“So what do you think should be done?”
I often get this question after I present my case against our fiat money system, and I sense there is a trace of frustration in it, a bit along the lines of “you are telling us that we are in quite a mess but you offer no policy prescriptions”. That is a fair point, I guess. Most writers who lament the economic ills of our time usually have a bag of policy advice on offer. Indeed, whispering new policy ideas into the ears of those in power is what most of these writers aspire to. I reckon what separates them from me is that they believe in government and I don’t.
The mess we are in is the result of policy, of the very idea – the silly idea – that the field of money and finance would work better if it were supervised, managed, guided and controlled by the state; that if we had clever, powerful and astute policymakers, consulted by economist philosopher kings, we could enjoy a smoother, better functioning economy. And if ever things were not running so smoothly, we would change the policy. So what is your policy, Mr. Schlichter?
Could you not be a bit more … constructive?
My conclusion is straightforward. There should be no policy. The existence of policy is already the problem. What we need is proper capitalism in money and finance. We do not have that now. What we have is limitless state fiat money, quantitative easing, systematic market manipulation, bailouts, regulations, the IMF, the World Bank, the FSA, FDIC, TARP and LTRO. We need proper markets, not more policy, not more manipulation, and not more bureaucracy. And not more fiat money. We need the state to exit the field of money and banking. Completely.
The main problem with monetary policy is that there is such a thing as monetary policy.
The state is the problem. It will not be part of the solution.
Before I tell you what I think should be done, let me give you another reason why I have been so reluctant to offer policy advice. The aim of my book Paper Money Collapse was to expose widespread fallacies and debunk erroneous common wisdom concerning money. It was not to provide a program for reform. The book is meant to be an eye-opener. Almost the entire discussion on money and banking today is based on deeply flawed theories. This is true of the financial markets industry where I worked for 19 years. It is equally true of most of the discussion in the media and, as far as I can see, academia.
My intention was to challenge the present consensus and the established orthodoxy. I think this is what needs to happen before we can even talk about the drastic changes that our system requires. Any policy debate of the type you read in The Economist or The Financial Times occurs within the boundaries of the established consensus. Questions of a more fundamental nature cannot be addressed in the context of policy debates.
But I am not going to evade the question about policy. So let me talk a bit about policy and reform.
The first piece of advice is this one, naturally: don’t start here.
The big mistake has already been made. The gold standard was abandoned, in a step-by-step process that began around the time of World War I and that culminated in Nixon’s closing of the gold window in August 1971. For more than 40 years, gold has played no official role in global monetary affairs. State paper money ruled. Everywhere.
This was the era of the central banker, the monetary bureaucrat, of artificially cheap credit, of stimulus, of big equity rallies, of bigger real estate bubbles, of constant debasement, of the quick buck and the big bonus, of growing banks and of ever more sovereign debt. The global financial system got unhinged. After four decades of persistent inflationism we have an overstretched finance industry gravely addicted to the constant drip-feed of cheap money and an out-of-control public sector constantly issuing debt that will never get repaid. Capital misallocations and asset mispricing are gargantuan. The establishment prescribes itself ever more easy money to keep the show on the road.
So the first conclusion is, there is no painless exit. The cleansing crisis is inevitable. Simply being honest about the mess we are in would not be a bad starting point for policymakers.
And to acknowledge that this can’t go on forever.
It certainly won’t go on forever.
Okay, but what next? If you could design policy, what would it be? What is the number one thing that we need to change to restore financial sanity?
Fiat-money-critics have floated a whole range of policy proposals. There is the return to some form of gold standard. Also, there is the rather fiercely contested debate about whether fractional-reserve banking should be banned or at least restricted. Recently, colleagues of mine at the Cobden Centre have introduced a bill to Parliament that would make board members of banks personally liable for bank losses, which is supposed to reduce or eliminate moral hazard. Thus we are already faced with a range of policy proposals. What is my position on them?
I think we can have it much easier. My proposal is more effective and more easily communicated: let us separate state and money completely. That is, I believe, the one thing that needs to change. Capitalism is the only economic system that works in the real world. But what we have today is monetary socialism, albeit a socialism predominantly to the benefit of the rich and well-connected.
We need to get the state out of the economy completely. To achieve this we must get the state out of ALL monetary affairs. The monetary sphere of society should be a no-go area for politicians and bureaucrats. State involvement in finance is the problem. Let us get the state out. Period. That is the one goal we should have. That is the one policy I recommend.
My enthusiasm for any other policy proposal varies considerably and is dependent on how much state intervention the policy still allows or in some cases even requires.
As an opponent of fiat money I am naturally positively inclined to a return to a gold standard. I believe that Mises was right when he wrote:
If in the coming years or decades our civilization is not to collapse completely the gold standard will be restored.
But what type of gold standard should be implemented? Would there still be central banks that would ‘administer’ that gold standard? Under any form of gold standard, the central bank would most certainly be more confined in its monetary operations than central banks are today but there could still be considerable room for manipulation. The US Fed was founded in 1913 under what was officially still the Classical Gold Standard but that didn’t stop it from funding the US government’s military spending in World War I and from initiating credit bubbles and business cycles. By 1933, the dislocations introduced by cheap money were so big that their dissolution – mandatory and normally automatic under a gold standard and indeed inconceivable under a proper gold standard – had become politically unacceptable. The Fed’s mission was accomplished and the gold standard was abandoned. The rest is history as they say.
An official, government-directed return to a gold standard also raises a lot of questions about implementation that would invite lobbying and horse-trading by various pressure groups. How much of the existing money stock – obscenely inflated after decades of money printing and fiat money debasement – should be backed by gold, or to put the same question in a different way, what should the new exchange rate between the money in circulation and gold be? How much should the existing money stock be devalued? Should banks be allowed to create deposits that are not backed by gold? Should fractional-reserve banking be permitted?
Questions over questions, and the room for political maneuvering and for political abuse are massive. Do we really want politicians, central bankers, bureaucrats, and their economic advisors make all these decisions? I don’t think so.
I know somebody who is best equipped to make all these decisions.
We may not all agree on the merits or demerits of fractional-reserve banking but as capitalists we should agree on the benefits, indeed the necessity, of free competition.
So how do we get from A to B? How do we get from the present system of finance socialism, of interest rates fixed by the central bank and asset prices manipulated by the central bank, of nominally private banks operating with the protection of a lender-of-last resort, to a system that again deserves the label capitalist?
Step 1: Privatize the central bank.
Do not even introduce a gold standard. Just transfer ownership of the central bank officially to the banks that have an account with the central bank. This is the first step for the state to exit the sphere of money. The central bank is no longer a public institution run by bureaucrats and politicians but an entirely private undertaking. It is owned and operated by the banks.
The central bank administers bank reserves and provides certain clearing functions. The banks need this, for now at least. Shutting the central bank down is not that easy. But its most pernicious aspect is that it is a policy tool. This would end abruptly with its privatization.
Step 2: The state revokes with immediate effect ALL laws and policies that relate specifically to banking and money.
From this moment on, banks are capitalist enterprises just like any other normal business. There is no lender of last resort (at least not one run by the state), there is no inflation target or other official monetary policy for which the banks function as conduits, which under the present system puts them in the strange position of being profit-seeking enterprises and policy-transmission mechanisms simultaneously. But equally, there is no backstop for the banks from the state any longer. No guarantees, no deposit insurance or taxpayer bailouts. If a deposit insurance institution exists, it is handed over to the banks, similar to the central bank. Again, the state has exited the business of regulating, supervising, licensing, subsidizing and backstopping the banking industry.
Entry into the field of banking is now free. You do not need a license. You do not need an account with the now privately owned central bank (although without such an account clearing with other banks might be difficult). There are no legal tender laws anymore, so if anybody has any bright new ideas about money (Liberty Dollars, bitcoin) they are most welcome to try them. The consumer alone will decide over success and failure.
Monetary policy has ended. Bernanke testimonies on TV will be replaced with reruns of old Simpson episodes. Senators and congressmen will have to find new soapboxes from which to propound their personal economic theories.
Step 3: The state’s gold hoard is handed over to the banks.
What? A gift to the bankers? – I do not consider this a gift to the banks but more a return of property to the bank depositors. The bank depositors are the ones that should benefit from this transfer most.
The present monetary system could only have come about because it was once based on gold. Deposit banking spread at a time when banks still promised to repay deposits or banknotes in specie, and when all banks were thus required to hold (some) gold reserves – reserves that no political entity could create at will. Only slowly and gradually was the gold backing removed and replaced with various implicit or explicit state guarantees, all of which are now practically failing.
Of course, just like investment genius Warren Buffett, the bankers may not know what to do with a pile of gold and may thus be tempted to simply put it on a big heap. I suspect, however, that the bankers will have a very good use for the gold. Their customers – the holders of bank deposits – may be very unsettled by the exit of the state and thus the taxpayer from the business of underwriting the banking industry. Most people only consider their bank deposits safe because they believe the state would not allow Bank XYZ to default, not because they have any confidence that Bank XYZ is run prudently. Now that the state has exited the field of money and banking, the banks are likely to use the gold as additional backing for their balance sheets. They will use the gold as it has been used for thousands of years – to gain trust. And to avoid bank runs.
Will the gold hoard be sufficient?
I don’t know.
Presently, the US government sits on 260 million ounces of gold. At the present gold price of $1,655 per ounce, we are talking $430 billion. The monetary base is presently $2,673 billion; M1 is $2,220 billion and M2 minus money market funds is $9,163 billion. The gold hoard is thus only 16%, 19%, and 5% of these money stocks, respectively. Hardly a proper gold standard but it could be a start. Through proper balance sheet deleveraging and through additional gold purchases the private banks are obviously free to improve these ratios. (Again it is not for bureaucrats or economists to decide what is appropriate. This is the role of the banking entrepreneur.)
But now that the private banks own the central bank, would they not put the printing press into overdrive and create inflation?
I don’t think so. Through quantitative easing the central bank accumulates assets from the banking sector and expands the money supply. The central bank leverages its own balance sheet in the process. The Fed is already levered more than 50 to one, which is more than Lehman and Bear Stearns were when they collapsed. But now the banks own the capital of the Fed. They foot the bill, not the taxpayer. The banks can no longer dump unwanted assets on the central bank. They own the central bank. They cannot transfer risk to it.
Additionally, the public will be very suspicious of an overtly expansionary central bank. They know it is operated by the private banks and entirely for their own benefit. Any inflation concerns will translate into higher interest rates and that is detrimental to the highly leveraged banking sector. I would expect the private banks, now operating without any safety net from the state but under the suspicious gaze of their own customers, to be very cautious about how much money they print.
Easy money is great for the banks for as long as they can lower reserve and capital ratios. That was much easier when they could rely on government backstops or when meeting official regulatory requirements already gave their balance sheet policy an official seal of approval. Now that they are on their own, monetary expansion and thus debt accumulation and leverage are a double-edged sword. It will pay again to run a bank prudently and even advertise your higher capital and reserve ratios.
Furthermore, the relatively sounder banks (if we assume for a moment that those indeed exist) have little interest in running the jointly owned central bank for the benefit of the weakest banks. To the contrary, it is in the interest of the stronger banks to see weaker banks fail and exit the market. At the same time, it is not in the interest of even the strongest banks to see widespread bank runs or a general distrust in banks as that could quickly come to haunt them, too. I think it is very reasonable to assume that under my plan of complete privatization the key challenge of allowing corporate failure in banking on the one hand but avoiding a complete collapse of the banking system on the other will be managed much better. The reason is that this task is now given to bankers as entrepreneurs who have a keen interest in getting that balance right. As long as banking is under the protection of the state, monetary and banking policy will be conducted for the benefit of the weakest banks, and the strongest banks will simply reap windfall profits.
Does the state get off too lightly?
The state no longer has any responsibility for the banks or money. No more setting of policy, no big hearings in Washington, no bailouts, no IMF, no World Bank. A lot of money will be saved and many explicit and implicit claims on the taxpayer will be eliminated. But also, the state can no longer tell the banks that government bonds are safe and encourage the banks through bank regulation and official capital requirements to invest in them. There is no longer any bank regulation from the state. Banks will be regulated by the market, which means ultimately by the consumer. The state also loses the central bank and can thus no longer create an artificial demand for its securities. Remember, last year 61% of new Treasuries were placed with the Fed. Why should the banks, which now own the central bank, continue to accept this?
Government bonds everywhere benefit from the idea that states can’t go bankrupt because they can always print the money. This idea is fundamentally wrong as I have argued repeatedly. Once the debt load reaches a certain level, it can no longer be inflated away. If this is still tried, currency disaster will ensue. Be that as it may, with the state officially separated from the field of money and banking, it would have to manage its finances like any other entity, like a private corporation or a household (or almost like any other entity as it still benefits from the privilege of taxation). We would certainly see higher state borrowing costs, lower levels of spending and smaller deficits. This would be an important step to what Doug Casey calls “starving the beast”.
Of course, in such an environment we would not have to worry at all about how the banks arrange their executive pay, how their bonus schemes work, or if bank shareholders hold their board members at all responsible for their mistakes and failures. These are internal affairs of entirely private and capitalist enterprises. If bank shareholders get this wrong and set the wrong incentives, only they will bear the consequences. The idea that banking is a public service for which a specific set of rules and regulations must be designed and administered by the state does no longer apply.
Come to think of it, this proposal looks much better in terms of consistency and clarity than any other, in my humble opinion. Those who argue for an official gold standard are asking the state to design and implement a new monetary order. Those who ask for a ban on fractional-reserve banking ask the state to define what constitutes legitimate banking business and then enforce it. Those who want to introduce new legislation in response to executive pay and bonus schemes, ask the state to interfere in the relationship between shareholder (principal) and manager (agent).
I ask the state to do just one thing: Get the hell out of money and banking! Now!
In the meantime, the debasement of paper money continues.
This article was previously published at Paper Money Collapse.