Is There a PIIG in Germany’s Parlor?

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single country in possession of a current account surplus must be in need of an export market.” With apologies to Jane Austen, of course: the sentiment thus expressed actually is anything but universally acknowledged. In fact, it flies in the face of received wisdom. We are accustomed to thinking of countries running current account surpluses as generating these surpluses by dint of superior industry, frugality, in short, superior economic character.

Take Germany. It has been running current account surpluses ranging from 2% to 7½% of GDP since 2001. The popular view is that such surpluses result from thrift or productivity. Let’s assume that’s the case. Given floating exchange rates, the current account surplus should result in an appreciating exchange rate, so that the surplus would result in more expensive exports and cheaper imports. This would then bring the current account back into equilibrium with trading partners; trade “imbalances” would automatically adjust.

But that hasn’t happened with Germany. The current account surpluses have been persistent, and persistently high. That absence of an equilibrating effect is due to the fact that the German currency does not float. Rather, it is linked to the other currencies of the European Monetary System who share a common currency, the euro.

Once upon a time there was a mechanism to bring about equilibrium, even between countries that shared a common currency. This was the “automatic mechanism,” the gold standard of the late 19th century. That mechanism (as I explain in my book Follow the Money) brought about an equilibrium through gold flows. In the country experiencing a current account surplus, gold would flow inward; and in the country experiencing a deficit, gold would flow outward. Thanks to the banking system, this in turn led to expansion in the surplus country, contraction in the deficit country. The boom country, experiencing a rise in prices, would thus import more and export less, while the depressed country, where prices were falling, would begin exporting over importing. And so the two economies would come back into some sort of equilibrium.

Nowadays, of course, there is no gold-standard automatic mechanism: there are no gold flows to do the equilibrating. So Germany’s current account remains in surplus, and its trading partners, chiefly the countries of southern Europe which likewise share the euro, remain in deficit. These countries are collectively known as the PIIGS, an acronym for Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain. (Of course, Ireland is not in Southern Europe, but functionally it belongs in this group.)

The deficits being run by the PIIGS form the reverse image to Germany’s surpluses, as the following graphs indicate. Each graph shows Germany’s current account balance (surplus or deficit as percentage of GDP) together with each of the PIIGS (source: tradingeconomics.com):

new-1

new-2new-3new-4new-5Take another look at those graphs: prior to 2001 and the introduction of the euro, it was Germany that was running current account deficits! The PIIGS, for their part, ran surpluses or modest deficits. The change came about with the introduction of the euro. The euro was set at exchange rates that favored Germany’s economy and disfavored those of the PIIGS. Essentially, Germany was set too low while the PIIGS were set too high.

So then, thrift or economic virtue might explain Germany’s initial current account surplus, but it is the euro that has kept the system from coming into equilibrium, thus perpetuating those surpluses. The euro also has essentially bankrupted the PIIGS, who paid for their deficits by going into massive debt.

Persistent current account surpluses are not a sign of thrift but of dysfunctional exchange rates, not allowed to perform their equilibrating function. That, of course, is nothing new. But it needs to be recognized.

Fact and Fiction on Reserve Requirements

In the system we have now, we do use both a reserve restriction and an asset restriction. But, the modern reserve restriction has changed fundamentally, and has nothing to do with the monetarist understanding of reserve restrictions, except in a purely formal sense.

In the day of specie convertibility, reserve restriction had a definite functionality. It served to limit the amount of money subsitutes put into circulation, because by law and custom all such money substitutes had to be convertible into specie on demand. Therefore, the reserve restriction had to do with specie – at the end of the day, banks had to have a certain percentage of specie holdings – reserves – or they would either be shut down or fail. So there were two kinds of money, and reserve restriction had to do with maintaining some ratio between them.

Central banks arose only in response to this specie convertibility arrangement. Bagehot’s Lombard Street describes the process. Banks began depositing their reserves with other banks, big banks, on Wall Street or, in England, at the Bank of England. The latter bank only hesitatingly and with trepidation accepted the responsibility this entailed. For this developing practice led to a gigantic inverted pyramid of money substitutes. Those banks continued to issue money subsitutes against their reserves; but the Bank of England turned around and used these reserves to engage in similar monetary expansion, so that at the end of the day the total amount of specie left to cover all those money substitutes became rather minuscule. This was the problem Bagehot blew the whistle on.

This arrangement of centralized specie reserves only served to facilitate control of the money supply by private bankers. On the face of it, it served the economy by providing the means to generate an elastic money supply far beyond the actual amount of specie available. In practice, it led to dizzying booms and horrendous busts, depending on how specie holdings were manipulated. It also led to the social question, socialism, communism, and the modern labor movement. But that’s another story.

Within that context, one can easily see the rationale of reserve restrictions. They helped keep the generation of money substitutes within some reasonable distance of the original specie of which they were supposed to be the direct representation.

Nowadays, we have no specie convertibility requirement, so reserve restrictions have nothing to do with there being real money on the one hand, and money substitutes on the other. All attempts by monetarists to establish Federal Reserve generated money as in some sense “real” money, in terms of which regular banks issue money “substitutes” like in the old days, are only attempts to maintain the fiction of continuity between this system and that one, and to maintain a centralized control of the money supply like in the days of specie of convertibility. But events have shown that the money supply in the modern banking and monetary system cannot be manipulated like it was in the days of specie convertibility. For this we should be very thankful. In formal terms, the money multiplier is still in effect, but in practice it only serves to set some ultimate limit to lending, a limit that is never reached.

We still have reserve requirements today, and they are useful, but for an entirely different reason than in the days of specie convertibility. In fact, using the same word for today’s reserves and for the reserve banking model of yore, of which our Federal Reserve system is an obsolete example, is an exercise in equivocity. Reserves today have a totally different function than reserves then.

This is because there is no money substitute that has to be kept within some sort of relation to “real” money. The money generated by the banking system is all the same, from the central bank to the bank across the street. Rather, what reserve requirements do is keep banks from running into liquidity problems in making the regular payments to customers and other banks that they need to do to stay in business. A reserve serves as a buffer to absorb losses in the case of loan defaults. With bad loans, a bank is left without payments budgeted to come in, income that was budgeted to cover payments, payments that still have to be made. So reserves help to cover such shortfalls. But the center of gravity in the new system is precisely asset valuation, in order to minimize the negative effects of such defaults. If the collateral base accurately approaches the value of the loan, then a default is not a disaster, for the underlying security is still valuable, and can still be used to cover costs. In the case of the credit crisis, a whole mass of similar assets (foreclosed homes) came on the market at the same time, precipitating a collapse in market value of those assets and thus the book value of securities (mark to market).

In this world, a central bank no longer has any function as a reserve bank. The banking system as a whole can serve as a reserve bank, the one for the other. There is absolutely no need for traditional reserve banking with its money multiplier; the system runs on an entirely different principle. The Federal Reserve could go back to being the government’s banker, which is what public banks usually were before the notion of central banking ever got off the ground. The history of the Bank of England provides the foremost example. Both the first and second Banks of the United States were called into being simply to facilitate the fiscal needs of the federal government. The nascent central banking functionality exercised by Biddle had nothing to do with any “lender of last resort” and any money multiplier function. It was only an attempt to keep banks from overstepping specie reserve requirements – to keep them honest. And they didn’t like it, and got Andrew Jackson to do their dirty work for them. Andrew Jackson was not the champion of the people against the banks, but of the banking interest against Nathan Biddle! But that,too, is another story.

Private Issue of Money — the Root of Our Monetary Problem?

In a comment posted under an article by my friend Jerry Bowyer (Where’s the Hyperinflation?), “ps61penn62prin64” writes that “private currency monetary systems… are doomed to fail the interest of American citizens.”

Bowyer’s article discusses the sizeable increase in the money supply generated by the Fed, and how this has — or has not — affected the inflation rate. Bowyer concludes that although inflation has not manifested itself because of Fed action, it will. This is because the Fed has “an almost unlimited capacity to produce syrup [i.e., base money] and pump it at high pressure into the system. And they want to do so. They want more money in circulation, because their Keynesian models tell them that easy money is the answer to our economic stagnation.”

This view of our monetary system is based on the notion that we have a fractional-reserve system. Which we do, but only in the most formalistic sense. For all practical purposes, our system is not tied to some base money, manipulated by the Fed, allowing it to stretch and shrink the money supply at will. The Fed does not have this unlimited power — if it did, we’d have been toast (Weimar Germany, anyone?) long ago. If this were true, how do we explain our current struggle, which is a low-interest-rate, low-inflation environment?

But let’s now address the issue raised by ps61penn62prin64, as to whether the private issue of currency is the problem.

Right up front, I will state that the state-sanctioned private issue of money, such as is provided for by the Federal Reserve system, by no means need be a problem. Indeed, it is simply a function of “the common law right to borrow” (as Hammond pointed out in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Banks and Politics in America, published in 1957). In such a system, banks take a position front and center, as “experts in futurity” to use John R. Commons’ pregnant phrase, converting property into liquidity. This is not banks loaning depositors’ state-issued money; this is banks loaning money of their own creation. It is not the Jimmy Stewart, but the James Steuart form of banking.

This being so, the banks are creating representations, symbols, of property holdings, and it is these symbols that form the money supply. These symbols, these representations, only reflect a deeper reality — the reality of the issuing agents’ (i.e., banks’) balance sheets.The problems we face are thus not problems of liquidity, but of solvency. Our problems are not that there is not enough liquidity, as in the days of the gold standard, nor that there is too much liquidity. Our problems revolve around solvency: that the assets on the books of banks (and this holds for the “shadow banking system” as well) do not match up with the liabilities.

When this happens, we have a freeze-up of credit, as banks only become concerned with restoring balance sheets rather than engaging in fresh lending. This is why we are dealing not with an inflation problem but rather with a disinflation  problem.

Originally the Constitution authorized only Congress to create and manage money, in the form of coinage. Coinage is the preeminent form of state-created money. Coinage had always been the prerogative of the state. But with the shift toward a commodity-based money system during the 18th century, power over coinage and over money had been passing out of the hands of the state and into the hands of the bankers. The regime of coinage was already on its last legs at the time of the Constitution’s ratification. My forthcoming book will discuss this transformation in detail.

Hence, the Constitution was outdated already at the time of ratification. It did not address the issue of banks. Hammonds’ book details the debate surrounding this issue as it developed during the early Republic, as the pros and cons of banks’ private money were discussed. The principle was finally accepted in terms of fractional-reserve — banks were only creating money substitutes, and were under the obligation to provide real money — specie — whenever asked.

We labored under this system for a long time. But when we threw off the gold standard, we threw off fractional reserve banking. Our banking system is now asset-based, not reserve-based. It is a system of state-sanctioned, yet market-driven, money. There is nothing wrong with that, in principle. In practice, it can be problematic. The problems mainly come about because we don’t understand it, and act in terms of faulty understanding. Especially when governments get in on the action. Then the liquidity bias, fomented by our faulty understanding, gives government room for its misplaced Keynesianism. And we discover once again that the problem had nothing to do with liquidity, but rather with solvency.

And so we need to look at other things than the Fed’s production of “syrup” if we want to understand what is going on with inflation rates, interest rates, and thus the economic fundamentals that determine how are economic lives are to be lived.

We need to go from Jimmy Stewart to James Steuart.

How to Make the Euro Project Work

The euro seems to be on its last legs, and the vision which inspired its genesis seems to have vanished from the politicians sponsoring it. The recent spat with England and Prime Minister Cameron has only served to highlight the vacuum in vision. Previously, whenever England was scapegoated, English politicians skulked like whipped curs, and Euro-politicians adopted that practiced condescending, look-askance stance toward the wayward one. This time around, the feeling among English politicians and electorate was more relief than abashedness, and the pose of superiority by the likes of Premier Sarkozy could hardly be attempted, let alone maintained. The media did its best to foster the impression, and the attempt failed.

So what now? What of the grand vision of a single currency binding fiscally responsible, growth-oriented economies into a viable, synergistic whole? What we now have is a ramshackle construction inviting the incurrence of debt and inhibiting its repayment, a growth-crippling currency combined with a debt overhang that makes the US dollar seem a safe haven.

But was this ever the end which was envisioned? Was the euro ever simply to have facilitated fiscal responsibility and economic growth? Was there perhaps another goal envisioned by its founders, a goal which perhaps now has been lost sight of by those who were to carry the torch?

In point of fact, the euro is simply one building block in an entire agenda. What is needed to save the euro is to understand that agenda. The euro needs to be set off against other, equally desired, institutions in order to take firm root.

There is a simple calculus that all politicians from Northern to Southern Europe have to make: the euro comes with a price, and that price is for the nothern nations to assume the fiscal burden of the southern nations. That burden consists of, on the one hand, debt, and, on the other, the continued flow of transfer payments. These transfer payments are the key to the entire project. Welfare payments, subsidies, pensions, they all need to be included in a blanket agreement without which a common currency cannot survive.

Of course, the southern countries would be only too happy to establish such an arrangement, and so the northern countries need to make specific that this takeover involves not only liabilities but assets — specifically, control of the political machinery by which the decisions are made over such transfer payments. The southern countries have to relinquish political control of their citizenries.

In turn, this cannot be done only for the southern countries. Such an arrangement will require the transfer of political responsibility over welfare-state decision-making to the level of the European Union, for the northern as well as the southern countries. Germany, the Netherlands, France, Belgium, will likewise have to yield democratic control to Brussels and Strasbourg.

Can such a system be called democratic? Strictly speaking, yes, because it will still be a one-man, one-vote system. But as it stands here described, the price would be too high for the northern countries to pay. They will not relinquish their national parliaments in favor of the European Parliament without, to use a common-law notion, “consideration.”

That consideration must be a form of control. Behind the democratic facade, there must be a predominance of control lodged in the northern countries. How can this best be achieved?

Through control of the central bank, and short-term interest rates. A tight monetary policy favors the more economically powerful areas — the “core” — of a currency region, and keeps the weaker areas — the “periphery” — more or less in thrall.

Would that be enough? Possibly. A monetary policy geared to the needs of the northern countries would ensure enough prosperity in those countries to shoulder a good deal of the welfare-state burden of the southern countries, without precipitating an inflationary spiral, which is what would take place if monetary policy were geared toward the southern countries. And the southern countries would console themselves with the awareness that their sky-high unemployment rates and exuberant levels of welfare payoffs were covered. The facade of a European Parliament would give the impression of democracy, and, for the rest, all residual conflicts could be worked out on the pitch — of what use is the UEFA Champions’ League if not this?

Cloverfield Government

Well it’s about time I woke up from hibernation to begin posting again. Not much to say for awhile there, not to mention being preoccupied with finishing the next volume of the Stahl translation, about the state and constitutional law. I hope to have it published within a month (that’s quite optimistic though). At any rate, I did have a thought to communicate! And that is this. I finally got around to watching the movie “Cloverfield.” It’s not one of those movies my wife likes to see, so it sat around gathering dust until she went out of town for a few days, at which point I blew the dust off of the said DVD and watched it. What a grotesque movie, yet very well done, because it seemed real enough to actually have happened. But, here comes the thought I wanted to communicate: the monster in Cloverfield, while highly believable, was not quite up to the times. If he really wanted to come over as a modern-day monster, he would have gotten on the national news, have blamed all the carnage in Manhattan on the army, and stated that he really was there to fix things, to restore order, to rebuild, he being the only entity large enough to be able to do that. After all, isn’t that what our government has done? Destroyed the economy through years of either parasitic or blatantly destructive action (e.g., subprime mortgage sponsorship), and then blame the entire mess on the victims, to wit, business and the market. We have a Cloverfield government; but there are those who are filming with their camcorders for posterity’s sake. This hopefully will allow future generations to learn from our mistake, not to listen to big ugly green monsters, replete with giant teeth, in politicians’ clothing.

What is a Crisis of Trust?

We hear a lot these days about the current financial crisis being one of trust. Banks don’t trust each other any more, lenders don’t trust borrowers, investors don’t trust who or what they are investing in. That is all true, but it does not get to the heart of the matter.

What is trust? It is confidence that commitments will be honored, that agreements will be kept. Which gives us an indication of the true nature of the capitalist economy.

Classical economics has many virtues, but it has also saddled capitalism with the concept of homo economicus, the egotistical, self-serving economic actor as the core of the capitalist system. This is a gross misconception. Capitalism is not built upon self-serving egotists but upon people willing to make commitments to each other, both short-term and long-term, regarding their economic resources. That is what credit and debt, borrowing and lending, are all about. The commitments are mutual. When these commitments are reneged on on the scale they have been in the current crisis, the system fails.

Therefore it is a much better characterization of capitalism to label it the “commitment economy” rather than the “greed economy,” which is what the Left paints it as, thanks to classical economics.

Capitalism is commitments, not greed. The trust one hears so much about is trust in keeping commitments. Capitalism, friends, is the commitment economy.

What’s Behind the Meltdown

The stock markets continue to plummet in unnerving fashion. The blame for it is centering on the “bailout” package — was it too little too late, was it too much, was the passage of it a dispiriting display of bad leadership. I think it goes deeper than that. The bailout was never meant to solve the problem, only to stave off something worse. But what it most of all did was spark the fear of ever-more government takeover of the private sector, which combined with polls indicating Democratic victory in both Congress and the Presidency in November, has spooked the investor class to get out while the getting’s good. Let’s face it: if the Democrats win in November, this bailout package is going to look like libertarianism compared to the stuff they’re going to pull to “solve the crisis.”

The Bottom Line: False Weights and Measures

At bottom, the issue involved in this financial crisis is false weights and measures. That is, a standard of valuation that is manipulated, making people believe they are receiving something other (of lesser value) than they actually are.

The Bible has this to say about such false weights and measures:

Le 19:36 Just balances, just weights, a just ephah, and a just hin, shall ye have: I am the LORD your God, which brought you out of the land of Egypt.
De 25:13 ¶ Thou shalt not have in thy bag divers weights, a great and a small.
De 25:14 Thou shalt not have in thine house divers measures, a great and a small.
De 25:15 But thou shalt have a perfect and just weight, a perfect and just measure shalt thou have: that thy days may be lengthened in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.
De 25:16 For all that do such things, and all that do unrighteously, are an abomination unto the LORD thy God.
Pr 11:1 ¶ A false balance is abomination to the LORD: but a just weight is his delight.
Pr 16:11 ¶ A just weight and balance are the LORD’S: all the weights of the bag are his work.
Pr 20:23 ¶ Divers weights are an abomination unto the LORD; and a false balance is not good.
Eze 45:10 Ye shall have just balances, and a just ephah, and a just bath.
Eze 45:11 The ephah and the bath shall be of one measure, that the bath may contain the tenth part of an homer, and the ephah the tenth part of an homer: the measure thereof shall be after the homer.
Eze 45:12 And the shekel shall be twenty gerahs: twenty shekels, five and twenty shekels, fifteen shekels, shall be your maneh.
Mic 6:10 Are there yet the treasures of wickedness in the house of the wicked, and the scant measure that is abominable?
Mic 6:11 Shall I count them pure with the wicked balances, and with the bag of deceitful weights?
Ho 12:7 ¶ He is a merchant, the balances of deceit are in his hand: he loveth to oppress.

In the current financial muckup, this falsification of the standard of value occurred thanks to a complete failure of functioning by the leading credit rating agencies. Subprime mortgages were packaged into bonds that were passed off as AAA — the highest rating possible. Given the great demand for such safe-haven assets in a global economy awash in liquidity, these bonds were purchased like hotcakes, making for ever-increasing demand for subprime mortgages to be packaged into these bonds (CDOs, MBSs). They thus spread throughout the world. The questions which now arise are:

  1. How many banks and other lending agencies have these assets on their balance sheets, and to what degree?
  2. What is the degree that each of these assets is contaminated with subprime mortgages which either have already failed or will fail?

The recent “bailout” package passed by the Congress is intended to get this auditing process under way in the US. The question is, will it accomplish what it is supposed to, without subverting the system even further? Be that as it may: who is going to take care of this process in the rest of the world? And what is the best way to take care of it? It is the mother of all tangled messes.

The bottom line is, this was a catastrophe from start to finish egged on and smiled upon by the government, in pursuit of social justice, of Joe Biden’s “fairness.” It is the government that is supposed to supervise the functioning of such services as credit rating, simply as a matter of averting fraud. Instead of doing that, it turned a blind eye on the whole procedure, the better to achieve the stated goal of affordable housing.

Capitalism was set to work under the constraints set by the government. Now that government has nearly destroyed capitalism, it is going to fix it. How: with more of the same?

The Book of Amos speaks of a judgement upon a nation addicted to false weights and measures:

ch 8, verse 4: Hear this, O ye that swallow up the needy, even to make the poor of the land to fail,
5 Saying, When will the new moon be gone, that we may sell corn? and the sabbath, that we may set forth wheat, making the ephah small, and the shekel great, and falsifying the balances by deceit?
6 That we may buy the poor for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes; yea, and sell the refuse of the wheat?

Amos’s Israel was judged and found wanting; it was given over to conquest by the Assyrians.

What judgement awaits us? For we keep voting in people who, this time around in the name of the poor, love the false balance, the small ephah and the great shekel, who have hung this catastrophe around our necks and then blame the faithful servant (Wall Street) who in fact carried out their bidding; who want us to return them to office for more of the same.

That in itself is judgement I cringe to think about.

More than an Analogy?

One of the themes running through my head regarding a description of the current financial crisis is that of the similarity of subprime mortgages to HIV. Just as HIV gets in the bloodstream and destroys immune capacity, subprime mortgages were packaged together in MSOs and CDOs which, circulating through the banking system, in turn have destroyed the banking system’s capacity to deal with bad risk.

But the analogy is even more appropriate given the latest news that Barney Frank’s boyfriend was the one in charge of coming up with the affordable housing schemes at Fannie Mae that precipitated this HIV infection of the capitalist bloodstream.

Makes one shudder just to think about it.