Does the Bank of England Worry About the Cantillon Effect?

The empirical data is in. And it turns out that as I have been suggesting for a very long time — yes, shock horror — helicopter dropping cash onto the financial sector does disproportionately favour the rich.

The Guardian:

The richest 10% of households in Britain have seen the value of their assets increase by up to £322,000 as a result of the Bank of England‘s attempts to use electronic money creation to lift the economy out of its deepest post-war slump.

Threadneedle Street said that wealthy families had been the biggest beneficiaries of its £375bn quantitative-easing (QE) programme, under which it has been buying government gilts for cash since early 2009.

The Bank of England calculated that the value of shares and bonds had risen by 26% – or £600bn – as a result of the policy, equivalent to £10,000 for each household in the UK. It added, however, that 40% of the gains went to the richest 5% of households.

Although the Bank said it could not come up with precise figures for the gains from QE, estimates can be produced using wealth distribution data from the Office for National Statistics. These show the average boost to the holdings of financial assets and pensions of the richest 10% of households would have been either £128,000 per household or £322,000 depending on the methodology used.

Here are a few questions for Britain’s monetary overlords at the BoE:

  1. Are you concerned about the long-term social and economic implications of a monetary policy that enriches the rich over and above everyone else?
  2. Are you familiar with the concept of the Cantillon Effect whereby the creation and allocation of new money transfers purchasing power to whoever it is allocated to? Did you consider this effect prior to embarking on a program of quantitative easing to the financial sector?
  3. Given the financial sector’s awful track record in terms of blowing up the economy, fabricating LIBOR data for its own enrichment, and neglecting cash-starved small businesses, is the financial sector an appropriate allocator of new money?
  4. Now that the empirical record shows the policy of helicopter-dropping cash directly to the financial sector disproportionately favours the rich, have you considered changing course and adopting a different monetary policy that doesn’t favour any particular group?

Sadly, I expect to see the announcement of more quantitative easing to the financial sector long before I expect to see answers to any of these questions.

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Global Japan & the Problems with a Debt Jubilee

Bill Buckler critiques the notion of a debt jubilee:

The modern “debt jubilee” is characterised as “quantitative easing for the public”. It has been boiled down to a procedure where the central bank does not create new money by buying the sovereign debt of the government. Instead, it takes an arbitrary number, writes a check for that number, and deposits it in the bank account of every individual in the nation. Debtors must use the newly-created money to pay down or pay off debt. Those who are not in debt can use it as a free windfall to spend or “invest” as they see fit.

The major selling feature of this “method” is that it provides the only sure means out of what is called the global “deleveraging trap”. This is the trap which is said to have ensnared Japan more than two decades ago and which has now snapped shut on the whole world. And what is a “deleveraging trap”? It is simply the obligation assumed when one becomes a debtor. This is the necessity to repay the debt. There are only three ways in which a debt can be honestly repaid. It can be repaid with new wealth which the proceeds of the debt made it possible to create. It can be repaid by an excess of production over consumption on the part of the debtor. Or it can be repaid from already existing savings. If none of those methods are feasible, the debt cannot be repaid. It can be defaulted upon or the means of “payment” can be created out of thin air, but that does not “solve” the problem, it merely makes it worse.

The “deleveraging trap”, so called, is merely a rebellion against the fact that you can’t have your cake and eat it too. So is the genesis of the entire GFC. Debt can always be extinguished by means of an arbitrarily created means of payment. But calling that process QE or a Debt Jubilee doesn’t (or shouldn’t) mask its essence, which is simple and straightforward debt repudiation.

A “debt jubilee” is the latest attempt to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. It is the latest pretense that we CAN print our way to prosperity, but only if we do it in the “right” way.

Well, he’s right  — it is the latest attempt to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. But that’s the hand we’ve been dealt. I’ve always said I would have preferred it if markets had been allowed to clear in 2008, if prices had fallen of their own accord to a sustainable level, and if all the junk and bad debt had been liquidated. Painful — but then there would have been no deleveraging trap at all.  In a truly free market debts that can’t be repaid, aren’t.

Yet that’s not the world we have; we have a world where central bankers are prepared to engage in unlimited liquidity injections, quantitative easing, and twisting — pumping new money into the financial system to keep the debt serviceable.

It’s like central banks’ efforts to stabilise markets and the financial system put the wider economy into an induced coma following 2008 in order to prop up the financial sector and the huge and exotic variety of credit assets created in the boom years. With the debt load sustained by the efforts of central bankers, the wider economy is left in a deleveraging trap paying down debt that in a free market would have been repudiated long ago.

This process not only enriches the financial sector by propping up bad debt that would otherwise be liquidated, but also transfers purchasing power from the productive sectors to the financial sector via the Cantillon effect. Meanwhile unemployment remains elevated, industrial production remains subdued, the West remains fragile to trade and resource shocks, wages and salaries are at an all-time low, and total economic activity remains depressed.

So this is a painful and unsustainable juncture — truly a sow’s ear of a situation. The deleveraging trap is a catch-22; while debt remains excessive, economic activity remains subdued, and while economic activity remains subdued, generating more production than consumption to pay down debt is extremely difficult. As we have seen in Japan — where the total debt load remains above where it was 1991 — fundamentals can remain depressed for years or even generations.

Certainly, the modern debt jubilee isn’t going to cure the culture that led to the excessive debt. Certainly, it won’t wash away the vampiristic TBTF megabanks which caused the GFC and live today on bailouts and ZIRP. Certainly, it won’t fix our broken political or financial systems where whistleblowers like Assange are locked away and fraudsters like Corzine roam free to start hedge funds. And certainly it won’t wash away the huge mountain of derivatives or shadow intermediation that interconnect the economy in a way that amplifies small shocks into greater crises.

We are, I think, passing through a strange phase of history where a myriad of ill-designed and heavily-leveraged economic planning experiments are failing.

The modern debt jubilee would at least provide some temporary relief for the debt-ridden wider economy, instead of the financial sector. Instead of pumping money solely to the megabanks — and the costs of deleveraging such a huge debt bubble means that more easing is inevitable, eventually — pumping to the public would also negate the problem of transferring purchasing power to the banks via the Cantillon effect.

It’s not going to save us from the wider problems — imperial overstretch, bailout culture, deindustrialisation, job migration, financial and political corruption, etc, etc, etc — but it would still be much better than the status quo.

The biggest problem with the modern debt jubilee, though, is that Wall Street and the financial sector are greedy and will likely fiercely resist any such efforts. And the financial sector holds lots of political leverage.

The cost of the status quo is a perpetually depressed economy and global Japan. That will be painful.

But on a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everything — even reinflated debt bubbles — drops to zero. 

Could be a long wait, though.

Does Easy Monetary Policy Enrich the Financial Sector?

Yesterday, I strongly insinuated that easy monetary policy enriches the financial sector at the expense of the wider society. I realise that I need to illustrate this more fully than just to say that when the central bank engages in monetary policy, the financial sector gets the new money first and so receives an ex nihilo transfer of purchasing power (the Cantillon Effect).

The first inkling I had that this could be the case was looking at the effects of quantitative easing (monetary base expansion) on equities (S&P500 Index), corporate profits and employment.

While quantitative easing has dramatically reinflated corporate profits, and equities, it has not had a similar effect on employment (nor wages).

However there are lots other factors involved (including government layoffs), and employment (and wages) is much stickier than either corporate profits or equities. It will be hard to fully assess the effects of quantitative easing on employment outcomes without more hindsight (but the last four years does not look good).

What is clear, though, is that following QE financial sector profits have rebounded spectacularly toward the pre-2008 peak, while nonfinancial sector profits have not:

Yet it is not true that in recent years the growth of financial profits or financial assets has been preceded by growth in the monetary base; the peak for financial profits occurred before QE even began. In fact, the growth in the monetary base from 2008 reflects a catching-up relative to the huge growth seen in credit since the end of Bretton Woods. During the post-Bretton Woods era, growth of financial assets in the financial sector has significantly outpaced growth of financial assets in the nonfinancial sector, and growth of household financial assets:


This disparity has not been driven by growth in the monetary base, which lagged behind until 2008. Instead it has been driven by other forms of money supply growth, specifically credit growth.

This is the relationship between financial sector asset growth, and growth of the money supply:

And growth of the money supply inversely correlates with changes in the Federal Funds rate; in other words, as interest rates have been lowered credit creation has spiked, and vice verse:

The extent to which M2 is driven by the Federal Funds rate (or vice verse) is not really relevant; the point is that the Fed’s chosen transmission mechanism is inherently favourable to the financial sector.

The easing of credit conditions (in other words, the enhancement of banks’ ability to create credit and thus enhance their own purchasing power) following the breakdown of Bretton Woods — as opposed to monetary base expansion — seems to have driven the growth in credit and financialisation. It has not (at least previous to 2008) been a case of central banks printing money and handing it to the financial sector; it has been a case of the financial sector being set free from credit constraints.

This would seem to have been accentuated by growth in nontraditional credit products (what Friedrich Hayek called pseudo-money, in other words non-monetary credit) in the shadow banking sector:


Similarly, derivatives:


Monetary policy in the post-Bretton Woods era has taken a number of forms; interest rate policy, monetary base policy, and regulatory policy. The association between growth in the financial sector, credit growth and interest rate policy shows that monetary growth (whether that is in the form of base money, credit or nontraditional credit instruments) enriches the recipients of new money as anticipated by Cantillon.

This underscores the need for a monetary and credit system that distributes money in a way that does not favour any particular sector — especially not the endemically corrupt financial sector.

UPDATE:

Tyler Durden answers my question in one graph:

The Cantillon Effect

Expansionary monetary policy constitutes a transfer of purchasing power away from those who hold old money to whoever gets new money. This is known as the Cantillon Effect, after 18th Century economist Richard Cantillon who first proposed it. In the immediate term, as more dollars are created, each one translates to a smaller slice of all goods and services produced.

How we measure this phenomenon and its size depends how we define money. This is illustrated below.

Here’s GDP expressed in terms of the monetary base:

Here’s GDP expressed in terms of M2:

And here’s GDP expressed in terms of total debt:

What is clear is that the dramatic expansion of the monetary base that we saw after 2008 is merely catching up with the more gradual growth of debt that took place in the 90s and 00s.

While it is my hunch that overblown credit bubbles are better liquidated than reflated (not least because the reflation of a corrupt and dysfunctional financial sector entails huge moral hazard), it is true the Fed’s efforts to inflate the money supply have so far prevented a default cascade. We should expect that such initiatives will continue, not least because Bernanke has a deep intellectual investment in reflationism.

This focus on reflationary money supply expansion was fully expected by those familiar with Ben Bernanke’s academic record. What I find more surprising, though, is the Fed’s focus on banks and financial institutions rather than the wider population.

It’s not just the banks that are struggling to deleverage. The overwhelming majority of nongovernment debt is held by households and nonfinancials:

The nonfinancial sectors need debt relief much, much more than the financial sector. Yet the Fed shoots off new money solely into the financial system, to Wall Street and the TBTF banks. It is the financial institutions that have gained the most from these transfers of purchasing power, building up huge hoards of excess reserves:

There is a way to counteract the Cantillon Effect, and expand the money supply without transferring purchasing power to the financial sector (or any other sector). This is to directly distribute the new money uniformly to individuals for the purpose of debt relief; those with debt have to use the new money to pay it down (thus reducing the debt load), those without debt are free to invest it or spend it as they like.

Steve Keen notes:

While we delever, investment by American corporations will be timid, and economic growth will be faltering at best. The stimulus imparted by government deficits will attenuate the downturn — and the much larger scale of government spending now than in the 1930s explains why this far greater deleveraging process has not led to as severe a Depression — but deficits alone will not be enough. If America is to avoid two “lost decades”, the level of private debt has to be reduced by deliberate cancellation, as well as by the slow processes of deleveraging and bankruptcy.

In ancient times, this was done by a Jubilee, but the securitization of debt since the 1980s has complicated this enormously. Whereas only the moneylenders lost under an ancient Jubilee, debt cancellation today would bankrupt many pension funds, municipalities and the like who purchased securitized debt instruments from banks. I have therefore proposed that a “Modern Debt Jubilee” should take the form of “Quantitative Easing for the Public”: monetary injections by the Federal Reserve not into the reserve accounts of banks, but into the bank accounts of the public — but on condition that its first function must be to pay debts down. This would reduce debt directly, but not advantage debtors over savers, and would reduce the profitability of the financial sector while not affecting its solvency.

Without a policy of this nature, America is destined to spend up to two decades learning the truth of Michael Hudson’s simple aphorism that “Debts that can’t be repaid, won’t be repaid”.

The Fed’s singular focus on the financial sector is perplexing and frustrating, not least because growth remains stagnant, unemployment remains elevated, industrial production remains weak and America’s financial sector remains a seething cesspit of corruption and moral hazard, where segregated accounts are routinely raided by corrupt CEOs, and where government-backstopped TBTF banks still routinely speculate with the taxpayers’ money.

The corrupt and overblown financial sector is the last sector that deserves a boost in purchasing power. It’s time this ended.