[Editor’s Note: this piece, by Brendan Brown, first appeared at http://mises.org/library/private-equity-boom-easy-money-and-crony-capitalism]
Amongst the big winners from the Obama Fed’s Great Monetary Experiment has been the private equity industry. Indeed this went through a near-death experience in the Great Panic (2008) before its savior — Fed quantitative easing — propelled it forward into new riches. There is no surprise therefore that its barons who join the political stage (think of the last Republican presidential candidate) have no interest in monetary reform. And the same attitude is common amongst leading politicians who hope private equity will provide them high-paid jobs when they quit Washington.
The ex-politicians are expected by their new bosses to join the intense lobbying effort aimed at preserving the industry’s unique tax advantages (especially with respect to deductibility of interest and carry income) whilst establishing the links with regulators and governments (state and federal) that help generate business opportunity for the varied enterprises within the given private equity group. The special ability of these to take advantage of the monetarily induced frenzy in high-yield debt markets and secure spectacularly cheap funds means they become leading agents of malinvestment in various key sectors of the economy.
What’s Makes Private Equity Run?
Spokespersons for the industry claim that the private equity business is all about spotting opportunities to take over already established businesses, and then using home-grown talent (within the private equity management team) to transform their organization so as to create value for shareholders. And this can all be accomplished, they say, without the burden of frequent reporting requirements as in public equity.
That is all very laudable, but why all the leverage, why all the political connections, and why all the tax advantages? And even before getting to these questions, why should we praise the secrecy? After all, public equity markets are meant to do a good job of incentivizing and disciplining management, especially in this age of shareholder activism, so why is private equity superior?
Perhaps there are instances where companies which are now in the public equity market cannot economically justify the fixed costs of maintaining their presence there (filing reports, auditing, etc.) and there is a net gain to all from being taken private. In practice, though, this public-to-private conversion function of the private equity industry has been dwindling in overall significance compared to private-to-private acquisitions and new ventures.
Why There’s So Much Leverage
But why should there be so much leverage? Why could their economic functions not be achieved on a purely or largely equity basis?
After all, there are reports of private equity groups turning away would-be new participating partners offering to bring in zillions of new funds to the party. If individual investors in private equity wanted high leverage they could do this on their own account without saddling the particular enterprises with large debts.
The obvious answer to this conundrum is that the private equity groups are in fact risk-arbitragers (and tax arbitragers) between what they view as greatly over-priced high-yield debt markets (sometimes described as junk-debt markets) and less overpriced equity markets.
How Easy Money Enables Private Equity
The Great Monetary Experiment has induced such a plague of market irrationality characterized by desperation for yield that the price of junk has reached the sky. On top of this, the US tax-code incentivizes such arbitrage by allowing full deduction of interest from corporate profit. Why are some affiliates of private equity groups buying the junk? Perhaps that has to do with the benefits to be derived in the event of any particular enterprise owned by the group filing for bankruptcy. The private equity group would be in a better position to negotiate a debt-equity swap if it is on both sides of the deal.
The name of the game is achieving as high a leverage as possible and nothing brings success here like success. Specifically, as private equity investments have produced a series of great returns in recent years — as indeed we should expect from highly leveraged strategies in a powerfully rising equity market — the speculative story that their managers really have talent has attracted more and more believers who are willing to back it with their funds. One aspect of this has been the ability of private equity groups to leverage up their businesses to an extent never previously achieved as the buyers of their junk debt believe that unique talents of the partners and their managers make this acceptable. And the cost of equity to the private equity groups falls as a wider span of potential partners believes in their power of magic.
The Crony Capitalist Connection
The new business ventures on which private equity has concentrated in recent years are often in areas where regulatory or political connection is important — whether in finance, real estate, energy extraction, or providing health-care facilities. A private equity group buys the advantages of “connections” (otherwise described as cronyism) for all the small or medium-sized enterprises operating within its fold. If each one were to build up its connections independently that would be much more expensive per unit of enterprise capital.
Hence one essential feature of private equity is the taking advantage of economies of scale in cronyism. And the tax advantages secured by political connections are crucial to the private equity model. The case for a reform of the tax code which would lower the overall rate on corporate profits but end the tax deductibility of interest is strong. But how could this ever make headway against the private equity industry and its deep roots in Washington, DC?
Private Equity, Shale Oil, and Other Bubbles
In thinking about the downside of private equity for economic prosperity there is much more to consider than stalemate on tax reform. There is the specter of the infernal combination of monetary disequilibrium and cronyism producing huge malinvestment. That picture is already emerging in the shale oil and gas industries where private equity with its highly leveraged structures has been prominent. Elsewhere, the finance companies spawned by private equity and outside the ever-more regulated traditional bank sector. These have played a lead role in rapid growth of sub-prime auto-loans which have contributed importantly to the boom in vehicle sales. Private equity owned leasing companies have outsmarted their competition to provide enticingly cheap terms to aircraft carriers especially in Asia and helped fuel a tremendous boom in sales by Boeing and Airbus. Private equity participation in letting apartment blocks has helped fuel the mini-boom in multifamily housing construction.
This is all fine whilst folks are dancing to the music of the Great Monetary Experiment. But what will happen when speculative temperatures fall across a wide range of markets presently infected by asset price inflation, including high-yield debt, equity, and of course private equity? We know much though not all about the disease of asset price inflation from the past 100 years of fiat money experience under the leadership of the Federal Reserve. Each episode of disease is different but there are common elements. One of these is a deadly end phase featuring plunging speculative temperatures, great recession, and the revelation of huge capital squandered in previous years. The private equity story is new, but there is nothing new under the sun.
Max Rangeley is the Editor of The Cobden Centre. He is the CEO of ReboundTAG Ltd, which produces microchip luggage tags and has been showcased by Lufthansa and featured on BBC World among other media outlets. Max has a Master’s in economics, following this he was given a scholarship to do a PhD at the London School of Economics, but decided instead to go straight into business. | Contact us
15 February 15 | Tags: monetary policy, Private Equity, Quantitative Easing, Risk | Category: Economics | One comment
Here’s a question for all the cheering QEuro fans out there. If you came across a country where both real and nominal money supply were growing at rates in the low teens – something its people had not experienced for almost a decade and close to the fastest seen in the last four – would you consider it to be a victim of ‘deflation’? If not, what help do you suppose an expansionary central bank would be to it?
Imagine next what would be the state of that nation if, in a five year burst of temporary insanity, it had it had contracted 2 ½ times as many bank loans as it had when it first went mad and that it had thus registered four times the net indebtedness (loans less deposits) as when it began– a deficit which nearly equalled the combined shortfall of its two largest neighbours put together, despite the fact that they were three times as heavily populated.
Now you might well suppose that, if such a thing could ever be advisable in such circumstances, the central bank could readily offer an effective incentive to carry the tendency further were it only to act to suppress interest rates across the curve.
But consider instead what would be the case if, after another five, nearly six, years of blood, sweat, toil and tears, that nation had rid itself of 30% of its loans, had added 25% to its stock of deposits, and had therefore shrunk its net indebtedness by an impressive two-thirds to return itself to where it was in relation to national income eleven years previously. If you were also told that households, having gone into hock to the tune of 28% net from an initial position of small surplus, were now, thankfully, back in credit, would you imagine that the plight of the saver might outweigh that of the borrower in the ordering of their priorities?
If so, you would be considering whether Spain should rejoice at Snr. Draghi’s latest coup de main or whether it should balefully consider that he was not only gilding a lily, but bedizening one from which the bloom had long since faded, into the bargain?
Nor might you sing Hosannas if you were Swiss or Danish since it is principally in those two peripheral nations that the overspill is most violent. Denmark has cancelled this year’s government bond auction schedule in a kind of QE by omission even as the central bank has continued to force interest rates deeper and deeper into negative territory – to the point where there are apocryphal tales being told of a people who are among the developed world’s most indebted being paid to take out floating-rate mortgages.
That will end well, if true!
As for the Swiss, it seems that the habit dies hard of putting the national balance sheet at the disposal of those wanting to short the euro at subsidised rates. We say this because, even though the €1.20 hard floor was abolished in the middle of the month, in the two weeks since, sight deposit balances have risen by some CHF44 billion – clearly a much higher run rate than during the preceding six weeks when a mere CHF29 billion was accumulated. The most that can be said for this is that the SNB has been improving its average (assuming the very strong hints of continued intervention are confirmed), getting euros on board at rates from CHF0.85 to CF1.05 so far and again depressing bond yields further below zero.
With Syriza trying to work out how far they can push a Union which would gladly be shot of them if that were not to open the infamous box of a certain over-inquisitive Greek lady; with Bepe Grillo still trying to engineer a referendum on the euro membership of his native Italy; Podemos pulling the aggrieved of Spain into the streets in their thousands; and the AfD having come out of their conference in Bremen all signed up to fighting the mainstream parties, not each other, the pressure will persist. There will be many trying to find a safer haven for all those shiny new euros with which Mario will be happy to furnish them so they can express their doubts over the course he is taking in cold, hard(er) cash. The Danes and the Swiss may therefore end up with rather more of them than they otherwise might wish.
If we look beyond this to the wider markets, we can see the ripples from the stone thrown in by the ECB spreading as far away as China where the press is starting to run stories about how disadvantageous the rise of the yuan is becoming for a nation tacitly hoping for a quick, external outlet for some of the unwanted goods which its heavily underutilized industrial base is all too capable of producing.
Coupled with the growing unease of some of those who have borrowed those ever rising dollars to dabble in the onshore market – possibly via the medium of one of those commodity plays whose collateral value is not exactly beyond question these days – this is beginning to test the mettle of the PBoC at its idiosyncratic daily fix (the one where it simply refuses to entertain any bids beyond the rate it has settled upon and so allows a recalcitrant market no outlet for its frustrations).
Though nothing definitive has yet occurred and even if, rather than breaking any key levels, the stock market is tending to churn up and down near the highs, one is hard pressed not to give in to the foreboding that the sands are shifting: that, grain by grain, the cosy consensus of the last several quarters is starting to erode.
Take for example the fact that the US market is beginning to lose some of the effortless predominance it has so long enjoyed. Indeed, that leadership – wherein a rising stock market draws in the capital with which to move the dollar higher while the rise in the dollar makes the equities denominated therein gain more ground on their global rivals – has been challenged these past three weeks or so to a 2-sigma extent not seen since mid-2010.
This reversal, though not yet so large as to magnify our nascent sense of alarm, does add to the suspicion that change is in the air. That said, however, some longer term projections do still allow for the possibility that stocks might yet press on to complete the current 3QE pattern which began with assistance from all three big CBs, back in late 2012, and so map out a full TMT bubble move before the reaction truly sets in (q.v., the Nasdaq Composite). So what we are presented with is another case of letting the market decide which way it wants to move before committing ourselves too heavily to one side or the other. Note, too, that this is a waiting game which itself marks a very different phase from the straightforward momentum chase of recent months.
If stocks are ambivalent, fixed income seems to entertain no such doubts. Even that bear market dog-with-fleas, the 5-year T-Note, is back to its lowest yield since the ‘taper tantrum’ while the next quinquennial slice of the curve has made record lows, narrowing the spread between spot and forward 5s by 175bps in three months to reach the lowest level of recent times. We can perhaps best observe the developments by a glance at the eurodollar curve.
But, far from placating the market, even the remarkable run of successive record lows in bond yields is starting to raise the eyebrows of many of those whose wills are beginning to be bent to the policymakers’ doom-laden croaking about the imminence of ‘deflation’. It would be amusing if it were not so serious: in order to justify their crass, hyperactive heterodoxy, the central bankers are having to scare the very horses they are simultaneously trying to lead oh-so calmly to water.
Another frequently cited storm warning is the 5-year forward break-even inflation reading as derived from the difference between vanilla and index-linked govvies. Your author must here confess to feeling this is far too arbitrary a number. We gauge the ‘inflation expectations’ which the authorities have insisted are key to judging the success of monetary policy from a spread – and now, worse, from a hypothetical forward spread which is the derived difference of two other arbitrary pairs of differences. Yet all this is reckoned in a segmented bond market subject to both institutional and regulatory imperatives, to vicissitudes of issuance, and to a vast official distortion made worse by the fact that, at very low nominal rates the reluctance to price the residual ‘real’ yields on linkers too far into the negative column is compressing the BEI spread between them – a phenomenon additionally exacerbated in the forward version by dint of the rapidly flattening yield curve.
It would be wiser to bear in mind that just because we can define and measure the 5y5y break-even does not of itself imbue the measure with any genuine informational significance even if one cannot deny that it has come to exercise a certain lurid fascination in the mind of the market as well as in that of the official rate-setter.
Adding a further strand to this hangman’s noose, many of yesterday’s Peak Resource commodity bulls have undergone a temperamental slump which matches for its giddiness that of the prices of the industrial commodities themselves. Again, the spectre of ‘deflation’ has come to peer over our shoulder as we watch the tape.
Here we would only caution that the inferences people are deriving from commodity prices may not be as cast-iron (sorry) as they appear because it is not, in fact, so easy to disentangle the factors contributing to that decline in a world where we have so many broken pricing mechanisms in play.
Take crude, for one. Given the extraordinary growth in supply of which we have long been aware and given, too, the muted growth of (physical) demand in a world unable to shake off the shackles of the last boom, the presence of record long positioning in speculative markets at the end of July was a clear omen of doom, even if the timing of the sudden, catastrophic phase shift from a three-year sideways, ever-narrowing range to a runaway cascade was impossible to predict in advance.
All sorts of commodities in their turn have acted similarly over this last cycle; silver, gold, copper, tin, nickel, iron ore, rubber, uranium, minor metals, some ags, and so on – but the booms and busts have not all been coincident, a divergence from which we can infer that they are as much a story of a rolling wave of fickle, speculative over-exposure and subsequent mass liquidation as they are of anything to do with underlying, real-side economic factors at work in their use.
‘Doctor’ Copper is another commodity to which many outsiders like to refer, yet its medical credentials have been called into question by the huge distortions entailed in many years of shadowy Chinese malfeasance. What is therefore impossible to decide is how much the current slide relates to weaker contemporary real demand and how much is due to the unwinding of the greatly exaggerated, financially-enhanced, apparent demand from which we are presently correcting.
Again, the malinvestment bubble in mining itself was both enormous and – given the echo effects of loose credit firstly on selling prices and then on project finance – thoroughly comprehensible. But to move from diagnosis to prognosis, what we again have to ask is this: if we accept that there was a period of widespread over-expansion in the industry – albeit one formerly hidden by a credit-enabled take-up of the end product at ever higher prices – is today’s fall-out the same thing as evidence of a generally weaker economy, or is it just a belatedly more accurate reflection of what the state of that economy has truly been all along? The solution to that riddle, if one could reach one, would tell one whether the big losses to come will be confined mainly to the commodity sector itself or dispersed more generally across the equity universe.
What today’s reverse Malthusianism does overlook is the inarguable case that, if we made a miraculous scientific breakthrough tomorrow which unlocked what was an essentially limitless and near-free source of energy, we would all be unequivocally better off. Reasoning from such a Garden of Eden scenario, we can be resolute in maintaining that a supply-led fall in prices is good overall – not just for ‘consumers’ – but for intermediary producers of all other goods and services, too. And, yes, it may well be, as has been bandied about, that some 10% of US earnings are energy related and so in jeopardy, but devotees of Bastiat’s Things Which are Not Seen will have already asked themselves how much the earnings of energy users have been depressed by the success of the energy providers and whether, therefore, the ongoing rebalancing is the unmitigated evil some fear it to be.
Above all, we might take comfort from the realisation that oil & gas consumption still only amounts to 5% or so of global GDP. Or we could, were we not also to bring to mind the injunction that in a non-linear system such as ours we cannot entirely discount that large effects emanate from small causes or that, given its high profile, the sector’s travails could contribute meaningfully to a souring of general sentiment and so perhaps take us across that critical mass threshold beyond which rotations and reversals morph into landslides of liquidation. But to see why we think this is even possible, we need to go back a step or two to explain what we think is the source of such fragility.
Back in the immediate aftermath of LEH, we wrote that the scale of the coming reflation would be unprecedented and that it would certainly boost commodity and asset prices in the short run, but we also warned that we needed the debt overhang to be rapidly eradicated, renewed entrepreneurship to be promoted, and heavy-handed state intervention to be avoided (we entertained few real hopes on that that last score) if the recovery were to take root. Otherwise, we predicted, we would find ourselves on a tedious roller-coaster of anaemic growth interspersed with weary episodes of recurrent stagnation where the supposed triumph of the authorities’ 1933 moment would give way to their dread of repeating a 1937 one, meaning they could never pull the trigger on ending their stimulus programmes. This, we envisaged, would ensure that the whole system would become ever more addicted to the medicine and ever more subject to its unwelcome side-effects.
We also felt, back then, that if we were to avoid this switchback turning into a negative-g log flume of downturn, the West had to have its house in order by the time that China realised it was doing more harm than good with its own gargantuan injections and that it had to revise its whole approach as a consequence. So it is proving to be.
In the interim, we have all been strung along by the persistent faith that, this quarter, the next, or the one after that, Europe would once more arise from the ashes. When that seemed too much of a stretch we were briefly distracted instead with the foolishness that was Abenomics, and all the while we had the cheery presumption that the Daddy of them all, the US, was slowly getting back on track and so would be enough to keep our illusions alive.
But now we have nothing – or close thereto – to which to cling except for the fact that while so many central banks remain so doggedly accommodative we cannot seem to bring ourselves not to plunge for a further rise in the market. The pockets of our trousers have, after all, long since burned through as a result of all the hot money which has been thrust into them these past several years.
But, whatever the imperatives to remain fully invested and highly leveraged, it cannot be denied that the underpinnings of our optimism are becoming ever more slender. Japan has predictably disappointed. Europe again stands on the verge of major political upheaval and the reaction to the oft-promised QEuro has either been muted (in the real world) or actively counter-productive (in its disruptive, possibly system-threatening effect on the capital and currency markets), suggesting that clinical tolerance is setting in there, too.
EMs are over-owned, are becoming disfavoured, and are anyway not weighty enough to swing the balance. Add to this the sad fact that America is fostering conflict and instability all around the Eastern and Southern rim of Europe and we are left only with the belief in US economic recovery – at first stoutly resisted, but later held with all the fervour of the true convert – to maintain our faith. Hence, as we said, the outperformance of Wall St amid the growing strength of the dollar, a constellation which has even induced high-ranking pundits of the kind who should – but somehow never do – know better to start exulting recklessly at the putative ‘decoupling’ of the Land of the Free from the rest of the poor, huddled mass of humanity.
Now though, the States is starting to stutter as well – with a run of softer-than-expected macro data, fears of what the shale shock will mean both for jobs and credit, and a few wobbles on the corporate earnings front (even if many of these are only strong-dollar, money illusion effects).
In the recent past, such bad news would have been perversely seen as market positive for its capacity to call forth more from the Mighty Oz’s bag of monetary tricks. But what can we now expect from the ‘Goldilocks’ scenario of weakness calling forth some form of official, ‘Greenspan Put’ compensation? Only the weak, negative assistance that it might further delay the day the Fed finally takes its first baby steps to renormalization. There is therefore not much by way of porridge in that particular bowl, we fear!
In such a world, it would not take much for the multitude of stale longs to become anxious. Though it will be said – as it always is – that there is copious ‘cash on the sidelines’ waiting for exactly such an opportunity or, conversely, that a setback in one market must lead to a rise in another (‘the money has to go somewhere’), this overlooks the fact that asset prices can only advance on such a broad and enduring front as they have if they are being fed a steady nourishment of a credit created expressly for that purpose.
When this is the case, it is just as true in reverse; that when people take fright and the assets begin to fall, or the carry trade starts to go awry, the associated credit can quickly evaporate – that where the money ‘goes’ is whence it came: into fractional reserve oblivion. The one place where the classic Fisherian ‘debt deflation’ – or, if you prefer, the Hayekian ‘secondary depression’ – can most easily occur is in the market for financial claims, especially when that market may already have reached its ‘permanently high plateau’.
It may not happen just yet, but it certainly pays to be alert to the possibility that, one fine morning, it surely will.
The European Central Bank has announced its intention to create out of thin air over one trillion new Euros from March 2015 to September 2016. The rationale, the monetary central planners say, is to prevent price deflation and “stimulate” the European economy into prosperity.
The only problem with their plan is that their concern about “deflation” is a misguided fear, and printing money can never serve as a long-term solution to bring about sustainable economic growth and prosperity.
Europe’s High Unemployment and Economic Stagnation
The European Union (of which the Euro currency zone is a subset) is experiencing staggering levels of unemployment. The EU as a whole has 10 percent of the work force unemployed, and 11.5 percent in the Euro Zone.
But breaking these numbers down to the national levels show just how bad the unemployment levels are in the different member countries. In Greece it is nearly 26 percent of the work force. In Spain, it is 24 percent; Italy and Portugal are both over 13 percent. France has over 10 percent unemployment, with Sweden at 8 percent. Only Germany and Austria have unemployment of 5 percent or less out of the 28-member countries of the European Union.
Youth unemployment (defined as those between 16 and 25 years of age unable to find desired work) is even more catastrophic. For the European Union as a whole it is an average of over 22 percent, and more than 23 percent in the Euro Zone.
In Greece, its almost 60 percent of those under 25; in Spain, it is nearly 55 percent, with Italy at 43 percent, and over 22 percent in both France and Sweden. Only in Norway and Germany is youth unemployment less than 8 percent. Almost all the other EU countries are in the double-digit range.
At the same time, growth in Gross Domestic Product for the European Union as a whole in 2014 was well below one percent. Only in the Czech Republic, Norway, and Poland was it above 2 percent among the EU members.
Consumer prices for the EU averaged 0.4 percent in 2014, with most of the member countries experiencing average consumer price increases between 0.2 and 2 percent for the year. Only in Greece was the average level of prices calculated as having absolutely declined by a minus 1.3 percent. Hardly a measured sign of dramatically suffered price deflation in the EU or the Euro Zone!
Fears of Price Deflation are Misplaced
The monetary central planners who manage the European Central Bank are fearful that the Euro Zone may be plagued by a prolonged period of generally falling prices if they do not act to push measured price inflation towards their desired target of around two percent a year.
(It is worth pointing out that if the Euro Zone monetary central planners were to succeed with their goal and maintain two percent average annual price inflation, this would mean that over a twenty-year period the purchasing power of a Euro would decline by around 50 percent.)
Many commentators inside and outside of the European Union and the Euro Zone have insisted that price deflation needs to be prevented or reversed at all costs. The implicit premise behind their arguments is that deflation equals economic depression or recession, and therefore any such decline in prices in general must not be allowed.
In all these discussions it is often ignored or forgotten that annual falling prices can well be an indication of economic prosperity and rising standards of living. For instance, between 1865 and 1900, prices in general in the United States declined by around 50 percent, with overall standards of living in general estimated to have increased by 100 percent over these 35 years. This period is usually recognized as America’s time of rapid industrialization in the post-Civil War era that set the United States on the path to becoming the world’s economic giant through most of the 20thcentury.
Falling Prices and Improved Standards of Living
A hallmark of an innovative and competitive free market economy is precisely the never-ending attempt by entrepreneurs and enterprisers to devise ways to make new, better and less expensive goods to sell to the consuming public. The stereotypes in modern times have been pocket calculators, mobile phones, DVD players, and flat-screen TVs.
When pocket calculators first came on the market in the 1980s, they were too big to fit in your shirt pocket, basically performed only the most elementary arithmetic functions, and cost hundreds of dollars. Within a few years they fit in your shirt pocket with space to spare, performed increasingly complex mathematical functions, and became so inexpensive that many companies would give them away as advertising gimmicks.
The companies that made them did not proclaim their distress due to the lower and lower prices at which they sold the devices. Cost efficiencies were developed and introduced in their manufacture so they could be sold for less to consumers to expand demand and capture a larger share of a growing market.
In a dynamic, innovative and growing free market economy there normally would be a tendency for one product after another being improved in its quality and offered at lower prices as productivity gains and decreased costs made them less expensive to market and still make a profit.
Looking over a period of time, a statistical averaging of prices in general in the economy would no doubt show a falling price level, or “price deflation,” as one price after another experienced such a decline. This would be an indication of rising standards of living as the real cost of buying desired goods with our money incomes was decreasing.
Europe’s Problems are Due to Anti-Market Burdens
Relatively stagnant economies with high rates of unemployment like in the European Union and the Euro Zone are not signs of deflationary forces preventing growth and job creation. Indeed, since 2008, the European Central Bank has increased its balance sheet through monetary expansion by well over one trillion Euros, and prices in the Euro Zone, in general, have been rising on average between 0.5 and 2 percent throughout this period. Hardly an indication of “deflationary” forces at work.
The European Union’s problems are not caused by a lack of “aggregate demand” in the form of money spending. Its problems are on the “supply-side.” The EU is notorious for rigid labor markets in which trade unions limit worker flexibility and workplace adaptiveness to global market change.
Above market-determined wages and benefits price many who could be gainfully employed out of a possible job, because government policies and union power price these potential employees out of the market. Plus, the difficulty of firing someone once a worker is hired undermines the incentives of European companies to want to expand their work forces.
Even a number of international organizations, usually culprits in fostering anti-free market policies, have pointed out the need for European governments to introduce workplace reforms to free up labor markets in their countries, along with general reductions in regulations on business than hamper entrepreneurial incentives and prevent greater profit-oriented competitiveness.
Creating a Trillion Euros will only Imbalance Europe More
Creating a trillion more Euros cannot overcome or get around anti-competitive regulations, cost-price mismatches and imbalances due to government interventions and union restrictions, or the burdensomeness of taxes that reduce the willingness and ability of businessmen to undertake the enterprising activities that could lift Europe out of its economic malaise.
Furthermore, to the extent to which the European Central Bank succeeds in injecting this trillion Euros into the European economy it will only set in motion the danger of another future economic downturn. Not only may it feed an unsustainable financial and stock market run-up. The very manner in which the new money is introduced into the European-wide economy will inevitably distort the structure of relative prices and wages; wrongly twist the patterns of resource and labor uses; and induce forms of mal-invested capital.
Thus, the attempt to overcome Europe’s stagnant economy through monetary expansion will be the cause of a misdirection of labor, capital and production that will inescapably require readjustments and rebalances of supplies and demands, and price relationships that will mean people living through another recession at some point in the future.
A Market-Based Agenda for Growth and Jobs
What, then might be a “positive” pro-market agenda for economic recovery and job creation in the European Union, and in the United States, as well, for that matter? Among such policies should be:
Significantly reduce marginal personal tax rates and corporate taxes, and eliminate inheritance taxes; this would create greater incentives and the financial means for private investment, capital formation and job creation;
Cut government spending across the board by at a minimum of 10 percent more than taxes have been cut so to move the government in the direction of a balanced budget without any tax increases; this would take pressure off financial markets to fund government deficits, and end the growth in accumulated government debt, until finally government budgets would have surpluses to start paying down that debt;
Reduce and repeal government regulations over the business sector and financial institutions to allow competitive forces to operate and bring about necessary adjustments and corrections for restoring economic balance;
Institute real free trade through elimination and radical reduction of remaining financial and regulatory barriers to the competitive free flow of goods among countries;
End central bank monetary expansions and manipulation of interest rates; interest rates need to tell the truth about savings availability and investment profitability for long-run growth that is market-based and sustainable. Monetary expansion merely sends out false signals that distort the normal functioning of the market economy.
A market-based set of policies such as these would serve as the foundation for a sound and sustainable real “stimulus” for the European and American economies. It also would be consistent with the limited government and free enterprise principles at the foundation of a free society.
Despite the uncertainties ahead of the Greek general election, the European Central Bank (ECB) went ahead and announced quantitative easing (QE) of €60bn per month from March to at least September 2016.
What makes this interesting is the mounting evidence that QE does not bring about economic recovery. Even Jaime Caruana, General Manager of the Bank for International Settlements and who is the central bankers’ central banker, has publicly expressed deep reservations about QE. However, the ECB ploughs on regardless.
The Keynesians at the ECB are unclear in their thinking. They are unable to answer Caruana’s points, dismissing non-Keynesian economic theory as “religion”, and they sweep aside the empirical evidence of Keynesian policy failures. Instead they are panicking at the spectre of too little price inflation, the continuing fall in Eurozone bank lending and now falling commodity prices. To them, it is a situation that can only be resolved by monetary stimulation of aggregate demand applied through increased government deficit spending.
This is behind the supposed solution of the ECB’s QE, most of which will involve national central banks in the euro-system propping up their own national governments’ finances.
The increased socialisation of the weaker Eurozone economies, especially those of France, Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal, will inevitably lead to unnecessary economic destruction. QE always transfers wealth from savers to financial speculators and other early receivers of the new money. Somehow, the impoverishment of the working and saving masses for the benefit of the central bankers’ chosen few is meant to be good for the economy.
Commercial banks will be corralled into risk-free financing of their governments instead of lending to private enterprise. This is inevitable so long as the Single Supervisory Mechanism (the pan-European banking regulator) with a missionary zeal is discouraging banks from lending to anyone other than governments and government agencies. So the only benefit to employment will come from make-work programmes. Otherwise unemployment will inevitably increase as the states’ shares of GDP grow at the expense of their private sectors as the money and bank credit shifts from the former to the latter: this is the unequivocal lesson of history.
It may be that by passing government financing to the national central banks, the newly-elected Greek government can be bought off. It will be hard for this rebelling government to turn down free money, however angry it may be about austerity. But this is surely not justification for a Eurozone-wide monetary policy. While the Greek government might find it easier to appease its voters, courtesy of easy money through the Bank of Greece, hard-money Germans will be horrified. It may be tempting to think that the ECB’s QE relieves Germany from much of the peripheral Eurozone’s financing and that Germans are therefore less likely to oppose the ECB’s QE. Not so, because the ECB is merely the visible head of a wider euro-system, which includes the national central banks, through which there are other potential liabilities.
The principal hidden cost to Germany is through the intra-central bank settlement system, TARGET2, which should only show minor imbalances. This was generally true before the banking crisis, but since then substantial amounts have been owed by the weaker southern nations, notably Italy, to the stronger northern countries. Today, the whole of the TARGET2 system is being carried on German and Luxembourg shoulders as creditors for all the rest. Germany’s Bundesbank is owed €461bn, a figure that is likely to increase as the debtors’ negative balances continue to accumulate.
The currency effect
The immediate consequence of the ECB’s QE has been to weaken the euro against the US dollar, and importantly, it has forced the Swiss franc off its peg. The sudden 20% revaluation of the Swiss franc has generated significant losses for financial institutions which were short of the franc and long of the euro, which happens to have been the most important carry-trade in Europe, with many mortgages in Central and Eastern Europe denominated in Swiss francs as well. The Greek election has produced a further problem with a developing depositor run on her banks. Doubtless both the carry-trade and Greek bank problems can be resolved or covered up, but problems such as these are likely to further undermine international confidence in the euro, particularly against the US dollar, forcing the US’s Fed to defer yet again the day when it permits interest rates to rise.
This was the background to the Fed’s Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting this week, and the resulting press release can only be described as a holding operation. Statements such as “the Committee judges that it can be patient in beginning to normalise the stance of monetary policy” are indicative of fence-sitting or lack of commitment either way. It is however clear that despite the official line, the US economy is far from “expanding at a solid pace” (FOMC’s words) and external events are not helping either. For proof of that you need look no further than the slow-down of America’s overseas manufacturing and production facility: China.
The consequences for gold
Until now, central banks have restricted monetary policy to domestic economic management; this is now evolving into the more dangerous stage of internationalisation through competitive devaluations. We now have two major currencies, the yen and the euro, whose central banks are set to weaken them further against the US dollar. Sterling, being tied through trade with the euro, should by default weaken as well. To these we can add most of the lesser currencies, which have already fallen against the dollar and may continue to do so. The Fed’s 2% inflation target will become more remote as a consequence, and this is bound to defer the end of zero interest rate policy. So from all points of view competitive devaluations should be good for gold prices.
This is so far the case, with gold starting to rise against all major currencies, including the US dollar, with the price above 200-day and 50-day moving averages in bullish formation. To date from its lows gold has risen by up to 13% against the USD, 18% against the pound, 30% against the euro, and 32% against the yen. The rise against weaker emerging market currencies is correspondingly greater, fully justifying Asian caution about their government currencies as stores of value.
We know that Asian demand for bullion has absorbed all mine production, scrap and net selling of investment gold from advanced economies for at least the last two years. Indeed, the bear market in gold has been a process of redistribution from weak western into stronger eastern hands. So if there is a revival in physical demand from the public in these advanced economies it is hard to see how it can be satisfied at anything like current prices, with physical bullion now in firm hands.
The gold price is an early warning of future monetary and currency troubles, and it is now becoming apparent how they may transpire. The ECB move to give easy money to profligate Eurozone politicians is likely to have important ramifications well beyond Europe, and together with parallel actions by the Bank of Japan, can now be expected to increase demand for physical gold in the advanced economies once more.
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.
“I hold all idea of regulating the currency to be an absurdity; the very terms of regulating the currency and managing the currency I look upon to be an absurdity; the currency should regulate itself; it must be regulated by the trade and commerce of the world; I would neither allow the Bank of England nor any private banks to have what is called the management of the currency.”
– Richard Cobden.
“Raj, 33, a London-based photographer and amateur commodities trader who has used Alpari since 2009, said he currently had about £24,000 trapped in his account at the company.
‘It was completely out of the blue, a total shock,’ he said. ‘I’ve never had any issues with them. I’ve been calling and I just keep getting their answerphone.’”
– From ‘Forex brokers suffer escalating losses in fallout from Swiss ditching franc cap’, The Financial Times, 17 January 2015.
“I don’t know what to say. I’ve been investing since January and I’ve never seen anything like it.”
– Unnamed Hong Kong housewife during the Asian financial crisis, 1997/8.
“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. Since 1971, the bilateral ratio of industrial production has gone from 100 to 175… in favour 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 marvellous 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.”
– Charles Gave of Gavekal, ‘Swexit !’.
“An increase in the quantity of money only serves to dilute the exchange effectiveness of each franc or dollar; it confers no social benefit whatever. In fact, the reason why the government and its controlled banking system tend to keep inflating the money supply, is precisely because the increase is not granted to everyone equally. Instead, the nodal point of initial increase is the government itself and its central bank; other early receivers of the new money are favoured new borrowers from the banks, contractors to the government, and government bureaucrats themselves. These early receivers of the new money, Mises pointed out, benefit at the expense of those down the line of the chain, or ripple effect, who get the new money last, or of people on fixed incomes who never receive the new influx of money. In a profound sense, then, monetary inflation is a hidden form of taxation or redistribution of wealth, to the government and its favoured groups, and from the rest of the population.. every change in the supply of money stimulated by government can only be pernicious.”
– Murray Rothbard.
“The longer the boom of inflationary bank credit continues, the greater the scope of malinvestments in capital goods, and the greater the need for liquidation of these unsound investments. When the credit expansion stops, reverses, or even significantly slows down, the malinvestments are revealed. Mises demonstrated that the recession, far from being a strange, unexplainable aberration to be combated, is really a necessary process by which the market economy liquidates the unsound investments of the boom, and returns to the right consumption / investment proportions to satisfy consumers in the most efficient way.
“Thus, in contrast to the interventionists and statists who believe that the government must intervene to combat the recession process caused by the inner workings of free market capitalism, Mises demonstrated precisely the opposite: that the government must keep its hands off the recession, so that the recession process can quickly eliminate the distortions imposed by the government-created inflationary boom.”
– Murray Rothbard, again.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen in Europe but there is one thing I am certain about – eventually, someone is going to take a big loss. As investors, the most important thing we can do is to make sure that we aren’t the parties taking that loss.”
“The designers of the good ship euro wanted to create the greatest liner of the age. But as everybody now knows, it was fit only for fair-weather sailing, with an anarchic crew and no lifeboat. Its rules of economic seamanship were rudimentary, and were broken anyway. When it struck a reef two years ago, the water flooded one compartment after another.. European officials now recognise the folly of creating the euro without preparing for trouble. It would be wise to be planning now for what to do if it sinks.. Even now, after decades of “European construction”, many Eurocrats cannot conceive of the euro as a wreck. Those who have worked hardest to keep it afloat are exhausted and know it is not in their power to save it anyway.”
– Charlemagne in ‘The Economist’, November 2011.
“Sir, It was a very cruel joke to publish Richard Barwell‟s recent letter (“Exit from first round of QE now seems premature”), particularly as it followed hot on the heels of Fed chairman Ben Bernanke’s announcement of so much more of the stuff. It was certainly a delicious coinage of Mr Barwell’s to suggest that this argument “makes no sense in theory”. This reminded me of those scientists who also contend that bumble bees cannot fly – in theory. Can I suggest that the FT letters page imposes some kind of moratorium on self-interested and highly conflicted “advice” from an academic school – economics – that having brought us to the brink, is now in danger of theorising itself into total absurdity ? To read that Mr Barwell is employed by the one organisation that has done more than any other to destabilise if not destroy the UK financial system – RBS – was the icing on this particularly ironic cake.
“QE does nothing more than put yet more capital into the hands of bankers who can then either play in the markets with it, or sit on it. In doing so, it also devalues its practitioners’ currencies versus those of regimes that have fundamentally sound economic policy. If our government and central bank wanted to do something properly constructive with all this newly created money, perhaps it could invest it into our country’s jaded infrastructure, rather than inflating further asset bubbles, the “wealth effect” of which is likely to be wholly illusory.”
– Tragically unpublished letter to the Financial Times from the author, November 2010.
“What really broke Germany was the constant taking of the soft political option in respect of money.”
[Editor’s Note: The “Money Creation and Society” debate, which took place in the UK Parliament on Thursday the 20th November 2014, is shown below in both video and transcribed text formats.]
Steve Baker (Wycombe) (Con): I beg to move,
That this House has considered money creation and society.
The methods of money production in society today are profoundly corrupting in ways that would matter to everyone if they were clearly understood. The essence of this debate is: who should be allowed to create money, how and at whose risk? It is no wonder that it has attracted support from across the political spectrum, although, looking around the Chamber, I think that the Rochester and Strood by-election has perhaps taken its toll. None the less, I am grateful to right hon. and hon. Friends from all political parties, including the hon. Members for Clacton (Douglas Carswell) and for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) and the right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher), for their support in securing this debate.
One of the most memorable quotes about money and banking is usually attributed to Henry Ford:
“It is well enough that people of the nation do not understand our banking and monetary system, for if they did I believe there would be a revolution before tomorrow morning.”
Let us hope we do not have a revolution, as I feel sure we are all conservatives on that issue.
How is it done? The process is so simple that the mind is repelled. It is this:
“Whenever a bank makes a loan, it simultaneously creates a matching deposit in the borrower’s bank account, thereby creating new money.”
I have been told many times that this is ridiculous, even by one employee who had previously worked for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation of the United States. The explanation is taken from the Bank of England article, “Money creation in the modern economy”, and it seems to me it is rather hard to dismiss.
Today, while the state maintains a monopoly on the creation of notes and coins in central bank reserves, that monopoly has been diluted to give us a hybrid system because private banks can create claims on money, and those claims are precisely equivalent to notes and coins in their economic function. It is a criminal offence to counterfeit bank notes or coins, but a banking licence is formal permission from the Government to create equivalent money at interest.
There is a wide range of perspectives on whether that is legitimate. The Spanish economist, Jesús Huerta de Soto explains in his book “Money, Bank Credit and Economic Cycles” that it is positively a fraud—a fraud that causes the business cycle. Positive Money, a British campaign group, is campaigning for the complete nationalisation of money production. On the other hand, free banking scholars, George Selgin, Kevin Dowd and others would argue that although the state might define money in terms of a commodity such as gold, banking should be conducted under the ordinary commercial law without legal privileges of any kind. They would allow the issue of claims on money proper, backed by other assets—provided that the issuer bore
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all of the risk. Some want the complete denationalisation of money. Cryptocurrencies are now performing the task of showing us that that is possible.
The argument that banks should not be allowed to create money has an honourable history. The Bank Charter Act 1844 was enacted because banks’ issue of notes in excess of gold was causing economic chaos, particularly through reckless lending and imprudent speculation. I am once again reminded that the only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.
Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab): I welcome today’s debate. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point about learning from history. Does he agree with me that we should look seriously at putting this subject on the curriculum so that young people gain a better understanding of the history of this issue?
Steve Baker: That is absolutely right. It would be wonderful if the history curriculum covered the Bank Charter Act 1844. I would be full of joy about that, but we would of course need to cover economics, too, in order for people to really understand the issue. Since the hon. Gentleman raises the subject, there were ideas at the time of that Act that would be considered idiocy today, while some ideas rejected then are now part of the economic mainstream. Sir Robert Peel spent some considerable time emphasising that the definition of a pound was a specific quantity and quality of gold. The notion that anyone could reject that was considered ridiculous. How times change.
One problem with the Bank Charter Act 1844 was that it failed to recognise that bank deposits were functioning as equivalent to notes, so it did not succeed in its aim. There was a massive controversy at the time between the so-called currency school and the banking school. It appeared that the currency school had won; in fact, in practice, the banks went on to create deposits drawn by cheque and the ideas of the banking school went forward. The idea that one school or the other won should be rejected; the truth is that we have ended up with something of a mess.
We are in a debt crisis of historic proportions because for far too long profit-maximising banks have been lending money into existence as debt with too few effective restraints on their conduct and all the risks of doing so forced on the taxpayer by the power of the state. A blend of legal privilege, private interest and political necessity has created, over the centuries, a system that today lawfully promotes the excesses for which capitalism is so frequently condemned. It is undermining faith in the market economy on which we rely not merely for our prosperity, but for our lives.
Thankfully, the institution of money is a human, social institution and it can be changed. It has been changed and I believe it should be changed further. The timing of today’s debate is serendipitous, with the Prime Minister explaining that the warning lights are flashing on the dashboard of the world economy, and it looks like quantitative easing is going to be stepped up in Europe and Japan, just as it is being ramped out in America—and, of course, it has stopped in the UK. If anything, we are not at the end of a great experiment
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in monetary policy; we are at some mid point of it. The experiment will not be over until all the quantitative easing has been unwound, if it ever is.
We cannot really understand the effect of money production on society without remembering that our society is founded on the division of labour. We have to share the burden of providing for one another, and we must therefore have money as a means of exchange and final payment of debts, and also as a store of value and unit of account. It is through the price system that money allows us to reckon profit and loss, guiding entrepreneurs and investors to allocate resources in the way that best meets the needs of society. That is why every party in the House now accepts the market economy. The question is whether our society is vulnerable to false signals through that price system, and I believe that it is. That is why any flaws in our monetary arrangements feed into the price system and permeate the whole of society. In their own ways, Keynes and Mises—two economists who never particularly agreed with one another—were both able to say that currency debasement was the best way in which to overturn the existing basis of society.
Even before quantitative easing began, we lived in an era of chronic monetary inflation, unprecedented in the industrial age. Between 1991 and 2009, the money supply increased fourfold. It tripled between 1997 and 2010, from £700 billion to £2.2 trillion, and that accelerated into the crisis. It is simply not possible to increase the money supply at such a rate without profound consequences, and they are the consequences that are with us today, but it goes back further. The House of Commons Library and the Office for National Statistics produced a paper tracing consumer price inflation back to 1750. It shows that there was a flat line until about the 20th century, when there was some inflation over the wars, but from 1971 onwards, the value of money collapsed. What had happened? The Bretton Woods agreement had come to an end. The last link to gold had been severed, and that removed one of the most effective restraints on credit expansion. Perhaps in another debate we might consider why.
Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the end of the gold standard and the increased supply of money enabled business, enterprise and the economy to grow? Once we were no longer tied to the supply of gold, other avenues could be used for the growth of the economy.
Steve Baker: The hon. Gentleman has made an important point, which has pre-empted some of the questions that I intended to raise later in my speech. There is no doubt that the period of our lives has been a time of enormous economic, social and political transformation, but so was the 19th century, and during that century there was a secular decline in prices overall.
The truth is that any reasonable amount of money is adequate if prices are allowed to adjust. We are all aware of the phenomenon whereby the prices of computers, cars, and more or less anything else whose production is not determined by the state become gently lower as productivity increases. That is a rise in real living standards. We want prices to become lower in real terms compared to wages, which is why we argue about living standards.
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Sir William Cash (Stone) (Con): My hon. Friend is making an incredibly important speech. I only wish that more people were here to listen to it. I wonder whether he has read Nicholas Wapshott’s book about Hayek and Keynes, which deals very carefully with the question that he has raised. Does he agree that the unpleasantness of the Weimar republic and the inflationary increase at that time led to the troubles with Germany later on, but that we are now in a new cycle which also needs to be addressed along the lines that he has just been describing?
Steve Baker: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. What he has said emphasises that the subject that is at issue today goes to the heart of the survival of a free civilisation. That is something that Hayek wrote about, and I think it is absolutely true.
If I were allowed props in the Chamber, Mr Speaker, I might wave this 100 trillion Zimbabwe dollar note. You can hold bad politics in your hand: that is the truth of the matter. People try to explain that hyperinflation has never happened just through technocratic error, and that it happens in the context of, for example, extremely high debt levels and the inability of politicians to constrain them. In what circumstances do we find ourselves today, when we are still borrowing broadly triple what Labour was borrowing?
Ann McKechin (Glasgow North) (Lab): I am interested to hear what the hon. Gentleman is saying. He will be aware that the balance between wages and capital has shifted significantly in favour of capital over the past 30 years. Does he agree that the way in which we tax and provide reliefs to capital is key to controlling that balance? Does he also agree that we need to do more to increase wage levels, which have historically been going down in relation to capital over a long period of time?
Steve Baker: I think I hear the echoes of a particularly fashionable economist there. If the hon. Lady is saying that she would like rising real wage levels, of course I agree with her. Who wouldn’t? I want rising real wage levels, but something about which I get incredibly frustrated is the use of that word “capital”. I have heard economists talk about capital when what they really mean is money, and typically what they mean by money is new bank credit, because 97% of the money supply is bank credit. That is not capital; capital is the means of production. There is a lengthy conversation to be had on this subject, but if the hon. Lady will forgive me, I do not want to go into that today. I fear that we have started to label as capital money that has been loaned into existence without any real backing. That might explain why our capital stock has been undermined as we have de-industrialised, and why real wages have dropped. In the end, real wages can rise only if productivity increases, and that means an increase in the real stock of capital.
To return to where I wanted to go: where did all the money that was created as debt go? The sectoral lending figures show that while some of it went into commercial property, and some into personal loans, credit cards and so on, the rise of lending into real productive businesses excluding the financial sector was relatively moderate. Overwhelmingly, the new debt went into mortgages and the financial sector. Exchange and the distribution of wealth are part of the same social process. If I buy an apple, the distribution of apples and money will change. Money is used to buy houses, and we
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should not be at all surprised that an increased supply of money into house-buying will boost the price of those homes.
Mr Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley) (Lab): This is a great debate, but let us talk about ordinary people and their labour, because that involves money as well. To those people, talking about how capitalism works is like talking about something at the end of the universe. They simply need money to survive, and anything else might as well be at the end of the universe.
Steve Baker: The hon. Gentleman is quite right, and I welcome the spirit in which he asks that question. The vast majority of us, on both sides of the House, live on our labour. We work in order to obtain money so that we can obtain the things we need to survive.
The hon. Gentleman pre-empts another remark that I was going to make, which is that there is a categorical difference between earning money through the sweat of one’s brow and making money by lending it to someone in exchange for a claim on the deeds to their house. Those two concepts are fundamentally, categorically different, and this goes to the heart of how capitalism works. I appreciate that very little of this would find its way on to an election leaflet, but it matters a great deal nevertheless. Perhaps I shall need to ask my opponent if he has followed this debate.
My point is that if a great fountain of new money gushes up into the financial sector, we should not be surprised to find that the banking system is far wealthier than anyone else. We should not be surprised if financing and housing in London and the south-east are far wealthier than anywhere else. Indeed, I remember that when quantitative easing began, house prices started rising in Chiswick and Islington. Money is not neutral. It redistributes real income from later to earlier owners—that is, from the poor to the rich, on the whole. That distribution effect is key to understanding the effect of new money on society. It is the primary cause of almost all conflicts revolving around the production of money and around the relations between creditors and debtors.
Sir William Cash: My hon. Friend might be aware that, before the last general election, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) and I and one or two others attacked the Labour party for the lack of growth and expressed our concern about the level of debt. If we add in all the debts from Network Rail, nuclear decommissioning, unfunded pension liabilities and so on, the actual debt is reaching extremely high levels. According to the Government’s own statements, it could now be between £3.5 trillion and £4 trillion. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is extremely dangerous?
Steve Baker: It is extremely dangerous and it has been repeated around the world. An extremely good book by economist and writer Philip Coggan, of The Economist, sets out just how dangerous it is. In “Paper Promises: Money, Debt and the New World Order”; a journalist from The Economist seriously suggests that this huge pile of debt created as money will lead to a wholly new monetary system.
I have not yet touched on quantitative easing, and I will try to shorten my remarks, Mr Speaker, but the point is this: having lived through this era where the
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money supply tripled through new lending, the whole system, of course, blew up—the real world caught up with this fiction of a monetary policy—and so QE was engaged in. A paper from the Bank of England on the distributional effects of monetary policy explains that people would have been worse off if the Bank had not engaged in QE—it was, of course, an emergency measure. But one thing the paper says is that asset purchases by the Bank
“have pushed up the price of equities by as least as much as they have pushed up the price of gilts.”
The Bank’s Andy Haldane said, “We have deliberately inflated the biggest bond market bubble in history.”
Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): What is the hon. Gentleman’s view of QE? How does he see it fitting into the great scheme of things?
Steve Baker: As I am explaining, QE is a great evil; it is a substitute for proper reform of the banking system. But this is the point: if the greatest bubble has been blown in the bond markets and equities have been pushed up by broadly the same amount, that is a terrible risk to the financial system.
Mr MacNeil: Surely there is a difference depending on where the QE goes. In an economy that has a demand deficit and needs demand to be stimulated, if QE goes into the pockets of those who are going to spend the money, surely QE can create some more motion in the economy, but if QE goes into already deep pockets and makes them larger and deeper, that is a very different thing.
Steve Baker: Again, the hon. Gentleman touches on an interesting issue. Once the Bank legitimises the idea of money creation and giving it to people in order to get the economy going, the question then arises: if you are going to create it and give it away, why not give it to other people? That then goes to the question: what is money? I think it is the basis of a moral existence, because in our lives we should be exchanging value for value. One problem with the current system is that we are not doing that; something is being created in vast quantities out of nothing and given away. The Bank explains that 40% of the assets that have been inflated are held by 5% of households, with 80% held by people over 45. It seems clear that QE—a policy of the state to intervene deeply in money—is a deliberate policy of increasing the wealth of people who are older and wealthier.
Mr MacNeil: One word the hon. Gentleman used was “moral”, and he touches on what the economist Paul Krugman will say: some on the right see the recession and so on as a morality play, and confuse economics and morals. Sometimes getting things going economically is not about the straightforward “morality” money the hon. Gentleman has touched on. That could be one reason why the recovery is taking so long.
Steve Baker: I am conscious that I have already used slightly more time than I intended, Mr Speaker, and I have a little more to say because of these interventions. All these subjects, as my bookshelves attest, are easily
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capable of being explained over hundreds of pages. My bottom line on this is: I want to live in a society where even the most selfish person is compelled by our institutions to serve the needs of other people. The institution in question is called a free market economy, because in a free market economy people do not get any bail-outs and do not get to live at somebody else’s expense; they have to produce what other people want. One thing that has gone wrong is that those on the right have ended up defending institutions that are fundamentally statist.
Douglas Carswell (Clacton) (UKIP): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this important subject to the attention of the House. Does he agree that, far from shoring up free market capitalism, the candy floss credit system the state is presiding over replaces it with a system of crony corporatism that gives capitalism a bad name and undermines its very foundations?
Steve Baker: I am delighted to agree with my hon. Friend—he is that, despite the fact I will not be seeing Nigel later. We have ended up pretending that the banking system and the financial system is a free market when the truth is that it is the most hideous corporatist mess. What I want is a free market banking system, and I will come on to discuss that.
I wanted to make some remarks about price signals, but I will foreshorten them, and try to cover the issue as briskly as I can—it was the subject of my maiden speech. Interest rates are a price signal like any other. They should be telling markets about people’s preferences for goods now compared with goods later. If they are deliberately manipulated, they will tell entrepreneurs the wrong thing and will therefore corrupt people’s investment decisions. The bond and equity markets are there to allocate capital. If interest rates are manipulated and if new money is thrown into the system, prices get detached from the real world values they are supposed to be connected to—what resources are available, what technology is available, what people prefer. The problem is that these prices, which have been detached from reality, continue to guide entrepreneurs and investors, but if they are now guiding entrepreneurs and investors in a direction that takes them away from the real desires of the public and the available resources and the technology, we should not then be surprised if we end up with a later disaster.
In short, after prices have been bid up by a credit expansion, they are bound to fall when later the real world catches up with it. That is why economies are now suffering this wrecking ball of inflation followed by deflation, and here is the rub: throughout most of my life, the monetary policy authorities have responded to these corrections by pumping in more new money—previously through ever cheaper credit, and now through QE. This raises the question of where this all goes, and brings me back to the point my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) provoked from me: that this might be pointing towards an end of this monetary order. That is not necessarily something to be feared, because the monetary order changed several times in the 20th century.
We have ended up in something of a mess. The Governor said about the transition once interest rates normalise:
“The orderliness of that transition is an open question.”
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I believe the Governor is demonstrating the optimism appropriate to his role, because I think it is extremely unlikely that we will have an orderly transition once interest rates start to normalise. The problem is basically that Governments want to spend too much money. That has always been the case throughout history. Governments used to want to fund wars. Now, for all good, moral, decent, humanitarian reasons, we want to fund health, welfare and education well beyond what the public will pay in taxes. That has meant we needed easy money to support the borrowing.
What is to be done? A range of remedies are being proposed. Positive Money proposes the complete nationalisation of the production of money, some want variations on a return to gold, perhaps with free banking, and some want a spontaneous emergence of alternative moneys like Bitcoin.
I would just point out that Walter Bagehot is often prayed in aid of central banking policy, but his book “Lombard Street” shows that he did not support central banking; he thought it was useless to try to propose any change. What we see today is that, with alternative currencies such as Bitcoin spontaneously emerging, it is now possible through technology that, within a generation, we will not all be putting our money in a few big mega-banks, held as liabilities, issued out of nothing.
I want to propose three things the Government can practically do. First, the present trajectory of reform should be continued with. After 15 years of studying these matters, and now having made it to the Treasury Committee, I am ever more convinced that there is no way to change the present monetary order until the ideas behind it have been tested to destruction—and I do mean tested to destruction. This is an extremely serious issue. It will not change until it becomes apparent that the ideas behind the system are untenable.
Secondly, and very much with that in mind, we should strongly welcome proposals from the Bank’s chief economist, Andy Haldane, that it will commission “anti-orthodox research”, and it will
“put into the public domain research and analysis which as often challenges as supports the prevailing policy orthodoxy on certain key issues.”
That research could make possible fundamental monetary reform in the event of another major calamity.
Thirdly, we should welcome the Chancellor’s recent interest in crypto-currencies and his commitment to make Britain a “centre of financial innovation.” Imperfect and possibly doomed as it may be, Bitcoin shows us that peer-to-peer, non-state money is practical and effective. I have used it to buy an accessory for a camera; it is a perfectly ordinary legal product and it was easier to use than a credit card and it showed me the price in pounds or any other currency I liked. It is becoming possible for people to move away from state money.
Every obstacle to the creation of alternative currencies within ordinary commercial law should be removed. We should expand the range of commodities and instruments related to those commodities that are treated like money, such as gold. That should include exempting VAT and capital gains tax and it should be possible to pay tax on those new moneys. We must not fall into the same trap as the United States of obstructing innovation. In the case of the Liberty Dollar and Bernard von NotHaus, it
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seems that a man may spend the rest of his life in prison simply for committing the supposed crime of creating reliable money.
Finally, we are in the midst of an unprecedented global experiment in monetary policy and debt. It is likely, as Philip Coggan set out, that this will result in a new global monetary order. Whether it will be for good or ill, I do not know, but as technology and debt advance, I am sure that we should be ready for a transformation. Society has suffered too much already under the present monetary orthodoxy; free enterprise should now be allowed to change it.
Mr Michael Meacher (Oldham West and Royton) (Lab): I, too, strongly congratulate the hon. Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) on securing this debate, which everyone recognises is vital and which has not been debated in this House for 170 years, since Sir Robert Peel’s Bank Charter Act 1844. The hon. Gentleman drew that fact to my attention when we were last speaking in a similar debate. That Act prohibited the private banks from printing paper money. In light of the financial crash of 2008-09 and the colossal expansion of money supply that underpinned it—no less than a twenty-two-fold increase in the 30 neo-liberal years between 1980 and 2010—the issue is whether that prohibition should be extended to include electronic money.
It is unfortunate that it is so little understood by the public that money is created by the banks every time they make a loan. In effect, the banks have a virtual monopoly—about 97%—over domestic credit creation, so they determine how money is allocated across the economy. That has led to the vast majority of money being channelled into property markets and the financial sector. According to Bank of England figures for the decade to 2007, 31% of additional money created by bank lending went to mortgage lending, 20% to commercial property, and 32% to the financial sector, including to mergers and acquisitions and trading and financial markets. Those are extraordinary figures.
Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): Given what my right hon. Friend has just said, is there not an argument, in this situation of unlimited credit from banks, for the Bank of England to intervene?
Mr Meacher: My hon. Friend anticipates the main line of my argument, so if he is patient I think I will be able to satisfy him. Crucially, only 8% of the money referred to went to businesses outside the financial sector, with a further 8% funding credit cards and personal loans.
Mr MacNeil: I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says about money going into building, housing and mortgages, but is that not because the holders of money reckon that they can get a decent return from that sector? They would invest elsewhere if they thought that they could get a better return. One reason why the UK gets a better return from that area than, say, Germany is that we have no rent controls. As a result, money is more likely to go into property than into developing industry, which is more likely to happen in Germany.
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Mr Meacher: I very much agree with that argument. Again, I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will return to that matter later in my speech. He is absolutely right that the reason is the greater returns that the banks can get from the housing and rental sector. Our rental sector, which is different from that in Germany and other countries, is the cause of that.
It is only this last 16%—the 8% lent to businesses and the 8% to consumer credit—that has a real impact on GDP and economic growth. The conclusion is unavoidable: we cannot continue with a system in which so little of the money created by banks is used for the purposes of economic growth and value creation and in which, instead, to pick up on the point made by the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil), the overwhelming majority of the money created inflates property prices, pushing up the cost of living.
In a nutshell, the banks have too much power and they have greatly abused it. First, they have been granted enormous privileges since they can create wealth simply by writing an accounting entry on a register. They decide who uses that wealth and for what purpose and they have used their power of credit creation hugely to favour property and consumption lending over business investment because the returns are higher and more secure. Thus the banks maximise their own interests but not the national interest.
Secondly, if they fail to meet their liabilities, the banks are not penalised. Someone else pays up for them. The first £85,000 of deposits are covered by a guarantee underwritten by the state and in the event of a major financial crash they are bailed out by the implicit taxpayer guarantee—
Mr Meacher: Let me finish, and I will of course give way.
The banks have been encouraged by that provision into much more risky, even reckless, investment, especially in the case of exotic financial derivatives—
Mr Jim Cunninghamrose—
Mr Meacher: Members are beginning to queue up to intervene, but let me finish my point first.
The banks have been encouraged even to the point at which after the financial crash of 2008-09 the state was obliged to undertake the direct bail-out costs of nearly £70 billion as well as to provide a mere £1 trillion in support of loan guarantees, liquidity schemes and asset protection arrangements.
Steve Baker: I wholly agree with the right hon. Gentleman. The moral hazard problem is absolutely enormous and one of the most fundamental problems. However, the British Bankers Association picked me up when I said it was a state-funded deposit insurance scheme and told me it was industry-funded. I think the issue now is that nobody really believes for a moment that the scheme will not be back-stopped by the taxpayer.
Mr Meacher: As always, I am grateful for the intervention from the hon. Gentleman—let me call him my hon. Friend, as I think that on this issue he probably is.
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Mr Jim Cunningham: On the question of banks investing in the property market, does my right hon. Friend think we could learn anything from the United States and the collapse of Fannie Mae? Are we in a similar situation?
Mr Meacher: Again, that takes me down a different path, but there is considerable read-across.
Douglas Carswell: The right hon. Gentleman has been absolutely magnificent in diagnosing the problem, but when it comes to the solution and passing power away from banks, rather than passing the power upwards to a regulator or to the state, would he entertain the idea of empowering the consumer who deposits money with the bank? Surely the real failure is that the Bank Charter Act 1844 does not give legal ownership of deposits to the person paying money into the bank. The basis of fractional-reserve banking is the legal ownership the bank has when money is paid in. If we tackle that, the power will pass from the big state-subsidised corporations and banks outwards to the wider economy.
Mr Meacher: I have great sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman is saying—
Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney North and Stoke Newington) (Lab)rose—
Mr Meacher: One at a time, please. I was going to say a little bit more than that I had sympathy with what the hon. Member for Clacton (Douglas Carswell) said.
I will argue that the capacity to regulate an increasingly and exceedingly complex financial sector is not the proper way, and I will propose an alternative solution. I am strongly in favour of structural changes that enable people to achieve greater control over the money that they have contributed.
Ms Abbott: I was intrigued to hear my right hon. Friend mention depositor protection. Is he saying that he is against any form of depositor protection?
Mr Meacher: The protection of deposits is up to £85,000 and is underwritten by the state.
Ms Abbott: Is my right hon. Friend against?
Mr Meacher: I am neither for nor against. I am making the point that the arrangement encourages the banks to increase their risk taking. If they are caught out, for each depositor £85,000 is guaranteed by the state. I agree with the hon. Member for Wycombe that we need much wider structural change. It is not a question of tweaking one thing here or there.
The question at the heart of the debate is who should create the money? Would Parliament ever have voted to delegate power to create money to those same banks that caused the horrendous financial crisis that the world is still suffering? I think the answer is unambiguously no. The question that needs to be put is how we should achieve the switch from unbridled consumerism to a framework of productive investment capable of generating a successful and sustainable manufacturing and industrial base that can securely underpin UK living standards.
Two models have hitherto been used to operate such a system. One was the centralised direction of finance, which was used extremely successfully by several Asian countries, especially the south-east Asian so-called tiger
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economies, after the second world war, to achieve take-off. I am not suggesting that that method is appropriate for us today. It is not suited to advanced industrial democracies. The other method was to bring about through official “guidance” the rationing of bank credit in accordance with national targets and, where necessary, through quantitative direct controls. In the post-war period, that policy worked well in the UK for a quarter of a century, until the 1970s when it was steadily replaced by the purely market system of competition and credit control based exclusively on interest rates. In our experience of the past 30 or 40 years, that has proved deeply unstable, dysfunctional and profoundly costly.
Since then there have been sporadic attempts to create a safer banking system, but these have been deeply flawed. Regulation under the dictates of the neo-liberal ideology has been so light-touch—by new Labour just as much as by the other Government—that it has been entirely ineffective. Regulation has been too detailed. I remind the House that Basel III has more than 400 pages, and the US Dodd-Frank Bill has a staggering 8,000 pages or more. It is impossibly bureaucratic and almost certainly full of loopholes. Other regulation has been so cautious—for example, the Vickers commission proposal for Chinese walls between the investment and retail arms of a bank—that it missed the main point. Whatever regulatory safeguards the authorities put in place faced regulatory arbitrage from the phalanx of lawyers and accountants in the City earning their ill-gotten bonuses by unpicking or circumventing them.
Mr Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is always very good on these subjects. Would I be going too far if I were to suggest that we should nationalise the City, nationalise the banks and run ourselves a Government on behalf of the people?
Mr Meacher: Public ownership of the banks is a significant issue, but I am not going to propose it in my speech. It would be a mistake to return RBS and Lloyds to the private sector, and the arguments about Barclays and HSBC need to be made, but not in this debate. I shall suggest an alternative solution that removes the power of money creation from the banks and puts it in different hands to ensure better results in the national interest.
Against that background, there are solid grounds for examining—this is where I come to my proposal—the creation of a sovereign monetary system, as recommended by several expert commentators recently. Martin Wolf, who, as everyone in this House will know, is an influential chief economics commentator for the Financial Times, wrote an article a few months ago—on 24 April, to be precise—entitled, “Strip private banks of their power to create money”. He recommends switching from bank-created debt to a nationalised money supply.
Lord Adair Turner, the former chair of the Financial Services Authority, delivered a speech about 18 months ago, in February 2013, discussing an alternative to quantitative easing that he termed “overt money finance,” which is also known as a from of sovereign money. Such a system—I will describe its main outline—would restrict the power to create all money to the state via the central bank. Changes to the rules governing how banks operate would still permit them to make loans, but would make it impossible for them to create new money in the
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process. The central bank would continue to follow the remit set by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, which is currently to deliver price stability, which is defined at the present time as an inflation target of 2%. The central bank would be exclusively responsible for creating as much new money as was necessary to support non-inflationary growth. Decisions on money creation would be taken independently of Government by a newly formed money creation committee or by the existing Monetary Policy Committee, either of which would be accountable to the Treasury Committee. Accountability to the House is crucial to the whole process.
Mr Jim Cunningham: Going back to the question I asked my right hon. Friend earlier, what would be the role of the Bank of England?
Mr Meacher: I will come on to explain that. The Bank of England has an absolutely crucial role to play. If my hon. Friend listens to the last bit of my speech, he will get a full answer to that question.
A sovereign money system thus offers—if I may say this—a clear thermostat to balance the economy, which is notoriously lacking at present. In times when the economy is in recession or growth is slow, the money creation committee would be able to increase the rate of money creation, to boost aggregate demand. If growth is very high and inflationary pressures are increasing, it could slow down the rate of money creation. That would be a crucial improvement over the current system, whereby the banks either produce too much mortgage credit in a boom because of the high profit prospects, which produces a housing bubble and raises house prices, or produce too little credit in a recession, which exacerbates the lack of demand.
Lending to businesses is central to this whole debate.
Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab): I want to take my right hon. Friend back to when he mentioned accountability to Parliament and the Select Committee. Could he enlarge on that point? On accountability, what powers would Parliament have to ensure that his proposal was being followed through properly and the rules were being laid down?
Mr Meacher: The purpose of accountability to the Treasury Committee would be to enable Parliament fully to explore the manner in which the money creation committee or the Monetary Policy Committee was working. I would anticipate a full three-hour discussion with the leading officials of those committees before the Treasury Committee, and if necessary they could be given a hard time. Certainly, the persons in this House who are most competent to deal with the matter would make clear their priorities, and where they thought the money creation committee was not paying sufficient attention to the way in which it was operating, and they would suggest changes. They would not have the power formally to compel the money creation committee to change, but I think the whole point about Select Committees, which are televised and discussed in the media, is that they have a very big effect. That would be a major change compared with what we have at present. Like all systems, if it is inadequate it can be modified, changed and increasingly enforced.
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Sir William Cash: With reference to the Treasury Committee, does the right hon. Gentleman see a potential role for some form of joint Committee, perhaps with the Public Accounts Committee, whose origins are to do with taxation and spending? Does he think that broadening scrutiny a little in that direction might be helpful so that we get the full benefit of the all-party agreement of both Committees?
Mr Meacher: That is a helpful intervention. Although it is a relatively big part of what I am proposing, it is not for me to suggest exactly what the structure of accountability should be. I would be strongly in favour of increasing it as the hon. Gentleman proposes. Until this House is content that it has a proper channel of accountability which is effective in terms of the way our financial system is run, we should bring in further changes to the structure of accountability as may be necessary, such as along the lines that he suggests.
On lending to businesses, the experience that we have had in the past half-decade has been very unsatisfactory. Under a sovereign monetary system, the central bank would be empowered to create money for the express purpose of that funding role. The money would be lent to banks with the requirement that the funds were used for productive purposes, whereas lending for speculative purposes—for example, to purchase pre-existing assets, either financial or property—would not be allowed. The central bank could also create and lend funds to other intermediaries—the hon. Member for Wycombe referred to this—such as regional or publicly owned business banks, which would ensure that a floor could be placed under the level of lending to businesses, which would be a great relief to British business, guaranteeing support for the real economy.
To avoid misunderstanding, I should add that within the limits imposed by the central bank on the broad purposes for which money may be lent, lending decisions would be entirely at the discretion of the lending institutions, not of the Government or the central bank.
I believe that a sovereign monetary system offers very considerable advantages over the current system. First, it would create a better and safer banking system because banks would have an incentive to take lower levels of risk, as there would be no option of a bail-out or rescue from taxpayers and thus moral hazard would be reduced. Secondly, it would increase economic stability because money creation by banks tends to be pro-cyclical, as I explained, whereas money creation by the central bank would be counter-cyclical. Thirdly, sovereign money crucially supports the real economy, whereas under the current system 83% of lending does not at present go into productive investment. I underline that three times.
Ann McKechin: My right hon. Friend said that the aim would be to reduce risk and for banks to be more cautious, but if we are to encourage innovation in manufacturing, would we not require an investment bank at state level that could fund the riskier levels of innovation to ensure that they get to market, because they are not at the point where they would be commercially viable?
Mr Meacher: That is an extremely important point and, again, I strongly support it. The current Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills has been
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struggling to introduce a Government-supported business investment bank and has recently announced something along those lines. I think that should be greatly expanded. The book by Mariana Mazzucato, which I hope most of us have read, “The Entrepreneurial State”, shows the degree to which funding for major innovation, not just in this country but in many other countries which she cites, has been financed through the state because the private sector was not willing to take on board the risk involved. One understands that, but one does need to recognise that the role of the state is extremely important, and under a Labour Government I would like to see something like this being brought in.
Ian Murray (Edinburgh South) (Lab): My right hon. Friend makes a tremendous case for money creation and what we should be considering in this House, but I wonder whether there is also a cultural issue. Many businesses and lenders tell me that there is a cultural problem in the United Kingdom for businesses, particularly entrepreneurial businesses that we have heard about from my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin), with regard to giving away equity rather than creating debt—funding businesses through equity rather than debt. Other countries throughout Europe that are incredibly successful at giving away equity rather than creating debt have much more growth in their entrepreneurial economy.
Mr Meacher: That is perfectly true, and my hon. Friend makes an important point. The proposals that I am making would support that. There is a very different climate in this country, largely brought about by the churning in the City of London where profits have to be increased or reach a relevant size within a very short period, such as three or six months. Most entrepreneurial businesses cannot possibly produce a decent profit within that period, so the current financial system does not encourage what my hon. Friend wants. These proposals would make money creation available to those we really want to support much more fully than at present.
Fourthly, under the current system, house price bubbles transfer wealth, as we all know, from the young to the old and from those who cannot get on the property ladder to existing house owners, which increases wealth inequality, while removing the ability of banks to create money should dampen house price rises and thus reduce the rate of wealth inequality.
My fifth and last point, which I think is very important, is that sovereign money redresses a major democratic deficit. Under the current system, around just 80 board members across the largest five banks make decisions that shape the entire UK economy, even though these individuals have no obligation or mandate to consider the needs of society or the economy as a whole, and are not accountable in any way to the public: it is for the maximisation of their own interests, not the national interest. Under sovereign money, the money creation committee would be highly transparent—we have discussed this already—and accountable to Parliament.
For all those reasons, the examination of the merits of a sovereign monetary system is now urgently needed, and I call on the Government to set up a commission on money and credit, with particular reference to the potential benefits of sovereign money, which offers a way out of
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the continuing and worsening financial crises that have blighted this country and the whole international economy for decades.
Mr Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): It is a pleasure, as always, to follow the right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher), who gave us a characteristically thoughtful and radical speech. I do not necessarily start from the same premises as him, but what he says is an important contribution to the debate, on the securing of which I credit my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker). He has done the House and the country a service by forcing us to focus on the issue of where money comes from and what banks do. He did so in an insightful way. Above all, he showed that he sees, as our old universities used to see, economics as a branch of moral sciences. It is not just a narrow, analytical, economic issue, but a moral, philosophical and ultimately a theological issue, which he illuminated well for the House.
A lot has been made of the ignorance of Members of Parliament of how money is created. I suspect that that ignorance, not just in Members of Parliament but in the intellectual elite in this country, explains many things, not least why we entered the financial crisis with a regulatory system that was so unprepared for a banking crisis. I suspect that it is because people have not reflected on why banks are so different from all other capitalist companies. They are different in three crucial respects, which is why they need a very different regulatory system from normal companies.
First, all bankers—not just rogue bankers but even the best, the most honourable and the most honest—do things that would land the rest of us in jail. Near my house in France is a large grain silo. After the harvest, farmers deposit grain in it. The silo gives them a certificate for every tonne of grain that they deposit. They can withdraw that amount of grain whenever they want by presenting that certificate. If the silo owner issued more certificates than there was grain kept in his silo, he would go to jail, but that is effectively what bankers do. They keep as reserves only a fraction of the money deposited with them, which is why we call the system the fractional reserve banking system. Murray Rothbard, a much neglected Austrian economist in this country, said very flatly that banking is therefore fraud: fractional reserve banking is fraud; it should be outlawed; banks should be required to keep 100% reserves against the money they lend out. I reject that conclusion, because there is a value in what banks do in transforming short-term savings into long-term investments. That is socially valuable and that is the function banks serve.
We should recognise the second distinctive feature of banks that arises directly from the fact that they have only a fraction of the reserves against the loans they make: banks, individually and collectively, are intrinsically unstable. They are unstable because they borrow short and lend long. I have been constantly amazed throughout the financial crisis to hear intelligent people say that the problem with Northern Rock, RBS or HBOS, or with the German, French, Greek and other banks that ran into problems, was the result of their borrowing short and lending long, and they should not have been doing it, as if it was a deviation from their normal role. Of course banks borrow short and lend long. That is what
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banks do. That is what they are there for. If they had not done that they would not be banks. Banking works so long as too many depositors do not try to withdraw their funds simultaneously. However, if depositors, retail or wholesale, withdraw or refuse to renew their short-term deposits, a bank will fail.
If normal companies fail, there is no need for the Government to intervene. Their assets will be redeployed in a more profitable use or taken over by a better-managed company. But if one bank fails, depositors are likely to withdraw deposits from other banks, about which there may also be doubts. A bank facing a run, whether or not initially justified, would be forced to call in loans or sell collateral, causing asset prices to fall, thereby undermining the solvency of other banks. So the failure of one bank may lead to the collapse of the whole banking system.
The third distinctive feature of banks was highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe: banks create money. The vast majority of money consists of bank deposits. If a bank lends a company £10 million, it does not need to go and borrow that money from a saver; it simply creates an extra £10 million by electronically crediting the company’s bank account with that sum. It creates £10 million out of thin air. By contrast, when a bank loan is repaid, that extinguishes money; it disappears into thin air. The total money supply increases when banks create new loans faster than old loans are repaid. That is where growth in the money supply usually comes from, and it is the normal situation in a growing economy. Ideally, credit should expand so that the supply of money grows sufficiently rapidly to finance growth in economic activity. When a bank or banks collapse, they will call in loans, which will reduce the money supply, which in turn will cause a contraction of activity throughout the economy.
In that respect, banks are totally different from other companies—even companies that also lend things. If a car rental company collapses, it does not lead to a reduction in the number of cars available in the economy. Its stock of cars can be sold off to other rental companies or to individuals. Nor does the collapse of one rental company weaken the position of other car rental companies; on the contrary, they then face less competition, which should strengthen their margins.
The collapse of a car rental company has no systemic implications, whereas the collapse of a bank can pull down the whole banking system and plunge the economy into recession. That is why we need a special regulatory regime for banks and, above all, a lender of last resort to pump in money if there is a run on the banks or a credit crunch, yet this was barely discussed when the new regulatory structure of our financial and banking system was set up in 1998. The focus then was on consumer protection issues. Systemic stability and the lender-of-last-resort function were scarcely mentioned. That is why the UK was so unprepared when the credit crunch struck in 2007. Nor were these aspects properly considered when the euro was set up. As a result, a currency and a banking system were established without the new central bank being given the power to act as lender of last resort. It has had to usurp that power, more or less illegally, but that is its own problem.
This analysis is not one of those insights that come from hindsight. Some while ago, Michael Howard, now the noble Lord Howard, reminded Parliament—and
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indeed me; I had completely forgotten—that I was shadow Chancellor when the Bill that became the Bank of England Act 1998 was introduced. He pointed out that I then warned the House that
“With the removal of banking control to the Financial Services Authority…it is difficult to see how…the Bank remains, as it surely must, responsible for ensuring the liquidity of the banking system and preventing systemic collapse.”
And so it turned out. I added:
“setting up the FSA may cause regulators to take their eye off the ball, while spivs and crooks have a field day.”—[Official Report, 11 November 1997; Vol. 300, c. 731-32.]
So that turned out, too. I could foresee that, because the problem was not deregulation, but the regulatory confusion and the proliferation of regulation introduced by the former Chancellor, which resulted from a failure to focus on the banking system’s inherent instability, and to provide for its stability.
This failure to focus on the fundamentals was not a peculiarly British thing. The EU made the same mistakes in spades when setting up the euro, and at the very apogee of the world financial system, they deluded themselves that instability was a thing of the past. In its “Global Financial Stability Report” of April 2006, less than 18 months before the crisis erupted, the International Monetary Fund, no less, said:
“There is growing recognition that the dispersion of credit risk by banks to a broader and more diverse group of investors, rather than warehousing such risk on their balance sheets, has helped to make the banking and overall financial system more resilient…The improved resilience may be seen in fewer bank failures and more consistent credit provision. Consequently, the commercial banks…may be less vulnerable today to credit or economic shocks.”
The supreme irony is that those at the pinnacle of the world regulatory system believed that the very complex derivatives that contributed to the collapse of the financial system would render it immune to such instability. We need constantly to be aware that banks are unstable, and are the source of money. If instability leads to a crash, that leads to a contraction in the money supply, and that can exacerbate and intensify a recession.
Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): I am listening carefully to my right hon. Friend. Does that mean that the banks are uncontrollable, as things stand?
Mr Lilley: No; they can and should be controlled. They are controlled both by being required to have assets, and ultimately by the measures that Government should take to ensure that they do not expand lending too rapidly. That is the point that I want to come on to, because a failure to focus on the nature of banking and money creation causes confusion about the causes of inflation and the role of quantitative easing.
As too many people do not understand where money comes from, there is confusion about quantitative easing. To some extent, the monetarists, of whom I am one, are responsible for that confusion. For most of our lifetime, the basic economic problem has been inflation. There have been great debates about its causes. Ultimately, those debates were won by the monetarists. They said, “Inflation is caused by too much money—by money growing more rapidly than output. If that happens, inevitably and inexorably, prices will rise.” The trouble was that all too often, monetarists used the shorthand
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phrase, “Inflation is caused by Government printing too much money.” In fact, it is caused not by Government printing the money, but by banks lending money and then creating new money at too great a rate for the needs of the economy. We should have said, “Inflation follows when Governments allow or encourage banks to create money too rapidly.” The inflationary problem was not who created the money, but the fact that too much money was created.
The banks are now not lending enough to create enough money to finance the growth and expansion of the economy that we need. That is why the central bank steps in with quantitative easing, which is often described as the bank printing money. Those who have been brought up to believe that printing money was what caused inflation think that quantitative easing must, by definition, cause inflation. It only causes inflation if there is too much of it—if we create too much money at a faster rate than the growth of output, and therefore drive up prices—but that is not the situation at present.
Mr MacNeil: The right hon. Gentleman is giving a very good explanation of the different circumstances in which money is created. He has spoken about the morality, and about quantitative easing. When there is demand, what is his view of the theory of helicopter money, and where that money gets spread to?
Mr Lilley: As a disciple of Milton Friedman, I am rather attracted to the idea of helicopter money; I think it was he who introduced the metaphor, and said that it would be just as effective if money were sprayed by a helicopter as if it were created by banks. Hopefully, as I live quite near the helicopter route to Battersea, I would be a principal recipient. I do not think that there is a mechanism available that would allow us to do that, but I am not averse to that in principle, if someone could do it. My point is that the banks, either spontaneously or encouraged by the central bank through quantitative easing, must generate enough money to ensure that the economy can grow steadily and stably.
Mr MacNeil: Could it not be argued that increasing welfare payments would be a form of helicopter money, because the people most likely to spend money are those with very little money? If we put money in the pockets of those who have little money, it would be very positive, because of the economic multiplier; the money would be spent, and would circulate, very quickly.
Mr Lilley: There are far better reasons for giving money to poor people than because their money will circulate more rapidly—and there is no evidence for that; I invite the hon. Gentleman to read Milton Friedman’s “A Theory of the Consumption Function”, which showed that that is all nonsense. There are good reasons for giving money to poor people, namely that they are poor and need money. Whether the money should be injected by the Government spending more than they are raising, rather than by the central bank expanding its balance sheet, is a moot point.
All I want to argue today is that we should recognise that the economy is as much threatened by a shortage of money as it is by an excess of money. For most of our lifetimes the problem has been an excess, but now it is a shortage. We therefore need to balance in either occasion
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the rate of growth of money with the rate of growth of output if we are to have stability of prices and stable economic activity. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe on bringing these important matters to the House’s attention.
Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) (Lab): I welcome this debate and congratulate hon. Friends on securing it, because we have not debated this matter for over 100 years, and it is time we did so. This House and the Government are obsessed with money and the economy, but we never debate the creation of money or credit, and we should, because, when it comes to our present economic situation and the way the banks and the economy are run, that is the elephant in the room. It is time to think not outside the box, but outside the banks; it is time to think about the creation of credit and money.
I speak as a renegade social creditor who is still influenced by social credit thinking; I do not pledge total allegiance to Major Douglas, but I am still influenced by him. As has just been pointed out, 93% of credit is created by the banks, and a characteristic of what has happened to the economy since the ’70s is the enormous expansion of that credit. I have here a graph from Positive Money showing that the money created by the banks was £109 billion in 1980. Thanks to the financial reforms and the huge increase in the power of the banks since then, by 2010 that figure had risen to £2,213 billion, whereas the total cash created by the Government—the other 3%—had barely increased at all. Since 2000 we have seen the amount of money created by the banks more than double.
That has transformed the economy, because it has financialised everything and made money far more important. It has created debt-fuelled growth followed by collapse. It is being controlled by the banks, which have directed the money into property and financial speculation. Only 8% of the credit created has been lent to new businesses. The Government talk about the march of the makers, but the makers are not marching into the banks, because the banks are turning them away. Even commercial property is more important than makers. That has created a very lop-sided economy, with a weak industrial base that cannot pay the nation’s way in the world because investment has been directed elsewhere, and a very unequal society, which has showered wealth on those at the top, as Piketty shows, and taken it away from those at the bottom.
A very undesirable situation is being created. We have built an unstable economy that is very exposed to risk and to bubble economics, thanks to the financialisation process that has gone on since 1979. The state allocates all credit creation to the banks and then has to bail them out and guarantee them, at enormous expense and with the creation of debt for the public, when the bubble bursts and they collapse.
Some argue—Major Douglas would have argued this—that credit should therefore be issued only by the state, through the Bank of England. That would probably be a step too far in the present situation, given our present lack of education, but we can and should create the credit issued by the banks. We can and should separate the banks’ utility function—servicing our needs, with cheque books, pay and so on—and their speculative
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role. The Americans have moved a step further, with the Volcker rule, but it is not quite strong enough. In this country we tend to rely on Chinese walls, which are not strong at all. I think that only a total separation of the banks’ utility and speculative arms will do it, because Chinese walls are infinitely penetrable and are regularly penetrated.
We can limit the credit creation by the banks by increasing the reserve ratios, which are comparatively low at the moment—the Government have been trying to edge them up, but not sufficiently—or we could limit their power to create credit to the amount of money deposited with the banks as a salutary control. We could tax them on the hidden benefit they get from creating credit, because they get the signorage on the credit they create. If credit is created by banknotes and cash issued by the Government, the Government get the profit on that—the signorage. The banks just take the signorage on all the credit they issue and stash it away as a kind of hidden benefit, so why not tax that and give some of the profit from printing money to the state?
Martin Wolf, in an interesting article cited by my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher), has argued that only central banks should create new money and that it should be regulated by a public credit authority, rather like the Monetary Policy Committee. I think that that would be a solution and a possible approach. Why should we not regulate the issue of credit in that fashion?
That brings us back to the old argument about monetarism: whether credit creation is exogenous or endogenous. The monetarists thought that it was exogenous, so all we have to do is cut the supply of money into the economy in order to bring inflation under control. That was a myth, of course, because we cannot actually control the supply of money; it is endogenous. The economy, like a plant, sucks in the money it needs. But that can be regulated by a public credit authority so that the supply matches the needs of the economy, rather than being excessive, as it has been over the past few years. I think that that kind of credit authority needs to be created to regulate the flow of credit.
That brings me to the Government’s economic policy. The Government tell us that they have a long-term economic plan, which of course is total nonsense. Their only long-term economic plan is slash and burn. The only long-term economic planning that has been done is by the Bank of England.
Mr MacNeil: To quote Harry S. Truman, the worst thing about economists is that they always say, “On the other hand”. The hon. Gentleman talks about limiting and regulating how much money is to be sucked in by the economy, but who would decide that? The difficulty is that although the economy might be overheating in a certain part of the country, such as the south-east of England, it could be very cool in others, such as the north of Scotland. What might be the geographical effects of limiting the money going into the economic bloodstream if some parts of the plant—I am extending his metaphor—need the nutrients while other parts are getting too much?
Austin Mitchell: The hon. Gentleman often asks tricky questions, but this one is perfectly clear-cut. The credit supply for the peripheral and old industrial parts of the
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economy, which include Scotland, but also Grimsby, has been totally inadequate, and the banks have been totally reluctant to invest there. I once argued for helicopter money, as Simon Jenkins has proposed, whereby we stimulate the economy by putting money into helicopters and dropping it all over the country so that people will spend it. I would agree to that, provided that the helicopters hover over Grimsby, but I would have them go to Scotland as well, because it certainly deserves its share, as does the north of England. However, I do not want to get involved in a geographical dispute over where credit should be created.
The only long-term plan has been that of the Bank of England, which has kept interest rates flat to the floor for six years or so—an economy in that situation is bound to grow—and has supplemented that with quantitative easing. We have created £375 billion of money through quantitative easing. It has been stashed away in the banks, unfortunately, so it has served no great useful purpose. If that supply of money can be created for the purpose of saving the banks and building up their reserve ratios, it can be used for more important purposes—the development of investment and expansion in the economy. This is literally about printing money. Those of us with a glimmering of social credit in our economics have been told for decades, “You can’t print money—it would be terrible. It would be disastrous for the economy to print money because it leads to inflation.” Well, we have printed £375 billion of money, and it has not produced inflation. Inflation is falling.
Austin Mitchell: I am sorry—I am mid-diatribe and do not want to be interrupted.
It has proved possible to print money. The Americans have done it—there has been well over $1 trillion of quantitative easing in the United States. The European Central Bank is now contemplating it, as Mr Draghi casts around for desperate solutions to the stagnation that has hit the eurozone. The Japanese, surprisingly, did it only last week. If all can do it, and if it has been successful here and has not led to inflation, we should be able to use it for more useful and productive economic purposes than shoring up the banks.
If we go on creating more money through quantitative easing, we should channel it through a national investment bank into productive investment such as contracts for house building and new town generation. Through massive infrastructure work—although I would not include HS2 in that—we can stimulate the economy, stimulate growth, and achieve useful purposes that we have not been able to achieve. This is a solution to a lot of the problems that have bedevilled the Labour party. How do we get investment without the private finance initiative and the heavy burden that that imposes on health services, schools, and all kinds of activities? Why not, through quantitative easing, create contracts for housing or other infrastructure work that have a pay-off point and produce assets for the state?
I mentioned the article in which Martin Wolf advocates the approach of the Monetary Policy Committee. That is how we should approach this. I welcome this debate because it has to be the beginning of a wider debate in
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which we open our minds to the possibilities of managing credit more effectively for the better building of the strength of the British economy.
Zac Goldsmith (Richmond Park) (Con): I want to put on record my gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) for having initiated this debate, and to his supporters from various parties. Having heard his speech—or most of it; I apologise for being late—I am even more satisfied that it was right to cast my vote for him to join the Treasury Committee.
My hon. Friend has introduced an incredibly important debate. As we have heard, this issue has not been debated here for well over a century. We would not be having it were it not for the fact that we are still in the midst of tumultuous times. We had the banking crash and the corresponding crash in confidence in the banking system and in the wider economy, and now, partly as a consequence, we have the problem of under-lending, particularly to small and medium-sized businesses. This subject could not be more important.
The right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher)—I will call him my right hon. Friend because we work together on many issues—pointed out at the beginning of his speech that this issue is not well understood by members of the public. As I think he said later—if not, I will add it—it is also not well understood by Members of Parliament. I would include myself in that. I suspect that most people here would be humble enough to recognise that the banking wizardry we are discussing is such a complex issue that very few people properly understand it.
Bob Stewart: I totally associate myself with my hon. Friend’s comments about ignorance and include myself in that. It seems to me that the system is broken. The banks will not lend money because the Government have told them that they have to keep reserves. We do not like quantitative easing because that means that the banks are not lending. There is something very wrong with the system. It is not a case of “if the system isn’t broke, don’t fix it”, but “the system is broke, and someone’s got to fix it”.
Zac Goldsmith: My hon. Friend makes a valuable point that I will come to later.
If Members of Parliament do not really understand how money is created—I believe that that is the majority position, based on discussions that I have been having—how on earth can we be confident that the reforms that we have brought in over the past few years are going to work in preventing repeated collapses of the sort that we saw before the last election? In my view, we cannot be confident of that. The problem is the impulsive position taken by ignorant Members. I do not intend to be rude; as I said, I include myself in that bracket. For too many people, the impulse has been simply to call for more regulation, as though that is going to magic away these problems. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe said, there are 8,000 pages of guidance in relation to one aspect of banking that he discussed. The problem is not a lack of regulation; it is the fact that the
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existing regulations miss the goal in so many respects. Banking has become so complex and convoluted that we need an entirely different approach.
When we talk to people outside Parliament about banking, the majority have a fairly simple view—the bank takes deposits and then lends, and that is the way it has always been. Of course, there is an element of truth in that, but it is so far removed from where we are today that it is only a very tiny element.
Steve Baker: My hon. Friend mentions the idea of straightforward, carry-through lending. When people talk about shadow banking, they are usually talking about asset managers who are lending and are passing funds straight through—similarly with peer-to-peer lenders. I am encouraged by the fact that when people are freely choosing to get involved with lending, they are not using the expansionary process but lending directly. Whereas the banks are seen simultaneously to fail savers and borrowers, things like peer-to-peer lending are simultaneously serving them both.
Zac Goldsmith: That is a really important point. There is a move towards such lending, but unfortunately it is only a fringe move that we see in the credit unions, for example. It is much closer to what original banking—pure banking or traditional banking—might have looked like. We even see it in some of the new start-ups such as Metro bank; I hesitate to call it a start-up because it is appearing on every high street. Those banks have much more conservative policies than the household-name banks that we have been discussing.
Most people understand the concept of fractional reserve banking even if they do not know the term—it is the idea that banks lend more than they can back up with the reserves they hold.
Guy Opperman (Hexham) (Con): My hon. Friend mentioned Metro, whose founder is setting up a bank—in which I should declare an interest—called Atom in the north-east. It is one of some 22 challenger banks of which Metro was the first. I missed the opening of the debate, so I have not heard everything that has been said, but I do not accept that it is all doom and gloom in banking. Does he agree that these new developments are proof that the banking system is changing and the old big banks are being replaced with the increased competition that we all need?
Zac Goldsmith: I certainly agree with the sentiment expressed. I am excited by the challengers, but I do not believe that it is enough. Competition has to be good because it minimises risk. I know that my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary has dwelt on and looked at this issue in great detail.
Even fractional reserve banking is only the start of the story. I will not repeat in detail what we have already heard, but banks themselves create money. They do so by making advances, and with every advance they make a deposit. That is very poorly understood by people outside and inside the House. It has conferred extraordinary power on the banks. Necessarily, naturally and understandably, banks will use and have used that power in their own interests. It has also created extraordinary risk and, unfortunately, because of the size and interconnectedness of the banks, the risk is on us. That
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is why I am so excited by the challengers that my hon. Friend has just described. As I have said, that is happening on the fringe: it is right on the edge. It is extraordinary to imagine that at the height of the collapse the banks held just £1.25 for every £100 they had lent out. We are in a very precarious situation.
When I was much younger, I listened to a discussion, most of which I did not understand, between my father and people who were asking for his advice. He was a man with a pretty good track record on anticipating turbulence in the world economy. He was asked when the next crash would happen, and he said, “The last person you should ask is an economist or a business man. You need to ask a psychiatrist, because so much of it involves confidence.” The point was proven just a few years ago.
The banking system and the wider economy have become extraordinarily unhinged or detached from reality. I would like to elaborate on the extraordinary situation in which it is possible to imagine economic growth even as the last of the world’s great ecosystems or the last of the great forests are coming down. The economy is no longer linked to the reality of the natural world from which all goods originally derive. That is probably a debate for another time, however, so I will not dwell on it.
Mr MacNeil: The hon. Gentleman is making a good point that we should remember. It was brought home to me by Icelandic publisher Bjorn Jonasson, who pointed out that we are not in a situation where volcanoes have blown up or there have been huge national disasters, famines or catastrophes brought on by war; as a couple of the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues have said, this is about a system failure within the rules, and it is worth keeping that in mind. Although there is much gloom in relation to the banking system, in many ways that should at the same time give us some hope.
Zac Goldsmith: The hon. Gentleman is right, but a growing number of commentators and voices are anticipating a much larger crash than anything we have seen in the past few years. I will not add to or detract from the credence of such statements, but it is possible to imagine how such a collapse might happen, certainly in the ecological system. We are talking about the banking system, but the two systems are not entirely separate.
We had a wake-up call before the election just a few years ago. My concern is that we have not actually woken up. It seems to me that we have not introduced any significant or meaningful reforms that go to the heart of the problems we are discussing. We have been tinkering on the edges. I do not believe that Parliament has been as closely involved in the process as it should be, partly because of the ignorance that I described at the beginning of my speech.
I want to put on the record my support for the establishment of a meaningful monetary commission or some equivalent in which we can examine the pros and cons of shifting from a fractional reserve banking system to something closer to a full reserve banking system, as some hon. Members have said. We need to understand the pros and cons of such a move, how possible it is, and who wins and who loses. I do not think that many people fully know the answers.
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We need to look at quantitative easing. I think that hon. Members on both sides of the House have accepted that it is not objective. Some believe that it is good and others believe that it is bad, but no one believes that it is objective. If the majority view is that quantitative easing is necessary, we need to ask this question: why not inject those funds into the real economy—into housing and energy projects of the kind that Opposition Members have spoken about—rather than using the mechanism in a way that clearly benefits only very few people within the world of financial and banking wizardry that we are discussing?
The issues need to be explored. The time has come to establish a monetary commission and for Parliament to become much more engaged. This debate is a very small step in that direction, and I am very grateful to its sponsors. I wish more Members were in the Chamber—I had intended to listen, not to speak—but, unfortunately, there have not been many speakers. This is a beginning, however, and I hope that we will have many more such debates.
Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): I rise to endorse the very significant points made by hon. Members. In particular, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) for securing the debate and for opening it so strongly. From hearing him speak in Public Bill Committees on banking reform and related questions, I know that he is dubious about our having almost feng shui arguments on the regulatory furniture when there are fundamental questions to be asked about the very foundations of the system. He amplified that point in his speech.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) made the point that the whole approach to quantitative easing—several Members have questioned it at a number of levels—proves that the underlying logic of sovereign money creation is feasible and workable. It is strange that some of the people who would dispute or refute the case for sovereign money creation sometimes defend quantitative easing in its existing form and with its current features.
In many ways, quantitative easing has shown that if we are to use the facility of the state—in this situation, the state’s main tool is the Bank of England—to alter or prime the money supply in a particular way, we could choose a much better way of doing so than through quantitative easing. It is meant to have increased the money supply, but where have people felt that in terms of business credit, wages or the stimulus that consumer power can provide?
When we look back at the financial crash and its aftermath, we can see evidence—not just in the UK, but in Ireland and elsewhere—showing that much of what we were told about the worth or the wealth of various sectors in the economy up until the crash has turned out to be vacuous, while the poverty lying in its trail has been vicious. The worth or the wealth was not real, but the poverty is real. People in organisations such as Positive Money in the UK or Sensible Money in Ireland are therefore saying, rightly, that politics—those of us charged with overseeing public policy as it affects the
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economy—need to have more of a basic look at how we treat the banking system and at the very nature of money creation.
As someone who grew up in Northern Ireland, I am very used to the idea of having different banknotes—banks issuing their own money—but we do not think much about that, because we think that all that happens in the Bank of England or under its licence. As a member of the Financial Services Public Bill Committee and the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Public Bill Committee, it seems to me that although it has been recognised that some regulatory powers should go back to the Bank of England, the arrangements for regulation and the Bank of England’s role are still very cluttered.
In fact, in trying to correct the regulatory deficiencies that existed before the crash, there is a risk that we have perhaps created too many conflicting and confusing roles for the Bank of England. Given the various personages, different roles and job descriptions that attach to some of those committees, it seems to me that there is potential for clutter in the Treasury. The common denominator and reference point in the range of different committees and bodies and the things they do, is the Treasury. When the Treasury exercises its powers, influences judgments, and informs the criteria and considerations of those different committees under the Bank of England, there is not enough scrutiny or back play through Parliament.
I endorse the points made by other hon. Members about ensuring more accountability, whether through more formal reference to the Treasury Committee or some other hybrid, as suggested in an intervention on the right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton. There should be more parliamentary insight—and definitely parliamentary oversight—on these matters. We cannot suddenly be shocked that all the confidence in various regulatory systems turned out to have been badly placed. That was our experience the last time, when people who now criticise the previous Government for not having had enough regulation were saying that there was too much regulation and calling for more deregulation.
If we in this Parliament have produced a new regulatory order, we must be prepared to face and follow through the questions that arise. It is not good enough to ensure that the issue returns to Parliament only the next time there is a crisis, when we will have to legislate again. We should do more to be on our watch. The hon. Member for Wycombe and other hon. Members who secured this debate have done us a service. We want more of a parliamentary watch window on these issues.
There is a necessary role for banks in the creation of money and quantitative easing, but we must entrust them with the right role and with the appropriate controls and disciplines. That is fundamental. It is not good or strong enough that we leave it to the whims of the banks and their lending—supposedly reinforced and stimulated by quantitative easing—to profile the performance of the economy.
If quantitative easing works on the basis of the Bank of England, through the asset purchase facility, essentially using money that it creates under quantitative easing to buy gilts from a pension fund whose bank account is with RBS—which in essence is owned by the Bank of England—then RBS’s bank account with the Bank of England goes up by the value of that gilt purchase. Simultaneously, the bank account of the pension fund
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goes up by that amount, and we are told that the UK money supply has increased. Yes, in theory the pension fund can purchase other assets—is that what is happening?—but while 1% of the big money holders and players appear to have been advantaged through quantitative easing, where is the trickledown to the rest of the economy? It is not there.
The sovereign money creation model seems to be primed much more specifically on a view of the total economy and providing a broad, stable and more balanced approach to stimulus and economic performance. We have had the slowest recovery coming out of a recession with quantitative easing. I do not say that to get some voice-activated reaction from the Government about how good the recovery and performance is, but in broader historical terms it is the slowest recovery, which also leaves questions about quantitative easing.
We heard from the Prime Minister about red warning lights on the dashboard of the world economy, and I wonder whether he would ever say that, to his mind, those warning lights include the degree to which global banks are now playing heavily in derivatives again, and there needs to be more action. That raises issues not just of regulation at national level, but at international level.
Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) on his thoughtful and thorough opening speech, as well as my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) on his remarks. In their absence I also congratulate the hon. Members for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) and for Clacton (Douglas Carswell) on securing today’s important debate.
This debate follows a significant campaign by Positive Money, which has raised important issues about how we ensure financial stability, and how we as parliamentarians and members of the public can gain a greater understanding of the way our economy works, in particular how money is supplied not just in this country but around the world.
Some important questions have been highlighted in the debate, although not all have been answered. There are questions about how money is created, how money or credit is used by banks and others, how our financial system can be more transparent and accountable, and particularly how it can benefit the country as a whole. That latter point is something that Labour Members have been acutely focused on. How do we re-work our economy, whether in banking or in relation to jobs and wages, so that it works for the country as a whole?
It is worth reflecting on our current system and what it means for money creation. As the hon. Member for Wycombe set out eloquently in his opening speech, we know that currency is created in the conventional sense of being printed by the Bank of England, but commercial banks can create money through account holders depositing money in their accounts, or by issuing loans to borrowers. That obviously increases the amount of money available to borrowers and within the wider economy. As the Bank of England made clear in an article accompanying its first quarterly bulletin in 2014:
“When a bank makes a loan to one of its customers it simply credits the customer’s account with a higher deposit balance. At that instant, new money is created.”
Bank loans and deposits are essentially IOUs from banks, and therefore a form of money creation.
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Commercial banks do not have unlimited ability to create money, and monetary policy, financial stability and regulation all influence the amount of money they can create. In that sense, banks are regulated by the Prudential Regulation Authority, part of the Bank of England, and the Financial Conduct Authority. Those regulators, some of which are—rightly—independent, are the stewards of “safety and soundness” in financial institutions, especially regarding banks’ money-creating practices.
Banks are compelled to manage the liabilities on their balance sheets to ensure that they have capital and longer-term liabilities precisely to mitigate risks and prevent them from effectively having a licence to print money. Banks must adhere to a leverage ratio—the limit on their balance sheets, compared with the actual equity or capital they hold—and we strongly support that. Limiting a bank’s balance sheet limits the amount of money it can create through lending or deposits. There are a series of checks and balances in place when it comes to creating money, some of which the Opposition strongly supported when we debated legislative changes in recent years. It remains our view that the central issue, the instability of money supply within the banking system, is less to do with the powers banks hold and how they create money than with how they conduct themselves and whether they act in the public interest in other ways too.
We believe the issues relate to the incentives in place for banks to ensure that loans and debts are repaid, and granted only when there is a strong likelihood of repayment. When the money supply increases rapidly with no certainty of repayment, that is when real risks emerge in the economy. Those issues were debated at great length when the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Act 2013 made its way through Parliament, following recommendations from Sir John Vickers’ Independent Commission on Banking and the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, which considered professional standards and culture in the industry. The 2013 Act created the Prudential Regulation Authority and gives regulators the power to split up banks to safeguard their future, to name just two examples of changes that were made. However, we feel that it did not go far enough.
The Opposition’s concern is that the Government’s actions to date in this area have fallen short of the mark. They have failed to boost sufficient competition in the banking industry to raise those standards and to create public confidence in the sector. As hon. Members with an interest in this area know, we tabled a number of amendments to try to strengthen the Bill, and to prevent banks from overreaching themselves and taking greater risks, by ensuring that the leverage ratio is effective. That goes to the heart of many of the issues we are debating today. The Government rejected our proposals to impose on all those working in the banking industry a duty of care to customers. That would help to reform banking so that it works in the interests of customers and the economy, and not solely those of the banks. Those are the areas on which we still feel that reform is needed in the sector.
It is clear from this debate that there is a whole range of issues to consider, but our focus is that the banks need to be tightly and correctly regulated to ensure that they work for the whole economy, including individuals
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and small and large businesses. That is the key issue that we face at present. Only when the banks operate in that way and work in the interests of the whole economy will we find our way out of the cost of living crisis that so many people are facing.
I thank hon. Members for securing this very important debate and for the very interesting contributions that have been made from all sides of the House. I am pretty certain that this is not the end of the conversation. The debate will go on.
The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Andrea Leadsom): I too congratulate hon. Members on securing this fascinating debate. It is long overdue and has allowed us to consider not just what more we can do to improve what we have but whether we should be throwing it away and starting again. I genuinely welcome the debate and hope that many more will follow. In particular, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker), who now sits on the Treasury Committee on which I had the great honour to serve for four years. I am sure that his challenge to orthodoxy will have been extremely welcomed by the Committee and by many others. I wish him good luck on that.
Steve Baker: May I just say how much I am enjoying my hon. Friend’s place on the Committee? I congratulate her on her promotion once again.
Andrea Leadsom: I am grateful to my hon. Friend.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley) gave a fantastic explanation that I would commend to anybody who wants to understand how money is created. He might consider delivering it under the financial education curriculum in schools. It was very enlightening, not least because it highlighted the appalling failure of regulation in the run-up to the financial crisis that is still reverberating in our economy today. All hon. Members made interesting points on what we can do better and whether we should be thinking again. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) for his good explanation of the Positive Money agenda, which is certainly an idea worthy of thought and I will come on to it.
Money creation is an important and complex aspect of our economy that I agree is often misunderstood. I would therefore like quickly to set out how the system works. The money held by households and companies takes two forms: currency, which is banknotes and coins, and bank deposits. The vast majority, as my hon. Friend pointed out, is in the form of bank deposits. He is absolutely right to say that bank deposits are primarily created by commercial banks themselves each time they make a loan. Whenever a bank makes a loan, it credits the borrower’s bank account with a new deposit and that creates “new money”. However, there are limits to how much new money is created at any point in time. When a bank makes a loan, it does so in the expectation that the loan will be repaid in the future—households repay their mortgages out of their salaries; businesses repay their loans out of income from their investments.
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In other words, banks will not create new money unless they think that new value will also in due course be created, enabling that loan to be paid back.
Ultimately, money creation depends on the policies of the Bank of England. Changes to the bank rate affect market interest rates and, in turn, the saving and borrowing decisions of households and businesses. Prudential regulation is used if excessive risk-taking or asset price bubbles are creating excessive lending. Those checks and balances are an integral part of the system.
I agree fully that the regulatory system was totally unfit in the run-up to the financial crisis. We saw risky behaviour, excessive lending and a general lack of restraint on all sides. The key problem was that the buck did not stop anywhere. When there were problems in the banking system, regulators looked at each other for who was responsible. We all know that the outcome was the financial crisis of 2008. I, too, see the financial crisis as a prime example of why we need not just change but a better banking culture: a culture where people do not spend their time thinking about how to get around the rules; a culture where there is no tension between what is good for the firm and what is good for the customer; and a culture where infringements of the rules are properly and seriously dealt with.
I will touch on what we are doing to change the regulations and the culture, but first I will set out why we do not believe that the right solution is the wholesale replacement of the current system by something else, such as a sovereign monetary system. Under a sovereign monetary system, it would be the state, not banks, that creates new money. The central bank, via a committee, would decide how much money is created and this money would mostly be transferred to the Government. Lending would come from the pool of customers’ investment account deposits held by commercial banks.
Such a system would raise a number of very important questions. How would that committee assess how much money should be created to meet the inflation target and support the economy? If the central bank had the power to finance the Government’s policies, what would the implications be for the credibility of the fiscal framework and the Government’s ability to borrow from the market if they needed to? What would be the impact on the availability of credit for businesses and households? Would not credit become pro-cyclical? Would we not incentivise financing households over businesses, because for businesses, banks would presumably expect the state to step in? Would we not be encouraging the emergence of an unregulated set of new shadow banks? Would not the introduction of a totally new system, untested across modern advanced economies, create unnecessary risk at a time when people need stability?
Steve Baker: I do not actually support Positive Money’s proposals, although I am glad to work with it because I support its diagnosis of the problem. Of course, this argument could have been advanced in 1844 and it was not. I have not proposed throwing away the system and doing something radically new; I have proposed getting rid of all the obstacles to the free market creating alternative currencies.
Andrea Leadsom: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing that out. I must confess that before the debate I was puzzled that such an intelligent and extremely
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sensible person should be making the case for a sovereign monetary system, which I would consider to be an extraordinarily state-interventionist proposal. I am glad to hear that is not the case. In addition, of course, bearing in mind our current set of regulators, presumably we would then be looking at a committee of middle-aged, white men deciding what the economy needs, which would also be of significant concern to me.
Mr Meacher: Before the Minister leaves the question of a sovereign monetary system, which she obviously totally opposes and to which she raised several objections that I cannot answer in an intervention, does she not believe that the system of bank money creation is highly pro-cyclical and has enormously benefited property and financial sectors to the disadvantage of the vast range of industries outside the financial sector?
Andrea Leadsom: As I said, I sincerely congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on raising this matter; it is certainly worthy of discussion, and I look forward to him responding to some of my arguments. I agree that where we were in the run-up to the financial crisis was entirely inappropriate, and I will come to some of the steps we have taken to improve—not throw away the baby with the bathwater—what we have now, rather than throwing it away and starting again.
I know that some of my hon. Friends and Opposition Members have a particular concern about quantitative easing—I have made it clear that I do too—specifically about how we might unwind it. However, they must agree that at least it can be unwound, unlike the proposal for “helicopter money”, which would seem to be a giant step beyond QE—a step where money would be created by the state with no obvious way to rein it back if necessary.
If the tap in my bathroom breaks, rather than wrenching the sink off the wall, I would prefer to fix the tap. As Martin Wolf said last week,
“nobody can say with confidence”
how a monetary system should be structured and what laws and regulations it should have. Given that and the economic tumult across the world, we should be devoting our energies to fixing the system we have—mending the problems but keeping what works. For that reason, the Government have taken significant steps to improve the banking sector, making sure it fulfils its core purpose of keeping the wheels of the economy well oiled.
We are creating a better, safer financial system, with the Financial Policy Committee, created in this Parliament, focused on macro-prudential analysis and action. As the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) pointed out, the FPC has been given counter-cyclical tools to require more capital to be held and to increase the leverage ratio and the counter-cyclical capital buffers when the economy is over-exuberant in order to push back against it—as the previous Governor of the Bank of England said, to remove the punch bowl while the party is still in full flow. That is incredibly important. We are also reducing dependence on debt. Since the financial crisis, the UK banking system has been forced significantly to strengthen its capital and liquidity position, and it is continuing to do so.
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I must stress, however, that regulation alone will never be enough, which is why the Government are promoting choice, competition and diversity. I am delighted that 25 new banks are talking to the Prudential Regulatory Authority about getting a bank licence. We are also making strong efforts to promote the mutual sector; to enhance the capacity of credit unions to serve the real economy better; to enable booster funding for small businesses; to help families; and to improve customer service. We have put in place schemes to help the transmission of money from banks to customers, including the funding for lending scheme, which has lowered the price and increased the availability of credit for small and medium-sized businesses. As I think the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North said, we have also created the British business bank, which is helping finance markets work better for small firms, and are investing much resource and effort to build that up and help businesses in our economy.
We also have a programme of measures to increase competition in the SME lending market, including flagship proposals to open up access to SME credit information, which will help challengers to get in on the act, and to have banks pass on declined applications for finance to challenger banks. In addition, we now have an appeals process whereby small businesses turned down for funding can get a second chance, which has secured an additional £42 million of lending since its launch. These are all measures to help small businesses access finance. Then, to mitigate the problem of house price bubbles, we are putting in place supply-side reforms to promote home building and home owning, as well as measures enabling the PRA to limit the amount of lending that households can take on.
I agree with Members on both sides of the House, however, that we should not be content with the system as it stands. We must seek to improve it and make it function better. In Mark Carney, we have an excellent central banker who has the experience and knowledge to put the right reforms in place and see them through. As he says:
“Reform should stop only when industry and society are content, and finance justifiably proud.”
In the medium to long term, we need to create a culture where research and analysis do not shy away from going against the orthodoxy. As hon. Members across the House have said, we need to consider alternatives, and we should be having that discussion; it is healthy to do so, because that is how to make progress. For that reason, the call from Andy Haldane, the Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, for a broader look at new and existing monetary ideas is exactly right.
Mr Meacher: I am pleased the Minister thinks that alternative ways of improving the monetary system should be explored. Will she support the idea of a setting up a commission to examine the alternatives, as recommended by the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), as well as by me—so there is some cross-part support on this? Is that not an idea whose time has come?
Andrea Leadsom: I think that an organisation such as the Treasury Committee, of which my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe is member, would be entirely the right place to have such a discussion, and of course we
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also had the Vickers commission, which looked at what went wrong and what measures could be put in place, and the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, which specifically addressed the issue of incentives and motivations in banking. I would not normally advocate the establishment of great new commissions; we already have the bodies to look further at different orthodoxies, and as Andy Haldane has said, the Bank itself will be looking at, and encouraging, the exploration of alternative views.
Of course, we also need to continue embracing innovation, both in the “software” of how payments are made and in the “hardware” of new currencies, such as crypto-currencies and digital currencies—both could open up competition and give customers greater choice and access to funding—but we must do so with caution. In November, we published a call for information inviting views and evidence on the benefits and risks of digital currencies so that digital currency businesses can continue to set up in the UK and people can expect to use them safely.
I am the last person who could be described as statist, but I accept that we must always be ruthless in our determination to regulate new ideas that come to the fore, because as sure as night follows day, as new ideas come in, through shadow banking, new lending ideas and so on, some people will seek to manipulate new schemes and currencies for fraudulent purposes. I am absolutely alive to that fact. It is important, therefore, that the Government carry out the necessary research.
The Government believe that the current system, modified and improved with far greater competition, can service the economy best. However, reform is vital. Again as Andy Haldane puts it:
“Historically, flexing policy frameworks has often been taken as a sign of regime failure. Quite the opposite ought to be the case”.
We need banks to lend—to young families wanting to buy houses and repay out of future labour income rather than relying on the bank of mum and dad, and to businesses wanting to seize opportunities, gain new markets and create jobs and growth. We have an existing system that offers a forward-looking and dynamic framework in which tomorrow’s opportunities are not wholly reliant on yesterday’s savings and which builds on banks’ expertise in assessing risk and making the lending decisions we badly need. During my 25 years at
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the heart of the industry, I saw the sector at its best, but sometimes sadly also at its worst. We are trying to remedy the worst, but let us also keep the best.
Steve Baker: This debate has been a joy at times, and I am extremely grateful to right hon. and hon. Members who helped me to secure it. The right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) made clear his support for sovereign money. One of the great advantages of such a system is that it would make explicit what is currently hidden—that it is the state that is trying to steer the monetary system—and if such a system failed, it would at least be clear that it was a centrally planned monetary order that had failed.
The hon. Member for Clacton (Douglas Carswell) talked about the ownership of deposits, and I was glad to support his private Member’s Bill. I am reminded of the intervention from the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), who talked about deposit insurance. One of the problems, as seen in Cyprus in the context of depositor “bail-ins”, is that deposits are akin to a share in a risky investment vehicle, so a little more clarity about what a deposit means and what risks depositors take could go a long way.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley) highlighted one of the greatest controversies among free marketeers—whether or not fractional reserve deposit taking is legitimate.
The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) mentioned Major Douglas, which he will have seen put a smile on my face. Major Douglas was dismissed as a crank, even by Keynes who dismissed him in his writing as a “private”. This highlights the fact that the possible range of debate is enormous.
I would like to leave my final words with Richard Cobden, the Member representing Stockport back in the time when this was also a big issue. He said:
“I hold all idea of regulating the currency to be an absurdity; the very terms of regulating the currency…I look upon to be an absurdity”.
The currency, for him,
“should be regulated by the trade and commerce of the world.”
I wholeheartedly agree.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered money creation and society.
Spring 2010: A gradual recovery
Autumn 2010: A gradual and uneven recovery
Spring 2011: European recovery maintains momentum amid new risks
Autumn 2011: A recovery in distress
Spring 2012: Towards a slow recovery
Autumn 2012: Sailing through rough waters
Winter 2012: Gradually overcoming headwinds
Spring 2013: Adjustment continues
Autumn 2013: Gradual recovery, external risks
Winter 2013: Recovery gaining ground
Spring 2014: Growth becoming broader-based
Autumn 2014: Slow recovery with very low inflation.. ”
European Commission economic headlines, as highlighted by Jason Karaian of Quartz, in ‘How to talk about a European recovery that never arrives’.
“Well we know where we’re going
But we don’t know where we’ve been
And we know what we’re knowing
But we can’t say what we’ve seen
And we’re not little children
And we know what we want
And the future is certain
Give us time to work it out
We’re on a road to nowhere..”
‘Road to nowhere’ by Talking Heads.
In 1975, Charles Ellis, the founder of Greenwich Associates, wrote one of the most powerful and memorable metaphors in the history of finance. Simon Ramo had previously studied the strategy of one particular sport in ‘Extraordinary tennis for the ordinary tennis player’. Ellis went on to adapt Ramo’s study to describe the practical business of investing. His essay is titled ‘The loser’s game’, which in his view is what the ‘sport’ of investing had become by the time he wrote it. His thesis runs as follows. Whereas the game of tennis is won by professionals, the game of investing is ‘lost’ by professionals and amateurs alike. Whereas professional sportspeople win their matches through natural talent honed by long practice, investors tend to lose (in relative, if not necessarily absolute terms) through unforced errors. Success in investing, in other words, comes not from over-reach, in straining to make the winning shot, but simply through the avoidance of easy errors.
Ellis was making another point. As far back as the 1970s, investment managers were not beating the market; rather, the market was beating them. This was a mathematical inevitability given the over-crowded nature of the institutional fund marketplace, the fact that every buyer requires a seller, and the impact of management fees on returns from an index. Ben W. Heineman, Jr. and Stephen Davis for the Yale School of Management asked in their report of October 2011, ‘Are institutional investors part of the problem or part of the solution ?’ By their analysis, in 1987, some 12 years after Ellis’ earlier piece, institutional investors accounted for the ownership of 46.6% of the top 1000 listed companies in the US. By 2009 that figure had risen to 73%. That percentage is itself likely understated because it takes no account of the role of hedge funds. Also by 2009 the US institutional landscape contained more than 700,000 pension funds; 8,600 mutual funds (almost all of whom were not mutual funds in the strict sense of the term, but rather for-profit entities); 7,900 insurance companies; and 6,800 hedge funds.
Perhaps the most pernicious characteristic of active fund management is the tendency towards benchmarking (whether closet or overt). Being assessed relative to the performance of an equity or bond benchmark effectively guarantees (post the impact of fees) the institutional manager’s inability to outperform that benchmark – but does ensure that in bear markets, index-benchmarked funds are more or less guaranteed to lose money for their investors. In equity fund management the malign impact of benchmarking is bad enough; in bond fund management the malign impact of ‘market capitalisation’ benchmarking is disastrous from the get-go. Since a capitalisation benchmark assigns the heaviest weightings in a bond index to the largest bond markets by asset size, and since the largest bond markets by asset size represent the most heavily indebted issuers – whether sovereign or corporate – a bond-indexed manager is compelled to have the highest exposure to the most heavily indebted issuers. All things equal, therefore, it is likely that the bond index-tracking manager is by definition heavily exposed to objectively poor quality (because most heavily indebted) credits.
There is now a grave risk that an overzealous commitment to benchmarking is about to lead hundreds of billions of dollars of invested capital off a cliff. Why ? To begin with, trillions of dollars’ worth of equities and bonds now sport prices that can no longer be trusted in any way, having been roundly boosted, squeezed, coaxed and manipulated for the dubious ends of quantitative easing. The most important characteristic of any investment is the price at which it is bought, which will ultimately determine whether that investment falls into the camp of ‘success’ or ‘failure’. At some point, enough elephantine funds will come to appreciate that the assets they have been so blithely accumulating may end up being vulnerable to the last bid – or lack thereof – on an exchange. When a sufficient number of elephants start charging inelegantly towards the door, not all of them will make it through unscathed. Corporate bonds, in particular, thanks to heightened regulatory oversight, are not so much a wonderland of infinite liquidity, but an accident in the secondary market waiting to happen. We recall words we last heard in the dark days of 2008:
“When you’re a distressed seller of an illiquid asset in a market panic, it’s not even like being in a crowded theatre that’s on fire. It’s like being in a crowded theatre that’s on fire and the only way you can get out is by persuading somebody outside to swap places with you.”
The second reason we may soon see a true bonfire of inanities is that benchmarked government bond investors have chosen collectively to lose their minds (or the capital of their end investors). They have stampeded into an asset class historically and euphemistically referred to as “risk free” which is actually fraught with rising credit risk and systemic inflation risk – inflation, perversely, being the only solution to the debt mountain that will enable the debt culture to persist in any form. (Sufficient economic growth for ongoing debt service we now consider impossible, certainly within the context of the euro zone; any major act of default or debt repudiation, in a debt-based monetary system, is the equivalent of Armageddon.) As Japan has just demonstrated, whatever deflationary tendencies are experienced in the indebted western economies will be met with ever greater inflationary impulses. The beatings will continue until morale improves – and until bondholders have been largely destroyed. When will the elephants start thinking about banking profits and shuffling nervously towards the door ?
Meanwhile, central bankers continue to waltz effetely in the policy vacuum left by politicians. As Paul Singer of Elliott Management recently wrote,
“Either out of ideology or incompetence, all major developed governments have given up (did they ever really try?) attempting to use solid, fundamental policies to create sustainable, strong growth in output, incomes, innovation, entrepreneurship and good jobs. The policies that are needed (in the areas of tax, regulatory, labour, education and training, energy, rule of law, and trade) are not unknown, nor are they too complicated for even the most simple-minded politician to understand. But in most developed countries, there is and has been complete policy paralysis on the growth-generation side, as elected officials have delegated the entirety of the task to central bankers.”
And as Singer fairly points out, whether as workers, consumers or investors, we inhabit a world of “fake growth, fake money, fake jobs, fake stability, fake inflation numbers”.
Top down macro-economic analysis is all well and good, but in an investment world beset by such profound fakery, only bottom-up analysis can offer anything approaching tangible value. In the words of one Asian fund manager,
“The owner of a[n Asian] biscuit company doesn’t sit fretting about Portuguese debt but worries about selling more biscuits than the guy down the road.”
So there is hope of a sort for the survival of true capitalism, albeit from Asian biscuit makers. Perhaps even from the shares of biscuit makers in Europe – at the right price.
“Sir, Your headline “Fed’s grand experiment draws to a close” (FT.com, October 29) combines ignorance of what quantitative easing is with insouciance as to its potential effects – both of these mistakes being perennial features of FT coverage of QE. The “experiment”, as you call it, is not at an end; it is, with the purchases now ending, at its height. Only when the Fed starts selling the securities it has purchased back into the market will the US’s QE begin its withdrawal from that height; only when the last purchased security has been sold back into the market, or allowed to expire with consequent permanent expansion of the money supply, will the “grand experiment” (I would prefer that you called it “reckless gamble”) be at its end.
“Only at that point will we even start to see the results – on interest rates, on securities prices, on the economy. The outcome, as has so often been the case with such Keynesian experiments, is unlikely to be pretty.”
Letter to the FT from Jon Moynihan, London SW3.
The other potential cause of a sell-off in markets is through a central bank mistake. Some think the liquidity created by QE will eventually leak into higher inflation, but there is no sign of this as yet. More likely is a decline into deflation which would lead to financial distress as debts become more difficult to repay.
“If that does show signs of happening, then we may indeed get to see QE4 rolled out. Daddy might have let go of the market’s hand for the moment but he’s still close by.”
Strange things are happening in the bond market. Few of them are stranger than the reports that a French fund management colleague of Bill Gross (formerly of Pimco) took such exception to public excoriation from his stamp-collecting associate that he quit the business to sell croques monsieur from a food truck. According to the Wall Street Journal, Gross told Jeremie Banet in front of Pimco’s entire investment committee that, “I never understand what you’re saying. Ever.” With those credentials, M. Banet is clearly supremely qualified to become the next chairman of the Federal Reserve. As it is, he elected to return to his job managing an inflation-linked bond portfolio.
He has his work cut out. Consider the sort of volatility that the 10 year US Treasury bond – the closest thing the financial world has to a “risk-free rate” – experienced on 15th October (below).
Intra-day yield, 10 year US Treasury bond, 15th October 2014
Source: Bloomberg LLP
Having begun the day sporting a 2.2% yield, the 10 year note during the trading session experienced an extraordinary surge in price that took its yield down briefly towards 1.85%. Later in the same session the buying abated, and the bond closed with a yield of roughly 2.14%. During the same trading session, equity markets sold off aggressively (the UK’s FTSE 100 index, for example, closed down almost 3% on the day). What accounts for such melodrama ?
Analyst Russell Napier takes up the story:
“There it was — a real market come and gone in half an hour, like a pregnant panda at Edinburgh zoo. What did it mean and what should you do? You should pay attention to what happens to the direction of prices when volumes surge and markets work. When the veil is lifted, pay attention to what you see beneath. Last Wednesday, in the space of half an hour of active trading, the Treasury market had one of its most rapid rises ever recorded and equities fell sharply.
“There is a very simple lesson that when the markets finally break through the manipulation they move to price in deflation and not inflation. This is key because it means financial repression has failed. Such repression requires the artificial depression of interest rates but, crucially, it must be paired with boosting inflation above such rates. On October 15th 2014, if only for a few short minutes, market forces broke out and the failure of central bankers was briefly evident.”
These days, you don’t tend to hear the words ‘failure’ and ‘central bankers’ in the same sentence (unless the topic happens to be Zimbabwe). But perhaps the omniscience and omnipotence of central bankers is somewhat overstated. On October 29th, the US Federal Reserve followed a long-rehearsed script and announced that it had “decided to conclude its asset purchase program [also known as QE] this month.”
So now stock and bond markets will have to look after themselves, so to speak. The Economist’s Buttonwood columnist described it as “Letting go of Daddy’s hand”. That coinage nicely speaks to the juvenilisation to which markets have been reduced during six long years of financial repression, unprecedented central bank asset purchases, and the official manipulation of interest rates. Only the asset purchases have abated (for now): the financial repression, one way or another, will go on.
Whether the asset purchases have really disappeared, or merely been suspended, will be a function of how risk markets behave over the coming months and years. We would not be in the least surprised to see petulant markets rewarded with yet more infusions of sweets.
Yet some still associate QE with success. The Telegraph’s Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, or his sub-editor, reckon that central bankers deserve a medal for saving society. He dismisses any scepticism as “hard money bluster”. Economist David Howden, on the other hand, can see somewhat further than the end of his own nose:
“One of the true marks of a great economist is an ability to see past the obvious outcomes and into the veiled results of policies. Friedrich Bastiat’s great essay on “that which is seen, and that which is not seen” provides a cautionary parable that disastrous analyses result when people don’t bother looking further than the immediate results of an action.
“Nowhere is this lesson more instructive than with the Fed’s QE policies of the past 6 years.
“Consider the Austrian business cycle theory. The nub of the theory is that changes in the money market have broader results on the greater economy. In its most succinct form, when a central bank pushes interest rates lower than they should be (by buying assets, for example), the greater economy gets distorted. Some of these distortions are immediately apparent, as consumers buy more goods and everyone takes on more debt as a result of lower interest rates. Some of the distortions are not immediately apparent. The investment decision of firms gets skewed as interest rates no longer reflect savings preferences, and the whole economy becomes fragile over time as erroneous investments add up (what Mises coined “malinvestments”).
“When a financial crisis or economic recession hits, it’s almost never because of some event that apparently happened at the same time. The crisis of 2008 did not occur because of the collapse of Lehman Brothers. It happened because the whole financial system and greater economy were fragile following years of cheap credit at the hands of the Greenspan Fed. If anything, Lehman was a result of this and a great (if unfortunate) example of the type of bad business decisions firms are lured into by loose money. It wasn’t the cause of the troubles but a result of them. And if Lehman didn’t go under to spark the credit crunch, some other fragile financial institution would have.
“The Great Depression is a similar case in point. It wasn’t the stock market crash in 1929 that “created” the Great Depression. It was a decade of loose money policies by the Fed that created a shaky economy. Again, if anything the stock market crash was the result of stock prices being too buoyant and in need of a repricing to reflect economic fundamentals. Just like today, stocks rose to such storied heights as a result of cheap credit, not because of the seemingly “great” investments funded by it.
“The Fed has lowered interest rates since July 2006. We have just come off the period with the most rapid and extreme increase in the money supply ever recorded in American history. The seeds of the next Austrian business cycle have been sown. In fact, they are probably especially fertile seeds when one considers that the monetary policy has been so loose by historical standards. Just as cheap credit of the 1920s beget the Great Depression, that of the 1990s beget the dot-com bust and that of the mid-2000s beget the crisis of 2008, this most recent period will also give birth to a financial crisis.”
Although our crystal ball is no more polished than anyone else’s, our fundamental views are clear. Bonds are already grotesquely expensive, yet may get more so (we’re not investing in “the usual suspects” so we don’t much care). Most stock markets are pricey – but in a world beset by QE (and prospects for more, in Europe and Asia) which prices can we really trust ? By a process of logic, elimination and deduction, out of the major asset classes, only quality listed businesses trading at or ideally well below a fair assessment of their intrinsic worth offer any semblance of value or attractiveness. Pretty much everything else amounts to nothing more than paper, prone to arbitrary gusts from some very powerful, and very windy, bureaucrats. We note also that former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan, no doubt looking to polish his legacy, managed to front-run the Fed’s QE announcement by pointing to the merits of gold within a government-controlled, fiat currency system. Strange days indeed.
“Sir, Your editorial “A Nobel award for work of true economic value” (October 15) cites the witty and memorable line of JM Keynes about wishing that economists could be “humble, competent people, on a level with dentists”, which concludes his provocative 1930 essay on the economic future. You fail to convey, however, the irony and condescension of the original text of the arrogant, intellectual elitist Keynes, who, while superlatively competent, was assuredly not humble. With the passage of 84 years, the irony has changed directions, for modern dentistry is based on real science, and has made huge advances in scientific knowledge, applied technology and practice, to the great benefit of mankind. It is obviously far ahead of economics in these respects, and it is indeed unlikely that economics will ever be able to rise to the level of dentistry.”
Letter to the FT from Alex J. Pollock of the American Enterprise Institute, 20th October 2014.
Changing people’s minds, apparently, has very little to do with winning the argument. Since people tend to make decisions emotionally, ‘evidence’ is a secondary issue. We are attempting to argue that the policy of QE, quantitative easing, is not just pointless but expensively pointless. Apparently, instead of using cold logic, we will have to reframe our argument as follows:
Agree with our argumentative opponents;
Reframe the problem;
Introduce a new solution;
Provide a way to “save face”.
In terms of argumentative opponents, they don’t come much bigger than the former Fed chairman himself, Ben Bernanke. And it was Bernanke himself who rather pompously declared, shortly before leaving the Fed this year, that
“The problem with QE is it works in practice, but it doesn’t work in theory.”
There is, of course, no counter-factual. We will never know what might have happened if, say, the world’s central banks had elected not to throw trillions of dollars at the world’s largest banks and instead let the free market work its magic on an overleveraged financial system. But to suggest credibly that QE has worked, we first have to agree on a definition of what “work” means, and on what problem QE was meant to solve. If the objective of QE was to drive down longer term interest rates, given that short term rates were already at zero, then we would have to concede that in this somewhat narrow context, QE has “worked”. But we doubt whether that objective was front and centre for those people – we could variously call them “savers”, “investors”, “the unemployed” or “honest workers” – who are doubtless wondering when the economy will emerge from its current state of depression. As James Grant recently observed in the FT (“Low rates are jamming the economy’s vital signals”), it’s quite remarkable how, thus far, savers in particular have largely suffered in silence.
So yes, QE has “succeeded” in driving down interest rates. But we should probably reframe the problem. The problem isn’t that interest rates were or are too high. Quite the reverse: interest rates are clearly already too low – at least for savers, and for that matter investors in the euro zone and elsewhere. All the way out to 3 year maturities, investors in German government bonds, for example, are now faced with negative interest rates, and still they’re buying. This isn’t monetary policy success; this is madness. We think the QE debate should be reframed: has QE done anything to reform an economic and monetary system urgently in need of restructuring ? We think the answer, self-evidently, is “No”. The answer is also “No” to the question: “Can you solve a crisis of too much indebtedness by a) adding more debt to the pile and simultaneously b) suppressing interest rates ?” The toxic combination of more credit creation and global financial repression will merely make the ultimate Minsky moment that much more spectacular.
What accentuates the problem is market noise. @Robustcap fairly points out that there are (at least) four groups at play in the markets – and that at least three of them aren’t adding to the sum of human wisdom:
Group 1 comprises newsletter writers, and other dogmatic “End of the world newsletter salesmen” using every outlet to say “I told you so…” (even though some of them have been saying so for the last 1000 S&P handles..).
Group 2 comprises Perma-Bulls and other Wall Street product salesmen, offering “This is a buying opportunity” and other standard from-the-hip statements whenever the Vix index reaches 30 and the market trades 10% off from its high, at any time.
Group 3 includes “any moron with a $1500 E-trade account, twitter, Facebook etc…”, summing to roughly 99% nonsense and noise.
Group 4, however, comprises “True investors and traders” asking questions such as, “Is this a good price ?”; “Is this a good level ?”; “What is my risk stepping in here, on either side ?”; “Am I getting better value than I am paying for ?”; “What is the downside / upside ?” etc.
“With the “magnification” of noise by social media and the internet in general, one must shut off the first three groups and try to engage, find, follow, communicate with the fourth group only, those looking at FACTS, none dogmatic, understand value, risk, technicals and fundamentals and most importantly those who have no agenda and nothing to sell.”
To Jim Rickards, simply printing money and gifting it to the banks through the somewhat magical money creation process of QE is like treating cancer with aspirin: the supposed “solution” does nothing to address the root cause of the problem. The West is trapped in a secular depression and “normal” cyclical solutions, such as monetary policy measures, are not just inappropriate, but damnably expensive for the rest of us. Only widespread economic restructuring will do. And that involves hard decisions on the part of politicians. Thus far, politicians have shown themselves predictably not up to the task. Or in the words of Jean-Claude Juncker,
“We all know what to do; we just don’t know how to get re-elected after we’ve done it.”
And let’s not forget that other notable Junckerism,
“When it becomes serious, you have to lie.”
No cheers for democracy, then.
So, back to the debate:
Yes, QE has driven down long term interest rates.
But the problem wasn’t the cost of capital. The problem was, and remains, an oversupply of debt, insufficient economic growth, and the risk, now fast becoming realised, of widespread debt deflation. To put it another way, the world appears to be turning Japanese after all, despite the best efforts of central bankers and despite the non-efforts of politicians.
The solution is fundamental economic restructuring along with measures that can sustainedly boost economic growth rather than just enriching the already rich through artificial financial asset price boosterism. Government spending cuts will not be optional, although tax cuts might be. The expansion of credit must end – or it will end in an entirely involuntary market-driven process that will be extraordinarily messy.
How to “save face” ?
This is where we start to view the world, once again, through the prism of investments – not least since we’re not policy makers. For those wondering why a) markets have become that much more volatile recently (and not just stocks – see the recent wild trading in the US 10 year government bond) and b) inflation (other than in financial asset prices) seems weirdly quiescent – the answer has been best expressed by both Jim Rickards and by the good folk at Incrementum. The pertinent metaphor is that of the tug of war. The image below (source: Incrementum) states the case.
The blue team represents the markets. The markets want deflation, and they want the world’s unsustainable debt pile to be reduced. There are three ways to reduce the debt pile. One is to engineer sufficient economic growth (no longer feasible, in our view) to service the debt. The second is to default (which, in a debt-based monetary system, amounts to Armageddon). The third brings us over to the red team: explicit, state-sanctioned inflationism, and financial repression. The reason why markets have become so volatile is that from day to day, the blue and red teams of deflationary and inflationary forces are duking it out, and neither side has yet been convincingly victorious. Who ultimately wins ? We think we know the answer, but the outcome will likely be a function of politics as much as investment forces (“markets”). While we wait for the outcome, we believe the most prudent and pragmatic course of action is to seek shelter in the least overpriced corners of the market. For us, that means explicit, compelling value and deep value equity. Nothing else, and certainly nothing by way of traditional government or corporate debt investments, or any form of equity or bond market index-tracking, makes any sense at all.