Economic growth, sustainability and degrowth

A lot of people realize there are problems with the economy but few if any understand what is happening. Therefore we have varied reactions. Many people cling to faith in economic growth, some are exploring the concept of sustainability and a few are looking at “degrowth”. This blogger thinks of the three approaches as points on the ray of a matrix.

Predicting the future is difficult although the shorter the term the easier it is. Economists are little help because most are paid directly by business people or indirectly through government. Very few people get away with telling the whole truth to the people who pay them. Most economists find it expedient to say what their employers want to hear and that is mostly that the economy will continue to grow and that there will be continuing profits.

Nor can we expect the truth from political leaders as their positions depend on maintaining the support of the people. It is hard to think of any government leader telling us we will have to tighten our belts and remaining in power. Are citizens mature enough to listen to that? It would be interesting to see a political leader try.

trafficOur recent economic memory is based on a tremendous use of energy and mineral resources. Not only have we fought two world wars we have also had the resources for an incredible standard a living in which the rich have grown richer and the rest of us have done okay. The result is we have a strong committment to economic growth and a belief that it will continue forever.

Many economists are fond of regression analysis because it assumes constant economic growth. It is a mathematical formula which takes a series of data points and calculates the best fitting straight line through them. It is generally assumed this line will angle up.

This guy thinks we would get a more truthful picture of what happens in the economy if we were to use fractal analysis. Fractals are series of ups and downs each with a subseries of ups and downs within them. The sea coasts are often used as examples. The mathematics of fractals is not as clear as regression analysis but there are some useful concepts. I am fairly certain those people who do “black box” analysis of stock markets are using fractal analysis. They are apparently having some success. The concept of fractal dimension can be calculated (two minus the Hurst exponent) and changes indicate a change in direction.

If we were to apply fractal analysis to economics it would be easier to see and accept ups and downs in the economy and easier to develop mechanisms to deal with them.

The word “sustainable” as applied to economic growth is a buzzword in some circles but I find it challenging as its meaning is not clear. I suspect it is mostly a cover for continued economic growth.

To the extent that some people use fewer energy and mineral resources it is good but I suspect that sustainable development maintains a committment to economic growth. Sustainable to me means going on forever and that is what a lot of people believe about economic growth.

The reality is that the quantity of goods and services we can produce and exchange depends upon the quantity of energy and mineral  resources we have and can retrieve with a reasonable expenditure of energy. The concept of sustainable development is probably 100 years too late.

Our committment to economic growth is so strong I am not aware of any career economist having thought about what happens when the economy goes into decline. This is unfortunate as the economy regularly goes into recession and this time it may be extended.

This blogger figures current economic problems are because we have used up the most accessible energy and mineral resources. Sure, there are lots left but they require massive amounts of energy to retrieve them. Solar may help but not yet. I fear that we will be forced into degrowth.

If so the challenge will be to figure out how do distribute fairly the goods and services we have, how to cope with leisure, how to create money that will not disappear during a crisis and how to not fight over the available resources.

Money will be a special problem as fractional reserve banking works only in times of economic growth. When growth stops and banks stop making loans  the money supply goes down and because it is fractional reserve the money supply goes down with a multiplier effect. Ouch. A super big ouch.

There are lots of anecdotal evidence from around the world that we are going into a down economy. This could easily be an explanation for a lot of the negative news, both economic and non-economic, to which we are becoming accustomed.

If we could get away from our committment to economic growth we could focus instead on happiness. This concept is impossible to measure although there is some evidence that people do not need a lot of material things to be happy.

What ever happens and wherever humanity ends up it looks as if we will experience a lot of human suffering. I would like for us to minimize the suffering and maximize the happiness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Why your savings and pensions are at risk

The fractional reserve way of creating money means a lot of people are at risk of losing all or part of their savings and pensions.

If there is too much money supply in the economy then we have inflation and people with savings or pensions lose some of their purchasing power and those who owe money benefit because they repay their loans with less purchasing power.  Now you know why governments and the people who speak on their behalf promote mild inflation.  This is at least unauthorized taxation if not theft.

pexels-photo-2105902If you have deflation, then people who are owed money win because they are repaid with more purchasing power than they loaned.  The borrowers lose because they have to repay with more purchasing power.

To be fair to everyone we need to manage the economy so that just the right amount of money is available at all times.  At a time when the economy is on a down trend, this is very important as too much money puts us in danger of hyperinflation.

Getting this amount right has long been a challenge to central banks although the common sense answer is fairly simple.  The money supply should vary with the quantity of goods and services we want to exchange and it should be flexible up and down.

The wrench in the simplicity is the fractional reserve way of creating money.  When banks make loans they must (or should) keep a fraction of the amount on reserve for when the depositor wants his/her money returned.  As the amount is only a fraction banks are at risk of a “run” if depositors lose faith.  And because of the fractional reserve there is a multiplier effect involved.  Does not this sound like a set up for a crisis?  The mechanics of this process are a little complex although I have always found it easy to understand. To figure it out I suggest you Google “fractional reserve” or look at my free e book Funny Money: Adapting to a Down Economy or look at the essay Going to Market on this weblog.

The other end of the wrench is  that interest is charged on the loans made by the banks.  Mainstream economists have given little or no thought to the consequences of this. Because all of our money is created by the making of loans, if all the outstanding debt were to be paid off at one time there would not be enough money to repay it all because of the interest.  The charging of interest on the debt/money means there is never enough money available to repay all outstanding debt. Inflation is built into the fractional reserve way of creating money.

The system works only so long as the economy and the money supply continues to grow.  An upset in either means crisis of which we have had many.

The relationship between money supply and economic output is expressed in a formula, MV=PQ, some times known as the quantity theory of money.  Money times the velocity at which it circulates in the economy is equal to a price index times the quantity of goods and services produced.

I get ticked off because this is frequently taken to mean there is a direct, proportional relationship between the money supply and the inflation rate or price level.   Can’t people see there are four variables in this formula?  Total output is an important part of this formula.  If it should happen to go down something needs to happen to another variable.

Our society has a strong commitment to economic growth and a need to keep it growing so that people will not suffer from unemployment.   Some desperate people are trying to stimulate growth by increasing the money supply. This may increase inflation but it will not lead to growth unless we can find inexpensive energy and mineral resources to support it.  I suspect the new American president has  his eye on parks and reserve lands to encourage more economic activity.  He will probably succeed in the short term to be followed by a major economic collapse.

This blogger thinks we need some major economic reforms, not only in our financial system but in our commitment to economic growth.  We need to minimize our production and exchange of goods and services so we are using fewer energy and mineral resources.

A lot  of people operate on faith in our financial system and ignore suggestions we need reform.  I think the risk is so great that prudent people will at least give some thought to these issues.  It is your savings and your pensions and your future that is at risk.

 

 

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What will be left for our grandchildren?

Should we feel sorry for our grandchildren who will have to repay the massive debts we have been building up?  Probably not but we should feel sorry for our grandchildren who will have to survive on mineral and energy resources which are difficult to extract.

Debts can suffer fatalities from three causes: bankruptcy, inflation or government haircuts.  Considering current economic conditions  there is some possibility the current debt load will be written off before our grandchildren even understand the word.  If and when this happens there will be considerable  economic turmoil.

I believe economies should be analysed first and mostly in physical terms rather than money terms.  This way we can see some underlying trends and problems which can easily be hidden behind financial terms.

Currently we are probably dealing with problems in both sides of the economy.  We have used up the most easily accessible energy and mineral resources and the marginal cost of accessing what is left is going up.  At the same time the fraction reserve way of creating money in which interest is charged on the money supply is a Ponzi scheme which frequently breaks down.  Financial crises have long been a  feature of our economy.

If one analyses the economy only in phyiscal terms we are not living beyond our means as we produce everything we consume.  In this respect there can be no borrowing from the future.  What we are doing is using resources which won’t be available to our grandchildren at a reasonable cost.

A major financial collapse will have a devastating effect on our exchange of goods and services.  It is quite likely our grandchildren will have to pick up the pieces from a financial collapse.  What is more certain is that they will have to cope with our having used up the most easily accessibe energy and mineral resources.  There will be lots left for them but these resources will require a lot of energy to extract.  That will be enough of a burden to impose upon them.

 

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.

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.)

 

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.

A universal income scheme

I believe we should have a collective responsibility to ensure everyone has the opportunity for a standard of living similar to most others.  I also believe our technology is such that everyone should not have to work throughout their lives, that subsidies should be given to consumers rather than producers, and that there is a need to change the way in which we create money.

I have been asked by a member of LinkedIn to elaborate on the collective responsibility.  The other things are important to the answer.

In some small-scale societies the collective responsibility takes the form of a sharing economy where people share their food and other production with relatives, clan members or anyone who needs it.  We probably need something a little more formal and impersonal.  One way would be a universal income scheme.  Milton Friedman proposed a negative income tax which is a good place to start a discussion.

The key to our high-tech society is the number of people for whom each agricultural worker can produce enough food.   That is clearly somewhat high which means the rest of us can be doing other things.  Sometimes it seems what most of us do is to work  to keep the military-industrial complex going.

Subsidies to producers distort prices and interfere with the efficiency of the economy.  Therefore subsidies should be given to consumers.  A universal income scheme would be a fair way to do this.  I see this as being good for the environment and as a transfer of decision-making from government and bankers  to individuals.

I believe the most funny of all money creation schemes is the fractional reserve banking system.  Interest is charged on the money created, bankers are very powerful and too important to let fail, and it is all a Ponzi scheme.  One alternative could be to take  the concept of the Local Exchange Trading System (LETS) and expand it into a National Exchange Trading System (NETS)  It would probably be feasible to include a national income scheme into this type of money creation.

With the world economy in trouble and with so many indications the slide will continue for some time more and more people, through no fault of their own, are going to find themselves unemployed and without an income.  Thus it gets more and more important for us to live up to our collective responsibility to ensure everyone has the opportunity for the same standard of living as everyone else.

Some of the ideas in this post are included in the essay “LETS go to market: Dealing with the economic crisis” on this weblog.

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.

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