Do Creditors Exploit Debtors, or Vice Versa?

I’m asking this question because I think a proper understanding of the answer is a giant leap toward grasping the geopolitical realities of the relationship between America and China.

This discussion was triggered by Noah Smith’s discussion of David Graeber’s ideas on debt, and particularly his idea that debt is a means to “extract wealth” out of others.

Noah Smith on David Graeber:

“Debt,” says Graeber, “is how the rich extract wealth from the rest of us.” But sometimes he seems to claim that creditors are extracting wealth from debtors, and sometimes he seems to claim that debtors extract wealth from creditors.

For example, in the Nation article, Graeber tells that The 1% are creditors. We, the people, have had our wealth extracted from us by the lenders. But in his book, Graeber writes that empires extract tribute from less powerful nations by forcing them to lend the empires money. In the last chapter of Debt, Graeber gives the example of the U.S. and China, and claims that the vast sums owed to China by America are, in fact, China’s wealth being extracted as tribute. And in this Businessweek article, Graeber explains that “throughout history, debt has served as a way for states to control their subjects and extract resources from them (usually to finance wars).”

But in both of these latter cases, the “extractor” is the debtor, not the creditor. Governments do not lend to finance wars; they borrow. And the U.S. does not lend to China; we borrow.

So is debt a means by which creditors extract wealth from debtors? Or a means by which debtors extract wealth from creditors? (Can it be both? Does it depend? If so, what does it depend on? How do we look at a debtor-creditor-relationship and decide who extracted wealth from whom?) Graeber seems to view the debtor/creditor relationship as clearly, obviously skewed toward the lender in some sentences, and then clearly, obviously skewed toward the borrower in other sentences.

But these can’t both be clear and obvious.

What Graeber means by “extracting wealth” in the context of a relationship between, say a mortgager and a mortgagee seems to mean the net transfer of interest. It is certainly true on the surface that there is a transfer of wealth from the debtor to the creditor (or from the creditor to the debtor if the debtor defaults).

However, between nations Graeber sees the relationship reversed — that China is being heavily and forcefully encouraged to reinvest its newly-amassed wealth in American debt (something that some Chinese government sources have suggested to be true). But if the flow of interest payments — i.e. from America to China — is the same debtor-to-creditor direction as between any creditor and debtor, then is the relationship really reversed? If China is being forced to amass American debt by the American government, is America effectively forcing China into “extracting its wealth”?

The thing Graeber seems to miss is that the transfer of interest is the payment for a service. That is, the money upfront, with the risk of non-repayment, the risk that the borrower will run off with the money. That risk has existed for eternity. In this context, the debtor-creditor relationship is a double-edged sword. Potentially, a debtor-creditor relationship could be a vehicle for both parties to get something that benefits them — in the case of the debtor, access to capital, and in the case of the creditor, a return on capital.

In the case of China and America, America may choose to pay off the debt in massively devalued currency, or repudiate the debt outright. That’s the risk China takes for the interest payments. (And the counter-risk of course being that if America chooses to repudiate its debt, it risks a war, which could be called the interstate equivalent of debtors’ prison).

Of course, the early signs are that China’s lending will be worth it. Why? Because sustained American demand provided by Chinese liquidity has allowed China to grow into the world’s greatest industrial base, and the world’s biggest trading nation. And it can’t be said that these benefits are not trickling down to the Chinese working class — China’s industrial strength has fuelled serious wage growth in the last few years. Yes — the Chinese central bank is worried about their American dollar holdings being devalued. But I think an inevitable devaluation of their dollar-denominated assets is a small price for the Chinese to pay for becoming a global trading hub, and the world’s greatest industrial base. Similarly, if American firms and governments use cheap Chinese liquidity to strengthen America, for example funding a transition to energy independence, then the cost of interest payments to China are probably worth it. And that is a principle that extends to other debtors — if the credit funds something productive that otherwise could not have been funded, then that is hardly “wealth extraction”. There is the potential for both parties to benefit from the relationship, and the opportunity costs of a world without debt-based funding would seem to be massive.

But what if tensions over debt lead to conflict? It would be foolish to rule out those kinds of possibilities, given the superficial similarities in the relationship between China-America and that of Britain-Germany prior to World War I. It is more than possible for an international creditor-debtor relationship to lead to conflict, perhaps beginning with a trade war, and escalating —  in fact, it has happened multiple times in history.

It is certainly true that devious creditors and debtors can extract wealth from each other, but so can any devious economic agent — used car salesmen, stockbrokers, etc. The actual danger of creditor-debtor relationships, is not so much wealth extraction as it is conflict arising from the competition inherent to a creditor-debtor relationship. Creditors want their pound of flesh plus interest. Debtors often prefer to be able to shirk their debts, and monetary sovereign debtors have the ability to subtly shirk their debts via the printing press. That is potentially a recipe for instability and conflict.

There is also the problem of counter-party risk. The more interconnected different parties become financially, the greater the systemic risks from a default. As we saw in 2008 following the breakdown of Lehman Brothers, systemic interconnectivity can potentially lead to default cascades. In that case, debt can be seen as a mutual incendiary device. 

So the debtor-creditor relationship is very much a double-edged sword. On the one hand, if all parties act honestly and responsibly debt can be beneficial, allowing debtors access to capital, and allowing creditors a return on capital — a mutual benefit. In the real world things are often a lot messier than that.

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The Real Testosterone Junkies

I especially enjoy reading things that I disagree with, and that challenge my own beliefs. Strong ideas are made stronger, and weak ideas dissolve in the spotlight of scrutiny. People who are unhappy to read criticisms of their own ideas are opening the floodgates to ignorance and dogmatism. Yet sometimes my own open-minded contrarianism leads me to something unbelievably shitty.

According to Noah Smith:

Zero Hedge is a financial news website. The writers all write under the pseudonym of “Tyler Durden”, Brad Pitt’s character from Fight Club. Each post comes with a little black and white icon of Brad Pitt’s head. On Zero Hedge you can read news, rumors, facts, figures, off-the-cuff analysis, and political screeds (usually anti-Obama, anti-government, and pro-hard money). On the sidebars, you can click on ads for online brokerages, gold collectibles, and The Economist.

The site is a big fat hoax. And if you read it for anything other than amusement, you’re almost certainly a big fat sucker.

That’s a bold claim! Why do I make this claim? Well, in one sense, all financial news is a hoax. Financial news, by definition, is public information — if you’ve read it, you can bet that thousands of other people have too. That means that if the market is anywhere close to being efficient, any information in any article you read will already have been incorporated into the price of financial assets. Reading or watching public information should not, in theory, give you any “alpha”.

If the writers of Zero Hedge really knew some information that could allow them to beat the market,why in God’s name would they tell it to you? If they had half a brain, they’d just keep the info to themselves, trade on it, and make a profit! Maybe then, after they had made their profit, they’d release the news to the public (and collect ad revenue), but by then the news would be worthless. Financial news sites, you should realize, are not in the business of giving you insider tips out of the goodness of their hearts.

As you might expect, it’s not hard to look back at Zero Hedge’s predictions and see that a large number of them are junk. For example, here’s a bunch of posts from 2009 predicting imminent hyperinflation. Hope you didn’t make any trades based on that bit of wisdom!

So how does Zero Hedge get away with this hoax? Barber & Odean (2001) give a big hint. Tyler Durden, whose name and image grace every Zero Hedge Post, is a symbol of masculinity. More specifically, he is a nerd’s imagined vision of what a really masculine nerd would be like. In Fight Club, Durden says: “All the ways you wish you could be, that’s me. I look like you wanna look, I fuck like you wanna fuck, I am smart, capable, and most importantly, I am free in all the ways that you are not.”

In other words, you are a young smart (i.e. nerdy) guy sitting at your computer with rivers of testosterone coursing through your veins. And now here comes Tyler Durden, your generation’s Platonic ideal of pure masculinity, telling you that Real Men Take Risks. At the top of the site, there is a Tyler Durden quote: “On a long enough timeline the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.” In other words, gamble. Bet that you’re the smart guy and not the sucker. Because hey, you’re going to die anyway, so there’s no use hedging your bets. Zero hedge, right?

I wouldn’t be surprised if “Tyler Durden” were actually a bunch of behavioral finance grad students, snickering behind their hands at everyone who takes their site seriously.

This is what passes for financial analysis today? Let’s ignore the obvious fact that Zero Hedge has never pretended to offer investment advice. We should take all financial news with a large grain of salt (anyone who has read the latest uber-bailout rumours out of Europe should know that). Anyone who bases their trading activity on blindly following the pronouncements of one site, or one trader deserves to lose their coat. Blindly following a messiah-figure or (even worse) the herd is a surefire recipe for disaster.

But Smith has got his facts wrong. While there has been no hyperinflation, those who traded their hunch and bought gold — pretty much the archetypal Zero Hedge trade — have not done badly. Here’s the price of gold — contrasted against the S&P500 — since Zero Hedge was born in January 2009:

Drawing a meaty profit and significantly outperforming the S&P500 is hardly what you’d expect from a “big fat hoax”. Certainly, you’d have made a loss, not a meaty profit, from betting with Bernanke’s pronouncement that subprime was “contained”.

Smith is spinning loose psychoanalysis spiced with conspiracy theories and schoolboy misunderstandings in order to generate pageviews. He obviously hasn’t read Zero Hedge enough to realise that “on a long enough timeline the survival rate for everyone drops to zero” reflects the reality that calamities and resets happen, and that — given the level of mess, corruption and perversity in finance today — a systemic reset could be just around the corner. And the last thing i would want to do in the face of a systemic reset — or any kind of large-scale financial calamity (a la 2008) — is gamble. The smart thing is to hunker down and robustify, by minimising exposures to all forms of connective risk and financial fragility . Zero Hedge is not about having no hedges and gambling as recklessly as possible; it is about having hedges against the system going to zero. 

Ironically, Smith is accusing entirely the wrong segment of the financial world of wild recklessness. While there are surely many day traders who lose their coats on the pronouncements of analysts (especially the Crameresque stock-picker — something which Zero Hedge has never done), the real danger is surely the testosterone-Red Bull-and-cocaine-fuelled TBTF trader or 21-year old PhD-wielding quant working for a bailed-out bank with an implicit taxpayer backstop on zero-interest government money. The level of moral and financial hazard is simply staggering, and of course this has bred much reckless behaviour; from the evident criminality of manipulating LIBOR, to Corzine’s destruction of MF Global (and theft of customer funds),  to the absurd market-cornering London Whale’s speculation using customer deposits, to the off-balance-sheet activities of Kweku Adoboli, to Goldman’s quote stuffing. And — I am sure, much much more — these are just some of the scams and scandals that are known; there is much more darkness beneath. Zero Hedge has been a powerful journalistic force and clearinghouse in bringing the light-of-day onto these corruptions and criminalities, something that Smith seems entirely ignorant of.

No day trader or goldbug stacking gold eagles has ever blown up the nation’s pension fund, but the protected TBTF banks funded by earth-shattering leverage and taxpayer guarantees have again and again endangered retirement funds, and lost their clients’ fortunes.

It is not unusual on Wall Street to see massively leveraged double or nothing Martingale trading strategies where traders take a position and push leverage and counter-leverage to create a favourable outcome. In theory — with unlimited funds — such an approach always wins, but in reality this approach usually ends in traders running out of counter-parties or running out of leverage, and ending up with a massive loss. It’s picking up nickels in front of a steamroller, and is of course made much easier thanks to the new and manipulable world of high-frequency trading.

It’s ironic (and jaw-dropping) that Smith castigates Zero Hedge as the home of testosterone junkie traders when in fact the vast majority of Zero Hedge writers and readers are angling for better regulation of high-frequency trading to prevent market manipulation, an end to nickels-in-front-of-steamrollers strategies (the best way is to end the taxpayer guarantees so that traders who blow up the system will reap the consequences), and the return of Glass Steagall (or similar) to keep depositors’ funds out of hyper-fragile shadow intermediation chains and the derivative casino.

The financial system is being regulated by clueless schmucks — many of whom would also castigate Zero Hedge as a “big fat hoax”, while ignoring grift and degeneracy within the financial establishment and the TBTF banks. In the face of such grotesque incompetence who can blame market participants for wanting a hedge against zero?

Whitewashing the Economic Establishment

Brad DeLong makes an odd claim:

So the big lesson is simple: trust those who work in the tradition of Walter Bagehot, Hyman Minsky, and Charles Kindleberger. That means trusting economists like Paul Krugman, Paul Romer, Gary Gorton, Carmen Reinhart, Ken Rogoff, Raghuram Rajan, Larry Summers, Barry Eichengreen, Olivier Blanchard, and their peers. Just as they got the recent past right, so they are the ones most likely to get the distribution of possible futures right.

Larry Summers? If we’re going to base our economic policy on trusting in Larry Summers, should we not reappoint Greenspan as Fed Chairman? Or — better yet — appoint Charles Ponzi as head of the SEC? Or a fox to guard the henhouse? Or a tax cheat as Treasury Secretary? Or a war criminal as a peace ambassador? (Yes — reality is more surreal than anything I could imagine).

The bigger point though, as Steve Keen and Randall Wray have alluded to, is that DeLong’s list is the left-wing of the neoclassical school of economics — all the same people who (to a greater or lesser extent) believed that we were in a Great Moderation, and that thanks to the wonders of modernity we had escaped the old world of depressions and mass unemployment. People to whom this depression — judging by their pre-2008 output — was something of a surprise.

Now the left-wing neoclassicists may have done less badly than the right-wing neoclassicists Fama, Cochrane and Greenspan, but that’s not saying much. Steve Keen pointed out:

People like Wynne Godley, Ann Pettifors, Randall Wray, Nouriel Roubini, Dean Baker, Peter Schiff and I had spent years warning that a huge crisis was coming, and had a variety of debt-based explanations as to why it was inevitable. By then, Godley, Wray and I and many other Post Keynesian economists had spent decades imbibing and developing the work of Hyman Minsky.

To my knowledge, of Delong’s motley crew, only Raghuram Rajan was in print with any warnings of an imminent crisis before it began.

DeLong is, in my view, trying to whitewash his contemporaries who did not see the crisis coming, and inaccurately trying to associate them with Hyman Minsky whose theory of debt deflation anticipated many dimensions of the crisis. Adding insult to injury, DeLong seems unwilling to credit those like Schiff and Keen (not to mention Ron Paul) who saw the housing bubble and the excessive debt mountain for what it was — a disaster waiting to happen.

The most disturbing thing about his thesis is that all of the left-neoclassicists he is trying to whitewash have not really been very right about the last four years at all, as DeLong freely admits:

But we – or at least I – have got significant components of the last four years wrong. Three things surprised me (and still do). The first is the failure of central banks to adopt a rule like nominal GDP targeting or its equivalent. Second, I expected wage inflation in the North Atlantic to fall even farther than it has – towards, even if not to, zero. Finally, the yield curve did not steepen sharply for the United States: federal funds rates at zero I expected, but 30-year US Treasury bonds at a nominal rate of 2.7% I did not.

Yet we are supposed to take seriously the widely proposed solution? Throw money at the problem, and assume that just by raising aggregate demand all the other problems will just go away?

As I wrote back in August 2011:

These troubles are non-monetary: military overspending, political and financial corruption, public indebtedness, withering infrastructure, oil dependence, deindustrialisation, the withered remains of multiple bubbles, bailout culture, systemic fragility, and so forth.

These problems won’t just go away — throwing money around may boost figures in the short term, but the underlying problems will remain.

I believe that the only real way out is to unleash the free market and the spirit of entrepreneurialism. And the only way to do that is to end corporate welfare, end the bailouts (let failed institutions fail), end American imperialism, and slash barriers to entry. Certainly, cleaning up the profligate financial sector would help too (perhaps mandatory gladiatorial sentences for financial crimes would help? No more paying £200 million for manipulating a $350 trillion market — fight a lion in the arena instead!), as would incentives to create the infrastructure people need, and move toward energy independence, green energy and reindustrialisation.

Then again, I suppose there is a silver lining to this cloud. The wronger the establishment are in the long run, the more people will look for new economic horizons.

Zombification & Gold

From Bloomberg:

Japanese Finance Minister Jun Azumi will be rewarding investors who buy more than 10 million yen ($129,000) in reconstruction bonds with gold in the government’s latest attempt to bolster demand for the debt.

Individual investors who hold the bonds for three years will be eligible for a gold commemorative coin valued at 10,000 yen, the Finance Ministry said in Tokyo today. At 15.6 grams, (0.55 ounces), it would be worth about $948 based on prices for the precious metal. Only a limited number of coins will be issued, the Finance Ministry said in a statement.

Azumi, whose hometown was devastated by the March 11 disaster, said today he bought 1 million yen of the debt to support rebuilding efforts from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Offering gold bolsters the value of the return on the debt, which will be at 0.05 percent for the first three years.

Japan — the prototypical case of zombification — has kicked the can all the way to the end of the road. How easy is it for an investor or an institution to accept a near-zero bond yield when they could buy a piece of gold that has averaged a 17% yield this decade? Not easy at all. That is why — if governments want to kick the can and avoid liquidation at all costs  — governments will have to find a way to limit gold yields. I outlined a fairly outlandish (but undoubtedly Keynesian) method a couple of months ago — a new stimulus package to mine gold. Of course, there is a more devastating alternative with a historical precedent, which is confiscation, but whatever they do they need to address the fact that a form of economic activity that produces nothing — buying gold —  is far more attractive than investing in stocks or bonds or (any fiat-denominated instruments).

Now I don’t expect America to get to the stage Japan is at — America is at its core a free-spirited, libertarian nation, and years of austerity, unemployment and zero growth will foment revolution. Japan, by contrast, is a very conservative, and conformistic nation. Jobless Japanese kids — unlike their British and American contemporaries — do not seem to riot. So I never expect the American or British Treasuries to get to the stage where they sweeten the deal on their crummy debt by throwing in gold coins.

But the lesson here is all the same — without some kind of miracle, bailing out zombie institutions and financial systems kills creative destruction (the heart of capitalism), which kills growth, and makes gold an extremely attractive investment. That’s because it doesn’t lose any intrinsic value, while stocks and bonds are blighted by systemic dereliction, monetary mismanagement, and weak demand.

Frankly, I’d rather live in an economy where gold is not such an attractive investment, where stocks and bonds trade on fundamentals rather than the latest interventionist hyperbole from Benny at the Fed, where products and firms succeed and fail based on their inherent characteristics, rather than on whether the Euro will fail or not. But until capitalism is restored, until firms are free to succeed and fail on their own merits, gold — the true symbol of capitalism in a perverted system of corporatism — will keep going up and up.

Zombie Economics

Negative Real Interest Rates

Paul Krugman thinks negative real interest rates are a policy tool to stimulate recovery:

To preview the conclusions briefly: in a country with poor long-run growth prospects – for example, because of unfavorable demographic trends – the short-term real interest rate that would be needed to match saving and investment may well be negative; since nominal interest rates cannot be negative, the country therefore “needs” expected inflation.

The theory here is that aggregate demand is being lowered by the (unproductive) hoarding of cash and treasuries. Therefore, the best way to get the economy flowing again is to make holding assets like cash and treasuries expensive, by creating inflation. This is what creates negative real rates — when the rate of inflation exceeds the rate of interest. Under such circumstances, hoarders should — in theory — draw down their Treasury and cash holdings and invest in more productive endeavours offering higher rates of return.

Negative real rates are a blunt axe used to bludgeon creditors including China who hold shedloads of cash and Treasuries. This could be a dangerous policy, because America is not energy-independent, and nor is it manufacturing-independent: it depends upon global oil, trade routes, and global manufacturing to function. That’s why America spends more than the rest of the world put together on its military. American agriculture is dependent on imported oil. American transportation is dependent on imported oil. Bludgeoning other powers — who have the power to upset the apple cart a little — could be seen as much like a game of Russian roulette.

The calculation could well be that China’s wealth is dependent on American stability — that interconnection has made the global system “too big to fail”. It is true that China is heavily invested in America — but assuming that that means America can thumb its nose at China’s interests seems naive. There are a lot of people in China desperate for a better standard of living. It would be naive to assume the Chinese government will forever carry the bag for America’s standard of living.

Paul Krugman believes that this would be good for America — that the transfer of dollars from West to East has effectively been a program of “quantitative diseasing”, and that if China liquidates she will effectively be conducting QE on behalf of the Fed, and thereby stimulating the American economy. Let’s flip that over: America — in continuing to buy Chinese goods and ship hoards of dollars to China — has been conducting “quantitative diseasing” of the dollar for most of the last 30 years. Maybe he’s right. But maybe not.

Forcing real rates even lower as a “policy tool” could be the spark that lights a bonfire, the straw that breaks the camel’s back. This denouement — that US Treasury debt is (in real-terms) a bad investment — could lead to all kinds of ramifications in the international financial system.

Possibly rather than moderating nominal debt values, or encouraging risk the inflationary road is a road to a trade war with America’s creditors, a trade war that a highly-dependent America — who controls neither her energy-intake nor her supply chains might struggle to win, even in the context of American military supremacy. 

QE Infinity

A lot of hot air has shot about the internet about nominal GDP targeting, the brainchild of Scott Sumner.

Some (including the usual suspect) have said that it’s Bernanke’s next big bazooka in the (ahem) “war on economic instability“.

What the growing recognition for nominal GDP targeting reflects is a wider awakening to something I have been talking about for a long time: Irving Fisher’s theory of debt deflation. When monetary circulation drops, prices tend to drop and nominal debts tend to become much harder to repay. Therefore, the nominal value of those debts rises: workers and businesses have to produce more to pay down debts. Inevitably, this leads to more defaults. This can lead to what I (and a few others) have termed a “default cascade” — one set of large defaults leads to deflation, leading more defaults, and eventually resulting in systemic failure.

Nominal GDP targeting gives the Federal Reserve the scope to buy assets until they hit a nominal GDP target, ensuring that no such debt deflation will occur. It is — in my opinion — the most powerful monetary tool yet-imagined for reinflating burst bubbles.

As Scott Sumner puts it:

Now why is Nominal GDP so important? That’s the total dollar value of income in the economy. And if you think about it, most debts are contracted in nominal terms. So in a sense, the economy’s dollar income is a good metric for measuring people’s ability to repay these previously contracted nominal debts.

QE was — in terms of reinflating bubbles — a blunt weapon. It shot off an arbitrary amount of newly-printed/digitally-created money, with the explicit target of lowering net interest rates (and the implicit bonus of combating debt deflation). Nominal GDP targeting flips this on its head.

The problem is that this focus on monetary means will not solve the larger systemic economic problems that America and the Western world face.

As I wrote yesterday:

The problem is that most of the problems inherent in America and the West are non-monetary. For a start, America is dependent on oil, much of which is imported — oil necessary for agriculture, industry, transport, etc, and America is therefore highly vulnerable to oil shocks and oil price fluctuations. Second, America destroys huge chunks of its productive capital policing the world, and engaging in war and “liberal interventionism”. Third, America ships even more capital overseas, into the dollar hoards of Arab oil-mongers, and Chinese manufacturers who supply America with a heck of a lot. Fourth, as Krugman and DeLong would readily admit, American infrastructure, education, and basic research has been weakened by decades of under-investment (in my view, the capital lost to military adventurism, etc, has had a lot to do with this).

In light of these real world problems, at best all that monetary policy can do is kick the can, in the hope of giving society and governments more time to address the underlying challenges of the 21st Century. When a central bank pumps, metrics (e.g. GDP and unemployment) can recover, under normal circumstances that is great. But with underlying challenges like the ones we face, a transitory money-printing-driven spike is often not enough to address the structural problems, and these problems soon cause more monetary and financial woe.

What I can say about nominal GDP targeting is that it is probably the best monetary tool for buying more time. But that is completely and totally useless if America fails to address the real problems in the mean time, and assumes that the energy, military and social problems (e.g. zombification) that are the real cause of long-term economic woe will just disappear.

A larger problem is that this “solution” will probably do more (by duplicating their dollar holdings) to annoy America’s creditors, including China and Russia, who have significant scope to cause America real economic problems through a trade war.

Abstraction & Reality

Brad DeLong alleges that critics of fractional reserve banking and fiat money suffer from (at best) a mental disorder (or, at worst, anti-semitism).

From Brad DeLong:

I think that the deep point of view underlying von Mises’s — and von Hayek, and Marx, and Ron Paul — complaint against fiat money in general and monetary management of the business cycle in particular is this: that value comes from human sweat and toil, not from being clever. Thus it is fine for money to have value if it is 100% backed by gold dug from the earth by sweat and machines and muscles (even if there is no state of the possible future world in which people actually want to exchange their pieces of paper for the gold that supposedly backs it). But it is not fine for money to have value simply because it is useful for buying things. There is, von Mises — and Marx, and von Hayek, and Ron Paul — think, something profoundly wrong on an economic and on a moral level with procedures that create value that is not backed by, in Marx’s case, human labor, and in von Mises’s and von Hayek’s case human entrepreneurial ingenuity. And in its scarier moments some of the trains of thought emanating from this deep point of view slide over to: “good German engineers (and workers); bad Jewish financiers” (and “good Russian Stakhanovites, bad Jewish Trotskyite intellectuals”).

Now I cannot speak for any of those named, but I am a critic of aspects of fractional reserve banking, and monetary management of the business cycle.

As I wrote last month:

Fractional reserve banking… means that the money supply is not in fact determined by the central bank (or by gold miners, politicians or economists, etc) but mostly by lenders. The problem is the fragility of any such a system to liquidity crises. If 10% of investors decide to withdraw funds at the same time, banks will quickly be illiquid. If 20% of investors do, bank failures will usually pile up. The system’s stability is contingent on society’s ability to not panic.

It is my belief that this fragility has been totally overlooked. Many have fallen into the lulling notion that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — and that that fear can be conquered by rationality. This is to ignore man’s animal nature: the unforeseen, the unexpected, and the wild (all of which occur very, very frequently in nature and markets) make humans fearful, and panicky — not by choice, but by impulse. This is the culmination of millions of years of evolution — primeval reality is unconquerable, immutable and obvious. More than half a century after Roosevelt and Keynes markets still crash, fortunes are lost, and millions of grown men and women still tremble in irrational, primitive fear.

The textbook answer to this is that a lender of last resort should fix this problem by ensuring that enough new money is disbursed into the system for it to remain liquid, and confidence regained. The recent reality, though, has been that rather than fixing the problems, policy  — both in Japan in the 1990s, and now in the West — has resulted in zombification. Governments chose to keep bad banks going. Almost all the new money the government created has gone to shore up the balance sheets of irresponsible bankers. Now those banks sit on piles of idle cash while other businesses starve or cannot get started for want of credit.

As I noted earlier:

Vast sums spent on rescue packages to keep the zombie system alive might have been available to the market to increase the intellectual capabilities of the youth, or to support basic research and development, or to build better physical infrastructure, or to create new and innovative companies and products.

Zombification kills competition, too: when companies fail, it leaves a gap in the market that has to be filled, either by an expanding competitor, or by a new business. With failures now being kept on life-support, gaps in the market are fewer.

In other words, fractional reserve banking seems to lead to fragile systems that are hard to fix when they go awry. Now, I will readily admit that perhaps I am railing against a system that I can’t change or ban. Banning fractional reserve banking, or shadow banking or the various forms exogenous money creation will probably just drive it underground. Certainly, a pure gold standard has never prevented it. Perhaps full-reserve banking or the Chicago Plan may be some kind of panacea, but these ideas remain untested.

So — for me at least — the problem is not where money comes from, or whether it is backed by gold, or backed by labour, or entrepreneurship, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. It is the managerialists’ mundane and matter-of-fact ignorance of the depth, the richness, the randomness, and the texture of reality – not captured by models that focus solely on money. The problem for me is that I see a fragile system and I want to fix it. But I am not sure I have the tools…