perhaps significantly, that we finally will find our way to the right answer. Getting out of the woods may be no more complicated than following JFK/LBJ economic advisor Walter Heller’s most famous dictum: “Put aside principle and do what’s right.”
Adroitly resolving the reserve currency issue as part of implementing an international reserve currency is far more likely to be fruitful in generating quality jobs, by the millions, than are earnest jeremiads, such as that by Dr. Bernstein himself, that “American political elites have completely failed to understand what the Fed should be doing right now.” Relying on central bankers consistently to get discretionary management right represents a triumph of hope over experience. Or as novelist Rita Mae Brown memorably observed, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.”
Let us take Keynes, in The Economic Consequences of the Peace, chapter VI, to heart:
Lenin is said to have declared that the best way to destroy the capitalist system was to debauch the currency. By a continuing process of inflation, governments can confiscate, secretly and unobserved, an important part of the wealth of their citizens. By this method they not only confiscate, but they confiscate arbitrarily; and, while the process impoverishes many, it actually enriches some. The sight of this arbitrary rearrangement of riches strikes not only at security, but at confidence in the equity of the existing distribution of wealth. Those to whom the system brings windfalls, beyond their deserts and even beyond their expectations or desires, become ‘profiteers,’ who are the object of the hatred of the bourgeoisie, whom the inflationism has impoverished, not less than of the proletariat. … Lenin was certainly right. There is no subtler, no surer means of overturning the existing basis of society than to debauch the currency. The process engages all the hidden forces of economic law on the side of destruction, and does it in a manner which not one man in a million is able to diagnose.
As Steve Forbes pithily puts it, “You’ve got to get the money right.” Time to lift the reserve currency curse. Time to fix the dollar.
Ralph Benko is senior advisor, economics, for American Principles in Action, in Washington, DC, specializing in the gold standard and advisor to and editor of the Lehrman Institute's The Gold Standard Now. He is editor-in-chief of thesupplyside.blogspot.com. With Charles Kadlec, he is co-author of The 21st Century Gold Standard: For Prosperity, Security, and Liberty available for free download here. Benko and Kadlec are co-editors of the Laissez Faire Books edition of Copernicus's Essay on Money. He also manages the Facebook page The Gold Standard. Follow him on Twitter as TheWebster. | Contact us
9 October 14 | Tags: Central Banking, Dollar, Honest Money, Inflation, monetary policy, Money | Category: Money | One comment
The Wall Street Journal, recently, in The Return of the Greenback, observed that “the resurgent dollar has logged its longest winning streak in 17 years, rising against a broad basket of currencies for nine straight weeks.” This has led to, perhaps irrational, exuberance from supply side titans Larry Kudlow and Steve Moore.
Cheapening the dollar is a bad thing, unequivocally. It does not necessarily follow that making the dollar dearer is a good thing. And there is a frequently unnoticed factor at work: the dollar’s status as the world reserve currency. Dr. Jared Bernstein, senior fellow with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and, previously, chief economist to Vice President Biden and executive director of the White House Task Force on the Middle Class, boldly claims that the dollar’s reserve currency status has cost America 6 million jobs. This is a startling, and potentially important, claim.
We live in a world monetary system that makes the U.S. dollar its official reserve currency. About 60% of international central bank reserves are Yankee dollars. Some, both right and left, in America and abroad, consider the reserve currency status of the dollar a bug in the software of our world monetary system. Getting this fixed is, in the opinion of some consequential thinkers, of capital importance for the generation of quality jobs, and equitable prosperity, in America and the world.
The reserve currency status of the dollar, particularly as a potential factor in wage stagnation, has profound political implications. Dispirited voters yearn for leadership that actually understands how to get the economic tide to lift all boats again. Notwithstanding his promotion of some marked policy differences with this columnist, this columnist says three cheers for Dr. Bernstein for squarely pushing the reserve currency question into play.
Dr. Bernstein stirred up a healthy argument in an August New York Times op-ed entitled Dethrone ‘King Dollar.’ Bernstein:
[T]he new research reveals that what was once a privilege is now a burden, undermining job growth, pumping up budget and trade deficits and inflating financial bubbles. To get the American economy on track, the government needs to drop its commitment to maintaining the dollar’s reserve-currency status.
Bernstein draws on an interesting, and thoughtful, paper by economist Kenneth Austin in The Journal of Post Keynesian Economics. Austin dramatically illustrates the explosion of international dollar reserves and explores the possible significance to our economy. Bernstein performs a signal public service by placing this into the policy discourse. Bernstein:
Mr. Austin argues convincingly that the correct metric for estimating the cost in jobs is the dollar value of reserve sales to foreign buyers. By his estimation, that amounted to six million jobs in 2008, and these would tend to be the sort of high-wage manufacturing jobs that are most vulnerable to changes in exports.
Bernstein’s proposal drew a tart riposte at Café Hayek from Don Boudreaux and another from the Heritage Foundation’s Daily Signal by Bryan Riley and William Wilson.
Shortly after Bernstein’s proposed dethroning of ‘King Dollar’ Larry Kudlow and Steve Moore, in their NRO column, joyfully celebrated The Return of King Dollar:
[W]hen the dollar crashed in the 1970s — especially relative to gold — the economy collapsed into a crippling stagflation. From 1999 to 2009, the dollar index dropped by almost 40 percent, with only a brief surge between 2004 and 2006. The economy and wages were sluggish at best.
The relationship between a strong currency and prosperity is lost on the many nations that adhere to the mercantilist model whereby a devalued currency supposedly gives a country a competitive edge by making exports cheaper. …
Kudlow and Moore deserve praise for their opposition to cheapening the dollar. That said, cheering on a “strong” dollar intellectually is akin to calling for a longer inch or a heavier ounce as a recipe to — magically — make us richer.
No. What is needed is a high integrity, meticulously defined, dollar.
A dollar at the mercy of a freelancing Fed, subject to being whipsawed in value, up or down, is a barrier to commerce. Money, by definition, is a medium of exchange, a store of value and — not be overlooked — a unit of account. There are many empirical data tending to show that only by meticulously maintaining the definition of the unit — for example, by defining the dollar by grains of gold and making it legally convertible thereunto — can good job creation, and equitable prosperity, consistently be achieved.
There is a deep, fascinating, historical context. It extends even to the use of the regal metaphor. Therein rests an irony wrapped in a controversy inside some history.
The history? Keynes employed a regal metaphor (applied to gold rather than currency) in his 1930 tract Auri Sacra Fames in which he writes
… gold, originally stationed in heaven with his consort silver, as Sun and Moon, having first doffed his sacred attributes and come to earth as an autocrat, may next descend to the sober status of a constitutional king with a cabinet of Banks….
The irony? Keynes explicitly mistrusted the Fed. Keynes did not wish to endow the U.S. Federal Reserve with the power that, under then-prevailing circumstances which no longer need apply, a return to the gold standard would have entailed. Keynes, in his 1923 essay, Alternative Aims In Monetary Policy:
It would be rash in present circumstances to surrender our freedom of action to the Federal Reserve Board of the United States. We do not yet possess sufficient experience of its capacity to act in times of stress with courage and independence. The Federal Reserve Board is striving to free itself from the pressure of sectional interests; but we are not yet certain that it will wholly succeed. It is still liable to be overwhelmed by the impetuosity of a cheap money campaign.
Keynes expressed wariness of the risk of currency depreciation (better known as inflation). Sure enough, eventually the Federal Reserve indeed became “overwhelmed by the impetuosity of a cheap money campaign.” The Fed cheapened its product — Federal Reserve Notes — by 85% since 1971 (and by about 95% since the Fed’s inception).
A dollar today is worth a 1913 nickel and a 1971 nickel and dime. This gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “nickeled and dimed to death.”
Cheapening of money is very bad for business. It is really, really, terrible for labor. Ron Paul, call your office: Keynes proved quite right to be dubious about the Fed.
Why do so few of the economists who exalt Keynes share his tough-mindedness toward the Fed? Why do so few grasp the irony of their mesmerized adulation of an institution with such a mediocre (and sometimes catastrophic) track record? Many acorns have fallen far from the tree.
One of the factors in play involves one of the standard tropes of mercantilism, to which Kudlow and Moore allude: the intentional depreciation of a national currency to gain unfair trade advantage. This is what classically was called a “beggar-thy-neighbor” policy. The neighbor, in this instance, is America. Forbes Media chairman, and Editor-in-Chief, Steve Forbes, and Forbes.com columnist Nathan Lewis, both gold standard advocates, are zealous critics of mercantilism (as is this columnist).
The neo-mercantilists of the twentieth century may have thought that floating exchange rates would allow countries to correct perceived imbalances with their rivals and bolster their domestic economies. But the monetary system they created was more volatile than the one they had destroyed, with balance harder than ever to achieve.
The turmoil of the post-Bretton Woods era is what sent European nations scurrying for the shelter of a stable currency, setting the stage for the euro. The explosion of currency trading it has wrought has become a huge source of fees for banks. It has helped produce the market swings and giant windfalls so decried by Occupy Wall Street and others. In this dangerous world, monetary policy is deployed as a frequent weapon, nearly always with destructive consequences.”
All of today’s premier economic policies, notably monetary manipulation and floating fiat currencies, attempts to “manage the economy” via government deficit spending, and the never-ending concern over “imbalances” in trade, are straight-up Mercantilism.
We really won’t make much progress in our economic understanding until this is recognized. The entirety of today’s Mercantilist agenda should be discarded; first, at an intellectual level, and then at the level of public policy. Britain did this, and went from an economic backwater overshadowed by tiny Holland, to the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution and the center of the largest empire of the nineteenth century.
Forbes and Lewis are skeptical about the power of manipulating currency to achieve trading advantage. The intramural dispute among gold standard advocates around the current account, however, is of mostly academic significance. The respective camps respectfully agree as to most of the disorders caused by paper money. They agree that the remedy to our “Little Dark Age” of wage stagnation lies in the definition of the dollar by gold.
Businessman/scholar Lewis E. Lehrman, founder and chairman of the Lehrman Institute (whose monetary policy website this columnist professionally edits) too is an outspoken critic of mercantilism. Lehrman is the leader of a group of thinkers influenced by the works of his mentor Jacques Rueff, influential French monetary official, public intellectual (Mont Pelerin society member), and iconic classical gold standard advocate.
As for the unjustly obscure Rueff, keen monetary observer Robert Pringle, author of The Money Trap states in his influential blog of the same name:
[Rueff] would have predicted the Global Financial Crisis and economic catastrophe of the past seven years – and would certainly have attributed it to the absence of an international monetary system worth the name. He would have been equally critical of the flawed construction of the euro.
He saw that the globalizing trading regime was fundamentally at odds with mercantilist monetary and exchange rate policies: one aspired to universality and openness, the other pointed to particularization and separation.
More generally, monetary nationalism, unleashed by the absence of a global standard for money, is inconsistent with a liberal order.
Reserve currency status of the dollar, the more emphatically when the dollar is not defined by and redeemable in a fixed weight of gold, is a form of monetary nationalism inconsistent with a liberal order. And according to Bernstein reserve currency status also is costing millions of jobs.
What are some of the costs of the “exorbitant privilege” as the dollar’s reserve currency status was called by then finance minister of France Valery Giscard d’Estaing? Ought now America to give the exorbitant privilege a gold watch and send it into retirement?
Ralph Benko is senior advisor, economics, for American Principles in Action, in Washington, DC, specializing in the gold standard and advisor to and editor of the Lehrman Institute's The Gold Standard Now. He is editor-in-chief of thesupplyside.blogspot.com. With Charles Kadlec, he is co-author of The 21st Century Gold Standard: For Prosperity, Security, and Liberty available for free download here. Benko and Kadlec are co-editors of the Laissez Faire Books edition of Copernicus's Essay on Money. He also manages the Facebook page The Gold Standard. Follow him on Twitter as TheWebster. | Contact us
8 October 14 | Tags: Central Banking, gold standard, Honest Money, Inflation, Money | Category: Money | Comments are closed