Money creation by bankers, central banks or individuals

That the Swiss are going to have a referendum on changing the way in which they create money is great news. That the referendum is certain to fail is even greater news.

(First link and second link.)

As regular readers of Economics 102 will know this blogger is extremely committed to reforms in how we create money. You will also know that I am strongly opposed to state control over the economy. I also believe there is an urgent need for reforms in the way we produce and exchange goods and services. There is a 99.99 percent probability of economic turmoil as the economy continues its downward decline and without major changes there will be a lot of human suffering.

CurrencyThe Swiss proposal is that the creation of money be restricted to the central bank rather than the current fraction reserve process in which money is created when banks make loans. The authors of the proposal should be lauded for recognizing that there are big-time problems with money based on debt and that charging interest on money created makes our economic problems even worse.

My problem with the proposal is that it wants all money creation to be in the hands of the central bank. The central bank would have direct control over lending. “The money created by the monetary authority would be transferred to the Treasury and would come into circulation by public spending; thus, it would benefit the public purse and contribute to the reduction of national debt. ” Money creation and this type of spending would also mean a lot of economic control by the government.

The essay about this proposal lists private control as one of the problems with the current system. Control is a major economic issue and I can see where a lot of people are strongly opposed to anything but “public” control.  However “public” control is just control by different people with slightly different interests from the bankers. They will still be acting in their own interests – such as getting re-elected. I want an economic system in which control and decision-making is by individuals and I believe the way to get this with a true competitive market economy which we do not have. I also figure the current system is marginally better than money creation in the hands of a government agent.

The authors also point out there is a need to “secure the independence of the monetary authority.’ This is a serious concern as the people who control money creation get to determine which economic projects go ahead and by whom. There are very few prime ministers of any political leanings who would allow that kind of power into any hands but their own.

There is an alternative to money creation by a central bank and that is to combine money creation with a guaranteed annual income scheme. This would solve the problems of lots of people without jobs and it would put primary economic decision-making into the hands of all of us as individuals.

This guy has written extensively about this on this weblog and in an e-book Funny Money: Adapting to a down economy. The book is available free by following the link on the sidebar.

Any changes in how money is created, whether to a central bank or to an income scheme, would hit the profits and power of bankers. Expect them to be more than just vocal in their opposition if either becomes a serious threat.

I figure economics is largely about relationships and to be satisfactory relationships need to be based on a more or less equal two-way exchange. I also believe money should be considered a tool to facilitate the exchange of goods and services and it should encourage good relationships rather than be an instrument for exploitation. To maintain good relationships money should not give power to some people over others. I fear that giving a central bank the sole right to create money would make it easy for governments to exploit their citizens.

There are lots of serious problems with the fractional reserve way of creating money and there is an urgent need for reform. The big question is what the reforms will do to the way in which we exchange goods and services and how we relate to each other.

Some concerns about the Swiss money creation referendum

The Swiss are going to hold a referendum on a proposal to change the way in which money is created by transferring this function from private banks to the central bank.  The more I think about this the more I see it as an attack on banks by people who do not really understand what money is and how the financial system functions, or should I say by people whose understanding of money is different from mine.

I believe there are some serious problems with the current fractional reserve way of creating money and anything which might lead to reform is to be encouraged.  However, I would like to see some debate rather than letting those who would tell the rest of us how to live win by default.  I want to see a libertarian reform in which decision-making is by all individuals rather than a select few.

Here are two links to information about the referendum. One, two.

Money is a tool to facilitate the exchange of goods and services and is backed by the agricultural surplus of which we have a huge amount although its continuation is somewhat precarious.  The fractional reserve way of creating money gives great power to bankers who create money each time they make a loan.  The Swiss critics are right about that. Money represents purchasing power for people who hold it and those who create money can decide to whom they will transfer that purchasing power. Transferring the money creation function to the central banks would be transferring power from one small group to another. I am not certain bureaucrats would be any better at making decisions in the public interest than private bankers.

A more libertarian approach would be to combine monetary reform with a universal income scheme and to call money agricultural surplus credits.  This is explained in my just released ebook Funny Money: Adapting to a Down Economy.  The book also talks about the problems with fractional reserve banking. (You may get a free copy of this book from Smashwords until March 19, 2016. See previous post.)

In reforming the way in which we create money two other factors need to be considered.  The total amount of money available needs to be flexible up and down as the quantity of good and services exchanged varies. If it is not flexible we should expect inflation or deflation, both of which rob people of their savings.  The Swiss proposal says the central bank would use its statistics facilities to help in this.

The other concern is interest.  I believe the charging of interest on loans is a Ponzi scheme which leads to periodic financial crises.  This too is in the book. I did not see anything in the proposal to indicate how interest would be handled.  It could be the people who crafted the proposal do not see that interest is a problem in money creation.

I fear that not too many people truly understand how money works in the economy and how the fractional reserve way of creating money is a serious problem.  Reforms are needed although I can not see that transferring money creation from one small group to another small group will be a satisfactory reform.

Free Funny Money

Here is a free promotional giveaway of the new ebook Funny Money: Adapting to a down economy.  This book is now available on Amazon Kindle and Smashwords.  The next step is for me to make some formatting corrections so Smashwords can distribute it to a number of book stores.

FunnyMoneyArtPowell-final

Smashwords allows authors to create coupons for discounts and free giveaways.  I have made a coupon to give this book away free for about two weeks. The code is HS63E and it expires on March 19, 2016

The book is available at: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/620310

The book is also available at the Kindle book store at http://www.amazon.ca/gp/product/B01CH1LF6W?*Version*=1&*entries*=0  

at the regular price of 99 cents. So far as I know Amazon does not allow the free giveaway for the publishing option I have chosen.

This book is critical of some aspects of economics and endorses others. The author, who has also read history and anthropology, questions economic growth and the fractional reserve way of creating money. He has come to terms with the market economic model as a set of guidelines for economic policy. The current economic crisis is resource based in that we have used up the most easily accessible of energy and mineral resouces.  We need a guaranteed income scheme and a new way of creating money.

Will the coming infrastructure crises be one of finances or resources?

Following a weekend of driving a highway in British Columbia one has to believe this article in The Economist which claims it will cost $57 trillion to build and maintain the infrastructure the world needs between now and 2030.  And the road (Part of the Trans Canada highway between Sicamous and Golden) really wasn’t that bad.

The Economist writer is concerned with who will provide the finances for the needed work.  I think financial people are generally very good at creating money when there is a need.   The real problem is: will there be enough energy and mineral resources at a reasonable cost?   There will be lots of resources but we have already used up the most easily accessible and those that are left will take a lot of energy to access. Energy for infrastructure will be competing with all the other things we want to have and do.

One of the issues will be priorities.  Most of us, most of the time act and think in our own short-term interests as opposed to the long-term interests of our communities and even own long-term interests.  We may know that a bridge is past its prime but so long as it remains intact it will be a long-term project and sacrificed for other things that are short-term.  When the bridge was first built it was a short-term need.

Most of the current infrastructure was built during our golden years of prosperity and people were optimistic.  Most of us are now aware there are problems in the economy even if we don’t know why.  There will be people who will risk their savings on long-term investments for a good potential return but I suspect a lot of people will be hesitant to take the risk.

The current infrastructure projects mentioned in the article are along way from the total of $57 trillion which will be needed.  We might be wise to stock up on duct tape.

Speaking of Bridges, the pictures are of one of my favorites: The Kicking Horse Pedestrian Bridge in Golden, B.C. A link.

 

 

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Payday loans, slavery and money creation

What is the marginal cost of making a payday loan? Or any other type of loan?  The answer to this question should help to answer a question about interest rates on loans raised in the Buttonwood column of The Economist, November 30, 2013 issue. What interest rates should lenders be allowed to charge?

Unfortunately loans and credit are complicated beyond simple economics because the making of loans is an instrument of exploitation even to the point of slavery and because credit is involved in how we create money.

Economic theory tells us that so long as there is competition the price of a product should be equal to the marginal cost of producing that product.  Therefore for loans the marginal cost would be the cost to the lender of acquiring the money to loan (i.e. the interest paid to the depositor of for payday lenders to their source of funds) plus the operating costs and the cost of loans written off.  The legitimate interest rate to charge on a loan should be easy to calculate and for banks we can compare the rates they pay on deposits and the rates they charge for loans.

It appears the need for credit is almost universal at least in large-scale economies.  I’m not sure about hunting and gathering groups which practice a sharing economy.  It appears there has always been a need for short-term lending of the type done by payday lenders.

The problem is that the making of loans can be an instrument of exploitation.  One of the quickest ways to get control over a person is to lend them some money.  In peasant societies people borrow to put on funerals and weddings and if they cannot repay they sometimes find themselves in slavery.

In our own society there are probably lots of people with dreams of doing something other than the daily employment but they are unable because of their debt load.  All this consumer debt works as an instrument of social control for the one percent.  So long as we are in debt we work to support their goals and interests rather than for our own.  If a person wants to be truly free one should try to live without  borrowing.

As for payday loans Mr./Mrs./Miss/Ms Buttonwood says:

“Provided the terms of the loan are made clear, then it should be up to borrowers to decide whether to accept the costs involved. An interest rate is simply the price of money.”

Once again this is simple economics without the human factor.  For many people there are times when  it may not be easy “to decide whether to accept the costs involved.”

The other complication with lending is that our money supply is based on fractional reserve loans by financial institutions.  As money is essential for the exchange of goods and services it is also essential that we carry a debt load.  Says Buttonwood

“But businesses and consumers are positively encouraged to borrow. Indeed, when debt growth slows, as it has in recent years, an air of panic develops about how to get it going again.”

There are a number of problems with the fractional reserve method of creating money, most of which have been discussed elsewhere on this weblog and especially in the essay “LETS go to market: Dealing with the economic crisis.”  Basically it is a Ponzi scheme which is urgently in need of reform.

The reform proposed in that essay, a national Local Exchange Trading System (LETS) should also help with the need for short-term credit.  It would be a lot less exploitive as no interest would be charged and control over the money supply would be in the hands of all people.  A national LETS system would transfer a lot of economic decision-making from bankers and governments to individuals.

There are consumer loans and there are business loans.  Loans are a transfer of purchasing power from one person  to another and interest is compensation for the transfer.  A LETS system  should take care of the need for short-term consumer  credit.  The compensation for business loans should come out of the profits in which case they should be considered equity.

Back to the question of caps on interest charged on payday loans.  Is it the role of government to prevent some of its citizens from exploiting others?  If yes, then governments should limit interest  rates  charged (marginal cost is a guideline) or find another way of creating money so that the need for short-term consumer credit is easily satisfied.

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Government debt default and the money supply

A United States debt default will hit the economy as a reduction of government spending and it could also  hurt by forcing changes in the money supply.

The first thing to say about debt is that there is so much of it around the world that there is a high probability most of it will be written off either by defaults of inflation.  This debt is not so much borrowing from children as a transfer of purchasing power within this generation, some/most of which will never be returned. And those with the most are likely to lose the most but will still probably be more comfortable than the rest of us.

The second thing to say is that the probable root  cause of the economic crisis is in the real side of the economy as well as the financial sector.  We have used up most of the easily accessible energy and mineral resources and those that are left take a lot more work to extract.

If the United States defaults  some of its debt the government will have less money to spend.  As government spending is a component of gross domestic product there will be a reduction in economic activity.  Government spending currently makes up about 20 percent of GDP but only a small part of this will likely be cut immediately.

The effect of a debt default on the money supply is more complex and uncertain.  A drastic reduction in the money supply would bring a lot of economic activity to a halt.

Money is based on loans issued by the banks, involves fractional reserves (they are required to keep a percentage of deposits as reserves)  and dependant upon what is called high powered money which is subject to a multiplier because of the fractional reserves. (for and explanation of how money is created see these links, one, two.)  In a default one issue would be how much the losses fall upon institutions subject to fractional reserves because losses would reduce their reserves.  A reduction in their reserves would bring down the quantity of loans they could make – by a multiplier.  Thus the money supply in the economy would be reduced and without money the exchange of goods and services becomes difficult.

Under normal circumstances a reduction in the money supply would mean a reduction in the real economy.  But the real economy is already in trouble as noted above.

At this point I need to remind you of the formula MV=PQ.  The money supply times its velocity or the rate at which it changes hands is equal to prices or a price index times the quantity of goods and services.

In an attempt to stimulate the economy central banks have been using “quantitative easing” to inject more high powered money into the financial system so the banks will have more money to lend.   If the above formula is correct then there should have been a reduction in velocity or an increase in prices (inflation) or economic activity.  It may be that velocity has fallen but there is little evidence that inflation or GDP has increased.

If the formula is correct then something has to have happened to one of the other variables.   One possibility is that at least some of this extra money has gone into the financial markets and inflation has hit stocks.  If this is correct, then a reduction in money supply could hit the financial sector.

So there you have it a U.S. default would probably lead to a reduction in economic activity and it could also cause problems in the financial markets.  I just had a horrible thought.  What would happen if a lot of the major countries were to default at the same time?

Why we can’t let banks fail

It appears investors are putting money into banks in the belief the banks are safe because governments can be relied upon to bail them out the next time they get into trouble.  These investors could be right.

It’s not so much that banks are too big to fail, it is more that they are too important to let fail.

Banks are essential in creating the money supply. When banks make a loan they create money and the total money supply is increased.. When the loan is repaid, the money supply decreases until the money is re-loaned and the supply goes back up.   Thus the money supply is constant – until a central bank purchases government bonds.  Because the central bank pays for these bonds by adding to the liabilities of its balance sheet, this is the creation of new money.   But because of fractional reserve requirements (banks are required to hold a percentage of deposits in reserve against withdrawals) money created by the central bank is called high powered money and the money supply goes up with a multiplier effect.

institution_iconAll this is explained in any textbook on the economics of money and banking. What I have never seen explained is the effect on the money supply when a bank writes off a loan. Probably it has the reverse effect of high powered money – a decreased money supply subject to the same multiplier. (Here is a link to the wikipedia article on money creation.)

In most cases the writing off of loans will have little effect on the money supply However, if the amounts to be written off are large as was the case with the American housing crisis or is likely to be the case with any sovereign debt write off, the impact on the money supply will be substantial and it we lead to an abrupt decline economic activity. People will invent alternatives to the lost money but the initial devastation will be  a problem.

 The Americans are considering cutting back on their food stamp program.  My prediction is that when the next financial crisis happens, keeping the banks going will come before feeding people.

One way to reduce the importance and power of the banks would be to find a new way of creating money.  One proposal for doing this is in the essay “LETS go to market: Dealing with the economic crisis” on this weblog.

Let’s end this post with the following quote 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.”

(This is an update of a post originally published in June, 2011.)

 

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What caused the financial collapse?

Here are four causes of the financial crisis not based on conventional economic wisdom:  the way in which we our economy creates money, the using up of the most accessible energy and mineral resources, the greed of most of us and imprudent or fraudulent banking practices which allow bankers to make excessive profits.

For a more conventional explanation see this article in The Economist.

We all use money and many people are very good at “making” money but very few understand its function and how it is created.  As gold and other items have traditionally been used as money we treat it as a commodity with some value of its own.  But money is a tool to facilitate the exchange of goods and services.  It is a token of purchasing power.  It is important that we have just the right amount of money to use otherwise we have inflation (too much money for the transactions we want) or deflation (not enough).

The money we use results from fractional reserve banking in which banks are required to keep a percentage of their deposits as reserves.  How this works is explained in the essay “LETS go to market: Dealing with the crisis” on this weblog.  It is complex but I find it  easy to understand.

Our money supply is based on loans made by banks and upon which they charge interest. For this system to work there must be a continuously increasing supply of money which sort of works so long as the economy is growing.  However, even a slowdown can cause problems because we need the right amount of money for the number of economic transactions.   I think this is a Ponzi scheme and therefore it is bound to collapse.  Periodic financial crises are built into the way we create money.  This is one of the causes of the current crisis.  When the U.S. mortgage bubble burst the money supply and the financial system collapsed.

There are two sides to the economic equation.  One side deals with the financial and the other with the physical goods that provide us with food, shelter, clothing. transportation and toys.

Since the industrial revolution we have been living in unprecedented increasing prosperity.  However there is some evidence that since the 1970s the growth of this prosperity has been slowing down and maybe even declining.  My theory to explain this is that we have used up the most easily accessible of the energy and mineral resources and it now takes more energy to recover what is left.  To use jargon, the marginal costs have increased.  This is bound to affect standards of living as more effort must be applied to resource extraction and less to other things.  This is background to the financial crisis.

Wall Street bankers are the kings of greed who got their riches partly be being in the right place at the right time.  They also make good scapegoats.

A scapegoat is somebody you blame for the consequences of your own weaknesses.  Most if not all of us have some greed and this was a factor in the financial crisis.  Before and since the crisis many people wanted the most they could get.  This includes the savers and investors who wanted the greatest returns to the poorer people who wanted housing they couldn’t afford.  Every time I go to the ATM machine or actually enter the bank I am reminded the financial industry is still appealing to the greed of its customers.

The final cause of the financial crisis is that bankers are smart enough to realize they can increase their margins and make huge profits by mismatching the terms of deposits and loans.  At the best this is imprudent.  It could even be fraud.

Bankers are financial intermediaries in that they collect deposits and make them into loans.  The difference in interest rates provide a margin which covers their expenses and provides some profits.  Prudent banking requires that the terms of the deposits and loans match.  Thus if a banker makes a loan for ten years then he should have on hand ten-year term deposits of the same amount.  Breaking this rule can be very dangerous and very profitable.

The reason for breaking the rule is that the longer the loan the greater the risk and therefore the higher the interest rate which will be charged on the loan and which must be paid to get deposits committed for the same time. A banker who finances a long-term loan with short-term deposits can increase his margin.  Prior to the financial crisis the banks were financing long-term mortgage loans with short-term deposits, some of the deposits were committed just for one day at a time.  This worked well when the economy was going well but when it became apparent there were problems the depositors became worried about their money and refused to roll them over.  As banks are required to only keep a fraction of their deposits on hand there was a limited number of depositors who could be refunded.

I think this should be considered fraud against the depositors or in this case the taxpayers who covered the losses.  It was necessary for the government to step in  because we would have lost even more of our money supply and that would have been disastrous.  The question which probably should not be asked: are bankers continuing to mismatch deposits and loans?

So there you have it, my list of four factors which contributed to the crisis.  All of these will be challenging to change.  Some ideas for change are in my essay “LETS go to market: Dealing with the economic crisis.”

 

If you liked this post your are invited to comment, press the like button and/or click  one of the share buttons. If you disagree you are invited to say why in a comment.  While I like the idea of sharing this platform, my personality is such that I don’t reply to many comments.

Internet financial firms

The potential for geeky financial firms is featured in an article in last week’s The Economist.  At this time the firms are small compared to the banks but there is probably enough potential that the banks could be threatened.

This could be both good and bad.

It will be good if there develops and alternative to fractional reserve banking.  I am thoroughly convinced that money creation by fractional reserve debt is a Ponzi scheme which frequently collapses in a financial crisis.  If these firms do replace the banks and avoid fractional reserves  we will have to find another way of creating money.  Whatever it is it will require that the money supply be flexible up and down to correspond with the level of economic activity.  I rather like the concept of Local Exchange Trading Systems which could be expanded to a national level.

The not so good feature of geeky financial services is that they would be an ideal new venture for large firms such as Amazon, Facebook or Google, firms whose commitment to privacy appears to be limited to their own.

buttom2I can see two groups rubbing their hands at the prospect of one of these large firms becoming  involved in most financial transactions.

The first are those in the online advertising business who use information about people to target advertising and the second are government spooks and those in government who believe they know what is best for the rest of us and want to control our lives.  Just think: emails, friends, shopping and financial data on everyone all available from one source. I wonder if the spies already have access to personal  financial data.

Probably the people into social control are the most threatening.  Once the monitoring  systems are all in place it will be easy for somebody to misuse them.

Another article this week, from Forbes,  talks about small groups of people getting together to provide each other with financial support.  This sounds like the early  credit unions on the Canadian prairies where a lot of transactions took place on someones kitchen table.

The risks of making loans

Crowd funding for unsecured personal loans is interesting in that it spreads the risk and potentially dangerous in that  it may attract investors who ignore the risk factor.  It is also unique in making loans that do not add to the money supply via fractional reserve banking.

An article in this week’s The Economist reports on some American firms that are making crowd sourced loans to individuals usually to consolidate and reduce the cost of credit card borrowing.  This model means borrowers get a cheaper interest rate and depositors get more on their deposits.  This is different from crowd sourced funding for business development although both involve risk.

CCBill_20120401When ever one makes a loan, either directly or though an intermediary (a bank deposit) one is transferring purchasing power to somebody else.  Mostly one hopes to get more purchasing power (interest or dividends) back.  There are three risks in doing this:  a government may decide to give you a haircut, the person may default or you may get caught by inflation.  We can try to protect ourselves from default by purchasing deposit insurance.  I don’t know how to protect ourselves from a haircut or inflation.  Maybe by supporting the Tea Party.  These risks will always be there no matter how bankers try to offload them.

As I understand it the crowd loan companies allow you to put a small amount of money into a number of loans.  Each amount is tied to that loan and your deposit is returned to you if, as and when the borrower repays the loan.  This allows you to spread your risk among a number of borrowers.  This may let lenders think they are reducing their risk but most business and financial models work well when the economy is growing and have problems when growth declines.  There is some probability our economy will continue to decline for some time to come.  Here is the risk statement of one of these companies.

I like that this way of funding loans does not involve fractional reserve banking and thus has a neutral impact on the money supply.

I fear that too many people will see the higher interest rates being paid on deposits and  ignore or not realize the risk involved.  If and when the risk becomes reality, there will be a lot of crying and screaming and possibly a lot of suffering.

It may be that the risk in crowd funding is no greater than with other forms of saving/making loans.  It is just a little more obvious. I still think that given the current economic situation the best investment is a market garden.

Banking – a risky business now and in medieval times

Modern bankers are protected from personal bankruptcy by the concept of “too big to fail.”   This hasn’t always been the case as in medieval times banking was a very risky business with failed bankers losing everything.

I have just finished reading Money, banking and credit in Medieval Bruges by Raymond de Roover who discusses a number of issues about money and banking most of which are still relevant.

His book covers the Italian merchant bankers who used bills of exchange to avoid shipping specie, the Lombards who operated as pawnbrokers to provide licensed usury and retail credit and the money changers who were the forerunners of today’s commercial banks.  It is the latter that I found most interesting.

One of the first things to impress me was de Roover’s use of the term purchasing power to describe money.    When so many people think of money as a commodity with a value in its own right, it is important to be reminded that the main function of money is as purchasing power.  He points out the Italian merchant bankers used bills of exchange to transfer purchasing power from one place to another.  Also the money changers transferred purchasing power when they assisted their customers to transfer funds from one person to another.

Briefcase_Vector_DesignMedieval bankers knew that loans to princes and governments were perilous and should be avoided.  Considering the amount of debt owed by governments today is so great it will never  be repaid this is probably a good rule.  Rolling over debt plus interest is a racket and a lot of people are going to lose a lot of purchasing power.   Some will find their retirement plans disappearing.

De Roover is emphatic that the money changers were creating money through their fractional reserve policies.  They were accepting deposits and making transfers of purchasing power by via entries from one account to another.  As all the money changers were physically close they could do transfers between customers of different bankers.  As most of their transfers were on paper and they kept about 30 per cent in reserve,  much of the money in their strong boxes was available for other uses.  Some was loaned to customers as overdrafts and the rest was invested in commercial ventures.  In either case they were creating fractional reserve money and adding to the money supply.  Modern banks follow a fractional reserve policy and are creating money when they make loans.

Because of usury laws no interest was paid on deposits or charged on overdrafts.  They made their money on exchanging currency and from investments.  This is interesting because I believe interest being charged on fractional reserve money/loans causes us a lot of problems.

By making investments in commercial ventures the money changers were living dangerously because this money was not on hand if requested by depositors.  Financing long-term investments with short-term or demand deposits is a high risk business plan and many money-changers found themselves bankrupt.  De Roover quotes a medieval source as saying that in Venice 96 out of 103 banks came to a bad end.  He figures this may be an exaggeration but in any case banking was a high risk venture and many bankers lost everything.

When we had our banking crisis a few years ago some bankers were financing sub prime mortgages with overnight loans.   This was more dangerous than the medieval money changers because it was on a much larger scale.  This practice was highly profitable because of the high spreads between short- and long-term interest rates.     When it became apparent these mortgages were problems the overnight financing was no longer available and the banks were in serious difficulty.

The difference between the money changers and Wall Street bankers was that the money changers were very small operations.  The concept of too big to fail had not yet been invented.  Even so the payment transfer function was so important that new money changers quickly appeared and eventually a number of medieval cities established civic banks to perform that function.

There are a number of issues discussed in this book many of them still problems even if on a much larger scale.

I have long believed that banking is a risky business and that there is a need to find a way of creating money other than the fractional reserves of banking.  I still do.

 

If you liked this post your are invited to comment, press the like button and/or click  one of the share buttons. If you disagree you are invited to say why in a comment.  While I like the idea of sharing this platform, my personality is such that I don’t reply to many comments.

Bitcoins, gold and pyrite

Bitcoins and gold may have some speculative value but as a solution to economic problems or as a form of money they are on a par with pyrite

As I understand bitcoins their main feature is that the supply of them is intended to be finite.  This will make them great for speculators but as a form of money they come with the same problem as gold and that is that the amount of money in an economy needs to be flexible.  Through history there have been a number of situations where authorities have tried to limit the money, sometimes by trying to force a gold standard, and the result has been serious depression.  I wonder if bitcoins were invented in part because gold is in limited supply.

circleBitcoinProbably the increasing interest in  bitcoins is a psychological reaction to economic uncertainty and fears of hyperinflation which would wipe out the savings and pensions of a lot of people.  Given that the economic crisis is based on problems in the resource base gold and bitcoins may not be useful.  A better hedge would be a market garden.

Another feature of bitcoins is that they can be used online anonymously .  This makes them great for illegal transactions.   No wonder some regulators are saying bitcoins should come under their jurisdiction.

So far as I can see the main use of bitcoins is for speculation.

The basics of banking

Somebody has questioned how it is that banks can/should make their profits on the spread between deposits and loans.  Sometimes, when we are familiar with a subject we ass u me that everyone understands all the basics.

In the jargon of economics banks are financial intermediaries which means they are the facilitator between people who have money to lend and those who want to borrow.  People with money they don’t want to spend immediately can deposit that money in a bank.  The bankers then lends that money to somebody who has an use for it.

Bankers charges interest on the loan.  Some of that money is paid as interest on the deposit and the balance, the difference between the two interest rates, is the spread with which the banker pays his expenses and takes his profit.  It is very similar to the retailer who purchases goods wholesale and marks them up to sell at a retail price.

DooFi_PiggybankThat is the core business of banking.  Boring.  However there are a couple of additional factors which make banking  very important and very risky.

The first is that banks operate under the fractional reserve principle which means they are required to keep a percentage of deposits as cash or in a form which is immediately available.  This is just in case many people want their deposits returned at the same time.  Loans cannot always be called in quickly.  A “run” on the bank has to be most bankers worst nightmare.  I believe all bankers would lie about the financial health of their banks  to try to prevent a run.

I try to avoid dealing with bank loans staff but a couple of times I have asked how it feels to be creating money.  They cannot believe they are creating money in making loans but to those who have studied economics of money and banking that is what they do.  The process is explained  in the essay “LETS got to market: Dealing with the economic crisis.”  I figure the process is a Ponzi scheme and responsible for a lot of economic evils.  It also gives bankers a great deal of power.  Because banks create money it makes them so essential for the economy they cannot be allowed to fail.

The second complication is that making loans is a risky business in that borrowers are not always able to repay their loan.

This can be a problem for the economy as a whole  because if the banks have to write off  a large quantity of their outstanding loans,  the money supply can drop quickly and without money the exchange of goods and services stops.

Risk also  makes it easy for bankers to take for themselves some huge profits.  The general rule is that the longer the term of a loan or deposit the higher the interest rate charged or paid  because the risk is higher.  Prudent banking requires bankers to match the terms of their loans and deposits so that a loan for five  years is matched with a deposit that is committed for five years.  Thus the depositor gets more interest because he/she is carrying more risk.  In an ideal world the spread will be the same for all time periods.

But bankers can make huge profits by financing long-term loans upon which they receive a high interest rate with short-term deposits upon which they pay low-interest rates.  This way they increase the spread and take the rewards of the  higher risk.  This  tactic increases the risk as interest rates can go up above the returns from the loan or depositors may decide to withdraw their money.  I know of a Canadian financial institution that purchased some government bonds (made a loan) at ten percent.  Management expected interest rates to go down so that the interest received would be greater than what they had to pay on deposits – a nice profit,  This was just before interest rates went up to 19 percent and for a while the loses were considerable for the size of the institution.  Just before the financial crisis of 1907/08  at least some of the Wall Street banks were financing long-term sub-prime mortgages with low-cost overnight deposits.  As it became apparent a housing crisis was in the making the depositors stop renewing their deposits.

Of course when risk becomes reality and banks are faced with huge loses they are so important they cannot be allowed to fail and taxpayers end up paying for the risk.

So there you have it.  Prudent banking is simple and boring.  Breaking the basic rules brings in huge profits and ends with a major crisis.

Counting money

Bank tellers tend to be very fast and very accurate at counting money.  Economists have a more difficult time of it.  They can’t even agree on a definition.  This post was prompted by this article criticizing The Fed on how it measures the money supply.

Once upon a time I worked as a journalist.  I used to say there are two types of figures.  One kind we photographed and put on the front page and they help to sell newspapers.  The other kind help to put things into perspective.  When I got to university and wanted to study economics I found I didn’t have the calculus skills to do econometrics so I have stayed with my idea that statistics help with perspectives.

mystica_Coins_Money_Economics is about relationships.  It is about the relationships that go with the exchange of goods and services and since some exchanges involve the state it is also about our relationships with governments.

Not all exchanges can be recorded let alone measured therefore statistics are of limited use.

Mathematical concepts are useful in that they can simplify the analysis of relationships and help us understand what is happening.  Sometimes statistics can be useful for evaluating things we want to believe.  One should be leery of drawing conclusions from emotional accounts of events.  For example, a former professor claimed that during the industrial revolution things got worse for working people before they got better.  One of his arguments was highly emotional newspaper accounts of children dying in poverty.  I would have been more convinced it he had produced statistics of child mortality rates before, during and after the industrial revolution.

Back to money.  For economists it is difficult to count because there are so many things including cigarettes and candy have been used and there are a number of economic  definitions  depending upon what types of bank deposits are included.  I figure money should be defined as anything that represents purchasing power including and especially computer impulses.

Money is my favorite subject although I have never wanted to be a bank teller.

A Chicago plan for reforming banks

This week I came across a couple of articles about the Chicago  Plan for reforming banks and I like it because it proposes changing the way in which we create money and gets rid of the evils of fractional reserve money.

This plan was proposed in the 1930s by some economists from  Chicago and suggests banks be reorganized into two separate identities.  One type of bank would only accept deposits which would be kept 100 per cent with a central bank.  This type of bank would probably have to charge fees for looking after the deposits but they would be safe (except from inflation which would probably be less of a problem – or haircuts.)  No more fear of bank runs.

bankThe second type of bank would be a financial intermediary in that it would make loans based on 100 per cent equity deposits of its customers.  As all deposits would be equity, customers would know there are risks of a loan not being repaid.

As most, if not all,  bankers would see immediately, this would be the end of outrageous Wall Street profits.  Under the current system bankers make huge profits by taking for themselves  the premiums from risky loans but when the risk becomes reality somebody else takes the losses because the money creation feature of banks makes them too important to fail.  People putting money into a loan making business would know the risks and expect the returns to compensate.  The end of fractional reserve money creation would also do away with the leverage which allows bankers the profits from creating money on which they charge interest.

According to the Chicago Plan governments would create the money supply at zero interest.  This would be good in that interest charges would not be built into money creation thereby  reducing the potential for inflation.       My concern is that governments make decisions for political rather than economic reasons.  To me a national LETS (local exchange trading system)  would be preferable way to create money because the amount of money in use would depend upon the collective decisions of individuals.  For the sake of price  stability it is essential that the money supply should be flexible up and down.

When I wrote my essay “LETS go to market: Dealing with the economic crisis” I didn’t put a lot of thought into how to organize banking with a national LETS money system.  I didn’t know it then but the creators of the Chicago plan had already done that.

Why stimulus spending is a bad idea

Sadly, stimulus spending as an economic cure may make things even worse than they are.   It probably will not provide the results its promoters want although it will likely lead to a more egalitarian but poorer economy because there is a possibility it would lead to some heavy-duty inflation.

The ideal way to deal with the economic crisis requires  a major change in economic thinking and values starting with the way in which money is created.  Some ideas are in my essay “LETS go to market: dealing with the economic crisis.”  Of course this is not a realistic proposal. Its implementation would require a dictator with a strong and loyal military and this is contrary to my belief that decision-making should be made by individuals.

chovynz_Money_Bag_IconThat leaves austerity or stimulus.

The basic problem is that we have used up a big chunk of the easily accessible resource base.  There may be lots of energy and minerals left in  the surface  of the planet but they are so difficult and expensive to extract we cannot expect continued economic growth.

If this is a correct analysis then austerity will be forced upon us regardless of what we do.  The real challenge is to cope with austerity with a minimum of human suffering.   The problem with austerity as it is being promoted is the selfishness and meanness of those promoting it on the backs of people who are less fortunate.

But what about stimulus?  At least since Keynes, many economists have and continue to believe the way to get economic growth going is via government stimulus.

There is some evidence the depression of the 1930s was made worse because the banking authorities restricted the amount of money in the economy.   Once governments started spending (works and war) and the money supply was allowed to increase the depression came to an end.  This time  central  banks have been trying to stimulate the economy by creating more money to facilitate more economic activity.  It isn’t working  because the resource base won’t support more economic growth  although only a few people see that as the reason.

So what is likely to happen if the Keynesians get a turn at trying to solve the crisis.

There are two difficulties.

The first is that stimulus will be a transfer of purchasing power from those who now have it to others because the debts incurred will eventually be written off either by default or by inflation.  Cyprus isn’t the only country whose savers are likely to be hit.

The puzzle is why with all the quantitative easing and no matching growth in output we haven’t had inflation.  The answer:  there is anecdotal evidence that the banks and corporations are sitting on piles of cash presumably because they don’t  see profit opportunities.

Governments don’t worry about profits so if the money goes instead to governments for stimulus, it will be spent.  There will be more money chasing the same quantities of goods and services and prices are bound to go up.    Inflation provides an indiscriminate haircut to everyone with monetary savings or investments.  If it gets out of control a lot of people will lose their pensions or their fortunes.  It will solve the inequality about which many people have been worrying.  It would also be a neat revenge against those people who want austerity on the backs of poor people although a lot of innocent people would be hurt.

The second problem with stimulus is that if it succeeds in increasing the output of goods and services it will also use up more of the remaining mineral and energy resources and bring forward the timing of a major crash of civilization.  I would like the goal of economic policy to be to minimize overall  human suffering rather than to increase it.

I am not worried about an economic collapse for my own sake, but I do have six young grandchildren.   Perhaps we should post a job opening for a benevolent dictator.

High deposit interest rates – a warning sign

When shopping most of us want to get the most we can for our money and that applies to the interest on our savings accounts.

However, a word of warning.  Sometimes when financial intermediaries are having problems they try to hang on by offering a higher interest rate on deposits.  This attracts more deposits which may help in the short-term but   reduces their margin between the cost of deposits and what they can charge for loans.  This only  adds  to their problems.

money_back_stickerThere have been cases of financial institutions doing this but it wasn’t enough to save them.  Some people who thought they were being smart, including some municipal treasurers, have been caught.  While some deposits are covered by deposit insurance it is probably better to stay away from troubled banks.  These days the interest rates being paid on savings are so low that most of us are probably just as well off to go with safety rather than returns.

This note was prompted by this article about some Canadians who are looking for the best returns on their savings.  I don’t want to say that every firm offering a higher interest rate is in trouble, but it can be a warning sign.  At least ask questions.

Banking, risk, greed and a house of cards

When I took the  course on economics of money and banking,  banks were said to be financial intermediaries which means they act as the facilitator between savers and borrowers.

I thought about this a lot as I read House of Cards by William D. Cohan published by Doubleday in 2009.  It is an account of the history and collapse of Bear Stearns & Co. which was the fifth largest investment bank in the United States.

It appears the two big problems in this bank failure were risk and greed.

When a person borrows money there is some risk that he/she will not be able to repay the loan.  The longer the term of the loan the greater the risk. As interest is in part to allow for risk the longer the term the higher will be the interest rate charged.

The question: Who is going to take the risk? The depositor or the banker?  Whoever takes the risk should also get the interest compensation.

It is clear from this book that the bankers took upon themselves the risk although when the risk became reality  their depositors also lost.  The bankers may not have realized, may not have wanted to realize, the risk they were taking.,

What makes this risk attractive is that short-term interest rates are generally much lower than long-term interest rates.  Therefore a banker can make lots of money by taking short-term deposits with which to make long-term loans.  And this is what Bear Stearns was doing.  A large chunk of the mortgages they were holding in a couple of hedge funds were financed with overnight deposits.  Apparently this was/is a common practice on Wall Street.   There are two risks in doing this: short-term interest rates may move against you or your depositors may  withdraw.

So long as the economy was experiencing economic growth it worked and the bankers made obscene fortunes.  But when economic growth slowed down and it became known that these sub-prime mortgages were not as sound as they had been  promoted, the bankers found that their short-term  lenders refused to re lend the money. Disaster. And these guys had the nerve to whine when it became apparent they were going to lose some of their personal fortune.  They also had to be rescued because banks create money and are too important to let fail.  When Bear Stearns went down there was a lot of worry that the whole financial system would collapse.

One has to note this way of working probably under priced the risks of the sub-prime mortgages and that the investment bankers had a vested interest in doing so.  It made it much easier for them to sell their wares.  If the full risk of the sub-prime mortgages had been charged in interest rates most low-income borrowers would not have been able to afford them. (It is interesting that the U.S. government starting with Clinton encouraged this business by asking the banks to finance  housing for low-income people.)

It is probably safe to say most of these investment bankers were con artists.  However, I would suggest that to have a successful con you must have at least two greedy people.  It is hard to con somebody who is not greedy.

So how do we prevent bankers from taking upon themselves excessive risk?

The first answer is to changed the way in which our economy creates money so that banks are excluded from the process.  For more on this please see the essay LETS go to market: dealing with the economic crisis  on this weblog.

The second thing is to require banks to match the terms of their deposits and loans.  They should make their profits out of the spread between the interest rates they pay and charge. The risks and rewards should go to depositors according to the decisions they make.

The third thing us to require them to publish lots of information about their business.

As for greed, governments should probably not try to legislate. Greedy people should be expected to take the consequences. (Lets make a distinction between cons involving two greedy people and exploitation by a person who has superior strength)

Wall Street has rebounded from this  crisis.  One  has to wonder of any lessons have been learned or are investment bankers still financing long-term loans with short-term deposits.  If so there is potential for another crisis.

Money as a reason for revolution

Here’s a quote from Henry Ford which I like as I believe we need some revolutionary changes in the way in which money is created.

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.

 

And the revolutionaries probably would not be calling for the creation of a trillion-dollar coin .

 

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Solving the debt crisis with two coins in the bank. Probably not.

Two platinum coins worth $1 trillion each to solve the U.S. debt problem.  This proposal is reported in this article on the Huffington Post.  The coins would be made by the mint and deposited with the federal reserve to meet debt requirements.  Platinum would be used to get around legal requirements.

The good part of this proposal is that it would replace fractional reserve money with fiat money.  Fractional reserve money is created by the banks when they make loans.  Very little economic thought has gone into the effect of interest rates in this money creation.    This new fiat money would not involve interest charges and that is probably very good.

The problem would be what it does to the money supply.  Presumable  the $2 trillion would be used to pay off government debt.  Some of this debt would be held by the central bank and repaying this shouldn’t change the money supply.  The rest would be to repay bondholders and this would increase the money supply.  Further it would be what economists call high-powered money which is subject to a multiplier effect as it worked its way through the banking system.

The result would be the potential for a massive increase in money supply.  This is the opposite to a return to the gold standard which would force a decrease in the money supply.    The result would be deflation and a decrease in economic activity.

There are four variables in the equation that connects the financial system and the physical side of the economy: the amount of money, the quantity of goods and services produced,  the price index and the velocity or speed at which money circulates. The formula is MV=PQ.  If one of these changes at least one of the others has to change.

If we were to have an increase on the money supply then the velocity must decease or either the price index (inflation) will go up and/or the quantity of goods and services will go up(economic growth).

In an attempt to stimulate economic growth central banks have been trying to increase the money supply and called it quantitative easing.  So far there has been little indication of its working.  This leaves either inflation or a decrease in velocity.

There has been little inflation from quantitative easing so probably the velocity has fallen.

So the impact of the two little platinum coins is unclear but they would certainly be disruptive and have the potential for hyperinflation.

For a fuller explanation of fractional reserve money is created and some of its problems please see the essay “LETS go to market: dealing with the economic crisis” on this weblog.

 

If you liked this post your are invited to comment, press the like button and/or click  one of the share buttons. If you disagree you are invited to say why in a comment.  While I like the idea of sharing this platform, my personality is such that I don’t reply to many comments.

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