A tenner on the street

A tenner on the street

There is no such thing as a free lunch

This is just another joke about economists. Suppose you just have found a tenner on the street. You are very excited about this windfall so you feel the urge to tell the next person you meet about your find. Now suppose that this person happens to be an economist. And you say: “I just found a tenner on the street.” What do you think the economist will reply? He or she would probably say: “That’s impossible. If there really was a tenner on the street then someone would have picked it up already.”

“There is no such thing as a free lunch,” is another saying that means more or less the same. Of course there are people who get a lunch for free but in that case someone else has to pay for it, just like someone else has paid for the tenner. According to economics it is impossible to get money for free, and if it is possible then someone will take it as soon as it is there, so there is no money for free for long. But why is this important? If a government makes a law it should not ignore this effect in markets.

Economists call it arbitrage

Assume that gold costs € 50 per gram in France and € 40 per gram in Germany. What will happen? There is money to be made by buying gold in Germany and selling it in France. Hence demand for gold in Germany will go up as will supply in France. According to the law of supply and demand, the price goes up when demand increases and the price goes down when supply increases, so the price in Germany goes up and the price in France goes down until the price is the same in both countries. Economists call this arbitrage

Smuggling is more or less the same. Cigarettes are more expensive in the United Kingdom than in the rest of Europe. There is money to be made by smuggling cigarettes into the United Kingdom and selling them there illegally. The price difference promotes the smuggling. If a government introduces legislation that affects the price of goods and services it should take into account that their measures can illicit smuggling and black markets. The difference between arbitrage and smuggling is that arbitrage is legal.

That’s also why it is so hard to end smuggling. If cocaine costs € 10 per gram in Colombia and € 70 per gram in the United States, there is a lot of money to be made in the trade. That’s why the War on Drugs is a failure and why there is so much violence in South America. It may be better to regulate lesser harmful drugs like canabis in the way it is done with alcohol and cigarettes. The use of harmful drugs could be seen as a medical issue and addicts could be helped rather than left on the streets. It was also a reason to deregulate financial markets. It would be hard to end gold smuggle if there are price differences between countries.

The essence of trade

A tenner is more likely to be found in places where others don’t look. That’s why Wall Street firms hire the brightest minds on the planet to find these places. For instance, Apple stock may be for sale for € 150 in Australia while in Germany the stock is doing € 151. And you must be faster than everyone else once there is a tenner on the street if you want to be the one who picks it up. Hence, Wall Street firms pay huge sums of money to have the fastest computers and networks.

So once a tenner falls out of your pocket, Wall Street has already picked it up long before it hits the street. They may even look inside your pocket and pick the tenner before it falls. So if you try to sell your Apple stock for € 150 and someone else is willing to pay € 151, Wall Street banks with their fast computers and networks snatch away the stock you offer for € 150 and immediately sell it to the other person for € 151.

You can call this theft but it is the essence of trade. The ancient Greeks already knew this. Their god for the traders was also the god for the thieves. Trade sometimes coincides with questionable ethics and the difference between trade and theft is sometimes obscure. But trade is useful. It performs the following functions in society:

  • Goods are produced in one place and consumed elsewhere so trade bridges distance.
  • Goods are produced first and consumed later so trade bridges time.
  • Goods are produced in certain quantities and demanded in other quantities so trade matches volume.

Trade is about information. A successful trader has better or more timely information. For instance, if you know that a product is successful before others know it, you can buy the stock of the corporation making the product before others do and make a profit by buying the stock cheap and selling it at a higher price. Financial markets are riddled with schemes like that. A way to combat theft disguised as trade is to make markets more transparent, which more or less means that everyone can have the same information at the same time, which more or less means that there will never be a tenner on the street just like the economist says.

Carry trade

Tenners can be found on other places too. If the interest rate in one country is lower than in another country, you can make a profit by borrowing money in the first country lending it in the second country. Economists call this a carry trade. You might expect that like the price of gold, interest rates would converge, but that doesn’t always happen because most countries have their own currency. For instance, interest rates in Japan have been near zero for decades while they were higher in the rest of the world, so there was a massive borrowing of Japanese yen. These yen were exchanged into other currencies and lent at higher interest rates.

It is attractive to borrow yen at 1% and lend dollars at 5% and pocket the difference. Normally this difference would not exist for long because the interest rate in yen would rise because of the demand for borrowing in yen. But the Japanese government didn’t allow this to happen. The central bank kept on lending yen at 1% because the Japanese economy was slow and there was no inflation. The Japanese government didn’t like the yen to rise because that would hurt their exports so they allowed it to happen. The carry trade has been very profitable for bankers around the world for nearly two decades. In a sense the Japanese central bank was throwing away massive amounts of money, but not on the street.

Throwing money at the banks

Government and central bank interventions in the markets like setting interest rates have undesired side-effects. Central banks are throwing money around and much of it ends up in the pockets of bankers. Somehow this appears to be necessary. That is because most money is debt created by banks. On this debt interest must be paid. So if you borrow € 100 and the interest rate is 5% you have to return € 105 after a year. But where does the extra € 5 come from? Here are the options:

  • Someone else is going to borrow € 105 so you can repay you loan.
  • You are not going to repay your loan (in full).
  • The government is going to borrow the extra € 5.
  • The central bank prints the € 5 out of thin air.

Usually these things happen at the same time. If people do not borrow enough, other people can’t repay their loans, banks go bankrupt and a lot of people lose their money, so governments step in and borrow. And if no-one is willig to lend to the government anymore, central banks create money out of thin air. Letting things crash isn’t an option. That could result in an economic depression. And an economic depression is very, very bad.

The prospect of a an economic depression scares the hell out of central bankers. And so they are throwing money at banks to fix any serious shortfall that might occur, usually before it materialises. The extra € 5 has to come from somewhere. So if no-one goes into debt to pay for the interest then the central bank feels obliged to create the € 5 out of nothing. That’s why central banks are called the lenders of last resort. They exist to save the economy from the banks and their scheme of usury and in doing so they save the banks and their scheme of usury. On the bright side, ending usury might solve these problems, perhaps once and for all.

Featured image: A tenner on the street. Free Shutterstock image from Blackday.

Currency

Self determination

To most people currency means government issued money used within a nation or a group of nations. US dollars, Chinese yuan, Korean won and Brazilian real are all currencies. Currency is important for political and economic self-determination. A national currency allows nations to pursue their own economic policies, although the options are constrained by global economic forces.

Local or regional currencies can supplement national currencies, most notably when communities or regions want to achieve a higher degree economic independence. Supranational currencies like the euro reduce can economic independence. To maintain some political and economic independence in an increasingly integrated world, currency is key. For that reason currency is more of a political subject than an economic one.

Reserve currency

Reserve currencies facilitate international trade. In the past decades the US dollar was the most used reserve currency. This arrangement allowed the United States to enjoy a higher standard of living and have a large military paid for by foreign nations. That is because the United States can print US dollars and other countries accept them as payment.

This arrangement gave foreign nations a competitive advantage. By buying US dollars for their currency reserves, competitors of the United States were able to suppress the exchange rate of their own currency and sell their products cheaper. This harmed US exports and it allowed other countries like China and Japan to build up their industries.

The reserve status of the US Dollar made the FED responsible for the international financial system. The FED had to rescue foreign banks during the financial crisis of 2008 so that US taxpayers ended up backing foreign banks. The FED probably had no other choice because if the FED hadn’t acted, the global financial system might have collapsed.

International Currency Unit

For that reason it may be better to have an international reserve currency that is not a national currency. The future International Currency Unit (ICU) can be a weighted average of national currencies. It may require an international central bank to guarantee stability in the international financial system. As long as central banks make decisions that have significant consequences, an international central bank will be a troublesome construct.

Only when central banks do not set interest rates and do not print currency, it might be feasible to introduce an International Central Bank (ICB). For that the ICU as well as the underlying national currencies may need to be a Natural Money currencies. Natural Money currencies require little or no central bank oversight as financial instability is the result of usury. Furthermore, with Natural Money central banks do not set interest rates.

50 euro
50 euro

The euro

The euro is an interesting experiment because it is a currency shared by a group of nation. The nations of the euro zone are sovereign but have given up their national currencies. Initially it was thought that the European Union would become a federation like the United States with a strong centralised government bureaucracy. But history took a different turn, and the European nations remained sovereign while the size of the centralised European institutions remained small compared to the United States.

The euro produced political and economic tensions. Previously, when every nation had its own currency, the differences in competitiveness between countries could be dealt with via exchange rates of their national currencies. If a country could not compete and exports were outstripping imports, the exchange rate of its currency could be lowered so that exports would become cheaper while imports would become more expensive. In this way the country could remain competitive in international markets.

Apart from the economic issues, there are also political concerns. People in Northern Europe feel that they pay for the debts of Southern Europe while people in Southern Europe feel that they are faced with austerity dictated by Northern European countries. The available options appear making the eurozone a federation like the United States or reverting back to national currencies. The benefit of a larger currency like the euro more efficient financial markets and lower interest rates.

If their government budgets are sustainable then Southern European countries can benefit from these low interest rates. Returning to national currencies doesn’t have to be the end of the euro either. National currencies can be introduced alongside the euro. Existing balances in euro will then remain in euro. The euro can be a weighted average of the national currencies making up the euro zone. This would make the euro look like the proposed ICU. It could be a step towards introducing an ICU and the ICB.

Private currencies and cryptocurrencies

Private currencies are not issued by a government or central bank. Proponents of private currencies like cryptocurrencies promise that they can provide an alternative payment system independent from governments and banks as well as an alternative way to issue stock. They believe that private currencies like cryptocurrencies can supplement or even replace existing currencies issued by governments and central banks.

Currency is important for political self-determination. For that reason governments have usurped the prerogative to issue currencies. Private currencies can undermine the power of governments, hence nations. Cryptocurrencies can facilitate crime, scams and tax evasion, so they their use is likely to become regulated or even banned in the future. Governments may also start to issue cryptocurrencies themselves.

Until now cryptocurrencies have not been stable. Payments in these currencies are cumbersome and only attractive when there is no regular payment system. Financial markets in these currencies are non-existing. A currency most allow for debts denominated in this currency. It must be easy to lend or borrow money in financial markets. And if the interest rate in the market is negative, then the currency must facilitate this, otherwise the economy may be disrupted.

Local currencies

During the Great Depression in the 1930s the Austrian town of Wörgl issued a local currency with a holding fee, which worked like a negative interest rate. The ‘miracle of Wörgl’ suggests that negative interest rates could have prevented or ended the Great Depression. The miracle also revealed something else. It was not possible to use the local currency outside Wörgl and because of the holding fee people spent it so the economy of Wörgl improved while the Great Depression intensified elsewhere.

The local currency allowed Wörgl to achieve a degree of economic independence. In the midst of a worsening depression the local economy improved so that unemployment dropped. It demonstrates that currency can be important for local, regional and national self-determination. If international markets fail to help a municipality, region or nation, it may be able to help itself with the use of a currency.

The Wörgl money was an complementary currency that circulated alongside the Austrian currency. It has been tried to copy the idea but only a few times it has been a great success. If the economy is doing well then a complementary currency often makes little sense. And complementary currencies often depend on a the commitment of the local people to the well-being of their municipality or region to the point that they prefer local or regional products simply for the reason that this promotes the local or regional economy.

Disconnecting from international markets can allow a municipality, region or nation to build its own economy but local products may provide less value for money than products from international markets. When the disadvantages of free trade outstrip the benefits then that is justifiable. Many successful national development stories include shielding national markets from international competition in order to build up a national industry. Once a country becomes developed and wealthy, the justification for trade barriers disappears, as they deny people the benefits of better or cheaper products from abroad.

Featured image: 50 pula bank note. Bank of Botswana.

 

A goldsmith in his shop. Peter Christus (1449).

How the financial system came to be

A goldsmiths’ tale

How the financial system came to be is an interesting story. Once upon a time when gold was internationally accepted as money, goldsmiths fabricated gold coins of standardised weight and purity. The goldsmiths 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 guarded.

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.

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.

Credit note's holder, Stockholm's Banco sub no. 312
Credit note’s holder, Stockholm’s Banco sub no. 312

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 discovered that there were more bank notes circulating than there was gold in the vault of the bank, the scheme could run into trouble, but mostly it didn’t. Depositors received interest. This enticed them to keep their deposits in the bank. People trusted their bank as long as they believed that debtors would pay back 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.

Bank run
Crowd at New York’s American Union Bank during a bank run in the Great Depression

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.

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.

Featured image: A goldsmith in his shop. Peter Christus (1449). Metropolitan Museum of Art. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Other images: Money As Debt. Paul Grignon (2006).

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.