Banks are an Endangered Species

In the long run, all the hullabaloo about the various global banking crises is just hot air.

The old establishment banks — the ones that have been bailed out this week in Spain, and in 2008 in America — are unnecessary middlemen. This is because of the ludicrous spreads from which they profit. They borrow from central banks and from depositors at absurdly low rates of interest (that’s what ZIRP is all about) and lend at vastly higher rates. What useful function does it serve? At one time, banks generated value by being wise lenders, lending to businesses that they determined would add value. Today they prefer gamble up even bigger profits in the zero-sum derivatives casino and shadow banking whorehouse, requiring frequent bailouts when such schemes go awry. They are dinosaurs that offer no real value to their shareholders, their customers, or to society.

And for all their claims of systemic importance, for all the bailouts, all the whining, all the pontification they are gradually being sidelined by other forms of intermediation, specifically peer-to-peer lending wherein lenders and borrowers are matched directly often via the internet. The lender gets interest, the borrower pays interest, but because there is no middleman taking a (huge) cut both rates are more favourable — the borrower pays less interest, the lender receives more interest.

The market for such lending has already grown to £250 million-a-year in the UK alone. The BBC reports:

Lending via three websites that link savers with borrowers – bypassing the banking system – has topped £250m.

The “new age” finance carries no protection for deposits, but is being tipped as a serious threat to traditional banks.

The peer-to-peer sites are led by Zopa, which has lent more than £200m since it started in 2005.

Funding Circle, specialising in business loans, has topped £34m, and RateSetter has reached £24m.

Last month the government said it would lend these sort of firms £100m to help expand their own lending to businesses.

Alas, the government could lend these firms ten times that (that would still be a tiny sliver of what they have channelled to the establishment banks in recent years) and the market would still be rigged in favour of the establishment banks.

That’s because of deposit insurance. Money lent peer-to-peer is not insured by the government, whereas money deposited in banks is. This is a heinous advantage that the dinosaur banks have been given by government fiat, and certainly a huge stumbling block to peer-to-peer lending forcing the dinosaur banking system to either massively cut their spreads, or go out of business.

Governments who want a fair free market banking system with the benefits of real competition should either extend some form of deposit insurance to peer-to-peer lending schemes, or should get rid of deposit insurance altogether. Everyone wins except the banks and large financial corporations — lenders get more interest for their money, borrowers pay lower rates, and the parasitic establishment banking system that has vampirised the taxpayer for trillions must either choose to drastically reform itself to compete against peer-to-peer lending, or go out of business.

In a free market without the unfair advantage of deposit insurance the banking dinosaurs profiting from huge spreads would be an endangered species. They are only surviving and prospering because the government has rigged the rules of the game for their favour. That cannot last forever.

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We’re All Nixonians Now

People have got to know whether their President is a crook

Richard M. Nixon

I often wonder who is worse: George W. Bush — the man who turned a projected trillion dollar surplus into the greatest deficits in world history, who bailed out the profligate Wall Street algos and arbitrageurs, who proceeded with two needless, pointless and absurdly costly military occupations (even though he had initially campaigned on the promise of a humble foreign policy), who ignored Michael Scheuer’s warnings about al-Qaeda previous to 9/11, who signed the Constitution-trashing PATRIOT Act  (etc etc ad infinitum) or his successor Barack Obama, the man who retained and expanded the PATRIOT Act powers under the NDAA (2011), who claimed the right to extrajudicially kill American citizens using predator drones, who expanded Bush’s expensive and pointless occupations (all the while having run on a promise to close the Guantanamo Bay detention centre and reverse Bush’s civil liberties incursions), who proceeded with Paulson’s Wall Street bailouts, authorised the NSA to record all phone calls and internet activity, and continued the destructive War on Drugs (even though he had in the past been a drug user).

The answer, by the way, is Richard Nixon. For almost forty years after that man’s resignation, it is arguable that almost every single administration (with the possible exception of  Carter as well as Reagan’s first year in office) — but especially that of Bush and Obama — has been cut from his cloth. It was Richard Nixon who inaugurated the War on Drugs — that despicable policy that has empowered the drug gangs and obliterated much of Latin America. It was Richard Nixon who so brazenly corrupted the White House and tarnished the office of the Presidency through the Watergate wiretapping scandal.  It was Nixon’s administration that created the culture of government surveillance that led directly to the PATRIOT Act. It was Nixon who internationalised the fiat dollar, so trampling George Washington’s warnings about not entangling alliances, and of course setting the stage for the gradual destruction of American industry that continued apace under NAFTA and into the present day, where America runs the greatest trade deficits in human history. It was Richard Nixon who set the precedent of pointless, stupid, blowback-inducing militarism, by continuing and expanding the Vietnam war. It was Richard Nixon whose administration authorised the use of chemical weapons (or as George W. Bush might have put it, “weapons of mass destruction”) against the Vietcong.

Presidents since have followed — to a greater or lesser extent — in his mould. This is particularly acute this election cycle; you vote for Obama and you get Richard Nixon, or you vote for Romney and you get Richard Nixon. Nixon’s words: “we’re all Keynesians now” have a powerful resonance; not only has every administration since Nixon retained the petrodollar standard and spent like a drunken sailor in pursuit of Keynesian multipliers, but every President since has followed in the Nixonian tradition on civil liberties, on trade, on foreign policy. Henry Kissinger — the true architect of many Nixonian policies, and Obama’s only real competition for most bizarre Nobel Peace Prize recipient — has to some degree counselled each and every President since.

It is hard to overstate the magnitude of Nixon’s actions. The demonetisation of  gold ended a 5,000 year long tradition. It was a moment of conjuring, a moment of trickery; that instead of producing the goods, and giving up her gold hoard to pay for her consumption habits (specifically, her consumption of foreign energy), America would give the finger to the world, and print money to pay her debts, while retaining her (substantial) gold hoard. The obvious result of this policy has been that America now prints more and more money, and produces less and less of her consumption. She has printed so much that $5 trillion floats around Asia, while the American industrial belt rusts. Industrial production in America is where it was ten years ago, yet America’s debt exposure has ballooned.

America has had not one but two Vietnams in the past ten years.

First, Afghanistan, in the pursuit of the elusive Osama bin Laden (or, “in the name of liberating women”, presumably via blowing their legs off in drone strikes), where young Western soldiers continue to die (for what?), even after bin Laden’s supposed death in a Pakistani compound last year.

Then, Iraq, presumably in the interests of preventing Saddam Hussein from using non-existent Weapons of Mass Destruction, or liberating more women by blowing their legs off (or as Tom Friedman  put it: “SUCK! ON! THIS!”).

Like Nixon’s Presidency, the Nixonian political system is highly fragile. Debt is fragility, because it enforces the inflexibility of repayment, and the Nixonian political system has created staggering debt, much of it now offshore. The Nixonian economic policy has gutted American industry, leaving America uncompetitive and dependent on foreign productivity and resources. The Nixonian foreign policy has created a world that is deeply antipathetic to America and American interests, which has meant that America has become less and less capable of achieving imperatives via diplomacy.

Future historians may finger George W. Bush as the worst President in history, and the one who broke the American empire. But smarter scholars will pinpoint Nixon. True, the seeds of destruction were sown much earlier with the institution of permanent limited liability corporations. This allowed for the evolution of a permanent corporate aristocracy which eventually bought out the political echelon, and turned the Federal government into an instrument of crony capitalism, military Keynesianism and corporate welfare. Nixonianism has been the corporate aristocracy’s crowning achievement. And to some extent, this period of free lunch economics was a banquet, even for middle class Americans. The masses were kept fat and happy. But now the game is up — like Nixon’s Presidency — its days are numbered.