How the financial system came to be

The goldsmiths tale

The short animation film Money As Debt explains how the financial system came to be. It is an interesting story. Once upon a time when gold was internationally accepted as money, goldsmiths fabricated gold coins of standardised weight and purity. They were a trusted source of these gold coins. They owned a safe where they stored their gold. Other people wanted to store their gold there too because those safes were well guarded.

goldsmithsafe
Money As Debt: guarded safe

And so some goldsmiths began to make a business out of renting safe storage. People storing their gold with the goldsmith received a voucher certifying the amount of gold they brought in. At first these vouchers could only be collected by the original depositor.

Later this restriction was lifted so that any holder of the voucher could collect the deposit. From then on people started to use these vouchers as money because paper money was more convenient than gold coin. Depositors rarely demanded their gold and it remained in the vaults of the goldsmiths.

goldsmithmoney
Money As Debt: gold smith paper money

Modern banking

Some goldsmiths also had another business, which was lending out their gold at interest. Because depositors rarely came in to collect their gold, they discovered that they could also lend out the gold of the depositors at interest. When the depositors found out about this, they demanded interest on their deposits too. At this point modern banking started to take off and paper money became known as bank notes.

Borrowers also preferred paper money to gold coin, so the goldsmiths, who had now become bankers, found out that they could lend out more money than there was gold in their vaults. Bankers started to create money out of thin air. This is fractional reserve banking because not all deposits were backed by gold reserves. The new money was spent on new businesses and that hired new people so the economy boomed.

When depositors found out that there were more bank notes circulating than there was gold in the vaults of the goldsmith’s bank, the scheme could run into trouble, but mostly it didn’t. Depositors received interest and this enticed them to keep their deposits in the bank. People trusted their bank as long as they believed that debtors had no trouble repaying their loans.

Bank runs

Sometimes people started to have doubts about their bank and worried depositors came to the bank to exchange their bank notes for gold. This is a bank run. The bank could run out of gold and close down because not all the gold was there. The bank’s bank notes could then become worthless, even when borrowers had no problems repaying their debts. The money that the bank had created out of thin air suddenly vanished. This was a financial crisis.

bankrun
Money As Debt: bank run

As a lot of money had suddenly disappeared people had less money to spend. This could hurt sales so that some businesses could go bankrupt. Those businesses could not repay their debts at other banks. Depositors at those banks could start to fear that their bank would go bankrupt too. This could cause more bank runs and more money disappearing, so that things would become even worse. This is an economic crisis. This is the way a financial crisis could trigger an economic crisis.

centralbank
Money As Debt: central bank

Regulations and central banks

Measures have been taken to forestall financial crises and to deal with them if they occur. Banks needed to have a minimum amount of gold available in order to pay depositors. Central banks were instituted to support banks by supplying additional gold if too many depositors came in to collect their gold. Central banks could still run out of gold but this was solved when the gold backing of currencies was ended. Nowadays central banks can print new dollars or euros to cope with a shortfall.

Regulations limit the amount of loans banks make and therefore the amount of money that exists. But everyone can lend to anyone. Alternative forms of financing circumvent the regulations imposed on banks. For example, corporations can issue bonds or use crowd funding. Human imagination is the only limit to the amount of debt that can exist. As long as people expect that those debts will be repaid, even if it is with new debts, there is trust in these debts. But the financial crisis of 2008 demonstrated that trust in debts can suddenly disappear.

What is the use of banks?

Turning debt into money

The previous episode about money discussed some imaginary trades between you, a hatter, a lawyer, a barber and a fisherman. It is shown that if people promise to pay this might suffice for payment. So if the fisherman promises you to pay next week for the hat you just made, you could say to the lawyer that you expect the fisherman to pay in a week, and ask her if you can pay in a week too. The lawyer could then ask the same of the barber and the barber could ask the same of the fisherman. If all these debts cancel out then no cash is needed.

In most cases debts cannot be cancelled out so easily. A hat may cost € 50, legal advice € 60, a hairdo € 30, and the fish € 20. If you are the hatter, you could lend € 10 to the barber and the lawyer could lend € 20 to the fisherman. Perhaps the lawyer doesn’t trust the fisherman because he smells fishy. But if the lawyer trusts the barber and the barber trusts the fisherman then the lawyer could lend € 20 to the barber and the barber could lend € 20 to the fisherman.

That could become complicated quite easily. And this is where banks come in. Banks can lend money because they know the financial situation of their customers. The fisherman can borrow money from his bank to make payments because the bank knows that he has an unstable but good income and a vessel that can be sold for cash if needed.

If the fisherman borrows money to pay for the hat you made, this money ends up in your account. You can use it to pay the lawyer. And so the fisherman’s debt becomes the lawyer’s money until she uses it to pay the barber. People that have a deposit lend money to the bank and the bank is lending this money to those who have a loan, in this case the fisherman. Depositors trust the bank even though they do not know the people the bank is lending money to.

Most people think of money as coins and bank notes but more than 90% of the money just exists as bookkeeping entries in banks. When a fisherman borrows money from his bank, he can spend it on a hat. This means that the bank creates money and that this money is debt. Most of our money is debt so the value of money depends on the belief that debtors pay back their debts. This seems scary and it keeps quite a few people awake at night.

Some people argue that debts and banking are a fraud because they are based on a belief. But banks and debts help to boost trade and production by creating money that doesn’t exist to start businesses that don’t yet exist to make products which will be bought by the people those businesses will hire with this newly created money. Banking and debts are at the basis of the capitalist economy.

Banking as bookkeeping

Banking is more or less just bookkeeping and balance sheets. Balance sheets can be used to explain the magic trick banks do, which is creating money. Balance sheets are simple. There are no intimidating formulas, only additions and subtractions. The important thing to remember with balance sheets is that the total of the amounts on the left side must always equal those on the right side.

On the left is the value of your stuff and your money. On the right side is the value of your debts. Your net worth is what remains when you sell all your stuff and pay off your debts. It is on the right side too in order to make it equal to the left side. Your net worth can be a negative value. If that is the case, you might be bankrupt because you can’t repay your debts by selling your assets. The left side is named debit and the right side is called credit. Your balance sheet might look like this:

debit
credit
house
€ 100,000
mortgage
€ 80,000
other stuff
€ 50,000
other loans
€ 30,000
cash, bank deposits
€ 20,000
your net worth
€ 60,000
total
€ 170,000
total
€ 170,000

When you buy a car, you own more stuff, but also another loan or fewer bank deposits as you have to pay for the car. This is because debit always equals credit. When you drive the car, it goes down in value, as does your net worth, because debit always equals credit. If your salary comes in, your bank deposits as well as your net worth rise because debit always equals credit. If you pay down a loan, the amount in your bank account as well as the amount of your loan goes down because debit always equals credit. If debit doesn’t equal credit then you have made a calculation error.

Also for a bank the total of the amounts on the left side must always equal those on the right side, so that debit always equals credit. Your debt is on the debit side of the bank’s balance sheet. You have borrowed this money from your bank. The bank owns this loan. Your bank deposits are on the credit side of the bank’s balance sheet. The loans of the bank are paid for by deposits. Banks lend money to each other. This may happen when you make a payment to someone who has a bank account at another bank. Your bank may borrow this money from the other bank until a payment comes the other way. The balance sheet of a bank may look like this:

debit
credit
mortgages and loans
€ 70,000,000
deposits
€ 60,000,000
loans to other banks
€ 10,000,000
deposits from other banks
€ 20,000,000
cash, central bank deposits
€ 10,000,000
the bank’s net worth
€ 10,000,000
total
€ 90,000,000
total
€ 90,000,000

How banks create money

Banks create money. How do they do that? It is easy if you understand balance sheets. Assume that you, the hatter, the lawyer, the barber, and the fisherman all have € 10 in cash. Together you decide to start a bank. You all bring in the € 10 you own so that you all have a deposit of € 10 and the bank has € 40 in cash. The bank allows everyone to withdraw deposits in cash. This is no problem as long as the total of deposits equal the total amount of cash. After everyone has put in the deposit, the bank’s balance sheet looks as follows:

debit
credit
cash
€ 40
your deposit
€ 10
deposit lawyer
€ 10
deposit barber
€ 10
deposit fisherman
€ 10
total
€ 40
total
€ 40

First, there was only € 40 in cash. Now there are € 40 in bank deposits too. You might think that the bank created money. Only, that isn’t true because the depositors can’t spend the cash unless they take out their deposits. In other words, the depositors don’t have more money at their disposal than before. If you look at the total, there is still € 40. This is bookkeeping. You have to write down the total twice as debit must equal credit.

But now things are going to get a bit wild. The fisherman comes to you and he wants to buy a hat. The hat costs € 50 but the fisherman has only € 10 in his account. To make the sale possible, the bank is going to do its magic. The fisherman calls the bank and asks if he can borrow some money. The bank grants him a loan of € 40 and puts the money in his deposit account so that he can spend it. And look:

debit
credit
cash
€ 40
your deposit
€ 10
loan fisherman
€ 40
deposit lawyer
€ 10
deposit barber
€ 10
deposit fisherman
€ 50
total
€ 80
total
€ 80

Who says that miracles can’t happen? The amount of deposits miraculously increased from € 40 to € 80 so € 40 is created from thin air. There is still only € 40 in cash but the fisherman’s debt created new money. This is how banks create money. And that is only because bank deposits are money. This is all there is to it. So much for the mystery. The fisherman then pays € 50 for the hat. And so it becomes your money:

debit
credit
cash
€ 40
your deposit
€ 60
loan fisherman
€ 40
deposit lawyer
€ 10
deposit barber
€ 10
deposit fisherman
€ 0
total
€ 80
total
€ 80

And now comes the dreadful part that keeps some people fretting. Everyone can take out his or her deposits in cash. There is € 80 in deposits and only € 40 in cash. If you go to the bank and demand your € 60 in cash, the bank would go bankrupt, even when the fisherman pays off his loan the next day. You could bankrupt the bank by buying € 50 in fish with cash. If you go to the bank to get € 50 in cash it would not be there so the bank would go bankrupt before the fisherman can pay off his loan with the same cash.

A bank could get into trouble in this way even when debtors repay their debts. Clever minds already figured out a solution. Central banks can print the needed cash. If the European Central Bank (ECB) prints € 20 on a piece of paper and lends this money to the bank, there would be enough cash to pay out your deposit. Banning the use of cash and only use bank deposits for payments would be another option. So, after the ECB deposited € 20 in cash, the bank’s balance sheet might look like this:

debit
credit
cash
€ 60
your deposit
€ 60
loan fisherman
€ 40
deposit lawyer
€ 10
deposit barber
€ 10
deposit fisherman
€ 0
deposit ECB
€ 20
total
€ 100
total
€ 100

After you pay the fisherman, he can pay off his loan, and the bank will have enough cash to pay out all deposits. The bank can repay the central bank and everything is fine and dandy again. In this case the bank could not meet the demand for cash but the value of cash and loans wasn’t smaller than the deposits (the bank’s debt). After the fisherman pays back his loan and the bank pays back the ECB, the bank’s balance sheet might look like this:

debit
credit
cash
€ 40
your deposit
€ 10
loan fisherman
€ 0
deposit lawyer
€ 10
deposit barber
€ 10
deposit fisherman
€ 10
deposit ECB
€ 0
total
€ 40
total
€ 40

If banks can’t create money, trade would be difficult. If the hat is € 50, the legal advice € 60, the hairdo € 30, and the fish € 20, and you, the lawyer, the barber and the fisherman all have only € 10, nothing can be bought or sold. If the bank lends € 40 to the fisherman, he can buy a hat from you, you can buy legal advice from the lawyer, the lawyer can buy a hairdo and the barber can buy fish. Debt is the basis of the capitalist economy. Nearly all money is debt, and without debt the economy would come to a standstill.

How much money can banks create?

The amount of money a bank can create is limited by the bank’s capital, which is the bank’s net worth. Regulations stipulate that banks should have a minimum amount of capital. This is the capital requirement. If the capital requirement is 10%, and the bank’s capital is € 10,000,000, it can lend € 100,000,000, provided that there are enough deposits. If the bank makes a loan, a new deposit is created. If the deposit leaves the bank, the bank must borrow it back from another bank or cut back its lending. That is because debit must always equal credit.

debit
credit
mortgages and loans
€ 70,000,000
deposits
€ 60,000,000
loans to other banks
€ 10,000,000
deposits from other banks
€ 20,000,000
cash, central bank deposits
€ 10,000,000
the bank’s net worth
€ 10,000,000
total
€ 90,000,000
total
€ 90,000,000

When a deposit leaves the bank, it ends up at another bank. The other bank can use it for lending, provided that it has sufficient capital. There may be a reserve requirement, which is a minimum of cash and central bank deposits the bank must hold. If the reserve requirement is 10%, the bank can lend out as much as ten times the amount of cash and central bank reserves it has available. In the past reserve requirements were important as people often used cash and could go to the bank to demand their deposits in cash. For that reason banks needed to hold a certain amount of cash.

Featured image: Deutsche Bank building CC BY-SA 4.0. Raimond Spekking. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Coin hoard

What is money?

Why do we have money?

Money was invented because trade would be difficult without it. For example, if you are a hatter in need of legal advice, then without money, you have to find a lawyer who craves for a hat. That is unlikely to happen. Maybe there is a fisherman dreaming of a hat, but he can’t give you legal advice. Maybe there is a lawyer in need of a hairdo instead of a hat. With money all these problems disappear like magic. You can buy the services of the lawyer so that she can go to the barber. After that the barber can buy some fish so that the fisherman can buy a hat from you.

Despite these mind-blowing advantages humans didn’t need money for a long time because they lived in small bands and villages where everyone depended on each other and everyone helped each other. This meant, for example, that when a fisherman needed a hat, you would make a hat for him, and if you needed anything, someone else would provide it to you. You did someone a favour so that he or she was obliged to do something back. Villagers produced most what they needed themselves. Trade with the outside world was limited and was done with barter.

Uses of money

Later cities, kingdoms and empires emerged. People living in cities, kingdoms and empires didn’t know each other so it became difficult to track whether or not everyone was contributing. Favours and obligations didn’t suffice. They were replaced by a formal system for making payments and tracking contributions and obligations. Commerce and tax collection needed a means of payment as well as administration. It is therefore not a coincidence that writing and money were invented around the same time in the same area. The earliest writings were bookkeeping entries. Money has the following uses:

  • buying and selling stuff (payment) so money is a medium of exchange
  • saying how much something is worth so money is a unit of account
  • keeping track of contributions and obligations (saving and borrowing) so money is a store of value.
catdog
Nickelodeon character CatDog

Money being a medium of exchange as well as a store of value is like your pet being a cat as well as a dog. The result is not really a success. The parts of the pet may often quarrel, for example because the dog part wants to play while cat part wants to sleep. If someone keeps money for a rainy day, and doesn’t spend it, others cannot use this money for buying stuff. And this really can be a big problem. A simple example can explain this.

Imagine that everyone decides to save all his or her money. Nothing would be bought or sold any more. All businesses would go bankrupt and everybody would be unemployed. All the money that has been saved would buy nothing because there isn’t anything to buy any more. This is a total economic collapse.

In reality it doesn’t get that bad as people always spend on basic necessities like tablets and mobile phones, and perhaps food. When people only spend money on necessities there is an economic depression, which is not as bad as a total economic collapse but still very bad. Saving can make you poorer, but only when there are too many savings already. Savings are used to invest in businesses and hire workers to make products and services. Only if there are more savings than investments, money remains unused.

The value of money

Money has no value when there isn’t any stuff to buy or when there aren’t any other people to trade with. Imagine that you get the offer to be dropped alone on a remote and uninhabited island in the Pacific with 10 million euros. Probably you would decline the deal, even if you can keep your mobile phone. It is other people and stuff that give money its value. But how? The answer is remarkably simple. The value of money is just a belief.

People are willing to work for money and sell their stuff for money. And because others do this, you do the same. For example, you may think that euro notes have an appalling design as well as an unpleasant odour, but nevertheless you desire to own them because other people want them too. The value of the euro is based on the belief that other people accept euros for payment.

This is just a belief as the following example demonstrates. Suppose that you wake up one day to hear on the news that the European Union has been dissolved overnight. Suddenly you may have second thoughts about your precious stockpile of foul smelling unstylishly decorated euro bank notes.

Lord of the Rings character Sméagol
Lord of the Rings character Sméagol

You may ask yourself in distress whether or not your precious bank notes still have any value. What is the value of the euro without the European Union? You may find yourself hurrying to the nearest phone shop in an effort to exchange this pile of bank notes for the latest model mobile phone.

And to prove this point even further, suppose that the phone shop gladly accepts your euros. Suddenly they become desirable again and you may start to have second thoughts about that latest model you are about to buy. It may not remain hip for much longer, so you may change your mind again and prefer to keep your precious euros because there may be a newer model next month. So, because the shop wants your euros, you wants them too.

Types of money

At first money was an item that people needed or desired. Grain was one of the earliest forms of money. Everybody needed food so it was easy to make people believe that others accept grain for payment. In prison camps during World War II cigarettes became money because they were in high demand. Even non-smokers accepted them because they knew that other people desired them very badly. For that reason cocaine can be money too.

Wares like grain, cigarettes and cocaine have disadvantages. They degrade over time so  they aren’t a very good store of value. This makes them a great medium of exchange because people won’t save them. An example can demonstrate this. Imagine that apples are money and you want to buy a house. A house costs 120,000 apples but your monthly salary is just 2,500 apples of which you can save 1,000. It takes 10 years of saving to buy a house. Soon you will discover that apples rot and that you will never be able to buy a house. Then you will spend all your apples right away.

Saving is difficult with apples. This is where gold and silver come in. Gold and silver have not much use, but humans were always attracted to shiny stuff. Gold is rare so a small amount of gold can have a lot of value because some people feel a strong desire for this shiny stuff. Gold and silver coins can be made of different sizes and purity so that they are suitable for payment and can be used as a unit of account.

More importantly, gold and silver do not deteriorate in quality like apples, grain or cigarettes. They do not even rust after 1,000 years. This makes gold and silver an excellent store of value. But this should make us suspicious. A perfect cat makes a lousy dog so a perfect store of value can fail the test for being a good medium of exchange. People can store gold and silver so that there is less money available for buying and selling stuff. And this can cause an economic depression as we have seen.

Governments create money too, for example by printing “10 euro” on a piece of paper. Governments require by law that this money should be used for payments and taxes. This makes people believe that others accept this money too. Government money is called fiat currency or simply currency. The authority of a government is limited to the area it controls so in the past government currencies had little value outside the country itself unless this money consisted of coins containing gold or silver.

In fact, another reason why gold and silver are attractive as money, is that the value of gold and silver does not depend on the authority of a government. This made gold and silver internationally accepted as money. In the 19th century most government currencies could be exchanged for a fixed amount of gold. This is the gold standard. The gold standard boosted trade because gold was internationally accepted as money.

Most money is debt

Debts can have value and so debts can be money too. This may seem strange or even outrageous, but money is just a belief. For example, money is the belief that you can exchange a hat for money and then exchange this money for legal advice. Hence, if you believe that the debtor is going to pay, you can accept his or her promise to pay as payment. And if others believe this too, you can use this promise to pay someone else.

So if the fisherman promises you to pay next week for the hat you just made, you could say to the lawyer that you expect the fisherman to pay in a week, and ask her if you can pay in a week too. The lawyer could then ask the same of the barber and the barber could ask the same of the fisherman. If all debts cancel out then there is no need for cash. Most money we currently use is debt. In most cases debts don’t cancel out and there are many more people involved so that it would be complicated to keep track of all debts and savings. That is where banks come in.

Featured image: Close up of coin hoard CC BY-SA 2.0. Portable Antiquities Scheme from London, England (2010). Wikimedia Commons.

Other images: Nickelodeon character CatDog, Sméagol character from The Lord of the Rings [copyright info]

Free money for everyone?

 

Everyone should be rich

“No whining, everyone should be rich, vote Opposition Party, together for ourselves.” The Opposition Party was a fictional political party in the Netherlands run by two dubious characters. The creators of the fiction, Van Kooten and De Bie, intended to mock populist politicians. If the Opposition Party had been for real, the party would have fetched a few seats in parliament in 1981. Why isn’t everyone rich? Maybe it is because poor people haven’t enough money.

Perhaps everyone should get money for free so that no-one is poor. This is called a universal basic income. Nowadays most people make money by doing a job. That is because without people working nothing will be done and nothing will be made. This has been true for as long as humans exist. On the other hand, there are many more people than needed for all the work that needs to be done, at least if everyone works forty hours per week. This has also been true for as long as humans exist.

Pointless jobs

In the past most people worked only a few hours per day on average. This changed with the Industrial Revolution. Idleness became frowned upon and factory owners promoted the belief that everyone has a duty to work long hours. Nowadays many people do jobs that do not contribute to making products or services people need and also do not contribute to society. And a pointless job can make you unhappy.

Executing a job, whether it is useful or not, uses resources. People drive in their cars to their offices which are heated or air-conditioned. If a pointless job consumes materials and energy that are in short supply, or pollutes the environment, there is a compelling reason to axe it. That may require giving people money to remain idle. The anthropologist David Graeber estimates that at least a third of all jobs are pointless.1

There is no good measure as to determine which jobs are pointless. For instance, Graeber mentions the job of a receptionist at a publisher. The receptionist had nothing to do, except for taking up an occasional telephone call. Another employee could easily have done this alongside his or her other tasks, but without a separate receptionist no-one would take the publisher seriously. Graeber contends that the best indication of a job being pointless is when people who do the job themselves believe it is.1

A game of Monopoly

Wealth is becoming increasingly concentrated. The super rich have increased their share of global wealth in recent decades. Whether or not it was at the expense of the rest is a matter of political debate. Nevertheless, to keep the economy going and to forestall a catastrophic global economic collapse, there may no be no other option than to make the rich hand out money to the poor, either via negative interest rates on outstanding debts or a redistribution of income. for instance a universal basic income.

One can think of the capitalist economy as a game of Monopoly. If you have played Monopoly more than once, you may have observed that at first players build capital in the form of houses and hotels. You can get rich by making the right investments. There is also an element of luck involved. The game ends when most players are bankrupt. It is possible to extend the game by letting the rest borrow money from the winners. The winners can now enjoy being rich while the rest can stay in the game. Of course, the rest can never repay their debts. The players could stop pretending and let the winners hand out money to the rest so that the game can continue. That might happen via a negative interest rate on debts or taxing the rich and giving this money to the rest.

monopoly1935

The alternative would be to start from square one, or more precisely, removing all the houses and the hotels, and start a new game. That might be fun for a game but in the real economy this would be a horrendous disaster. Imagine all the houses, roads, and factories gone. There would be nothing to buy and everyone would be poor. Economists figured this out long ago. The famous economist John Maynard Keynes thought that the state should borrow money from the winners and spend it so that the others would be employed and have some money to spend so that the game could continue.2

Keynes’ plan did get a lot of attention and that’s why he is famous. Some other economists weren’t so pleased. Governments could now justify lavish spending by borrowing money from the rich to spend it on public works or lower taxes, leaving a debt to be paid by future generations. Keynes also advised governments to reduce spending when the economy is doing well,2 but this rarely happened. And if there is no starting from square one, the rich are getting richer while the rest isn’t getting ahead. Furthermore, the state borrowing money from the winners makes things worse as interest must be paid. In this way the others end up paying taxes to pay interest to the rich. This could become a huge problem in the long run. But Keynes wasn’t interested in the long run. “In the long run we’re all dead,” Keynes said. Now the long run has passed and Keynes is dead.

The game of Monopoly has a bank too. The bank is a magical source of money. Every time you finish a round, a fixed sum of is given to you. That is great for a game. If it wasn’t for this everlasting fountain of money, the game would have ended after a few rounds. Monoply already has a universal basic income. It can help to keep the economy going. But adding money to the real economy can make money worth less. If people have more money, prices often go up as there is more money to buy the same stuff. For example, if everyone craves for that latest model mobile phone, producers can raise prices, unless people run out of money and can’t buy them. In a game of Monopoly the prices of rents are fixed but the prices of streets may rise. If you want to buy a street from another player when there is a lot of money in the game, you often pay more than the intial price. The rich are bidding up prices of streets. In the real economy something similar happens. Inflation is low but prices of assets like stocks and real estate are rising.

Realising our full potential?

Proponents of a universal basic income tell us that it will all be fine and dandy and that we will be free to realise our dreams. If you always wanted to become a blogger or a vlogger, you can become one when there is a universal basic income because you don’t have to work for a living.

The opponents of a universal basic income paint a dismal picture of people sinking into an abyss of idleness filled with writing blogs nobody wants to read and making videos nobody wants to see. A job can make you feel useful. And there must be a compelling reason to do unattractive jobs, otherwise they won’t be done, they argue.

Many countries already have benefits for people without a job. Unattractive low paying jobs are often done by immigrants who don’t have access to those benefits. Nevertheless, if there is an income guarantee, people will only do a job if it benefits them either emotionally or financially. In other words, jobs have to be attractive.

Machines taking over?

In the future machines may become better than humans at most jobs. Until very recently only simple tasks have been taken over by machines. This already put a lot of people out of work. The surplus of workers could be employed in the government and the service sector. Many of these jobs are pointless. Machines in the future can do much more. Self driving cars will replace human drivers and cause fewer accidents. Robots can care for the elderly and this could be an improvement as robots don’t have moods. Computers will be better at diagnosing diseases and robots will be better at operating patients.

Few professions appear safe from the coming onslaught. Economists tell us that robots will create many new jobs for humans, for example programming and maintaining them, but that may be wishful thinking. There is however one big problem blocking progress, or our descend into the abyss of idleness if you like. If people lose their jobs they also lose their income so that they don’t have the money to spend on the products and services the machines produce. Progress may halt if the economy can’t operate with fewer jobs.

Perhaps there will be a lack of energy in the future so that human labour is going to replace machines instead. If humanity is to curb its energy and materials use in order to deal with the limits our planet poses on our activities, machines may be replaced by humans. The need for an income guarantee might seem less pressing in that case as there could be more work. In that case it would probably be harder to guarantee an income that is sufficient to live off.

If there is an income guaranteed that is sufficient to live off, people don’t need jobs. In that case there may be no need for minimum wages so people can do a job cheaper than machines if they really like to do it. And so humans could still care for the elderly in the future while robots could do the heavy lifting. And that may be good because when humans do jobs because they like to do them, and not because they need the money, they can have better moods. Compared to existing welfare schemes, there is more inventive to work as people can keep the money they earn.

That sounds great. And perhaps it will work out this way. A universal basic income can improve the bargaining position of workers. It might lead to the following situation:

  • unattractive jobs that machines can do will be done by machines;
  • unattractive jobs that machines can’t do will be paid well;
  • attractive jobs that machines can do will be paid poorly as there will be volunteers;
  • attractive jobs that machines can’t do will be done by humans, but it is hard to predict how these jobs will be paid.

Obstacles on the way

Implementing a guaranteed income may not be easy. There will be obstacles on the way. Some of them may be hard to predict as they will emerge once the income guarantee has been introduced. A few questions can be raised already. For instance, does an income guarantee make people fill their time with idleness or does it give them the possibility to realise their potential? It is possible that both will happen.

Many people believe that there should be a universal basic income that replaces existing welfare schemes. It would reduce the amount of bureaucracy as the administration would be relatively simple compared to existing schemes. Existing social security schemes redistribute money to those who lack sufficient means of existence. A universal basic income is given to everyone, including the people who don’t need it.

A universal basic income can become expensive and require higher taxes. This would not please tax payers and it could lead to tax evasion. And why should the rich receive a universal basic income too? An alternative is a guaranteed income that is to be settled with the income tax. People with low incomes would receive income tax instead of paying it. If the income guarantee is € 1,000 and the income tax is 50%, the scheme works as follows:

gross income
income tax
net income
€ 0
– € 1,000
€ 1,000
€ 1,000
– € 500
€ 1,500
€ 2,000
€ 0
€ 2,000
€ 3,000
€ 500
€ 2,500
€ 4,000
€ 1,000
€ 3,000
€ 5,000
€ 1,500
€ 3,500

If machines are to replace human labour, other sources of taxing may have to replace the income tax to fund the income guarantee, but it is still uncertain to what extent that will happen and how long that will take. How a guaranteed income can be paid for remains a puzzle and the answer to that question may emerge over time. But it will not work if the wealthy don’t pay for it. Like in the game of Monopoly the winners need to hand over money to the rest to stay in the game. This may be done via taxes on wealth or in the markets for money and capital via negative interest rates.

Negative interest rates can make the wealthy hand over money to the middle class via mortgages and loans as well as to governments via government debt because debtors don’t pay interest but receive it. In this way the middle class has more money to spend while governments have more money to give to the poor. Negative interest rates might happen because the wealthy have trouble finding profitable investments and making these investments profitable might require them handing over money to the rest so that the rest has money to spend on the products and services made by the corporations owned by the wealthy. How a financial system with negative interest rates might work out is explained in the section about Natural Money.

The first step

An income guarantee for everyone is costly and it is a long way before this is implemented world-wide. The first step might be to start with an income guarantee for the poorest people in the world to be paid for by a global wealth tax, so that the wealthiest people are going to pay for it.

The poorest can benefit from a small amount of money like one euro per day. NGOs might distribute the money. If one billion people were to receive this allowance, this would cost 365 billion euro per year, a small amount compared to what is currently spent on weapons and wars.

Featured image: De Tegenpartij poster. Van Kooten and De Bie (1981). [copyright info]

Other image: Monopoly game.

1. Bullshit Jobs. David Graeber (2018). Simon & Schuster.
2. General Theory of Employment, Money and Interest. John Maynard Keynes (1936). Palgrave Macmillan.

Of Usury, from Brant's Stultifera Navis (the Ship of Fools)

The problem of interest

Compounding

Imagine that Jesus’ mother had put a small gold coin weighing 3 grammes in Jesus’ retirement account at 4% interest just after he was born in the year 1 AD. Jesus never retired but he promised to return. Suppose now that the account was kept for this eventuality. Imagine now that the end is near, and that Jesus is about to return. How much gold would there be in the account in 2018?

It is an amount of gold weighing 11 million times the mass of the Earth. The yearly interest would be a gold nugget weighing 440,000 times the mass of the Earth. There is a small problem, a fly in the ointment so to say. It would be impossible to pay out Jesus because there simply isn’t enough gold.

It might seem that the bank had to close long ago because of a lack of gold, but that isn’t true. As long as Jesus doesn’t show up it can remain open, at least if the borrowers are allowed to borrow more to pay for the interest. If the economy grows 4% it may not be such a big deal. The interest can be created out of thin air by making new loans that allow borrowers to pay for the interest. And if Jesus doesn’t claim his gold when he returns and accepts bank credit, everything will be fine.

There is a limited amount of gold while compound interest is infinite. As long as bankers can create money out of thin air to pay for the interest and people accept bank deposits for payment, everything is fine. Problems only arise when people demand real gold. A bank can go bankrupt when depositors want to take out their deposits in gold.

Central banks

Perhaps Jesus’ retirement account isn’t such a big problem after all. Our money isn’t gold but currencies central banks can print. Assume now that Jesus’ mother had put one euro in the account instead. One euro at 4% interest makes 22,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 euro after 2017 years. That may seem an intimidating figure, but the European Central Bank can take 22 pieces of paper and print 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 euro on each of them. And there you are. Something like this happened during the financial crisis of 2008. This is called quantitative easing. You may have heard that word before.

Central banks can print new dollars and euros to cope with a shortfall. In fact, this is what central banks often do. There is always a shortfall because of interest because most money is debt and interest on this debt needs to be paid. To make up for the shortfall, there are two options. First, people can borrow more. Second, central banks can print new currency. Both things can happen at the same time. Central bank decisions about interest rates are also about dealing with the shortfall caused by interest charges.

When central banks lower interest rates, people can borrow more because interest rates are lower. Central banks lower interest rates when people are borrowing less than is needed to cope with the shortfall. If central banks raise interest rates, people can borrow less because interest rates are higher. Central banks raise interest rates when people are borrowing more than is needed to cope with the shortfall and the extra money makes people want to buy more stuff than can be made. And if people don’t borrow at all, this is a crisis, and central banks may print more currency to cope with the shortfall.

Interest on capital versus economic growth

There is a problem central banks can’t fix by printing more currency. Interest is more than just interest on money. Interest is any return on investment. Throughout history returns on investments were mostly higher than the rate of economic growth. Most of these returns have been reinvested so a growing share of total income was for investors. This can’t go on forever because who is going to buy the stuff corporations make in order to keep these investments profitable? A simple example can illuminate that.

interestvers
Interest income (red) versus total income with interest income growing faster than total income

The graph above shows how total income and interest income (in red) develop with an economic growth rate of 2% and an interest rate of 5% when interest income starts out as 10% of total income and all interest income is reinvested. After 25 years the economic pie has grown faster than interest income and wages have risen. At some point interest income starts to rise faster than total income, and wages go down. After 80 years there’s nothing left for wages. This graph explains a lot about what is going on in reality.

In the short run it was possible to prop up business profits and interest rates by letting people go further into debt to buy more stuff. In the long run, the growth rate of capital income cannot exceed the rate of economic growth. Interest rates depend on the returns on capital so this can explain why interest rates went down in recent years. In the past interest rates below zero weren’t possible but from time to time there were economic crises and wars that destroyed a lot of capital. This created new room for growth.

Wealth inequality and income inequality

When interest rates go down, the value of investments tend to rise. If savings yield little this benefits the wealthy as most people have their money in savings while the wealthy own most investments. But it is important to know the cause otherwise you might think that interest rates should rise. The graph above shows that wealth inequality causes interest rates to go lower, hence redistributing income, for example via higher wages or taxes on the wealthy, can bring higher interest rates.

There is a difference between wealth inequality and income inequality. Your labour income and the returns on your investments are your income. If you are rich but make no money on your investments, your wealth doesn’t contribute to your income. In reality wealthy people make better returns on their investments than others because they have better information and can take more risk. Still, the graph shows that income and wealth inequality can’t increase indefinitely, and that returns on investments can’t exceed the reate of economic growth in the long run, hence interest rates need to go lower.

Most people pay more interest than they receive. The interest paid on mortgages and loans is the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Interest is hidden in rents, in taxes because governments pay interest on their debts, and the price of every product and service because investments have to be made to make these products and services. German research has shown that 80% of the people pay more in interest than they receive, while only the top 10% of richest people receive more in interest than they pay. Lower interest rates benefit most people despite some side-effects that work in the opposite direction.

Economic cycles

Humans are herd animals. They buy stuff and even go into debt to buy stuff when others are going into debt to buy stuff too. Suddenly they may realise that they have bought too much or have gone too deeply into debt, and all at the same time. One day they may be borrowing money, queueing up before the shops, and bidding up prices. The next day, they may decide to pay off their debts, leaving the shop owners with unsold inventories they have to get rid of at fire sale prices. So prices may go up when people are in a buying frenzy and may go down when sales dry up.

When there is a buying frenzy business owners are optimistic and do a lot of investments, and often they go into debt to make those investments. But if suddenly customers disappear, they may be stuck with unsold inventory and debts they cannot repay. Businesses may then have to fire people. Those people are then left without income, and cannot repay their debts too, so sales will go down further. If their debts are not repaid, banks could get into trouble. In most cases the economy will recover. In the worst case banks go bankrupt, money disappears, the economy collapses, and an economic depression takes off.

Interest can make things worse. Assume that you have a business and expect to make a return of 8%. You have € 100,000 yourself and you borrow € 200,000 at 6%. You expect to make 8% so borrowing money at 6% seems a good idea. If you only invest your own € 100,000 you can make € 8,000, but if you borrow an additional € 200,000 you can make € 12,000 (8% of € 300,000 minus 6% of € 200,000, which is € 24,000 minus € 12,000). The balance sheet of your business might look like this:

debit
credit
inventory
€ 250,000
loan 6%
€ 200,000
cash, bank deposits
€ 50,000
owner’s equity
€ 100,000
total
€ 300,000
total
€ 300,000

If sales disappoint and you only make a return of 2% on your invested capital of € 300,000, which is € 6,000, you make a loss because you pay € 12,000 in interest charges. You may have to fire workers. Businesses can go bankrupt because they have borrowed too much and have to pay interest, even when they are profitable overall. Sales often disappoint when the economy fares poorly. This means that more businesses face the same difficulties and make losses because of interest payments. They may have to fire workers and these workers lose their income. This can worsen the slump.

Interest, economic depressions and war

Silvio Gesell discovered that interest rates can’t go below a certain minimum because lending would then stop. Money would go on strike as he put it. Why is that? Low yields make investing and lending money unattractive because of the risks involved. Debtors may not repay and banks may go bankrupt. Depositors then prefer to take their money out of the bank and keep it with themselves.

This can cause economic crises and depressions. Silvio Gesell lived around 1900. Interest rates below zero weren’t possible because of the gold standard. Depositors could go to the bank and withdraw their deposits in gold so that they didn’t have to accept negative interest rates. From time to time there were bank runs, economic crises and wars that destroyed a lot of capital. And this created new room for growth.

There may be a relationship between interest, economic depressions and war. In 1910 the amount of capital income (the red circle in the graph) relative to total income (the two circles together) was close to what it was in 2010. This could have led to an economic depression but then came World War I. The war destroyed a lot of capital so that there was new room for capital growth and interest rates could remain positive.

A few decades later the Great Depression arrived. If interest rates could have gone below zero in the 1930s, the Great Depression might not have happened, Adolf Hitler would not have risen to power and World War II would not have occurred. The currency of Wörgl demonstrates that negative interest rates could have ended the depression. After World War II interest rates never came near zero again. Governments and central banks printed more money. This caused inflation, which eroded trust in money.

People feared that inflation would make their money worth less so interest rates rose. In the 1970s the link between money and gold was abandoned because there was a lot more money than there was gold to back it. In the 1980s governments and central banks started policies to bring down inflation and to promote trust in money. As of 1983 interest rates went down gradually as a consequence of a renewed trust in money and central banks. Debt levels rose and interest rates went near zero.

Promoting inflation might not be a good idea. The end result is unpredictable. The best one can hope for is a poor performing economy and a lot of inflation like in the 1970s. But if interest rates rise because lenders lose their trust in money and debts, people may not be able to repay their debts, and the financial system might get into serious trouble. This can cause another great depression or another great war. But if the alternative is negative interest rates, stability and prosperity, then why not opt for that?
eou_31_questions

Featured image: Of Usury, from Brant’s Stultifera Navis (the Ship of Fools). Albrecht Dürer (1494). Public domain.