Category Archives: Money

THIS TIME IS NO DIFFERENT. IMF’s dire warning on global economy – Liam Dann * Why a New Multilateralism Now? – David Lipton.

Merry Christmas and happy new financial crisis.

History suggests we are due for another financial crisis and right now the world is in no shape to cope with one.

With ingenuity and international cooperation, we can make the most of new technologies and new challenges, and create a shared and sustained prosperity.


With interest rates still low, central banks simply don’t have the firepower they did in 2008 to deal with a deep recession.

The official outlook for New Zealand’s economy remains solid with GDP growth expected to stay safely north of 2.5 per cent.

But these kind of forecasts will mean little if the world heads into a serious financial crisis.

NZ Herald

Why a New Multilateralism Now

David Lipton, IMF First Deputy Managing Director

Good morning.

Thank you for the introduction.

I appreciate the invitation to speak here today. This conference is tackling issues that have a great bearing on the stability of the world economy. Having just passed the 10th anniversary of the start of the Global Financial Crisis, and now looking forward, I’d like to address what I see as this morning’s key topic: the next financial crisis.

History suggests that an economic downturn lurks somewhere over the horizon. Many are already speculating as to exactly when, where, and why it might arise. While we can’t know all that, we ought to be focusing right now on how to forestall its arrival and how to limit it to a “garden variety” recession when it arrives, meaning, how to avoid creating another systemic crisis. Over the past two years, the IMF has called on governments to put in place policies aimed at just that goal, as we have put it, “fix the roof while the sun shines.” But like many of you, I see storm clouds building, and fear the work on crisis prevention is incomplete.

Before asking what should be done, let’s analyze whether the international community has the wherewithal to respond to the next crisis, should it occur. And here I mean both individual countries, and the international organizations tasked to act as first responders. Should we be confident that the resources, policy instruments, and regulatory frameworks at our disposal will prove potent enough to counter and contain the next recession? Consider the main policy options.

Policy Options for the Next Recession

On monetary policy, much has been said about whether central banks will be able to respond to a deep or prolonged downturn. For example, past U.S. recessions have been met with 500 basis points or more of easing by the Fed. With policy rates so low at present in so many places, that response will not be available. Central banks would likely end up exploring ever more unconventional measures. But with their effectiveness uncertain, we ought to be concerned about the potency of monetary policy.

We read every day that for fiscal policy, the room for maneuver has been narrowing in many countries. Public debt has risen and, in many countries, deficits remain too high to stabilize or reduce debt. Now to be fair, we can presume that if the next slowdown creates unemployment and slack, multipliers will grow larger, likely restoring some potency to fiscal policy, even at high debt levels. But we should not expect governments to end up with the ample space to respond to a downturn that they had ten years ago. Moreover, with high sovereign debt levels, decisions to adopt stimulus may be a hard sell politically.

Given the enduring public resentments borne by the Global Financial Crisis, a recession deep enough to endanger the finances of homeowners or small businesses would likely lead to a strong political call to help relieve debt burdens. That could further stress already stretched public finances.

And if recession once again impairs banks, the recourse to bailouts is now limited in law, following financial regulatory reforms that call for bail-ins of owners and lenders. Those new systems for bail-ins remain underfunded and untested.

Finally, the impairment of key U.S. capital markets during the global financial crisis, which might have produced crippling spillovers across the globe, was robustly contained by unorthodox Fed action supported by Treasury backstop funding. That capacity is also unlikely to be readily available again.

The point is that national policy options and public financial resources may be much more constrained than in the past. The right lesson to take from that possibility is for each country to be much more careful to sustain growth, to limit vulnerabilities, and to prepare for whatever may come.

But the reality is that many countries are not pursuing policies that will bolster their growth in a sustainable fashion. The expansion actually has become less balanced across regions over the past year, and we are witnessing a buildup of vulnerabilities: higher sovereign and corporate debt, tighter financial conditions, incomplete reform efforts, and rising geopolitical tensions.

Five Key Policy Challenges

So, let me turn to five key challenges that could affect the next downturn, areas where governments face a choice to take proactive steps now, or not, and where inaction would probably make matters worse.

The first challenge is the simple and familiar admonition: “First, do no harm.” This is worthy advice for doctors and economic policymakers. Let me mention some examples.

In the case of U.S. fiscal policy over the past year, the combination of spending increases and tax cuts was intended to provide a shot of adrenalin to the U.S. economy and improve investment incentives. However, coming at a time when advanced recovery meant little need for stimulus, this choice runs the three risks of increasing the potential need for Fed tightening; raising deficits and public debt; and spending resources that might better be put aside to combat the next downturn.

Another example is the recent escalation of tariffs and trade tensions. Fortunately, the U.S. and China agreed in Buenos Aires to call a ceasefire. That was a positive development. There certainly are shortcomings in the global trading system, and countries experiencing disruption from trade have some legitimate concerns about a number of trade practices. But the only safe way to address these issues is through dialogue and cooperation.

The IMF has been advocating de-escalation and dialogue for some time. That is because the alternative is hard to contemplate. We estimate that if all of the tariffs that have been threatened are put in place, as much as three-quarters of a percent of global GDP would be lost by 2020. That would be a self-inflicted wound.

So it is vital that this ceasefire leads to a durable agreement that avoids an intensification or spread of tensions.

Now to the second challenge, which is closely tied to the trade issue: China’s emergence as an economic powerhouse. In many ways, this is one of the success stories of our era, showing that global integration can lead to rapid growth, poverty elimination, and new global supply chains lifting up other countries.

But as Winston Churchill once said of the U.S. during World War II, “the price of greatness is responsibility.”

China’s Global Role

Chinese policies that may have been globally inconsequential and thus acceptable when China joined the WTO and had a $1 trillion economy are now consequential to much of the world. That’s because China now is a globally integrated $13 trillion economy whose actions have global reverberations. If China is to continue to benefit from globalization and support the aspirations of developing countries, it will need to focus on how to limit adverse spillovers from its own policies and invest in ensuring that globalization can be sustainable.

Moreover, China would likely gain at home by addressing many of the policy issues that have been contentious, for example through stronger protections for intellectual property, which will benefit China as it becomes a world leader in technologies; reduced trade barriers, especially related to investment rules and government procurement procedures, which will produce cost-reducing and productivity enhancing competition that will benefit the Chinese people in the long run, and an acceleration of market-oriented economic reforms that will help China make more efficient use of scarce resources.

This notion of global responsibility applies to Europe as well, and this is the third challenge. Our forecasts show growth in the euro area and the UK falling short of previous projections, and modest potential growth going forward.

The future of the European economy will be shaped by the way the EU addresses its architectural and macroeconomic challenges and by Brexit. The recent EMU agreement on reforms is welcome. Going forward, the Euro area would gain by pushing further to shore up its institutional foundations.

The absence of a common fiscal policy limits Europe’s ability to share risks and respond to shocks that can radiate through its financial system. And crisis response will be constrained because too much power remains vested in national regulators and supervisors at the expense of an integrated approach across the continent.

All of this prevents Europe from playing a global role commensurate with the size and importance of the euro area economy.

The Task for Emerging Markets

The fourth challenge is in the emerging markets. For all of their extraordinary dynamism, we have seen a divergence among emerging markets over the past year: between those who have not shored up their defenses against shocks, including preparation for the normalization of interest rates in the advanced economies; and those that have taken advantage of the global recovery to address their underlying vulnerabilities.

Capital outflows over the past several months have shown how markets are judging the perceived weaknesses in individual countries. If global conditions become more complicated, these outflows could increase and become more volatile.

The fifth and final challenge is the topic you will take up this afternoon: the role of multilateral institutions.

We know that these institutions have played a crucial role in keeping the global economy on track. In the nearly 75 years since the IMF was set up, our world has undergone multiple transformations, from post-war reconstruction and the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates to the era of flexible rates; the rise of emerging economies; the collapse of the Soviet Union and transition to market economies; as well as a series of financial crises: the Mexican debt crisis, the Asian Crisis, and the Global Financial Crisis.

At each stage, we at the IMF have been called upon to evolve and even remake ourselves.

Now, we see a rising tide of doubt about globalization and discontent with multilateralism in some advanced economies. Just as with the IMF, it is fair for the international community to ask for modernization in its institutions and organizations, to seek reforms to ensure that institutions serve effectively their core purposes.

This applies to groupings such as the G20, as well as international organizations.

So, it was heartening to see the G20 Leaders to call for reform of the WTO when they came together in Buenos Aires. This reform initiative, which has the potential to modernize the global trading system and restore support for cooperative approaches, should now go forward.

The policy challenges we face are clear. As I have suggested, governments have their work cut out for them and may have to contend with less potent policy tools. It is essential they do what they can now to address vulnerabilities and avoid actions that exacerbate the next downturn.

The Multilateral Response

But we should prepare for the possibility that weaker national tools may mean limited effectiveness, and thus may result in greater reliance on multilateral responses and on the global financial safety net.

The IMF’s lending capacity was increased during the global financial crisis to about one trillion dollars – a forceful response from the membership at a time of dire need. One lesson from that crisis was that the IMF went into it under-resourced; we should try to avoid that next time.

From that point of view it was encouraging that the G20 in Buenos Aires underlined its continued commitment to strengthen the safety net, with a strong and adequately financed IMF at its center. It is important that the leaders pledged to conclude the next discussion of our funding, the quota review, next year.

But the stakes are bigger than any one decision about IMF funding. IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde has called for a “new multilateralism,” one that is dedicated to improving the lives of all this world’s citizens. That ensures that the economic benefits of globalization are shared much more broadly. That focuses on governments and institutions that are both accountable and working together for the common good. And that can take on the many transnational challenges that no one government alone, not even a few governments working together, can handle: climate change, cyber-crime, massive refugee flows, failures of governance, and corruption.

Working together, we will be better able to prevent a damaging downturn in the coming years and a dystopian future in the coming decades. With ingenuity and international cooperation, we can make the most of new technologies and new challenges, and create a shared and sustained prosperity.

Thank you.

LET’S MAKE THE HUMAN FOOTPRINT EVEN BIGGER. U.S. billionaires are fuelling the hard-right cause in Britain – George Monbiot * DARK MONEY. The Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right – Jane Mayer.

“A stunning record of corporate malfeasance.”

Dark money is among the greatest current threats to democracy. It means money spent below the public radar, that seeks to change political outcomes. It enables very rich people and corporations to influence politics without showing their hands.

Despite having been elected as a populist outsider, Trump put together a transition team that was crawling with the kinds of corporate insiders he had vowed to disempower.

“This whole idea that he was an outsider and going to destroy the political establishment and drain the swamp were the lines of a conman, and guess what, he is being exposed as just that.”

Among the world’s biggest political spenders are Charles and David Koch, co-owners of Koch Industries, a vast private conglomerate of oil pipelines and refineries, chemicals, timber and paper companies, commodity trading firms and cattle ranches. If their two fortunes were rolled into one, Charles David Koch, with $120bn, would be the richest man on Earth.

In a rare public statement, in an essay published in 1978, Charles Koch explained his objective. “Our movement must destroy the prevalent statist paradigm.” As Jane Mayer records in her book Dark Money, the Kochs’ ideology, lower taxes and looser regulations, and their business interests “dovetailed so seamlessly it was difficult to distinguish one from the other”. Over the years, she notes, “the company developed a stunning record of corporate malfeasance”. Koch Industries paid massive fines for oil spills, illegal benzene emissions and ammonia pollution. In 1999, a jury found that Koch Industries had knowingly used a corroded pipeline to carry butane, which caused an explosion in which two people died. Company Town, a film released last year, tells the story of local people’s long fight against pollution from a huge paper mill owned by the Koch Brothers.

They have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into a network of academic departments, thinktanks, journals and movements. And they appear to have been remarkably successful.

The Koch network has helped secure massive tax cuts, the smashing of trade unions and the dismantling of environmental legislation.

But their hands, for the most part, remain invisible. A Republican consultant who has worked for Charles and David Koch told Mayer that “to call them under the radar is an understatement. They are underground.”

. . . The Guardian

DARK MONEY. The History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right

Jane Mayer

“We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” Louis Brandeis

Election night 2016 was a stunning political upset, auguring a new political order in almost every respect. Donald Trump, a billionaire businessman with no experience in elected office, running on a promise to upend the status quo, defeated Hillary Clinton, the designated heir to Barack Obama’s Democratic presidency. Trump’s triumph defied the predictions of almost every pundit and pollster. It rocked the political establishments in both parties, and sent shock waves around the globe. Markets trembled before recovering their equilibrium. The political world seemed to shift on its axis, spinning toward an unknown and unpredictable future.

Although Trump ran as a self-proclaimed outsider against what he portrayed as entrenched and corrupt political elites, there was an unexpectedly familiar representative of this moneyed class at his victory party in Manhattan. Standing with a jubilant smile amid the throng of revelers at the Hilton hotel in midtown Manhattan was David Koch.

During the presidential primaries, Trump had mocked his Republican rivals as “puppets” for flocking to the secretive fundraising sessions sponsored by David Koch and his brother Charles, co-owners of the second-largest private company in the United States, the Kansas-based energy and manufacturing conglomerate Koch Industries. Affronted, the Koch brothers, whose political spending had made their name almost shorthand for special-interest clout, withheld their financial support from Trump. As a result, the story line adopted by many in the media was that the Koch brothers in particular, and big political donors in general, were no longer a major factor in American politics. Trump had, after all, defeated far bigger-spending rivals, including Clinton.

It might be nice to think the era of big money in American politics is over, but a closer look reveals a far more complicated and far less reassuring reality.

Trump had indeed campaigned by attacking the big donors, corporate lobbyists, and political action committees that have come to dominate American politics as “very corrupt.” In doing so, he fed into a national, bipartisan outpouring of disgust at the growing extent to which campaigns have become little more than relentless pursuits of obscene amounts of cash. To the surprise of many, Trump and Bernie Sanders, the left-wing insurgent who challenged Clinton in the Democratic primaries, seemed to transform big political money from an advantage into a liability. Trump nicknamed Clinton “Crooked Hillary,” claiming that she was “100% owned by her donors.” By Election Day, the public’s trust in her was in tatters.

Improbably, Trump, a New York businessman who had global financial interests and who spent some $66 million of his own fortune to get elected, ran against Wall Street. He successfully positioned himself as pristine because he was a billionaire in his own right, rather than one beholden to other billionaires. In a tweet less than a month before the election, Trump promised, “I will Make Our Government Honest Again believe me. But first I’m going to have to #DrainTheSwamp.” His DrainTheSwamp hashtag became a rallying cry for supporters riled by the growing economic inequality in the country and intent on ending corruption in Washington, which they blamed for putting the interests of the rich and powerful over their own.

Yet as Ann Ravel, a Democratic member of the Federal Election Commission who had championed reform of political money for years, observed just days after Trump’s election, instead “the alligators are multiplying.”

Despite having been elected as a populist outsider, Trump put together a transition team that was crawling with the kinds of corporate insiders he had vowed to disempower. Especially prominent among them were lobbyists and political operatives who had financial ties to the Kochs. This was perhaps unexpected, because the Kochs had continued to express their distaste for Trump throughout the campaign. Charles Koch called himself a libertarian. He supported open immigration and tree trade both of which benefited his vast multinational corporation. He had denounced Trump’s plans to bar Muslim immigrants as “monstrous” and “frightening.”

Yet there were signs of a rapprochement. The chair of Trump’s transition team, Vice President elect Mike Pence, had been Charles Koch’s first choice for the presidency in 2012 and a major recipient of Koch campaign contributions. David Koch had personally donated $300,000 to Pence’s campaigns in the four years before Trump chose Pence as his running mate. Pence, who in the past had shared the Kochs’ enthusiasm for privatizing Social Security and denying the reality of climate change, had been a featured guest at a fund-raiser that David Koch hosted for about seventy of the Republican Party’s biggest political donors at his Palm Beach, Florida, mansion in the spring of 2016. He had also been slated to speak at the Kochs’ donor summit in August 2016, but canceled after joining the Republican ticket.

Meanwhile, Pence’s senior adviser in the sensitive task of managing Trump’s transition to power was Marc Short, who just a few months earlier had actually run the Kochs’ secretive donor club, Freedom Partners. This was the same elite group whose meetings Trump had ridiculed during the campaign.

The Kochs’ influence was also evident in the transition team members that Trump picked in the areas of energy and the environment, which were crucial to Koch Industries’ bottom line. For policy and personnel advice regarding the Department of Energy, an early chart of the transition team showed that Trump chose Michael McKenna, the president of the lobbying firm MWR Strategies, whose clients included Koch Industries. McKenna also had ties to the American Energy Alliance, a tax-exempt nonprofit that advocated for corporate-friendly energy policies, to which the Kochs’ donor group, Freedom Partners, had given $1.5 million in 2012. The group, which didn’t disclose its revenue sources, was a textbook example of the way secret spending by billion-dollar private interests aimed to manipulate public opinion.

Another lobbyist for Koch Industries, Michael Catanzaro, a partner at the lobbying firm CGCN Group, headed “energy independence” for Trump’s transition team and was mentioned as a possible White House energy czar. Meanwhile, Harold Hamm, a charter member of the Kochs’ donor circle, who became a billionaire by founding Continental Resources, an Oklahoma-based shale-oil company known for its enormously lucrative “fracking” operation, was reportedly advising Trump on energy issues and under consideration for a cabinet post, possibly energy secretary.

To the alarm of the scientific community, Trump chose Myron Ebell, an outspoken climate change skeptic, to head his transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Ebell too had Koch money ties. He worked at a Washington think tank, the Competitive Enterprise Institute. It didn’t disclose its funding sources, but in the past, it had been bankrolled by fossil fuel interests, including the Kochs. His stridently antiregulatory views meshed perfectly with theirs. The Kochs had long been at war with the EPA, which had ranked Koch Industries one of only three companies in America that was simultaneously a top ten polluter of air, water, and climate.

Joining Ebell on the transition team was David Schnare, a selfdescribed “free-market environmentalist” who had accused the EPA of having “blood on its hands.” Schnare worked for a think tank affiliated with the State Policy Network, which was also funded in part by the Kochs. He was reviled in environmental circles for hounding the climate scientist Michael Mann with onerous public records requests until the Virginia Supreme Court ordered him to desist in 2014. The Union of Concerned Scientists had described these actions against climate scientists as “harassment.”

Thus, less than a week after having been elected on a wave of populist anger, Trump appeared set to fulfill many of the special interests’ fondest dreams, including the deregulatory schemes of the Kochs. He promised to “get rid of” the EPA in “almost every form” and to withdraw from the 2015 international climate accord in Paris, and against the overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, he called climate change “a hoax”. The Trump transition had a selfimposed ethics code barring lobbyists from shaping the rules and staffing the departments in which they had financial interests, but in the early stages, at least, these commonsense strictures appeared to have been sidestepped.

Experts in government ethics were aghast. “If you have people on the transition team with deep financial ties to the industries to be regulated, it raises questions about whether they are serving the public interest or their own interests,” warned Norman Eisen, who devised the Obama administration’s conflict-of-interest rules. “Let’s face it, in the Beltway nexus of corporations and dark money, lobbyists are the delivery mechanism for speciaI-interest influence.” Peter Wehner, who served in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and both presidents Bush, told the New York Times, “This whole idea that he was an outsider and going to destroy the political establishment and drain the swamp were the lines of a conman, and guess what, he is being exposed as just that.”

The Kochs’ influence reached greater heights with Trump’s nomination of Mike Pompeo, a Republican congressman from Kansas, to direct the CIA. Pompeo was the single largest recipient of Koch campaign funds in Congress. The Kochs had also been investors, and partners, in Pompeo’s business ventures prior to his entry into politics. In fact, as Burdett Loomis, a University of Kansas professor of political science, noted, the future CIA director’s nickname was “the congressman from Koch.”

Helping to guide the transition team in these fateful choices was Rebekah Mercer, the daughter of Robert Mercer, the wealthy New York hedge fund manager who “out-Koched the Kochs” in 2014, as Bloomberg News put it, giving more money to their political club than even they had.

Clearly the reports of the Kochs’ political death in 2016 were exaggerated. While they had refrained from backing a presidential candidate, the tentacles of the “Kochtopus,” as their sprawling political machine was known, were already encircling the Trump administration before it had even officially taken power.

Many had counted the Kochs out after their refusal to back a presidential candidate. Their initial 2015 plan called for their donor group to spend an astounding budget of $889 million in order to purchase the presidency. But they sat out the primaries, as they had in the past, and then found their plan rudely upended when Trump emerged as the nominee. He was the only major Republican presidential candidate whom they opposed. Sidelined, they continued to withhold their support.

But while the media fixated on the extraordinary presidential race, the Kochs and their network of right-wing political patrons quietly spent more money than ever on the three-pronged influence-buying approach they had mastered during the previous forty years. They combined corporate lobbying, politically tinged nonprofit spending, and “down ballot” campaign contributions in state and local races, where their money bought a bigger bang for the buck.

Far from shutting their wallets, they simply downgraded their budget to $750 million and directed several hundred million dollars of it to races beneath the presidential level. Few noticed, but in 2016 Koch Industries and Freedom Partners poured huge sums into at least nineteen Senate, forty-two House, and four gubernatorial races as well as countless lesser ones all over the country.

They also mobilized what a 2016 study by two Harvard University scholars, Theda Skocpol and Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, described as an unprecedented and unparalleled permanent, private political machine. In fact, amazingly, in 2016 the Kochs’ private network of political groups had a bigger payroll than the Republican National Committee. The Koch network had 1,600 paid staffers in thirty-five states and boasted that its operation covered 80 percent of the population. This marked a huge escalation from just a few years earlier. As recently as 2012, the Kochs’ primary political advocacy group, Americans for Prosperity, had a paid staff of only 450.

The Kochs ran their political operation centrally like a private business, with divisions devoted to various constituency groups, such as Hispanics, veterans, and young voters. One of their top people explained that their aim during the 2016 election had been to target five million voters in eight states with key Senate races. In the past, labor unions probably provided the closest parallel to this kind of private political organizing, but they of course represented the dues of millions of members. In comparison, the Koch network was sponsored by just four hundred or so of the richest people in the country. It was for this reason that the Harvard scholars who studied it said that the Koch network was “like nothing we’ve ever seen.”

Irrespective of Trump, the Kochs and their fellow mega-donors succeeded in their chief political objective in 2016, which was to keep both houses of Congress under conservative Republican control, ensuring that they could continue to advance their corporate agenda. They succeeded in their secondary goal, too, which was to further crush the Democratic Party by continuing the nationwide sweep of state legislatures and local offices that they had begun in 2010. By controlling statehouses, they could dominate not just legislation but also the gerrymandering of congressional districts, in hopes of securing their grip on the House of Representatives for years to come.

Many of the races they backed were too minor to merit press attention. In Texas alone, they supported candidates in seventy-four different races, reaching all the way down to a county court commissioner. Thanks in no small part to huge quantities of targeted money spent by the Kochs and their allied donors, the Democratic Party lost both houses of Congress, fourteen governorships, and thirty state legislatures, comprising more than nine hundred seats, during Obama’s presidency. By the time the votes were tallied in the 2016 election, Republicans controlled thirty-two state legislatures, while Democrats controlled only thirteen. Five others were split. This imbalance posed a huge problem for Democrats not only in the present but for the future, because state legislatures serve as incubators for rising leaders.

The Kochs might have disavowed Trump, but in several important respects he was their natural heir and the unintended consequence of the extraordinary political movement they had underwritten since the 1970s. For forty years, they had vilified the very idea of government. They had propagated that message through the countless think tanks, academic programs, front groups, ad campaigns, legal organizations, lobbyists, and candidates they supported. It was hard not to believe that this had helped set the table for the takeover of the world’s most powerful country by a man who made his inexperience and antipathy toward governing among his top selling points.

Charles Koch’s mentor, the quasi-anarchist Robert LeFevre, had taught the Kochs that “government is a disease masquerading as its own cure.” Their extreme opposition to the expansions of the federal government that had taken place during the Progressive Era, the New Deal era, the Great Society, and Obama’s presidency had helped to convince voters that Washington was corrupt and broken and that, when it came to governing, knowing nothing was preferable to expertise. Charles Koch had referred to himself as a “radical,” and in Trump he got the radical solution he had helped to spawn.

The Kochs had also primed America for Trump by pouring gasoline on the fires lit by the antitax Tea Party movement starting in 2009. Charles Koch decried Trump’s toxic rhetoric in 2016, and David Koch complained to the Financial Times that “you’d think we could have more influence” after spending hundreds of millions of dollars on American politics. But in fact, the influence of the Kochs and their fellow big donors was manifest in Trump’s use of incendiary and irresponsibly divisive rhetoric. Only a few years ago, it was they who were sponsoring the hate.

In the 1960s, Charles Koch had funded the all-white private Freedom School in Colorado, whose head had told the New York Times that the admittance of black students might present housing problems because some students were segregationists. That was long ago, and his views, like those of many others, could well have changed. But in a 2011 interview with the Weekly Standard, David Koch echoed specious claims, made by the conservative gadfly Dinesh D’Souza, that Obama was somehow African rather than American in his outlook. He claimed that Obama, who was born in America and abandoned by his Kenyan father as a toddler, nonetheless derived his “radical” views from his African heritage.

The effort to attack Obama, not as a legitimate and democratically elected American political opponent, but as an alien threat to the country’s survival, was very much in evidence at a summit that the Kochs’ political organization Americans for Prosperity hosted in Austin, Texas, during the summer of 2010. Between Tea Party training sessions, operatives working for the Kochs gave an award to a blogger who had described Obama as the “cokehead-inchief” and asserted that he suffered from “demonic possession (aka schizophrenia, etc.).” The Kochs and other members of the Republican donor class might have disowned the vile language of the 2016 campaign, but six years earlier they were honoring it with trophies.

The same incendiary style characterized the big donors’ fight against the Affordable Care Act. Rather than respectfully debating Obama’s health-care plan as a policy issue, the Kochs and their allied donors poured cash into a dark-money group called the Center to Protect Patient Rights, which mounted a guerrilla war of fearmongering and vitriol. Television ads sponsored by the group featured the false claim that Obama’s plan was “a government takeover” of health care, which PolitiFact named “the Lie of the Year” in 2010. Meanwhile, a spin-off of Americans for Prosperity organized anti-Obamacare rallies at which protesters unfurled banners depicting corpses from Dachau, implying that Obama’s policies would result in mass murder.

Koch operatives also purposefully sabotaged the democratic process by planting screaming protesters in town hall meetings at which congressmen met with constituents that year. In short, during the Obama years, the Kochs radicalized and organized an unruly movement of malcontents, over which by 2016 they had lost control. “We are partly responsible,” one former employee in the Kochs’ political operation admitted to Politico a month before Trump was elected. “We invested a lot in training and arming a grassroots army that was not controllable.”

In other ways, too, the Kochs and their allied big donors became victims of their own success in 2016. They inadvertently laid the groundwork for Trump’s rise by too thoroughly capturing the Republican Party with their cash. Their narrowly self-serving policy priorities were at odds with those of the vast majority of voters. Yet virtually every Republican presidential candidate other than Trump pledged fealty to the donors’ wish lists as they jockeyed for their support. The candidates promised to cut taxes for those in the highest brackets, preserve Wall Street loopholes, tolerate the off-shoring of manufacturing jobs and profits, and downgrade or privatize middleclass entitlement programs, including Social Security. Free trade was barely debated. These positions faithfully reflected the agenda of the wealthy donors, but studies showed that they were increasingly out of step with the broad base of not just Democratic but also Republican voters, many of whom had been left behind economically and socially for decades, particularly acutely since the 2008 financial crash. Trump, who could afford to forgo the billionaires’ backing and ignore their policy priorities, saw the opening and seized it.

Whether Trump would fulfill his supporters’ hopes and break free from the self-serving elites whose money had captured the Republican Party prior to his unorthodox election remained to be seen. The early signs were not promising. Not only was Trump’s early transition team swarming with corporate lobbyists, including those who had worked for the Kochs, but Trump’s inaugural committee featured several members of the Kochs’ billion-dollar donor club, too. Neither Diane Hendricks, a building-supply company owner whose $3.6 billion fortune made her the wealthiest woman in Wisconsin, nor billionaire Sheldon Adelson, founding chairman and chief executive of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation casino empire, signaled a break from politics as usual.

Inaugurals had long been underwritten by rich donors, so perhaps reading too much into this was unfair. But Trump’s tax proposals, to the extent that they could be gleaned, were if anything even more of a bait and switch. While he had garnered bluecollar support by promising to stick it to the elites who “are getting away with murder,” his proposals, according to economic experts, threatened instead to enshrine a permanent aristocracy in America. He appeared poised to repeal the estate tax, presenting a windfall to heirs of estates worth $10.9 million or more. There had been fewer than five thousand estates of this size in 2015. He also had plans to abolish the gift tax, which put the brakes on inherited wealth. Capital gains taxes and income taxes for top earners were headed toward the chopping block, too. Charles and David Koch, who together were worth some $84.5 billion, stood to benefit to an extent that dwarfed earlier administrations, as did many other billionaires. As the headline on Yahoo Finance proclaimed on the day after the election, “Trump’s Win Is a ‘Grand Slam’ for Wall Street Banks.”

The fact of the matter was that while Trump might have been elected by those he described as “the forgotten” men, he would have to deal with a Republican Party that had been shaped substantially by the billionaires of the radical Right. He would have to work with a vice president once funded by the Kochs and a Congress dominated by members who owed their political careers to the Kochs. Further, he would have to face a private political machine organized in practically every state, ready to attack any deviation from their agenda. No one could predict what Trump would do. Nor could they predict how much longer the Kochs, by then in their eighties, would stay active. But one thing was certain. The Kochs’ dark money, which they had directed their successors to keep spending long after they had passed away, would continue to exert disproportionate influence over American politics for years to come.

November 2016 Washington, D.C.

from

DARK MONEY. The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right

by Jane Mayer

get it at Amazon.com

Also on TPPA = CRISIS

DEMOCRACY IN CHAINS: THE DEEP HISTORY OF THE RADICAL RIGHT’S STEALTH PLAN FOR AMERICA – NANCY MACLEAN

PUBLIC CHOICE THEORY. THE IDEA THAT CLIMATE SCIENTISTS ARE IN IT FOR THE CASH HAS DEEP IDEOLOGICAL ROOTS – GRAHAM READFEARN

RICH ENOUGH? A laid-back guide for every kiwi – Mary Holm * THE HAPPINESS EQUATION. The Surprising Economics of Our Most Valuable Asset – Nick Powdthavee.

One recent study suggests that beyond a certain point, people with more money are less happy.

What really matters is how you save.

You don’t have to earn a lot to become wealthy. I’ll show you how to get much more mileage out of what money you have.

WHY DO YOU WANT TO BE RICHER?

Books about money and investing are full of info on how to boost your wealth. But I’ve never seen one that also asks ‘why?’.

At first that might seem a silly question. More money buys us more things and more experiences, and that adds up to more happiness, right?

Not necessarily. Lots of research shows that once we have a certain amount of money enough to easily cover the basics and have some fun, having more doesn’t necessarily make us happier. In fact, one recent study suggests that beyond a certain point, people with more money are less happy. More on this later in the book.

For five years I taught a course on financial literacy to non-Business School students at the University of Auckland. Worried that students might think my main message was ‘the more money, the better’, I asked every student to attend a discussion group where we looked into what made people happy, and the role of wealth in that.

Before coming to the class, the students were asked to do the following (which I dreamt up one day on a long drive). You might want to try it.

1. Write a list of eight individuals or couples you know well.

2. Give each one a score of 1 to 5 for wealth, with at least one getting a 1 and one getting a 5.

3. Give each one a score of 1 to 5 for happiness again with at least one 1 and one 5.

4. See if the high scorers for wealth are also the high scorers for happiness.

Some students found the two were correlated that wealthier people tended to be more content. But many saw no clear correlation, and every now and then someone saw the opposite their poorer friends and relations tended to have a better time.

On balance, though, the students did tend to know more happy rich people than happy poor people. So is the research wrong?

Nick Powdthavee, a UK professor of behavioural science who looked at a great deal of research for his book The Happiness Equation, raises an intriguing question: Does wealth make us happier, or do happy people get wealthier?

He found that happy people:

– tend to be more creative and productive

– have better health which tends to lead to more wealth

– are more likely to be financially successful

It seems that happiness is more likely to lead to wealth than the other way around.

As Nobel Peace Prize winner Albert Schweitzer put it: ‘Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.’

If you start out with a happy disposition, there’s a good chance you’ll end up well off. If you start out grumpy, you’re less likely to do well financially. Of course, you might get lucky with money, but it’s unlikely to change your outlook on life.

So where does this leave you, as you’re starting to read a book about investing? Why try to get richer if it probably won’t make you happier?

Check back to what I said above. While wealth and happiness don’t seem to be highly correlated after you’ve got the basics well covered, many of you will feel you haven’t covered all the basics yet.

Nobody would argue that if you’re struggling to cut credit card debt, or to get together a deposit for a modest first home, or to save up enough to do some fun things in retirement, having a few more bucks wouldn’t be welcome.

Even if you’re financially comfortable, more money gives you more choices. These might include supporting others, from family members to charities.

So, while it may not make sense to put lots of time, effort and worry into absolutely maximising your wealth, it does make sense to take a few straightforward steps to make your money work better for you.

Read this book, take the steps that apply to you, and you’ll have the money stuff sorted. You can then spend less time working and more time getting on with things that will really improve your wellbeing.

What might that be? At the end of the book, we’ll look a little further into some of the fascinating research about what makes people happy. But for now, let’s get on with making you financially strong enough to make the most of your life.

Step 1

START NOW, IT’S EASY

In which we . ..

– Observe that laid-back investing is good

– Compare savvy Sally and slow Suzy

– Also compare the apprentice and the graduate

– See that you’ll have a lot more than twice as much if you save for 40 years instead of 20

– Learn that compounding is a friend for savers, a foe for those in debt

– Discard those ‘You need a million dollars’ messages

People often ask me if I’ve read the latest book about the share market or investing. ‘No’, I reply. ‘There are too many good novels to read. Besides, a lot of what’s written about investing isn’t much and sometimes it’s actually a big worry. It can persuade readers to take steps that will do them more harm than good. When it comes to investing, laziness is good.

That might sound crazy. In pretty much everything else we do, from running marathons to getting promoted fast at work to mastering the piano to creating a magical garden, the more work we put into it the better we’ll do.

But investing is different.

We all know people who put hours into their investments. They read the financial pages, and listen to the economists who tell them, more like guess actually, what’s likely to happen in the next year. Then they read about which investments have done well lately. On the strength of that they choose which shares or bonds to buy or sell, and when to buy or sell them.

And guess what? Most of them end up with less than you will after you’ve read this book, set up your investments and got on with other things. It’s sometimes called ‘Set and forget’.

Let’s not be misleading here. I’m not saying you should never do anything after the initial set-up. Every few years it’s a good idea to do a quick review of your investments. But the changes you might make are easy half-hour sort of stuff. There’ll be more about this in Step 6: ‘Stay cool’, but for now, let’s look at the basics.

Three ways to get more savings

It’s quite simple, really. The three ways to get more savings are:

1. Earn more.

2. Save more.

3. Be smarter with what you do with your savings.

Of course, it’s also great to get a pay rise either in your current job or by starting a new job.

During my extended OE in the United States, I still recall the excitement of moving from a smalltown Michigan newspaper, the wonderfully named Jackson Citizen Patriot, to the Chicago Daily News. The pay rise meant less than the thrill of knowing I would work with some great journalists. But still, my pay went from something like $US14,000 to $US21,000 a year, not to be sneezed at back then when a dollar was worth a dollar.

Chances are you will get at least one huge pay jump in your life. Fantastic! But that’s not what this book is about. It’s not what you earn, but how much you save that matters. And, perhaps more importantly, what really matters is how you save.

Key message: You don’t have to earn a lot to become wealthy. I’ll show you how to get much more mileage out of what money you have.

Get going

I know the feeling. Practical friends tell me I should get the runners on the sliding door to my deck fixed. I don’t understand much about things like that, and I don’t know who to ask, and it all gets too hard and doesn’t happen.

Maybe you feel that way about your finances. The ‘Don’t Know and Don’t Know Who to Trust’ syndrome finds us doing nothing, week after week, year after year. With my house, it might matter if it all starts falling apart. With your money, there are no ‘ifs’. It will matter. Muck around for a year or two and you can end up retiring with much, much less.

But don’t panic! This book will teach you how to invest your money. It’s not hard I promise. . .

RICH ENOUGH? A laid-back guide for every kiwi – Mary Holm

THE HAPPINESS EQUATION. The Surprising Economics of Our Most Valuable Asset – Nick Powdthavee.

Money. The Unauthorised Biography – Felix Martin.

Simple and intuitive though it may be, there is a drawback to the conventional theory of money. It is entirely false.

Not a single researcher has been able to find a society, historical or contemporary, that regularly conducted its trade by barter.

‘For a century or more, the “civilized” world regarded as a manifestation of its wealth, metal dug from deep in the ground, refined at great labor, and transported great distances to be buried again in elaborate vaults deep under the ground. Is the one practice really more rational than the other?’ Milton Friedman

So if it is so obvious that the conventional theory of money is wrong, why has such a distinguished canon of economists and philosophers believed it? And why does today’s economics profession by and large persist in using the fundamental ideas of this tradition as the building blocks of modern economic thinking?

What is money, and how does it work?

The conventional answer is that people once used sugar in the West Indies, tobacco in Virginia, and dried cod in Newfoundland, and that today’s financial universe evolved from barter.

Unfortunately, there is a problem with this story. It’s wrong. And not just wrong, but dangerous. Money: the Unauthorised Biography unfolds a panoramic secret history and explains the truth about money: what it is, where it comes from, and how it works.

Drawing on stories from throughout human history and around the globe, Money will radically rearrange your understanding of the world and shows how money can once again become the most powerful force for freedom we have ever known.

About the author

Felix Martin was educated in the UK, Italy and the US, and holds degrees in Classics, International Relations and Economics, including a D.Phil. in Economics from Oxford University. He worked for the World Bank and for the European Stability Initiative think tank, and is currently a partner in the fixed income division at Liontrust Asset Management plc.

1 What is Money?

“Everyone, except an economist, knows what ‘money’ means, and even an economist can describe it in the course of a chapter or so . . .” A.H. Quiggin, A Survey of Primitive Money: the Beginnings of Currency

THE ISLAND OF STONE MONEY

THE PACIFIC ISLAND of Yap was, at the beginning of the twentieth century, one of the most remote and inaccessible inhabited places on earth. An idyllic, subtropical paradise, nestled in a tiny archipelago nine degrees north of the equator and more than 300 miles from Palau, its closest neighbour, Yap had remained almost innocent of the world beyond Micronesia right up until the final decades of the nineteenth century. There had, it is true, been a brief moment of Western contact in 1731 when a group of intrepid Catholic missionaries had established a small base on the island. When their supply ship returned the following year, however, it discovered that the balmy, palm-scattered islands of Yap had not proved fertile ground for the Christian gospel. The entire mission had been massacred several months previously by local witch doctors aggrieved at the competition presented by the Good News. Yap was left to its own devices for another one hundred and forty years.

It was not until 1869 that the first European trading post run by the German merchant firm of Godeffroy and sons was established in the Yap archipelago. Once a few years had passed, with Godeffroy not only avoiding summary execution but prospering, Yap’s presence came to the attention of the Spanish, who by virtue of their colonial possessions in the Philippines a mere 800 miles to the west considered themselves the natural overlords of this part of Micronesia. The Spanish laid claim to the islands, and believed that they had achieved a fait accompli when in the summer of 1885 they erected a house and installed a Governor in it. They had not counted, however, on the tenacity of Bismarck’s Germany in matters of foreign policy. No island was so small, or so remote, as to be unworthy of the Imperial Foreign Ministry’s attention if it meant a potential addition to German power. The ownership of Yap became the subject of an international dispute. Eventually, the matter was referred somewhat ironically, given the island’s track record to arbitration by the Pope, who granted political control to Spain, but full commercial rights to Germany. But the Iron Chancellor had the last laugh. Within a decade and a half, Spain had lost a damaging war with America for control of the Philippines, and its ambitions in the Pacific had disintegrated. In 1899, Spain sold Yap to Germany for the sum of $3.3 million.

The absorption of Yap into the German Empire had one great benefit. It brought one of the more interesting and unusual monetary systems in history to the attention of the world. More specifically, it proved the catalyst for a visit by a brilliant and eccentric young American adventurer, William Henry Furness III. The scion of a prominent New England family, Furness had trained as a doctor before converting to anthropology and making his name with a popular account of his travels in Borneo. In 1903 he made a two-month visit to Yap, and published a broad survey of its physical and social make-up a few years later. He was immediately impressed by how much more remote and untouched it was than Borneo. Yet despite being a tiny island with only a few thousand inhabitants ‘whose whole length and breadth is but a day’s walk’, as Furness described it Yap turned out to have a remarkably complex society. There was a caste system, with a tribe of slaves, and special Clubhouses lived in by fishing and fighting fraternities. There was a rich tradition of dancing and songs, which Furness took particular delight in recording for posterity. There was a vibrant native religion as the missionaries had previously discovered to their cost complete with an elaborate genesis myth locating the origins of the Yapese in a giant barnacle attached to some floating driftwood. But undoubtedly the most striking thing that Furness discovered on Yap was its monetary system.

The economy of Yap, such as it was, could hardly be called developed. The market extended to a bare three products fish, coconuts, and Yap’s one and only luxury, sea cucumber. There was no other exchangeable commodity to speak of; no agriculture; few arts and crafts; the only domesticated animals were pigs and, since the Germans had arrived, a few cats; and there had been little contact or trade with outsiders. It was as simple and as isolated an economy as one could hope to find. Given these antediluvian conditions, Furness expected to find nothing more advanced than simple barter. Indeed, as he observed, ‘in a land where food and drink and ready-made clothes grow on trees and may be had for the gathering’ it seemed possible that even barter itself would be an unnecessary sophistication.

The very opposite turned out to be true. Yap had a highly developed system of money. It was impossible for Furness not to notice it the moment that he set foot on the island, because its coinage was extremely unusual. It consisted of fei, large, solid, thick stone wheels ranging in diameter from a foot to twelve feet, having in the centre a hole varying in size with the diameter of the stone, wherein a pole may be inserted sufficiently large and strong to bear the weight and facilitate transportation’. This stone money was originally quarried on Babelthuap, an island some 300 miles away in Palau, and had mostly been brought to Yap, so it was said, long ago. The value of the coins depended principally on their size, but also on the fineness of the grain and the whiteness of the limestone.

At first, Furness believed that this bizarre form of currency might have been chosen because, rather than in spite of, its extraordinary unwieldiness: ‘when it takes four strong men to steal the price of a pig, burglary cannot but prove a somewhat disheartening occupation’, he ventured. ‘As may be supposed, thefts of fei are almost unknown.’ But as time went on, he observed that physical transportation of fei from one house to another was in fact rare. Numerous transactions took place but the debts incurred were typically just offset against each other, with any outstanding balance carried forward in expectation of some future exchange. Even when open balances were felt to require settlement, it was not usual for fei to be physically exchanged.

‘The noteworthy feature of this stone currency,’ wrote Furness, ‘is that it is not necessary for its owner to reduce it to possession. After concluding a bargain which involves the price of a fei too large to be conveniently moved, its new owner is quite content to accept the bare acknowledgement of ownership and without so much as a mark to indicate the exchange, the coin remains undisturbed on the former owner’s premises.’

The stone currency of Yap as photographed by William Henry Furness III in 1903, with people and palm trees for scale.

When Furness expressed amazement at this aspect of the Yap monetary system, his guide told him an even more surprising story:

“There was in the village nearby a family whose wealth was unquestioned, acknowledged by everyone and yet no one, not even the family itself, had ever laid eye or hand on this wealth; it consisted of an enormous fei, whereof the size is known only by tradition; for the past two or three generations it had been and was at that time lying at the bottom of the sea!”

This fei, it transpired, had been shipwrecked during a storm while in transit from Babelthuap many years ago. Nevertheless:

“It was universally conceded . . . that the mere accident of its loss overboard was too trifling to mention, and that a few hundred feet of water offshore ought not to affect its marketable value . . . The purchasing power of that stone remains, therefore, as valid as if it were leaning visibly against the side of the owner’s house, and represents wealth as potentially as the hoarded inactive gold of a miser in the Middle Ages, or as our silver dollars stacked in the Treasury in Washington, which we never see or touch, but trade with on the strength of a printed certificate that they are there.”

When it was published in 1910, it seemed unlikely that Furness’ eccentric travelogue would ever reach the notice of the economics profession. But eventually a copy happened to find its way to the editors of the Royal Economic Society’s Economic Journal, who assigned the book to a young Cambridge economist, recently seconded to the British Treasury on war duty: a certain John Maynard Keynes. The man who over the next twenty years was to revolutionise the world’s understanding of money and finance was astonished. Furness’ book, he wrote, ‘has brought us into contact with a people whose ideas on currency are probably more truly philosophical than those of any other country. Modern practice in regard to gold reserves has a good deal to learn from the more logical practices of the island of Yap.’ Why it was that the greatest economist of the twentieth century believed the monetary system of Yap to hold such important and universal lessons is the subject of this book.

GREAT MINDS THINK ALIKE

What is money, and where does it come from?

A few years ago, over a drink, I posed these two questions to an old friend, a successful entrepreneur with a prospering business in the financial services industry. He responded with a familiar story. In primitive times, there was no money just barter. When people needed something that they didn’t produce themselves, they had to find someone who had it and was willing to swap it for whatever they did produce. Of course, the problem with this system of barter exchange is that it was very inefficient. You had to find another person who had exactly what you wanted, and who in turn wanted exactly what you had got, and what is more, both at exactly the same time.

So at a certain point, the idea emerged of choosing one thing to serve as a ‘medium of exchange’. This thing could in principle be anything so long as, by general agreement, it was universally acceptable as payment. In practice, however, gold and silver have always been the most common choices, because they are durable, malleable, portable, and rare. In any case, whatever it was, this thing was from then on desirable not only for its own sake, but because it could be used to buy other things and to store up wealth for the future. This thing, in short, was money and this is where money came from. it’s a simple and powerful story. And as I explained to my friend, it is a theory of money’s nature and origins with a very ancient and distinguished pedigree. A version of it can be found in Aristotle’s Politics, the earliest treatment of the subject in the entire Western canon. It is the theory developed by John Locke, the father of classical political Liberalism, in his Second Treatise of Government. To cap it all, it is the very theory almost to the letter advocated by none other than Adam Smith in his chapter ‘Of the Origin and Use of Money’ in the foundation text of modern economics, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations:

“But when the division of labour first began to take place, this power of exchanging must frequently have been very much clogged and embarrassed in its operations . . . The butcher has more meat in his shop than he himself can consume, and the brewer and the baker would each of them be willing to purchase a part of it. But they have nothing to offer in exchange, except the productions of their respective trades, and the butcher is already provided with all the bread and beer which he has immediate occasion for . . . In order to avoid such situations, every prudent man in every period of society, after the first establishment of the division of labour, must naturally have endeavoured to manage his affairs in such a manner, as to have at all times by him, besides the peculiar produce of his own industry, a certain quantity of some one commodity or other, such as he imagined few other people would be likely to refuse in exchange for the produce of their industry.”

Smith even shared my friend’s agnosticism as to which commodity would be chosen to serve as money:

“Many different commodities, it is probable, were successively both thought of and employed for this purpose. In the rude ages of society, cattle are said to have been the most common instrument of commerce . . . Salt is said to be the common instrument of commerce and exchange in Abyssinia; a species of shells in some parts of the coast of India; dried cod in Newfoundland; tobacco in Virginia; sugar in some of our West India colonies; hides or dressed leather in some other countries; and there is to this day a village in Scotland where it is not uncommon, I am told, for a workman to carry nails instead of money to the baker’s shop or the alehouse.”

And like my friend, Smith also believed that in general, gold, silver, and other metals were the most logical choices:

“In all countries, however, men seem at last to have been determined by irresistible reasons to give the preference, for this employment, to metals above every other commodity. Metals can not only be kept with as little loss as any other commodity, scarce any thing being less perishable than they are, but they can likewise, without any loss, be divided into any number of parts, as by fusion of those parts can easily be re-united again; a quality which no other equally durable commodities possess, and which more than any other quality renders them fit to be the instruments of commerce and circulation.”

So I told my friend he could congratulate himself. Without having studied economics at all, he had arrived at the same theory as the great Adam Smith. But that’s not all, I explained. This theory of money’s origins and nature is not just a historical curiosity like Ptolemy’s geocentric astronomy, a set of obsolete hypotheses long since superseded by more modern theories. On the contrary, it is found today in virtually all mainstream textbooks of economics. What’s more, its fundamental ideas have formed the bedrock of an immense body of detailed theoretical and empirical research on monetary questions over the last sixty years. Based on its assumptions, economists have designed sophisticated mathematical models to explore exactly why one commodity is chosen as money over all others and how much of it people will want to hold, and have constructed a vast analytical apparatus designed to explain every aspect of money’s value and use. It has provided the basis for the branch of economics, ‘macroeconomics’ as it is known, which seeks to explain economic booms and busts, and to recommend how we can moderate these so-called business cycles by managing interest rates and government spending. In short, my friend’s ideas not only had history behind them. They remain today, amongst amateurs and experts alike, very much the conventional theory of money.

By now, my friend was positively brimming with self-congratulation. ‘I know that I’m brilliant,’ he said with his usual modesty, ‘but it does still amaze me that I, a rank amateur, can match the greatest minds in the economic canon without ever having given it a second thought before today. Doesn’t it make you think you might have been wasting your time all those years you were studying for your degrees?’ I agreed that there was certainly something a bit troubling about it all. But not because he had hit upon the theory without any training in economics. It was quite the opposite. It was that those of us who have had years of training regurgitate this theory. Because simple and intuitive though it may be, there is a drawback to the conventional theory of money. It is entirely false.

John Maynard Keynes

STONE AGE ECONOMICS?

John Maynard Keynes was right about Yap. William Henry Furness’ description of its curious stone currency may at first appear to be nothing more than a picturesque footnote to the history of money. But it poses some awkward questions of the conventional theory of money. Take, for example, the idea that money emerged out of barter. When Aristotle, Locke, and Smith were making this claim, they were doing so purely on the basis of deductive logic. None of them had ever actually seen an economy that operated entirely via barter exchange. But it seemed plausible that such an arrangement might once have existed; and if it had existed, then it also seemed plausible that it would have been so unsatisfactory that someone would have tried to invent a way to improve on it.

In this context, the monetary system of Yap came as something of a surprise. Here was an economy so simple that it should theoretically have been operating by barter. Yet it was not: it had a fully developed system of money and currency. Perhaps Yap was an exception to the rule. But if an economy this rudimentary already had money, then where and when would a barter economy be found?

This question continued to trouble researchers over the century after Furness’ account of Yap was published. As historical and ethnographic evidence accumulated, Yap came to look less and less of an anomaly. Seek as they might, not a single researcher was able to find a society, historical or contemporary, that regularly conducted its trade by barter.

By the 1980s, the leading anthropologists of money considered the verdict to be in. ‘Barter, in the strict sense of moneyless market exchange, has never been a quantitatively important or dominant mode of transaction in any past or present economic system about which we have hard information,’ wrote the American scholar George Dalton in 1982. ‘No example of a barter economy, pure and simple, has ever been described, let alone the emergence from it of money; all available ethnography suggests that there has never been such a thing,’ concluded the Cambridge anthropologist Caroline Humphrey.

The news even began filtering through to the more intellectually adventurous fringes of the economics profession. The great American economic historian Charles Kindleberger, for example, wrote in the second edition of his Financial History of Western Europe, published in 1993, that ‘Economic historians have occasionally maintained that evolution in economic intercourse has proceeded from a natural or barter economy to a money economy and ultimately to a credit economy. This view was put forward, for example, in 1864 by Bruno Hildebrand of the German historical school of economics; it happens to be wrong.’

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, a rare academic consensus had been reached amongst those with an interest in empirical evidence that the conventional idea that money emerged from barter was false. As the anthropologist David Graeber explained bluntly in 2011: ‘There’s no evidence that it ever happened, and an enormous amount of evidence suggesting that it did not.’

The story of Yap does not just present a challenge to the conventional theory’s account of money’s origins, however. It also raises serious doubts about its conception of what money actually is. The conventional theory holds that money is a ‘thing’ a commodity chosen from amongst the universe of commodities to serve as a medium of exchange and that the essence of monetary exchange is the swapping of goods and services for this commodity medium of exchange. But the stone money of Yap doesn’t fit this scheme. In the first place, it is difficult to believe that anyone could have chosen ‘large, solid, thick stone wheels ranging in diameter from a foot to twelve feet’ as a medium of exchange since in most cases, they would be a good deal harder to move than the things being traded. But more worryingly, it was clear that the fei were not a medium of exchange in the sense of a commodity that could be exchanged for any other since most of the time, they were not exchanged at all. Indeed, in the case of the infamous shipwrecked fei, no one had ever even seen the coin in question, let alone passed it around as a medium of exchange. No, there could be no doubt: the inhabitants of Yap were curiously indifferent to the fate of the fei themselves. The essence of their monetary system was not stone coins used as a medium of exchange, but something else.

Closer consideration of Adam Smith’s story of commodities chosen to serve as media of exchange suggests that the inhabitants of Yap were on to something. Smith claimed that at different times and in different places, numerous commodities had been chosen to serve as the money: dried cod in Newfoundland; tobacco in Virginia; sugar in the West Indies; and even nails in Scotland. Yet suspicions about the validity of some of these examples were already being raised within a generation or two of the publication of Smith’s Wealth of Nations.

The American financier Thomas Smith, for example, argued in his Essay on Currency and Banking in 1832 that whilst Smith thought that these stories were evidence of commodity media of exchange, they were in fact nothing of the sort. In every case, these were examples of trade that was accounted for in pounds, shillings, and pence, just as it was in modern England. Sellers would accumulate credit on their books, and buyers debts, all denominated in monetary units. The fact that any net balances that remained between them might then be discharged by payment of some commodity or other to the value of the debt did not mean that that commodity was ‘money’. To focus on the commodity payment rather than the system of credit and clearing behind it was to get things completely the wrong way round. And to take the view that it was the commodity itself that was money, as Smith did, might therefore start out seeming logical, but would end in nonsense. Alfred Mitchell Innes, the author of two neglected masterworks on the nature of money, summed up the problem with Smith’s report of cod-money in Newfoundland bluntly but accurately:

“A moment’s reflection shows that a staple commodity could not be used as money, because ex hypothesi the medium of exchange is equally receivable by all members of the community. Thus if the fishers paid for their supplies in cod, the traders would equally have to pay for their cod in cod, an obvious absurdity.”

If the fei of Yap were not a medium of exchange, then what were they? And more to the point, what, in fact, was Yap’s money if it wasn’t the fei? The answer to both questions is remarkably simple. Yap’s money was not the fei, but the underlying system of credit accounts and clearing of which they helped to keep track. The fei were just tokens by which these accounts were kept.

As in Newfoundland, the inhabitants of Yap would accumulate credits and debts in the course of their trading in fish, coconut, pigs, and sea cucumber. These would be offset against one another to settle payments. Any outstanding balances carried forward at the end of a single exchange, or a day, or a week, might, if the counterparties so wished, be settled by the exchange of currency, a fei to the appropriate value; this being a tangible and visible record of the outstanding credit that the seller enjoyed with the rest of Yap.

Coins and currency, in other words, are useful tokens to record the underlying system of credit accounts and to implement the underlying process of clearing. They may even be necessary in an economy larger than that of Yap, where coins could drop to the bottom of the sea and yet no one would think to question the wealth of their owner.

But currency is not itself money. Money is the system of credit accounts and their clearing that currency represents.

If all this sounds familiar to the modern reader, even obvious, it should. After all, thinking of money as a commodity and monetary exchange as the swapping of goods for a tangible medium of exchange may have been intuitive in the days when coins were minted from precious metals. It may even have made sense when the law entitled the holder of a Federal Reserve or Bank of England note to present it on Constitution Avenue or Threadneedle Street and expect its redemption for a specified quantity of gold.

But those days are long gone. In today’s modern monetary regimes, there is no gold that backs our dollars, pounds, or euros nor any legal right to redeem our banknotes for it.

Modern banknotes are quite transparently nothing but tokens. What is more, most of the currency in our contemporary economies does not enjoy even the precarious physical existence of a banknote. The vast majority of our national money around 90 per cent in the US, for example, and 97 per cent in the UK has no physical existence at all. It consists merely of our account balances at our banks. The only tangible apparatus employed in most monetary payments today is a plastic card and a keypad. It would be a brave theorist indeed who would try to maintain that a pair of microchips and a Wi-Fi connection are a commodity medium of exchange.

By a strange coincidence, John Maynard Keynes is not the only giant of twentieth-century economics to have saluted the inhabitants of Yap for their clear understanding of the nature of money. In 1991, seventy-nine-year-old Milton Friedman, hardly Keynes’ ideological bedfellow, also came across Furness’ obscure book. He too extolled the fact that Yap had escaped from the conventional but unhealthy obsession with commodity coinage, and that by its indifference to its physical currency it acknowledged so transparently that money is not a commodity, but a system of credit and clearing.

‘For a century or more, the “civilized” world regarded as a manifestation of its wealth metal dug from deep in the ground, refined at great labor, and transported great distances to be buried again in elaborate vaults deep under the ground,’ he wrote. ‘Is the one practice really more rational than the other?’

To win the praise of one of the two greatest monetary economists of the twentieth century may be regarded as chance; to win the praise of both deserves attention.

MONETARY VANDALISM: THE FATE OF THE EXCHEQUER TALLIES

The economic worldview of Yap, which both Keynes and Friedman applauded, of money as a special type of credit, of monetary exchange as the clearing of credit accounts, and of currency as merely tokens of an underlying credit relationship, has not been without its own forceful historical proponents. Amongst those who have had to deal with the practical business of managing money especially in extremis the view of money as credit, rather than a commodity, has always had a strong following. One famous example is provided by the siege of Valletta by the Turks in 1565. As the Ottoman embargo dragged on, the supply of gold and silver began to run short, and the Knights of Malta were forced to mint coins using copper. The motto that they stamped on them in order to remind the population of the source of their value would have seemed perfectly sensible to the inhabitants of Yap: Non Aes, sed Fides ‘Not the metal, but trust’.

Nevertheless, it is undoubtedly the conventional view of money as a commodity, of monetary exchange as swapping goods for a medium of exchange, and of credit as the lending out of the money commodity, that has enjoyed the lion’s share of support from theorists and philosophers over the centuries, and thereby dominated economic thought and, for much of the time, policy as well.

But if it is so obvious that the conventional theory of money is wrong, why has such a distinguished canon of economists and philosophers believed it? And why does today’s economics profession by and large persist in using the fundamental ideas of this tradition as the building blocks of modern economic thinking? Why, in short, is the conventional theory of money so resilient? There are two basic reasons, and they are worth dwelling on.

The first reason has to do with the historical evidence for money. The problem is not that so little of it survives from earlier ages, but that it is virtually all of a single type, coins. Museums around the world heave with coins, ancient and modern. Coins and their inscriptions are one of the main archaeological sources for the understanding of ancient culture, society, and history. Deciphered by ingenious scholars, their graven images and their abbreviated inscriptions give up vast libraries of knowledge about the chronologies of ancient kings, the hierarchy of classical deities, and the ideologies of ancient republics. An entire academic discipline, numismatics, is devoted to the study of coins; and far from being the scholarly equivalent of stamp collecting, as it might appear to the uninitiated, numismatics is amongst the most fruitful fields of historical research.

But of course the real reason why coins are so important in the study of ancient history, and why they have dominated in particular the study of the history of money, is that coins are what have survived. Coins are made of durable metals and very often of imperishable metals, such as gold or silver, which do not rust or corrode. As a result, they tend to survive the ravages of time better than most other things. What is more, coins are valuable. As a result, there has always been a tendency for them to be squirrelled away in buried or hidden hoards, the better to be discovered decades, centuries, or even millennia later by the enterprising historian or numismatist. The problem is that in no field so much as the history of money is an approach fixated upon what physically survives likely to lead us into error.

The unfortunate story of the wholesale destruction of one of the most important collections of source material for the history of money ever to have existed shows why.

For more than six hundred years, from the twelfth to the late eighteenth century, the operation of the public finances of England rested on a simple but ingenious piece of accounting technology: the Exchequer tally. A tally was a wooden stick usually harvested from the willows that grew along the Thames near the Palace of Westminster. On the stick were inscribed, always with notches in the wood and sometimes also in writing, details of payments made to or from the Exchequer. Some were receipts for tax payments made by landowners to the Crown. Others referred to transactions in the opposite direction, recording the sums due on loans by the sovereign to prominent subjects. ‘92 4s 4p from Fulk Basset for the farm of Wycombe’ reads one that has survived, for example relating a debt owed by Fulk Basset, a thirteenth-century Bishop of London, to Henry III. Even bribes seem to have been recorded on Exchequer tallies: one stick in a private collection bears the suspicious-sounding euphemism ‘135 4d from William de Tullewyk for the king’s good will’.

Once the details of the payment had been recorded on the tally stick, it was split down the middle from end to end so that each party to the transaction could keep a record. The creditor’s half was called the ‘stock’, and the debtor’s the ‘foil’: hence the English use of the term ‘stocks’ for Treasury bonds, which survives to this day. The unique grain of the willow wood meant that a convincing forgery was virtually impossible; while the record of the account in a portable format rather than just inscribed in the Treasury account books at Westminster, for example meant that Exchequer credits could be passed from their original holder to a third party in payment of some unrelated debt. Tallies were what are called ‘bearer securities’ in modern financial jargon: financial obligations such as bonds, share certificates, or banknotes, the beneficiary of which is whoever holds the physical record.

Historians agree that the vast majority of fiscal operations in medieval England must have been carried out using tally sticks; and they suppose that a great deal of monetary exchange was transacted using them as well. A credit with the Exchequer, as recorded on a tally stick, would after all have been welcomed in payment by anyone who had taxes of his own coming due. It is, however, impossible to know for certain. For although millions of tallies must have been manufactured over the centuries, and though we know for sure that many thousands survived in the Exchequer archives up until the early nineteenth century, only a handful of specimens exist today. The ultimate culprit for this unfortunate situation is the famous zeal of England’s nineteenthcentury advocates of administrative reform.

A collection of English Exchequer tallies: rare survivors of one of the great episodes of historical vandalism of the nineteenth century.

Despite the fact that the tally-stick system had proved itself remarkably efficient over the preceding five hundred years, by the late eighteenth century it was felt that it was time to dispense with it. Keeping accounts with notched sticks let alone using wooden splints as money alongside the elegant paper notes of the Bank of England was by then considered little short of barbaric, and certainly out of keeping with the enormous progress being made in commerce and technology. An Act of Parliament of 1782 officially abolished tally sticks as the main means of account-keeping at the Exchequer, though, because certain sinecures still operated on the old system, the Act had to wait almost another half-century, until 1826, to come into effect. But in 1834, the ancient institution of the Receipt of the Exchequer was finally abolished, and the last Exchequer tally replaced by a paper note.

Once the tally-stick system had finally been abolished, the question arose of what to do with the vast archive of tallies left in the Exchequer. Amongst the partisans of reform the general feeling was that they were nothing but embarrassing relics of the way in which the fiscal accounts of the British Empire had been kept, ‘much as Robinson Crusoe kept his calendar on the desert island’, and it was decided without hesitation to incinerate them. Twenty years later, Charles Dickens recounted the unfortunate consequences:

It came to pass that they were burnt in a stove in the House of Lords. The stove, overgorged with these preposterous sticks, set fire to the panelling; the panelling set fire to the House of Lords; the House of Lords set fire to the House of Commons; the two houses were reduced to ashes; architects were called in to build others; we are now in the second million of the cost thereof . . .

The Houses of Parliament could be rebuilt, of course and were, to leave the splendid Palace of Westminster that stands on the banks of the Thames today. What could not be resurrected from the inferno, however, was the priceless record of England’s fiscal and monetary history constituted by the tallies. Historians have had to rely on a handful of tallies that survived by chance in private collections, and we are fortunate that there are a few contemporary accounts of how they were used. But as for the immense wealth of knowledge that the Westminster archive embodied about the state of England’s money and finances throughout the Middle Ages, it is irretrievably lost.

If this is a problem for the history of money in medieval England, the situation is infinitely worse for the history of money more generally and especially in pre-literate societies. All too often, the only physical trace of money that remains is coins: yet as the example of the English tally-stick system shows, coinage may have been only the very tip of the monetary iceberg. Vast hinterlands of monetary and financial history lie beyond our grasp simply because no physical evidence of their existence and operation survives.

To appreciate the seriousness of the problem we have only to consider what hope the historians of the future would have of reconstructing our own monetary history if a natural disaster were to destroy the digital records of our contemporary financial system. We can only trust that reason would prevail, and that they would not build their understanding of modern economic life on the assumption that the pound and euro coins and nickels and dimes that survived were the sum total of our money.

THE BENEFIT OF BEING A FISH OUT OF WATER

The second reason why the conventional theory of money remains so resilient is directly related to a still more intrinsic difficulty. There is an old Chinese proverb: ‘The fish is the last to know water’. It is a concise explanation of why the ‘social’ or ‘human’ sciences anthropology, sociology, economics and so on are different from the natural sciences physics, chemistry, and biology. In the natural sciences, we study the physical world; and it is at least in principle possible to get an objective view. Things are not so simple in the social sciences. In these fields, we are studying ourselves, as individuals and in groups. Society and our selves have no independent existence apart from us and by contrast to the natural sciences, this makes it exceptionally difficult to get an objective view of things. The closer an institution is to the heart of our daily lives, the trickier it is to step outside of it in order to analyse it and the more controversial will be attempts to do so.

The second reason why the nature of money is so difficult to pin down, and why it has been and remains a subject of such controversy, is precisely because it is such an integral part of our economies. When we try to understand money, we are like the fish of the Chinese proverb, trying to know the very water in which it moves.

This doesn’t mean that all social science is a waste of time, however. It may not be possible to get an absolutely objective view of our own habits, customs, and traditions; but by studying them under different historical conditions we can get a more objective view than otherwise. Just as we can use two different perspectives on a point in the distance to triangulate its position when out hiking, we can learn a lot about a familiar social phenomenon by observing it in other times, in other places, and in other cultures. The only problem in the case of money is that it is such a basic element of the economy that finding opportunities for such triangulation is tricky. Most of the time money is just part of the furniture. It is only when the normal monetary order is disrupted that the veil is snatched from our eyes. When the monetary order dissolves, the water is temporarily tipped out of the fishbowl and we become for a critical moment a fish out of water.

. . .

*

from

Money. The Unauthorised Biography

by Felix Martin

get it at Amazon.com

The End of Alchemy: Money, Banking and the Future of the Global Economy – Mervyn King.

If the economy had grown after the global financial crisis at the same rate as the number of books written about it, then we would have been back at full employment some while ago.

Modern economics has encouraged ways of thinking that make crises more probable. Economists have brought the problem upon themselves by pretending that they can forecast. No one can easily predict an unknowable future, and economists are no exception.

The fragility of our financial system stems directly from the fact that banks are the main source of money creation. Banks are man made institutions, important sources of innovation, prosperity and material progress, but also of greed, corruption and crises. For better or worse, they materially affect human welfare.

Unless we go back to the underlying causes we will never understand what happened and will be unable to prevent a repetition and help our economies truly recover.

The financial crisis of 2007-9 was merely the latest manifestation of our collective failure to manage the relationship between finance, the structure of money and banking, and a capitalist system.”

The former governor of the Bank of England on reforming global finance.

Mervyn King was governor of the Bank of England in 2003-13. In “The End of Alchemy” there is no gossip and few revelations. Instead Lord King uses his experience of the crisis as a platform from which to present economic ideas to non-specialists.

He does a good job of putting complex concepts into plain English. The discussion of the evolution of money, from Roman times to 19th-century America to today, is a useful introduction for those not quite sure what currency really is.

He explains why economies need central banks: at best, they are independent managers of the money supply and rein in the banking system. Central bankers like giving the impression that they have played such roles since time immemorial, but as Lord King points out the reality is otherwise. The Fed was created only in 1913; believe it or not, until 1994 it would not reveal to the public its interest rate decisions until weeks after the event. Even the Bank of England, founded in 1694, got the exclusive right to print banknotes, in England and Wales, only in 1844.

At times, Lord King can be refreshingly frank. He is no fan of austerity policies, saying that they have imposed “enormous costs on citizens throughout Europe”. He also reserves plenty of criticism for the economics profession. Since forecasting is so hit and miss, he thinks, the practice of giving prizes to the best forecasters “makes as much sense as it would to award the Fields Medal in mathematics to the winner of the National Lottery”.

The problem leading up to the global financial crisis, as Lord King sees it, is that commercial banks had little incentive to hold large quantities of safe, liquid assets. They knew that in a panic, the central bank would provide liquidity, no matter the quality of their balance sheets; in response they loaded up on risky investments.

The Economist

‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity …’ Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

The End of Alchemy, Mervyn King

The past twenty years in the modern world were indeed the best of times and the worst of times. It was a tale of two epochs in the first growth and stability, followed in the second by the worst banking crisis the industrialised world has ever witnessed. Within the space of little more than a year, between August 2007 and October 2008, what had been viewed as the age of wisdom was now seen as the age of foolishness, and belief turned into incredulity. The largest banks in the biggest financial centres in the advanced world failed, triggering a worldwide collapse of confidence and bringing about the deepest recession since the 1930s.

How did this happen? Was it a failure of individuals, institutions or ideas? The events of 2007-8 have spawned an outpouring of articles and books, as well as plays and films, about the crisis. If the economy had grown after the crisis at the same rate as the number of books written about it, then we would have been back at full employment some while ago.

Most such accounts like the media coverage and the public debate at the time focus on the symptoms and not the underlying causes. After all, those events, vivid though they remain in the memories of both participants and spectators, comprised only the latest in a long series of financial crises since our present system of money and banking became the cornerstone of modern capitalism after the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth century. The growth of indebtedness, the failure of banks, the recession that followed, were all signs of much deeper problems in our financial and economic system.

Unless we go back to the underlying causes we will never understand what happened and will be unable to prevent a repetition and help our economies truly recover. This book looks at the big questions raised by the depressing regularity of crises in our system of money and banking. Why do they occur? Why are they so costly in terms of lost jobs and production? And what can we do to prevent them? It also examines new ideas that suggest answers.

In the spring of 2011, I was in Beijing to meet a senior Chinese central banker. Over dinner in the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, where we had earlier played tennis, we talked about the lessons from history for the challenges we faced, the most important of which was how to resuscitate the world economy after the collapse of the western banking system in 2008. Bearing in mind the apocryphal answer of Premier Chou Enlai to the question of what significance one should attach to the French Revolution (it was ‘too soon to tell’), I asked my Chinese colleague what importance he now attached to the Industrial Revolution in Britain in the second half of the eighteenth century.

He thought hard. Then he replied: ‘We in China have learned a great deal from the West about how competition and a market economy support industrialisation and create higher living standards. We want to emulate that.’ Then came the sting in the tail, as he continued: ‘But I don’t think you’ve quite got the hang of money and banking yet.’ His remark was the inspiration for this book.

Since the crisis, many have been tempted to play the game of deciding who was to blame for such a disastrous outcome. But blaming individuals is counterproductive, it leads you to think that if just a few, or indeed many, of those people were punished then we would never experience a crisis again. If only it were that simple. A generation of the brightest and best were lured into banking, and especially into trading, by the promise of immense financial rewards and by the intellectual challenge of the work that created such rich returns. They were badly misled. The crisis was a failure of a system, and the ideas that underpinned it, not of individual policy makers or bankers, incompetent and greedy though some of them undoubtedly were. There was a general misunderstanding of how the world economy worked. Given the size and political influence of the banking sector, is it too late to put the genie back in the bottle? No it is never too late to ask the right questions, and in this book I try to do so.

If we don’t blame the actors, then why not the playwright? Economists have been cast by many as the villain. An abstract and increasingly mathematical discipline, economics is seen as having failed to predict the crisis. This is rather like blaming science for the occasional occurrence of a natural disaster. Yet we would blame scientists if incorrect theories made disasters more likely or created a perception that they could never occur, and one of the arguments of this book is that economics has encouraged ways of thinking that made crises more probable. Economists have brought the problem upon themselves by pretending that they can forecast. No one can easily predict an unknowable future, and economists are no exception.

Despite the criticism, modern economics provides a distinctive and useful way of thinking about the world. But no subject can stand still, and economics must change, perhaps quite radically, as a result of the searing experience of the crisis. A theory adequate for today requires us to think for ourselves, standing on the shoulders of giants of the past, not kneeling in front of them.

Economies that are capable of sending men to the moon and producing goods and services of extraordinary complexity and innovation seem to struggle with the more mundane challenge of handling money and banking. The frequency, and certainly severity, of crises has, if anything, increased rather than decreased over time.

In the heat of the crisis in October 2008, nation states took over responsibility for all the obligations and debts of the global banking system. In terms of its balance sheet, the banking system had been virtually nationalised but without collective control over its operations. That government rescue cannot conveniently be forgotten. When push came to shove, the very sector that had espoused the merits of market discipline was allowed to carry on only by dint of taxpayer support. The creditworthiness of the state was put on the line, and in some cases, such as Iceland and Ireland, lost. God may have created the universe, but we mortals created paper money and risky banks. They are man made institutions, important sources of innovation, prosperity and material progress, but also of greed, corruption and crises. For better or worse, they materially affect human welfare.

For much of modern history, and for good reason, money and banking have been seen as the magical elements that liberated us from a stagnant feudal system and permitted the emergence of dynamic markets capable of making the long-term investments necessary to support a growing economy. The idea that paper money could replace intrinsically valuable gold and precious metals, and that banks could take secure short-term deposits and transform them into long-term risky investments, came into its own with the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth century. It was both revolutionary and immensely seductive. It was in fact financial alchemy, the creation of extraordinary financial powers that defy reality and common sense. Pursuit of this monetary elixir has brought a series of economic disasters from hyperinflations to banking collapses.

Why have money and banking, the alchemists of a market economy, turned into its Achilles heel?

The purpose of this book is to answer that question. It sets out to explain why the economic failures of a modern capitalist economy stem from our system of money and banking, the consequences for the economy as a whole, and how we can end the alchemy. Our ideas about money and banking are just as much a product of our age as the way we conduct our politics and imagine our past.

The twentieth century experience of depression, hyperinflation and war changed both the world and the way economists thought about it. Before the Great Depression of the early 1930s, central banks and governments saw their role as stabilising the financial system and balancing the budget. After the Great Depression, attention turned to policies aimed at maintaining full employment. But post-war confidence that Keynesian ideas, the use of public spending to expand total demand in the economy, would prevent us from repeating the errors of the past was to prove touchingly naive. The use of expansionary policies during the 1960s, exacerbated by the Vietnam War, led to the Great Inflation of the 1970s, accompanied by slow growth and rising unemployment, the combination known as ‘stagflation’.

The direct consequence was that central banks were reborn as independent institutions committed to price stability. So successful was this that in the 1990s not only did inflation fall to levels unseen for a generation, but central banks and their governors were hailed for inaugurating an era of economic growth with low inflation, the Great Stability or Great Moderation. Politicians worshipped at the altar of finance, bringing gifts in the form of lax regulation and receiving support, and sometimes campaign contributions, in return. Then came the fall: the initial signs that some banks were losing access to markets for short-term borrowing in 2007, the collapse of the industrialised world’s banking system in 2008, the Great Recession that followed, and increasingly desperate attempts by policy-makers to engineer a recovery. Today the world economy remains in a depressed state. Enthusiasm for policy stimulus is back in fashion, and the wheel has turned full circle.

The recession is hurting people who were not responsible for our present predicament, and they are, naturally, angry. There is a need to channel that anger into a careful analysis of what went wrong and a determination to put things right. The economy is behaving in ways that we did not expect, and new ideas will be needed if we are to prevent a repetition of the Great Recession and restore prosperity.

Many accounts and memoirs of the crisis have already been published. Their titles are numerous, but they share the same invisible subtitle: ‘how I saved the world’. So although in the interests of transparency I should make clear that I was an actor in the drama, Governor of the Bank of England for ten years between 2003 and 2013, during both the Great Stability, the banking crisis itself, the Great Recession that followed, and the start of the recovery, this is not a memoir of the crisis with revelations about private conversations and behind the scenes clashes. Of course, those happened as in any walk of life. But who said what to whom and when can safely, and properly, be left to dispassionate and disinterested historians who can sift and weigh the evidence available to them after sufficient time has elapsed and all the relevant official and unofficial papers have been made available.

Instant memoirs, whether of politicians or officials, are usually partial and self-serving. I see little purpose in trying to set the record straight when any account that I gave would naturally also seem self-serving. My own record of events and the accompanying Bank papers will be made available to historians when the twenty-year rule permits their release.

This book is about economic ideas. My time at the Bank of England showed that ideas, for good or ill, do influence governments and their policies. The adoption of inflation targeting in the early 1990s and the granting of independence to the Bank of England in 1997 are prime examples. Economists brought intellectual rigour to economic policy and especially to central banking. But my experience at the Bank also revealed the inadequacies of the ‘models’, whether verbal descriptions or mathematical equations, used by economists to explain swings in total spending and production. In particular, such models say nothing about the importance of money and banks and the panoply of financial markets that feature prominently in newspapers and on our television screens.

Is there a fundamental weakness in the intellectual economic framework underpinning contemporary thinking?

An exploration of some of these basic issues does not require a technical exposition, and I have stayed away from one. Of course, economists use mathematical and statistical methods to understand a complex world, they would be remiss if they did not. Economics is an intellectual discipline that requires propositions to be not merely plausible but subject to the rigour of a logical proof. And yet there is no mathematics in this book. It is written in (I hope) plain English and draws on examples from real life. Although I would like my fellow economists to read the book in the hope that they will take forward some of the ideas presented here, it is aimed at the reader with no formal training in economics but an interest in the issues.

In the course of this book, I will explain the fundamental causes of the crisis and how the world economy lost its balance; how money emerged in earlier societies and the role it plays today; why the fragility of our financial system stems directly from the fact that banks are the main source of money creation; why central banks need to change the way they respond to crises; why politics and money go hand in hand; why the world will probably face another crisis unless nations pursue different policies; and, most important of all, how we can end the alchemy of our present system of money and banking.

By alchemy I mean the belief that all paper money can be turned into an intrinsically valuable commodity, such as gold, on demand and that money kept in banks can be taken out whenever depositors ask for it. The truth is that money, in all forms, depends on trust in its issuer. Confidence in paper money rests on the ability and willingness of governments not to abuse their power to print money. Bank deposits are backed by long-term risky loans that cannot quickly be converted into money. For centuries, alchemy has been the basis of our system of money and banking. As this book shows, we can end the alchemy without losing the enormous benefits that money and banking contribute to a capitalist economy.

Four concepts are used extensively in the book: disequilibrium, radical uncertainty, the prisoner’s dilemma and trust. These concepts will be familiar to many, although the context in which I use them may not. Their significance will become clear as the argument unfolds, but a brief definition and explanation may be helpful at the outset.

Disequilibrium is the absence of a state of balance between the forces acting on a system. As applied to economics, disequilibrium is a position that is unsustainable, meaning that at some point a large change in the pattern of spending and production will take place as the economy moves to a new equilibrium. The word accurately describes the evolution of the world economy since the fall of the Berlin Wall, which I discuss in Chapter 1.

Radical uncertainty refers to uncertainty so profound that it is impossible to represent the future in terms of a knowable and exhaustive list of outcomes to which we can attach probabilities. Economists conventionally assume that ‘rational’ people can construct such probabilities. But when businesses invest, they are not rolling dice with known and finite outcomes on the faces; rather they face a future in which the possibilities are both limitless and impossible to imagine. Almost all the things that define modern life, and which we now take for granted, such as cars, aeroplanes, computers and antibiotics, were once unimaginable. The essential challenge facing everyone living in a capitalist economy is the inability to conceive of what the future may hold. The failure to incorporate radical uncertainty into economic theories was one of the factors responsible for the misjudgements that led to the crisis.

The prisoner’s dilemma may be defined as the difficulty of achieving the best outcome when there are obstacles to cooperation. Imagine two prisoners who have been arrested and kept apart from each other. Both are offered the same deal: if they agree to incriminate the other they will receive a light sentence, but if they refuse to do so they will receive a severe sentence if the other incriminates them. If neither incriminates the other, then both are acquitted. Clearly, the best outcome is for both to remain silent. But if they cannot cooperate the choice is more difficult. The only way to guarantee the avoidance of a severe sentence is to incriminate the other. And if both do so, the outcome is that both receive a light sentence. But this non-cooperative outcome is inferior to the cooperative outcome. The difficulty of cooperating with each other creates a prisoner’s dilemma. Such problems are central to understanding how the economy behaves as a whole (the field known as macroeconomics) and to thinking through both how we got into the crisis and how we can now move towards a sustainable recovery. Many examples will appear in the following pages. Finding a resolution to the prisoner’s dilemma problem in a capitalist economy is central to understanding and improving our fortunes.

Trust is the ingredient that makes a market economy work. How could we drive, eat, or even buy and sell, unless we trusted other people? Everyday life would be impossible without trust: we give our credit card details to strangers and eat in restaurants that we have never visited before. Of course, trust is supplemented with regulation, fraud is a crime and there are controls of the conditions in restaurant kitchens but an economy works more efficiently with trust than without. Trust is part of the answer to the prisoner’s dilemma. It is central to the role of money and banks, and to the institutions that manage our economy. Long ago, Confucius emphasised the crucial role of trust in the authorities: ‘Three things are necessary for government: weapons, food and trust. If a ruler cannot hold on to all three, he should give up weapons first and food next. Trust should be guarded to the end: without trust we cannot stand.’

Those four ideas run through the book and help us to understand the origin of the alchemy of money and banking and how we can reduce or even eliminate that alchemy.

When I left the Bank of England in 2013, I decided to explore the flaws in both the theory and practice of money and banking, and how they relate to the economy as a whole. I was led deeper and deeper into basic questions about economics. I came to believe that fundamental changes are needed in the way we think about macroeconomics, as well as in the way central banks manage their economies.

A key role of a market economy is to link the present and the future, and to coordinate decisions about spending and production not only today but tomorrow and in the years thereafter. Families will save if the interest rate is high enough to overcome their natural impatience to spend today rather than tomorrow. Companies will invest in productive capital if the prospective rate of return exceeds the cost of attracting finance. And economic growth requires saving and investment to add to the stock of productive capital and so increase the potential output of the economy in the future. In a healthy growing economy all three rates, the interest rate on saving, the rate of return on investment, and the rate of growth are well above zero. Today, however, we are stuck with extraordinarily low interest rates, which discourage saving, the source of future demand and, if maintained indefinitely, will pull down rates of return on investment, diverting resources into unprofitable projects. Both effects will drag down future growth rates. We are already some way down that road. It seems that our market economy today is not providing an effective link between the present and the future.

I believe there are two reasons for this failure. First, there is an inherent problem in linking a known present with an unknowable future. Radical uncertainty presents a market economy with an impossible challenge how are we to create markets in goods and services that we cannot at present imagine? Money and banking are part of the response of a market economy to that challenge. Second, the conventional wisdom of economists about how governments and central banks should stabilise the economy gives insufficient weight to the importance of radical uncertainty in generating an occasional large disequilibrium. Crises do not come out of thin air but are the result of the unavoidable mistakes made by people struggling to cope with an unknowable future. Both issues have profound implications and will be explored at greater length in subsequent chapters.

Inevitably, my views reflect the two halves of my career. The first was as an academic, a student in Cambridge, England, and a Kennedy scholar at Harvard in the other Cambridge, followed by teaching positions on both sides of the Atlantic. I experienced at first hand the evolution of macroeconomics from literary exposition where propositions seemed plausible but never completely convincing, into a mathematical discipline where propositions were logically convincing but never completely plausible. Only during the crisis of 2007-9 did I look back and understand the nature of the tensions between the surviving disciples of John Maynard Keynes who taught me in the 1960s, primarily Richard Kahn and Joan Robinson, and the influx of mathematicians and scientists into the subject that fuelled the rapid expansion of university economics departments in the same period. The old school ‘Keynesians’ were mistaken in their view that all wisdom was to be found in the work of one great man, and as a result their influence waned. The new arrivals brought mathematical discipline to a subject that prided itself on its rigour. But the informal analysis of disequilibrium of economies, radical uncertainty, and trust as a solution to the prisoner’s dilemma was lost in the enthusiasm for the idea that rational individuals would lead the economy to an efficient equilibrium. It is time to take those concepts more seriously.

The second half of my career comprised twenty-two years at the Bank of England, the oldest continuously functioning central bank in the world, from 1991 to 2013, as Chief Economist, Deputy Governor and then Governor. That certainly gave me a chance to see how money could be managed. I learned, and argued publicly, that this is done best not by relying on gifted individuals to weave their magic, but by designing and building institutions that can be run by people who are merely professionally competent. Of course individuals matter and can make a difference, especially in a crisis. But the power of markets, the expression of hundreds of thousands of investors around the world is a match for any individual, central banker or politician, who fancies his ability to resist economic arithmetic. As one of President Clinton’s advisers remarked, ‘I used to think if there was reincarnation, I wanted to come back as the president or the Pope or a .400 baseball hitter. But now I want to come back as the bond market. You can intimidate everybody.’ Nothing has diminished the force of that remark since it was made over twenty years ago.

In 2012, I gave the first radio broadcast in peacetime by a Governor of the Bank of England since Montagu Norman delivered a talk on the BBC in March 1939, only months before the outbreak of the Second World War. As Norman left Broadcasting House, he was mobbed by British Social Credits Party demonstrators carrying flags and slogan-boards bearing the words: CONSCRIPT THE BANKERS FIRST! Feelings also ran high in 2012. The consequences of the events of 2007-9 are still unfolding, and anger about their effects on ordinary citizens is not diminishing. That disaster was a long time in the making, and will be just as long in the resolving.

But the cost of lost output and employment from our continuing failure to manage money and banking and prevent crises is too high for us to wait for another crisis to occur before we act to protect future generations.

Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities has not only a very famous opening sentence but an equally famous closing sentence. As Sydney Carton sacrifices himself to the guillotine in the place of another, he reflects: ‘It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done …’ If we can find a way to end the alchemy of the system of money and banking we have inherited then, at least in the sphere of economics, it will indeed be a far, far better thing than we have ever done.

One

THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY

‘I think that Capitalism, wisely managed, can probably be made more efficient for attaining economic ends than any alternative system yet in sight.’ John Maynard Keynes, The End of Laissez-faire (1926)

‘The experience of being disastrously wrong is salutary; no economist should be spared it, and few are.’ John Kenneth Galbraith, A Life in Our Times (1982)

History is what happened before you were born. That is why it is so hard to learn lessons from history: the mistakes were made by the previous generation. As a student in the 1960s, I knew why the 1930s were such a bad time. Outdated economic ideas guided the decisions of governments and central banks, while the key individuals were revealed in contemporary photographs as fuddy-duddies who wore whiskers and hats and were ignorant of modern economics. A younger generation, in academia and government, trained in modern economics, would ensure that the Great Depression of the 1930s would never be repeated.

In the 1960s, everything seemed possible. Old ideas and conventions were jettisoned, and a new world beckoned. In economics, an influx of mathematicians, engineers and physicists brought a new scientific approach to what the nineteenth-century philosopher and writer Thomas Carlyle christened the ‘dismal science’. It promised not just a better understanding of our economy, but an improved economic performance.

The subsequent fifty years were a mixed experience. Over that period, national income in the advanced world more than doubled, and in the so-called developing world hundreds of millions of people were lifted out of extreme poverty. And yet runaway inflation in the 1970s was followed in 2007-9 by the biggest financial crisis the world has ever seen. How do we make sense of it all? Was the post-war period a success or a failure?

The origins of economic growth

The history of capitalism is one of growth and rising living standards interrupted by financial crises, most of which have emanated from our mismanagement of money and banking. My Chinese colleague spoke an important, indeed profound, truth.

The financial crisis of 2007-9 (hereafter ‘the crisis’) was not the fault of particular individuals or economic policies. Rather, it was merely the latest manifestation of our collective failure to manage the relationship between finance, the structure of money and banking, and a capitalist system.

Failure to appreciate this explains why most accounts of the crisis focus on the symptoms and not the underlying causes of what went wrong. The fact that we have not yet got the hang of it does not mean that a capitalist economy is doomed to instability and failure. It means that we need to think harder about how to make it work.

Over many years, a capitalist economy has proved the most successful route to escape poverty and achieve prosperity.

Capitalism, as I use the term here, is an economic system in which private owners of capital hire wage earners to work in their businesses and pay for investment by raising finance from banks and financial markets.

The West has built the institutions to support a capitalist system, the rule of law to enforce private contracts and protect property rights, intellectual freedom to innovate and publish new ideas, anti-trust regulation to promote competition and break up monopolies, and collectively financed services and networks, such as education, water, electricity and telecommunications, which provide the infrastructure to support a thriving market economy. Those institutions create a balance between freedom and restraint, and between unfettered competition and regulation. It is a subtle balance that has emerged and evolved over time. And it has transformed our standard of living. Growth at a rate of 2.5 per cent a year, close to the average experienced in North America and Europe since the Second World War, raises real total national income twelvefold over one century, a truly revolutionary outcome.

Over the past two centuries, we have come to take economic growth for granted. Writing in the middle of that extraordinary period of economic change in the mid-eighteenth century, the Scottish philosopher and political economist, Adam Smith, identified the source of the breakout from relative economic stagnation, an era during which productivity (output per head) was broadly constant and any increase resulted from discoveries of new land or other natural resources, to a prolonged period of continuous growth of productivity: specialisation. It was possible for individuals to specialise in particular tasks, the division of labour, and by working with capital equipment to raise their productivity by many times the level achieved by a jack-of-all-trades. To illustrate his argument, Smith employed his now famous example of a pin factory:

A workman could scarce, perhaps, with his utmost industry, make one pin in a day, and certainly could not make twenty. But in the way in which this business is now carried on, not only the whole work is a peculiar trade, but it is divided into a number of branches. One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head The important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations, which, in some manufactories, are all performed by distinct hands.

The factory Smith was describing employed ten men and made over 48,000 pins in a day.

The application of technical knowhow to more and more tasks increased specialisation and raised productivity. Specialisation went hand in hand with an even greater need for both a means to exchange the fruits of one’s labour for an ever wider variety of goods produced by other specialists, money, and a way to finance the purchase of the capital equipment that made specialisation possible, banks.

As each person in the workforce became more specialised, more machinery and capital investment was required to support them, and the role of money and banks increased. After a millennium of roughly constant output per person, from the middle of the eighteenth century productivity started, slowly but surely, to rise. Capitalism was, quite literally, producing the goods. Historians will continue to debate why the Industrial Revolution occurred in Britain, population growth, plentiful supplies of coal and iron, supportive institutions, religious beliefs and other factors all feature in recent accounts.

But the evolution of money and banking was a necessary condition for the Revolution to take off.

Almost a century later, with the experience of industrialisation and a massive shift of labour from the land to urban factories, socialist writers saw things differently. For Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels the future was clear. Capitalism was a temporary staging post along the journey from feudalism to socialism. In their Communist Manifesto of 1848, they put forward their idea of ‘scientific socialism’ with its deterministic view that capitalism would ultimately collapse and be replaced by socialism or communism. Later, in the first volume of Das Kapital (1867), Marx elaborated (at great length) on this thesis and predicted that the owners of capital would become ever richer while excessive capital accumulation would lead to a falling rate of profit, reducing the incentive to invest and leaving the working class immersed in misery. The British industrial working class in the nineteenth century did indeed suffer miserable working conditions, as graphically described by Charles Dickens in his novels. But no sooner had the ink dried on Marx’s famous work than the British economy entered a long period of rising real wages (money wages adjusted for the cost of living). Even the two world wars and the intervening Great Depression in the 1930s could not halt rising productivity and real wages, and broadly stable rates of profit. Economic growth and improving living standards became the norm.

But if capitalism did not collapse under the weight of its own internal contradictions, neither did it provide economic security. During the twentieth century, the extremes of hyperinflations and depressions eroded both living standards and the accumulated wealth of citizens in many capitalist economies, especially during the Great Depression in the 1930s, when mass unemployment sparked renewed interest in the possibilities of communism and central planning, especially in Europe. The British economist John Maynard Keynes promoted the idea that government intervention to bolster total spending in the economy could restore full employment, without the need to resort to fully fledged socialism.

After the Second World War, there was a widespread belief that government planning had won the war and could be the means to win the peace. In Britain, as late as 1964 the newly elected Labour government announced a ‘National Plan’. Inspired by a rather naive version of Keynesian ideas, it focused on policies to boost the demand for goods and services rather than the ability of the economy to produce them. As the former outstripped the latter, the result was inflation. On the other side of the Atlantic, the growing cost of the Vietnam War in the late 1960s also led to higher inflation.

Rising inflation put pressure on the internationally agreed framework within which countries had traded with each other since the Bretton Woods Agreement of 1944, named after the conference held in the New Hampshire town in July of that year. Designed to allow a war-damaged Europe slowly to rebuild its economy and reintegrate into the world trading system, the agreement created an international monetary system under which countries set their own interest rates but fixed their exchange rates among themselves. For this to be possible, movements of capital between countries had to be severely restricted otherwise capital would move to where interest rates were highest, making it impossible to maintain either differences in those rates or fixed exchange rates. Exchange controls were ubiquitous, and countries imposed limits on investments in foreign currency. As a student, I remember that no British traveller in the 1960s could take abroad with them more than £50 a year to spend.

The new international institutions, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, would use funds provided by its members to finance temporary shortages of foreign currency and the investment needed to replace the factories and infrastructure destroyed during the Second World War. Implicit in this framework was the belief that countries would have similar and low rates of inflation. Any loss of competitiveness in one country, as a result of higher inflation than in its trading partners, was assumed to be temporary and would be met by a deflationary policy to restore competitiveness while borrowing from the IMF to finance a short-term trade deficit. But in the late 1960s differences in inflation across countries, especially between the United States and Germany, appeared to be more than temporary, and led to the breakdown of the Bretton Woods system in 1970-1. By the early 1970s, the major economies had moved to a system of ‘floating’ exchange rates, in which currency values are determined by private sector supply and demand in the markets for foreign exchange.

Inevitably, the early days of floating exchange rates reduced the discipline on countries to pursue low inflation. When the two oil shocks of the 1970s, in 1973, when an embargo by Arab countries led to a quadrupling of prices, and 1979, when prices doubled after disruption to supply following the Iranian Revolution hit the western world, the result was the Great Inflation, with annual inflation reaching 13 per cent in the United States and 27 per cent in the United Kingdom.

Economic experiments

From the late 1970s onwards, the western world then embarked on what we can now see were three bold experiments to manage money, exchange rates and the banking system better. The first was to give central banks much greater independence in order to bring down and stabilise inflation, subsequently enshrined in the policy of inflation targeting, the goal of national price stability. The second was to allow capital to move freely between countries and encourage a shift to fixed exchange rates both within Europe, culminating in the creation of a monetary union, and in a substantial proportion of the most rapidly growing part of the world economy, particularly China, which fixed its exchange rates against the US dollar, the goal of exchange rate stability. And the third experiment was to remove regulations limiting the activities of the banking and financial system to promote competition and allow banks both to diversify into new products and regions and to expand in size, with the aim of bringing stability to a banking system often threatened in the past by risks that were concentrated either geographically or by line of business, the goal of financial stability.

These three simultaneous experiments might now be best described as having three consequences the Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The Good was a period between about 1990 and 2007 of unprecedented stability of both output and inflation the Great Stability. Monetary policy around the world changed radically. Inflation targeting and central bank independence spread to more than thirty countries. And there were significant changes in the dynamics of inflation, which on average became markedly lower, less variable and less persistent.

The Bad was the rise in debt levels. Eliminating exchange rate flexibility in Europe and the emerging markets led to growing trade surpluses and deficits. Some countries saved a great deal while others had to borrow to finance their external deficit. The willingness of the former to save outweighed the willingness of the latter to spend, and so long-term interest rates in the integrated world capital market began to fall. The price of an asset, whether a house, shares in a company or any other claim on the future, is the value today of future expected returns (rents, the value of housing services from living in your own home, or dividends). To calculate that price one must convert future into current values by discounting them at an interest rate. The immediate effect of a fall in interest rates is to raise the prices of assets across the board. So as long-term interest rates in the world fell, the value of assets especially of houses rose. And as the values of assets increased, so did the amounts that had to be borrowed to enable people to buy them. Between 1986 and 2006, household debt rose from just under 70 per cent of total household income to almost 120 per cent in the United States and from 90 per cent to around 140 per cent in the United Kingdom.

The Ugly was the development of an extremely fragile banking system. In the USA, Federal banking regulators’ increasingly lax interpretation of the provisions to separate commercial and investment banking introduced in the 1933 Banking Act (often known as Glass-Steagall, the senator and representative respectively who led the passage of the legislation) reached its inevitable conclusion with the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999, which swept away any remaining restrictions on the activities of banks. In the UK, the so-called Big Bang of 1986, which started as a measure to introduce competition into the Stock Exchange, led to takeovers of small stockbroking firms and mergers between commercial banks and securities houses. Banks diversified and expanded rapidly after deregulation. In continental Europe so-called universal banks had long been the norm. The assets of large international banks doubled in the five years before 2008. Trading of new and highly complex financial products among banks meant that they became so closely interconnected that a problem in one would spread rapidly to others, magnifying rather than spreading risk.

Banks relied less and less on their own resources to finance lending and became more and more dependent on borrowing. The equity capital of banks, the funds provided by the shareholders of the bank accounted for a declining proportion of overall funding. Leverage, the ratio of total assets (or liabilities) to the equity capital of a bank, rose to extraordinary levels. On the eve of the crisis, the leverage ratio for many banks was 30 or more, and for some investment banks it was between 40 and 50. A few banks had ratios even higher than that. With a leverage ratio of even 25 it would take a fall of only 4 per cent in the average value of a bank’s assets to wipe out the whole of the shareholders’ equity and leave it unable to service its debts.

By 2008, the Ugly led the Bad to overwhelm the Good. The crisis, one might say catastrophe of the events that began to unfold under the gaze of a disbelieving world in 2007, was the failure of all three experiments. Greater stability of output and inflation, although desirable in itself, concealed the build-up of a major disequilibrium in the composition of spending. Some countries were saving too little and borrowing too much to be able to sustain their path of spending in the future, while others saved and lent so much that their consumption was pushed below a sustainable path. Total saving in the world was so high that interest rates, after allowing for inflation, fell to levels incompatible in the long run with a profitable growing market economy. Falling interest rates led to rising asset values and increases in the debt taken out against those more valuable assets. Fixed exchange rates exacerbated the burden of the debts, and in Europe the creation of monetary union in 1999 sapped the strength of many of its economies, as they became increasingly uncompetitive. Large, highly leveraged banks proved unstable and were vulnerable to even a modest loss of confidence, resulting in contagion to other banks and the collapse of the system in 2008.

At their outset the ill-fated nature of the three experiments was not yet visible. On the contrary, during the 1990s the elimination of high and variable inflation, which had undermined market economies in the 1970s, led to a welcome period of macroeconomic stability. The Great Stability, or the Great Moderation as it was dubbed in the United States, was seen, as in many ways it was, as a success for monetary policy. But it was unsustainable. Policy-makers were conscious of problems inherent in the first two experiments, but seemed powerless to do anything about them. At international gatherings, such as those of the IMF, policy-makers would wring their hands about the ‘global imbalances’ but no one country had any incentive to do anything about it. If a country had, on its own, tried to swim against the tide of falling interest rates, it would have experienced an economic slowdown and rising unemployment without any material impact on either the global economy or the banking system. Even then the prisoner’s dilemma was beginning to rear its ugly head.

Nor was it obvious how the unsustainable position of the world economy would come to an end. I remember attending a seminar of economists and policy-makers at the IMF as early as 2002 where the consensus was that there would eventually be a sharp fall in the value of the US dollar, which would produce a change in spending patterns. But long before that could happen, the third experiment ended with the banking crisis of September and October 2008. The shock that some of the biggest and most successful commercial banks in North America and Europe either failed, or were seriously crippled, led to a collapse of confidence which produced the largest fall in world trade since the 1930s. Something had gone seriously wrong.

Opinions differ as to the cause of the crisis. Some see it as a financial panic in which fundamentally sound financial institutions were left short of cash as confidence in the credit-worthiness of banks suddenly changed and professional investors stopped lending to them, a liquidity crisis. Others see it as the inevitable outcome of bad lending decisions by banks, a solvency crisis, in which the true value of banks’ assets had fallen by enough to wipe out most of their equity capital, meaning that they might be unable to repay their debts. But almost all accounts of the recent crisis are about the symptoms, the rise and fall of housing markets, the explosion of debt and the excesses of the banking system rather than the underlying causes of the events that overwhelmed the economies of the industrialised world in 2008. Some even imagine that the crisis was solely an affair of the US financial sector. But unless the events of 2008 are seen in their global economic context, it is hard to make sense of what happened and of the deeper malaise in the world economy.

The story of what happened can be explained in little more than a few pages, everything you need to know but were afraid to ask about the causes of the recent crisis. So here goes.

The story of the crisis

By the start of the twenty-first century it seemed that economic prosperity and democracy went hand in hand. Modern capitalism spawned growing prosperity based on growing trade, free markets and competition, and global banks. In 2008 the system collapsed. To understand why the crisis was so big, and came as such a surprise, we should start at the key turning point, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. At the time it was thought to represent the end of communism, indeed the end of the appeal of socialism and central planning.

For some it was the end of history. For most, it represented a victory for free market economics. Contrary to the prediction of Marx, capitalism had displaced communism. Yet who would have believed that the fall of the Wall was not just the end of communism but the beginning of the biggest crisis in capitalism since the Great Depression?

What has happened over the past quarter of a century to bring about this remarkable change of fortune in the position of capitalist economies?

After the demise of the socialist model of a planned economy, China, countries of the former Soviet Union and India embraced the international trading system, adding millions of workers each year to the pool of labour around the world producing tradeable, especially manufactured, goods. In China alone, over 70 million manufacturing jobs were created during the twenty-first century, far exceeding the 42 million working in manufacturing in 2012 in the United States and Europe combined. The pool of labour supplying the world trading system more than trebled in size. Advanced economies benefited from an influx of cheap consumer goods at the expense of employment in the manufacturing sector.

The aim of the emerging economies was to follow Japan and Korea in pursuing an export-led growth strategy. To stimulate exports, their exchange rates were held down by fixing them at a low level against the US dollar. The strategy worked, especially in the case of China. Its share in world exports rose from 2 per cent to 12 per cent between 1990 and 2013. China and other Asian economies ran large trade surpluses. In other words, they were producing more than they were spending and saving more than they were investing at home. The desire to save was very strong. In the absence of a social safety net, households in China chose to save large proportions of their income to provide self-insurance in the event of unemployment or ill-health, and to finance retirement consumption. Such a high level of saving was exacerbated by the policy from 1980 of limiting most families to one child, making it difficult for parents to rely on their children to provide for them in retirement.

Asian economies in general also saved more in order to accumulate large holdings of dollars as insurance in case their banking system ran short of foreign currency, as happened to Korea and other countries in the Asian financial crisis of the 1990s.

*

from

The End of Alchemy: Money, Banking and the Future of the Global Economy

by Mervyn King

get it at Amazon.com

Banks create money from nothing. And it gets worse – Jackson Stiles. 

Richard Werner, the German professor famous for inventing the term ‘quantitative easing’, says the world is finally waking up to the fact that “banks create money out of nothing” – but warns this realisation has given rise to a new “Orwellian” threat.

Professor Werner says the recent campaigns around the world, including in India and Australia, to get rid of cash are coordinated attempts by central bankers to monopolise money creation.

“This sudden global talk by the usual suspects about the ‘need to get rid of cash’, ostensibly to fight tax evasion etc, has been so coordinated that it cannot but be part of another plan by central bankers, this time to stay in charge of any emerging reform agenda, by trying to control, and themselves run, the ‘opposition’,” he says

“Essentially, the Bank of England and others are saying: okay, we admit it, you guys were right, banks create money out of nothing. So now we need to make sure that you guys will not be able to set the agenda of what happens in terms of reforms.”

Professor Werner (pronounced ‘Verner’), currently the Chair of International Banking at the University of Southampton, is one of the first academics in the world to bring attention to the fact that banks loan money into existence. He has been arguing this for more than two decades, and has published several papers on the subject.

Two Australian economists, Steve Keen and Bill Mitchell, have also led the charge.

The old theory, taught in high school economics classes and to university undergrads, is that banks receive deposits and loan out of a percentage of that money, while keeping some in reserve.

The truth, according to Professor Werner, is closer to the following: A bank receives $100 from a depositor, keeps that $100 in reserve, and then creates $9900 worth of new loans and deposits. It may also create $15,000 in new deposits through its lending.

This is a rough approximation. The main point is that the banks do not lend existing money, but add to deposits and the money supply when they ‘lend’. And when those loans are repaid, money is removed from circulation.

Thus, the supply of money is constantly being expanded and contracted by banks – which may explain why the ‘credit crunch’ of the global financial crisis was so devastating. Banks weren’t lending, so there was a shortage of money.

By some estimates, the banks create upwards of 97 per cent of money, in the form of electronic funds stored in online accounts. Banknotes and coins? They are just tokens of value, printed to represent the money already created by banks.

Most of the money in circulation is electronic, and created by banks. It is not in banknotes or coins.

This theory is now widely accepted as fact. In 2014, the Bank of England published a bulletin confirming it is its official position.

Mervyn King, former Bank of England governor, explains the process – and its dangers – in his 2016 book, The Alchemy of Money.

“During the 20th century, governments allowed the creation of money to become the byproduct of the process of credit creation. Most money today is created by private sector institutions – banks. This is the most serious fault-line in the management of money in our societies today,” Baron King writes.

He goes on: “Banks are part of our daily life. Most of us use them regularly, either to obtain cash, pay bills or take out loans. But banks are also dangerous. They are at the heart of the alchemy of our financial system. Banks are the main source of money creation. They create deposits as a byproduct of making loans to risky borrowers. Those deposits are used as money.”

Journalistic writers like Felix Martin have also tried their hand at explaining the magic of money creation.

In Money: The Unauthorised Biography, first published in 2013, Mr Martin explains that “almost all of [a bank’s] assets are nothing but promises to pay, and almost all its liabilities likewise”.

In effect, a deposit at a bank is a promise to pay you, the customer, and a home loan is a promise by you to pay the bank. By balancing when these promises are likely to come due, a bank can effectively create money by juggling all the balls in the air at once. Only a fraction will ever be demanded in cash at any one time, but all of the debts can be used as money.

This is what Mr Martin calls “the essence of the banker’s art”. He writes: “It is nothing more than ensuring the synchronisation, in the aggregate, of incoming and outgoing payments due on his assets and liabilities.”

Former Bank of England governor Mervyn King agrees that banks create most of our money – and that it is a problem. 

Professor Werner is pleased the world is waking up to the truth of how money is created, but is very displeased with what he sees as the central bankers’ reaction: the death of cash and the rise of central bank-controlled digital currency.

This will further centralise what he describes as the “already excessive and unaccountable powers” of centrals banks, which he argues has been responsible for the bulk of the more than 100 banking crises and boom-bust cycles in the past half-century.

“To appear active reformers, they will push the agenda to get rid of bank credit creation. This suits them anyway, as long as they can fix the policy recommendation of any such reform, to be … that the central banks should be the sole issuers of money.”

The professor also fears the global push for ‘basic income’, which is being trialled parts of Europe and widely discussed in the media, will form part of the central bankers’ attempt to kill off cash.

‘Basic income’ is a popular idea that can be traced back to Sydney and Beatrice Webb, founders of the London School of Economics. It proposes we abolish all welfare payments and replace them with a single ‘basic income’ that everyone, from billionaires to unemployed single mothers, receives.

Either we accept the digital currency issued by central banks, or we miss out on basic income payments. That is Professor Werner’s theory of what might happen.

His solution to this “Orwellian” future is decentralisation, in the form of lots of non-profit community banks, as exist in his native Germany.

“We need to push for the opposite of this massive and Orwellian increase in centralisation, by decentralising money power. Hence the creation of community banks across countries, operated and controlled locally, accountable to local communities, and not-for-profit.

“The best working example is Germany, where for the past almost 200 years about 70 per cent of banking has been in the hands of not-for-profit community banks.”

Professor Werner’s predictions have been right before. He invented the term ‘quantitative easing’ in a 1995 paper, in which he argued that struggling economies could boost GDP by using their central banks to relieve commercial banks of their bad debts, thus freeing them to make new loans (i.e. new money).

The US followed his definition the closest. The Federal Reserve purchased non-performing assets from banks, and the economy is recovering.

Japan and the Eurozone did virtually the opposite. Instead of buying bad debts, their central banks bought corporate bonds and other financial assets. This, he argues, explains why Europe and Japan have remained mired in recession.

We can only hope his “Orwellian” prediction of central bank control is less accurate.

The New Daily