The Origin of Money

Markets are true democracies. The allocation of resources, capital and labour is achieved through the mechanism of spending, and so based on spending preferences. As money flows through the economy the popular grows and the unpopular shrinks.  Producers receive a signal to produce more or less based on spending preferences. Markets distribute power according to demand and productivity; the more you earn, the more power you accumulate to allocate resources, capital and labour. As the power to allocate resources (i.e. money) is widely desired, markets encourage the development of skills, talents and ideas.

Planned economies have a track record of failure, in my view because they do not have this democratic dimension. The state may claim to be “scientific”, but as Hayek conclusively illustrated, the lack of any real feedback mechanism has always led planned economies into hideous misallocations of resources, the most egregious example being the collectivisation of agriculture in both Maoist China and Soviet Russia that led to mass starvation and millions of deaths. The market’s resource allocation system is a complex, multi-dimensional process that blends together the skills, knowledge, and ideas of society, and for which there is no substitute. Socialism might claim to represent the wider interests of society, but in adopting a system based on economic planning, the wider interests and desires of society and the democratic market process are ignored.

This complex process begins with the designation of money, which is why the choice of the monetary medium is critical.

Like all democracies, markets can be corrupted.

Whoever creates the money holds a position of great power — the choice of how to allocate resources is in their hands. They choose who gets the money, and for what, and when. And they do this again and again and again.

Who should create the monetary medium? Today, money is designated by a central bank and allocated through the financial system via credit creation. Historically, in the days of commodity-money, money was initially allocated by digging it up out of the ground. Anyone with a shovel or a gold pan could create money. In the days of barter, a monetary medium was created even more simply, through producing things others were happy to swap or credit.

While central banks might claim that they have the nation’s best democratic interests at heart, evidence shows that since the world exited the gold exchange standard in 1971 (thus giving banks a monopoly over the allocation of money and credit), bank assets as a percentage of GDP have exploded (this data is from the United Kingdom, but there is a similar pattern around the world).

Clearly, some pigs are more equal than others:

Giving banks a monopoly over the allocation of capital has dramatically enriched banking interests. It is also correlated with a dramatic fall in total factor productivity, and a dramatic increase in income inequality.

Very simply, I believe that the present system is inherently undemocratic. Giving banks a monopoly over the initial allocation of credit and money enriches the banks at the expense of society. Banks and bankers — who produce nothing — allocate resources to their interests. The rest of society — including all the productive sectors — get crumbs from the table. The market mechanism is perverted, and bent in favour of the financial system. The financial system can subsidise incompetence and ineptitude through bailouts and helicopter drops.

Such a system is unsustainable. The subsidisation of incompetence breeds more incompetence, and weakens the system, whether it is government handing off corporate welfare to inept corporations, or whether it is the central bank bailing out inept financial institutions. The financial system never learned the lessons of 2008; MF Global and the London Whale illustrate that. Printing money to save broken systems just makes these systems more fragile and prone to collapse. Ignoring the market mechanism, and the interests of the wider society to subsidise the financial sector and well-connected corporations just makes society angry and disaffected.

Our monopoly will eventually discredit itself through the subsidisation of graft and incompetence. It is just a matter of time.

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Eurotrash & Fragility

I haven’t covered the nascent European Financial Stabilisation Fund (EFSF) much lately, in spite of all the bureaucratic & ministerial scrabbling and wrangling to rescue the European status quo.

That’s mainly because I have grown (or shrunk?) to see most developments as irrelevant can-kicking.

At best, they can muster an American-style response: kick the can far into the future. But unless the underlying problems are solved (clue: they won’t be) then the system remains fundamentally broken.

That’s because monetary integration without integrated budgeting is a recipe for insolvency. Banana Republics can print money to pay their debts because they control their currency. Nations who don’t control their currency can’t devalue to pay their debts. They have to default, or hope for a bailout from the powers-that-be. And the problem at the heart of Europe is that fiscal integration is politically impossible (sorry Frau Merkel), for a myriad of reasons including (among others) nationalism, incompatibility, and the perception that the Mediterranean nations will leech off the more productive northern nations.

Of course, most of these constraints wouldn’t be there if the system was less fragile. In a fractional reserve banking system where (and this is crucial) the money supply (M2) is determined by private lending, a number of situations can lead to Irving Fisher’s debt deflation problem — with a shrinking money supply, debts become unrepayable, triggering a default cascade. These situations include bank failures, bank runs, credit contractions, price deflation and sovereign default — five phenomena that history teaches us are quite common. The scale of indebtedness makes systemic reform very difficult — creditors will demand that debts are honoured, so central banks continue with the instruments they have — competitive debasement, low-rates, expansionary monetary policy.

All that the sovereign debt crisis in Europe is revealing is the fragility in the systems — the fragility of the European political union, and the fragility of the fractional reserve banking system.

And if a fragile system isn’t allowed to collapse (or is not effectively reformed) when the problems are comparatively small (insert nonsensical rubbish about “systemic importance“, “economic infrastructure” and “too-big-to-fail” here) it will rumble on through many bailout-crisis-bailout-crisis cycles until it becomes too-fucked-to-bail, at which point the entire system collapses, and the debt is razed (either by default of hyperinflation or both).

The problem is that such climactic events usually have geopolitical implications: war, famine, upheaval, etc.

Black Clouds Over UBS?

From the BBC:

Police in London have arrested a 31-year-old man in connection with allegations of unauthorised trading which has cost Swiss banking group UBS an estimated $2bn (£1.3bn).

Kweku Adoboli, believed to work in the European equities division, was detained in the early hours of Thursday and remains in custody.

UBS shares fell 8% after it announced it was investigating rogue trades.

The Swiss bank said no customer accounts were affected.

One question is what ramifications such a write-down might have on the bank’s liquidity. In this cloudy and dark financial atmosphere, fire-sales of assets to pay down such a loss might spark panic.

Another question is how — after the Jerome Kerviel and Nick Leeson debacles — does a large financial fail to effectively monitor its staff’s trading activities? Hasn’t investment banking experienced enough of these rogue trading shocks to put a system in place to prevent these kinds of activities?

After all, if a too-big-to-fail bank suddenly implodes, the state is perfectly willing to stand-by to inject in the earnings of future generations to “save the system”