We are now five years into the Great Fiat Money Endgame and our freedom is increasingly under attack from the state, liberty’s eternal enemy. It is true that by any realistic measure most states today are heading for bankruptcy. But it would be wrong to assume that ‘austerity’ policies must now lead to a diminishing of government influence and a shrinking of state power. The opposite is true: the state asserts itself more forcefully in the economy, and the political class feels licensed by the crisis to abandon whatever restraint it may have adhered to in the past. Ever more prices in financial markets are manipulated by the central banks, either directly or indirectly; and through legislation, regulation, and taxation the state takes more control of the employment of scarce means. An anti-wealth rhetoric is seeping back into political discourse everywhere and is setting the stage for more confiscation of wealth and income in the future.
War is the health of the state, and so is financial crisis, ironically even a crisis in government finances. As the democratic masses sense that their living standards are threatened, they authorize their governments to do “whatever it takes” to arrest the collapse, prop up asset prices, and to enforce some form of stability. The state is a gigantic hammer, and at times of uncertainty the public wants nothing more than seeing everything nailed to the floor. Saving the status quo and spreading the pain are the dominant political postulates today, and they will shape policy for years to come.
Unlimited fiat money is a political tool
A free society requires hard and apolitical money. But the reality today is that money is merely a political tool. Central banks around the world are getting ever bolder in using it to rig markets and manipulate asset prices. The results are evident: equities are trading not far from historic highs, the bonds of reckless and clueless governments are trading at record low interest rates, and corporate debt is priced for perfection. While in the real economy the risks remain palpable and the financial sector on life support from the central banks, my friends in money management tell me that the biggest risk they have faced of late was the risk of not being bullish enough and missing the rallies. Welcome to Planet QE.
I wish my friends luck but I am concerned about the consequences. With free and unlimited fiat money at the core of the financial industry, mis-allocations of capital will not diminish but increase. The damage done to the economy will be spectacular in the final assessment. There is no natural end to QE. Once it has propped up markets it has to be continued ad infinitum to keep ‘prices’ where the authorities want them. None of this is a one-off or temporary. It is a new form of finance socialism. It will not end through the political process but via complete currency collapse.
Not the buying and selling by the public on free and uninhibited markets, but monetary authorities – central bank bureaucrats – now determine where asset prices should be, which banks survive, how fast they grow and who they lend to, and what the shape of the yield curve should be. We are witnessing the destruction of financial markets and indeed of capitalism itself.
While in the monetary sphere the role of the state is increasing rapidly it is certainly not diminishing in the sphere of fiscal policy. Under the misleading banner of ‘austerity’ states are not rolling back government but simply changing the sources of state funding. Seeing what has happened in Ireland and Portugal, and what is now happening in Spain and in particular Greece, many governments want to reduce their dependence on the bond market. They realize that once the bond market loses confidence in the solvency of any state the game is up and insolvency quickly becomes a reality. But the states that attempt to reduce deficits do not usually reduce spending but raise revenues through higher taxes.
Sources of state funding
When states fund high degrees of spending by borrowing they tap into the pool of society’s savings, crowd out private competitors, and thus deprive the private sector of resources. In the private sector, savings would have to be employed as productive capital to be able repay the savers who provided these resources in the first place at some point in the future. By contrast, governments mainly consume the resources they obtain through borrowing in the present period. They do not invest them in productive activities that generate new income streams for society. Via deficit-spending, governments channel savings mainly back into consumption. Government bonds are not backed by productive capital but simply by the state’s future expropriation of wealth-holders and income-earners. Government deficits and government debt are always highly destructive for a society. They are truly anti-social. Those who invest in government debt are not funding future-oriented investment but present-day state consumption. They expect to get repaid from future taxes on productive enterprise without ever having invested in productive enterprise themselves. They do not support capitalist production but simply acquire shares in the state’s privilege of taxation.
Reducing deficits is thus to be encouraged at all times, and the Keynesian nonsense that deficit-spending enhances society’s productiveness is to be rejected entirely. However, most states are not aiming to reduce deficits by cutting back on spending, and those that do, do so only marginally. They mainly replace borrowing with taxes. This means the state no longer takes the detour via the bond market but confiscates directly and instantly what it needs to sustain its outsized spending. In any case, the states’ heavy control over a large chunk of society’s scarce means is not reduced. It is evident that this strategy too obstructs the efficient and productive use of resources. It is a disincentive for investment and the build-up of a productive capital stock. It is a killer of growth and prosperity.
47 percent, then 52 percent, then 90 percent…
Why do states not cut spending? – I would suggest three answers: first, it is not in the interest of politicians and bureaucrats to reduce spending as spending is the prime source of their power and prestige. Second, there is still a pathetic belief in the Keynesian myth that government spending ‘reboots’ the economy. But the third is maybe the most important one: in all advanced welfare democracies large sections of the public have come to rely on the state, and in our mass democracies it now means political suicide to try and roll back the state.
Mitt Romney’s comment that 47% of Americans would not appreciate his message of cutting taxes and vote for him because they do not pay taxes and instead rely on government handouts, may not have been politically astute and tactically clever but there was a lot of truth in it.
In Britain, more than 50 percent of households are now net receivers of state transfers, up 10 percent from a decade ago. In Scotland it is allegedly a staggering 90 percent of households. Large sections of British society have become wards of the state.
Against this backdrop state spending is more likely to grow than shrink. This will mean higher taxes, more central bank intervention (debt monetization, ‘quantitative easing’), more regulatory intervention to force institutional investors into the government bond market, and ultimately capital controls.
Eat the Rich!
In order to legitimize the further confiscation of private income and private wealth to fund ongoing state expenditure, the need for a new political narrative arose. This narrative claims that the problem with government finances is not out-of-control spending but the lack of solidarity by the rich, wealthy and most productive, who do not contribute ‘their fair share’.
An Eat-the-Rich rhetoric is discernible everywhere, and it is getting louder. In Britain, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg wants to introduce a special ‘mansion tax’ on high-end private property. This is being rejected by the Tories but, according to opinion polls, supported by a majority of Brits. (I wager a guess that it is popular in Scotland.) In Germany, Angela Merkel’s challenger for the chancellorship, Peer Steinbrueck, wants to raise capital gains taxes if elected. In Switzerland of all places, a conservative (!) politician recently proposed that extra taxes should be levied on wealthy pensioners so that they make their ‘fair’ contribution to the public weal.
France on an economic suicide mission
The above trends are all nicely epitomized by developments in France. In 2012, President Hollande has not reduced state spending at all but raised taxes. For 2013 he proposed an ‘austerity’ budget that would cut the deficit by €30 billion, of which €10 billion would come from spending cuts and €20 billion would be generated in extra income through higher taxes on corporations and on high income earners. The top tax rate will rise from 41% to 45%, and those that earn more than €1 million a year will be subject to a new 75% marginal tax rate. With all these market-crippling measures France will still run a budget deficit and will have to borrow more from the bond market to fund its outsized state spending programs, which still account for 56% of registered GDP.
If you ask me, the market is not bearish enough on France. This version of socialism will not work, just as no other version of socialism has ever worked. But when it fails, it will be blamed on ‘austerity’ and the euro, not on socialism.
As usual, the international commentariat does not ‘get it’. Political analysts are profoundly uninterested in the difference between reducing spending and increasing taxes, it is all just ‘austerity’ to them, and, to make it worse, allegedly enforced by the Germans. The Daily Telegraph’s Ambrose Evans-Pritchard labels ‘austerity’ ‘1930s policies imposed by Germany’, which is of dubious historical and economic accuracy but suitable, I guess, to make a political point.
Most commentators are all too happy to cite the alleged negative effect of ‘austerity’ on GDP, ignoring that in a heavily state-run economy like France’s, official GDP says as little about the public’s material wellbeing as does a rallying equity market in an economy fuelled by unlimited QE. If the government spent money on hiring people to sweep the streets with toothbrushes this, too, would boost GDP and could thus be labelled economic progress.
At this point it may be worth adding that despite all the talk of ‘austerity’ many governments are still spending and borrowing like never before, first and foremost, the United States, which is running the largest civil government mankind has ever seen. For 5 consecutive years annual deficits have been way in excess of $1,000 billion, which means the US government borrows an additional $4 billion on every day the markets are open. The US is running budget deficits to the tune of 8-10% per annum to allegedly boost growth by a meagre 2% at best.
Regulation and more regulation
Fiscal and monetary actions by states will increasingly be flanked by aggressive regulatory and legislative intervention in markets. Governments are controlling the big pools of savings via their regulatory powers over banks, insurance companies and pension funds. Existing regulations already force all these entities into heavy allocations of government bonds. This will continue going forward and intensify. The states must ensure that they continue to have access to cheap funding.
Not only do I expect regulation that ties institutional investors to the government bond market to continue, I think it will be made ever more difficult for the individual to ‘opt out’ of these schemes, i.e. to arrange his financial affairs outside the heavily state-regulated banking, insurance, and pension fund industry. The astutely spread myth that the financial crisis resulted from ‘unregulated markets’ rather than constant expansion of state fiat money and artificially cheap credit from state central banks, has opened the door for more aggressive regulatory interference in markets.
The War on Offshore
Part and parcel of this trend is the War on Offshore, epitomized by new and tough double-taxation treaties between the UK and Switzerland and Germany and Switzerland. You are naïve if you think that attacks on Swiss banking and on other ‘offshore’ banking destinations are only aimed at tax-dodgers. An important side effect of these campaigns is this: it gets ever more cumbersome for citizens from these countries to conduct their private banking business in Switzerland and other countries, and ever more expensive and risky for Swiss and other banks to service these clients. For those of us who are tax-honest but prefer to have our assets diversified politically, and who are attracted to certain banking and legal traditions and a deeper commitment to private property rights in places such as Switzerland, banking away from our home country gets more difficult. This is intentional I believe.
The United States of America have taken this strategy to its logical extreme. The concept of global taxation for all Americans, regardless where they live, coupled with aggressive litigation and threat of reprisal against foreign financial institutions that may – deliberately or inadvertently – assist Americans in lowering their tax burden, have made it very expensive and even risky for many banks to deal with American citizens, or even with holders of US green cards or holders of US social security numbers. Americans will find it difficult to open bank accounts in certain countries. This is certainly the case for Switzerland but a friend of mine even struggled obtaining full banking services in Singapore. I know of private banks in the UK that have terminated banking relationships with US citizens, even when they were longstanding clients. All of this is going to get worse next year when FATCA becomes effective – the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, by which the entire global financial system will become the extended arm of the US Internal Revenue System. US citizens are subject to de facto capital controls. I believe this is only a precursor to real capital controls being implemented in the not too distant future.
When Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote that “none are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free” he anticipated the modern USA.
And to round it all off, there is the War on Cash. In many European countries there are now legal limits for cash transactions, and Italy is considering restrictions for daily cash withdrawals. Again, the official explanation is to fight tax evasion but surely these restrictions will come in handy when the state-sponsored and highly geared banking sector in Europe wobbles again, and depositors try to pull out their money.
“I’ve seen the future, and it will be…”
So here is the future as I see it: central banks are now committed to printing unlimited amounts of fiat money to artificially prop up various asset prices forever and maintain illusions of stability. Governments will use their legislative and regulatory power to make sure that your bank, your insurance company and your pension fund keep funding the state, and will make it difficult for you to disengage from these institutions. Taxes will rise on trend, and it will be more and more difficult to keep your savings in cash or move them abroad.
Now you may not consider yourself to be rich. You may not own or live in a house that Nick Clegg would consider a ‘mansion’. You may not want to ever bank in Switzerland or hold assets abroad. You may only have a small pension fund and not care much how many government bonds it holds. You may even be one those people who regularly stand in front of me in the line at Starbucks and pay for their semi-skinned, decaf latte with their credit or debit card, so you may not care about restrictions on using cash. But if you care about living in a free society you should be concerned. And I sure believe you should care about living in a functioning market economy.
This will end badly.
This article was previously published at DetlevSchlichter.com.