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.

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Health care greed

This post was inspired by a rather long article on why health care in the United States is so expensive.

As I read the first section I was thinking that when it comes to greed some health care people make Wall Street bankers look like amateurs.  By my values the bankers are higher on the ethical ladder than some medical people because the bankers are conning people who are just as greedy.  Medical people are exploiting people when they are sick and at their most vulnerable.

metalmarious_Medicine_and_a_StethoscopeOne of the more interesting university courses I took was sociology of work in which the professor talked about the professional encounter.  We go to a professional when we are in a crisis situation and because the professional has specialized knowledge which can be used to get us out of the crisis.

This gives the professional a great deal of power over us and according to the article it appears some in the he medical profession take full advantage of it.

How do we protect ourselves from medical exploitation?  Normally I would say increase competition.  But one probably doesn’t want to take time to compare prices when having a heart attack.

 

To some extent we can choose a family doctor.  More competition would make this easier.  We might get a little more competition if health people were to be certified by associations rather than licensed by governments in that associations could certify more practitioners and more different types of practitioner.

Maybe the best way to protect ourselves is to live a healthy lifestyle – exercise, eat mostly healthy foods and practice defensive driving.  Even so it is hard to imagine anyone getting through life without interacting with the medical profession.

Pandemics and other risks

This is an interesting article analyzing the many economic risks of a pandemic.  I liked the line which says “Wall Street never encountered a disaster it couldn’t profit from, and pandemics are no exception.”

This article may be an understatement of the risks and it is not clear that even Wall Street could survive.  I say this remembering a book I read some time ago: Why the West Rules – For Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future by Ian Morris.

Anonymous_U_shaped_arrow_set_5Morris’s book is a good summary history of the world. Using evidence from a number of disciplines he shows how geography has influenced the rise and decline of civilizations.

He identifies what he calls the five horsemen of the apocalypse – famine, epidemic, uncontrolled migration, state failure and climate change and shows how these have combined to produce disastrous, centuries-long collapses and dark ages.

II would like to go into denial and  believe that our civilization is exempt from any of these threats.  However, any one of them, or all of them at once, could become problems for us.  There are also some new threats such as nuclear war, energy resource depletion or an electromagnetic pulse which has the potential to wipe out large chunks of the power grid.

I wish I knew how we could protect ourselves but sometimes there is no answer.  There’s a song:  The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.

Dealing with financial greed

Wall Street greed is one of many explanations being offered for the economic crisis.  To the extent that greed is a part of the problem I think it is the greed of most of us that counts.

Most of us have wanted the highest possible returns on our savings and at least as many mechanical and/or electronic toys as our neighbors.  In this respect the 99 per cent are little different from the one percent.

On top of this so many people appear to be ignorant about financial matters and feel they have no option but to trust an expert such as a financial adviser or a bank manager.

Greed plus ignorance makes one the ideal victim for a scam.

Having said all that I would draw your attention to this column from the Washington Post titled “10 inviolable rules for dealing with the sharks on Wall Street”

The column was directed at people with firms or organizations dealing with Wall Street.  But it seems like good advice for any one dealing with the financial industry at any level either as a borrower or a lender.

Wall Street protesters and greed

One has to have a lot of sympathy for all those young people whose future is looking somewhat bleak and also with those middle age folks who have lost their jobs and sometimes their homes and all those who are suffering from the economic downturn.  However making Wall Street workers into scapegoats isn’t going to accomplish much other than allowing people to express their frustrations.

Wall Street people may be greedy but their main crime is to be more successful at being greedy than everyone else. Most of us have sought the good life and we have willingly gone along with investment salesmen who have promised high returns.  If the rest of had not been so greedy the people of Wall Street would not have been so successful.

Who’s to blame and what do we do about the economy?

One thing of which there has been no shortage during this economic crisis is words with lots of scapegoats and ideas as to what to do.  Here’s my attempt to summarize.

Who is responsible for this mess?

The two favorites are greedy Wall Street bankers and incompetent politicians who aren’t following the policies which would most benefit the speaker.  The bankers may be greedy and the politicians may be incompetent but are they any more so than their predecessors who ruled during the golden age of prosperity?

The next groups to blame are those who won’t approve stimulus spending and those who object to spending cuts. Sometimes both groups are blamed for refusing to compromise.

Others who can be blamed are the ratings agencies who gave false assurances,  those making negative statements who are thus creating a negative feedback loop and those who spreading lies to create profit opportunities for themselves.

What can we do about the economy?

One approach is to cut government spending especially that which benefits poor people or those whose finances are precarious..  Of course we don’t want to cut government spending which finds its way into our own pockets.

The second approach is to stimulate the economy.  There are several ways of doing this including government spending, creating more money (quantitative easing and the National Infrastructure Bank) or encouraging exports and restricting imports to protect jobs. We could also use people with DBS degrees (the D stands for doctor) to convince us there is no real crisis and everything will be okay.

Now here are the answers to these two questions in the view of the author of this blog.

We are all to blame.  The basic problems is that humans have used up a lot of resources, especially those that are easily accessible,  and most of us have had a part in this.  Most of us have had nice homes, designer cars, interesting vacations, frequent restaurant meals and lots of other things.  Most of us have been demanding high returns on our pensions and savings.

So what should we do about the crisis?

If the problem really is with the resource base,  stimulating the economy will only make things worse and socking it to the poor is mean – and many more  people are likely to join them.

Therefore my vote is that everyone should be expected to accept a lower standard of living starting with those with higher than average incomes supported by taxpayers (most of whom get their high incomes from belonging to a union in a monopoly field) and those with high incomes resulting from legislation that restricts competition.  This includes people whose income comes from copyright and patent legislation and those whose income is protected by licensing requirements.

It is my fear that not enough of us care enough about our neighbors for this to actually happen.

So there you have it.  This post has added 489 words to the economic hot air.

Who's to blame for the economy?

Who’s to blame for the economy? This question comes from a blog title on the Christian Science Monitor website and was originally by on a blog by Robert Reich. Reich’s answer is that it is because Wall Street and big business are out to make as much money as possible.

Another answer may that most if not all of us are to blame. Most of us strive for “the good life” with lots of material and comfort things including children. In the process we consume lots of resources which cannot be replaced and do damage to the environment. This has to be putting stresses on the economy which we do not understand and probably are at the root of the recession

However, Wall Street and big business make good scapegoats.

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