Forbes article here, worth reading. Larry White offered testimony in NotHaus's favor, if I recall correctly, and perhaps he will have some comment.
The centenary of the opening of the Federal Reserve System was November 16, 1914. The Federal Reserve Act was passed in December 1913 but the organization took nearly a year to open. Here is the Federal Reserve page on the event. Since it was not previously mentioned on this blog, I am bringing it up now.
As you can tell from the date, the Fed did not open until after World War I began. The financial troubles in the United States connected with the outbreak of the war were handled by the private sector and the Treasury Department. William Silber, a professor at New York University, wrote a book several years ago on the episode, When Washington Shut Down Wall Street. Among the subjects he discusses is the closure of the New York Stock Exchange for several months. With the NYSE closed, an unofficial market sprang up in New Street, which ran along the back side of the NYSE building. The establishment press refused to publish stock price data from New Street trading, but Silber found one paper that did so, perhaps because its usual focus was on horse racing and entertainment, hence it was not beholden to Wall Street for stories or advertising revenue. The paper stopped publishing data some weeks before the shutdown period ended, though. Recently two students at Johns Hopkins University filled in the remaining data using a previously untapped source and wrote a paper about it. More generally, I think much work remains to be done about what steps governments and the private sector might take under a free banking system when some catastrophic event occurs. The absence of a central bank does not remove the need to take some steps similar to what a central bank might do, but one hopes such steps could be undertaken with more reliance on voluntary consent.
This year is also the 30th anniversary of the publication of Larry White’s Free Banking in Britain (link is to the second edition, 1995). I have a slight personal connection to the book, having prepared the index to the first edition along with George Selgin. Vera Smith’s Rationale of Central Banking and Hayek’s Choice in Currency (later expanded and retitled Denationalisation of Money) were earlier, but to my mind Larry’s book marks the real start of contemporary free banking theory because it combined theory, economic history, and history of thought in an appealing way. Larry showed that the Scottish free banking system had worked well, and that its workings were both contrary to what was usually taught about laissez faire in money and banking textbooks and consonant with what is taught about markets in microeconomics textbooks. Vera Smith’s fine book was unfortunately neglected when it first appeared (1936, the same year as Keynes’s General Theory of Interest, Employment and Money). What could have been an intellectual movement was stillborn. Larry’s book has borne ample fruit intellectually, if not all that he has wished for in terms of policy.
(*And we always have been.)
Yesterday, while giving Cato's interns an impromptu talk about my work, I found myself saying something that seems worth putting in writing. This was that the difference between me and Larry White and Kevin Dowd, among others, and most other monetary economists, isn't that we theorize about free banking, and they don't. It's that we're mindful of our free-banking theories, whereas they're mostly heedless of their own.
Consider: an economist says that central banks prevent or limit the severity of financial crises, or that without mandatory deposit insurance even sound banks are likely to face runs, or that banks can never be expected to hold enough capital unless we force them to, or that commercially-supplied banknotes will tend to be discounted. All such claims--which is to say any claims about the need for or consequences of government intervention in banking--depend, if not on an explicit understanding of the nature and workings of a laissez-faire banking system, then on some implicit understanding. And this understanding in turn implies a theory of some sort, for reference to experience alone won't suffice for drawing the sort of sweeping conclusions I'm talking about. It follows that all economists who have anything to say about the effects of government intervention in the banking system are either self-proclaimed free banking theorists or are free banking theorists who don't admit (and perhaps don't realize) it.
The rub is that tacit or subconscious theories of free banking--the sort people rely upon when they are "doing" free banking theory without being conscious of it--are likely to be bad theories because, being unstated, they can't be challenged, and, being unchallenged, they don't tend to be systematically corrected. A self-conscious free banking theorist confronted with some claim of banking-market failure might point to his own theory suggesting that no such failure exists, and might also point to contrary evidence. But he can't generally infer, and therefore can't directly contradict, the theory behind the claim.
If even economists who've never heard of free banking, or who dismiss both it and the people who take it seriously, nevertheless subscribe to some free banking theories of their own, where do their theories come from? As I can't read other economists' minds, I can't pretend to know the answer. However, I can, and I will, hazard a guess or two.
Consider, if you will, your typical fresh PhD, having monetary or (more commonly) macroeconomics as a specialty, as might have been disgorged by any save a handful of the doctoral programs in the U.S. sometime during, say, the last 30 years. In all likelihood that graduate never took a class on economic history, let alone one on monetary history or (least likely of all) the history of economic thought. Nor is he or she likely to have become familiar with even present day monetary institutions through any other coursework, most of which is devoted to mastering either statistical methods or highly abstract models. As for the monetary sequence itself, it is likely to have involved toying with Overlapping Generations models, which don't even get the definition of money right, or Woodford-style neo-Wicksellian economics, which (unlike the Swedish real McCoy) strives to avoid using the "m" word altogether. Some better students, to be sure, will make up for the lack of institutional meat in their bland graduate-school porridge by grabbing the occasional vitamin from the library. But even when I went to school (NYU, class of '86), that sort of thing was relatively rare. Today, to judge from the many grad students I talk to, a student who dare's to do it, besides risking failure by having less time left to study for prelims, is sure to be regarded as a weirdo.
After graduation, perhaps? So far as most economists employed in research universities are concerned, Fuggedaboudit. Publish or perish means, for the vast majority, polishing up the three-articles that comprise their dissertation, and then milking the same highly-specialized human capital that sufficed for producing those "chapters" for all it's worth, which, with luck, will be additional articles enough to get one over the tenure threshold. With the tenure clock ticking inexorably, and journals taking their sweet time to return reports, who can afford to be intellectually curious? After tenure? Not likely, since most tenured faculty, having developed a shtick which, with the help of some elegant variations, may serve as well in getting them promoted again as it did in getting them tenured, still won't get around to learning stuff that they now regard, with perfect justice, as perfectly irrelevant to mastering their profession. Better to angle for department head, or (for those with higher aspirations) to take up golf.
The upshot of all this is that most of what our monetary economist knows or believes about monetary institutions he or she learned as an undergraduate. And what was that? To infer from the contents of most principles and money and banking textbooks, very little, and much of it misleading. Of monetary history, in particular, such books (1) say very little, if anything at all; (2) refer (if written for the U.S. market or by U.S.-trained economists) only to U.S. experience; and (3) get that wrong. Reading such books, you are quite likely to learn (for examples) that banking started out as a big swindle, that before the Civil War U.S. banks were hardly regulated at all and that, for that reason, American's were saddled with all sorts of banknotes, most of which were worth far less than their face values; that the Federal Government nationalized the currency supply, forcing state banks out of the business, during the Civil War because it was suddenly inspired to establish a uniform currency; that post-Civil War panics were inevitable given that we still lacked a central bank; that during the Great Depression people staged runs willy-nilly on good and bad banks alike until, in early 1933, they lost confidence in every last one of 'em, thus proving beyond doubt the necessity of nationwide deposit insurance; and that the Fed is an independent central bank, having become so in 1951. My conjecture, in short, is that tacit theories of free banking are most likely cobbled together, unconsciously and therefore haphazardly, from such substandard undergraduate building material.
So much for academic economists, or at least for the vast majority of them under the age of 60. If you want an academic economist who really knows his monetary institutions, a good rule of thumb is, the older the better. Try Dick Timberlake (92), or Leland Yeager (90), or Alan Meltzer (86), or Axel Leijonhufvud (81), or Charles Goodhart (78), or David Laidler (76). But beware that, even among Laidler's cohort, there are plenty who don't seem to be know a bank from a hole in the ground, or a redeemable banknote from (say) a durable good.
True, economists who work for the Fed, or at least for research departments of the various reserve banks, are another matter. Their jobs tend to encourage them to be familiar with at least some real-world monetary institutions; and I know quite a few, not all of them yet 60, who know their monetary history pretty well, including a fair bit about free banking. Having actually heard of it and thought about it, their theories of free banking, if still implicit, are at least reasonably well informed. They also tend to be rather more interested in, and favorably disposed to, what we avowed free-banking theorists have been saying, than their academic counterparts.
Would that this were also true of the Fed's higher ups, including its highest-ups of all. Alas, officially at least, their understanding of free banking is not much better than that of our lowly tenure-grubbing assistant professor. Consider even Ben Bernanke, a Fed chair regarded as an expert monetary history. To judge from his GWU lectures, at least, his general take on U.S. monetary experience doesn't seem all that different from the conventional textbook wisdom I mentioned a few paragraphs ago. The Fed's other "educational" productions, aimed at general readers (as opposed to its research intended for other experts) are for the most part even worse.
Some persons hearing me claim that many economists, including those who want nothing to do with free banking theory, are free banking theorists themselves, albeit ones who don't know it (and whose theory is likely to be the poorer for it) will, I imagine, think to themselves, "What in the blazes is Selgin thinking? Of course free banking's critics have a theory, and not just a tacit one. They've got a theory and they know it. They've got...Diamond and Dybvig! What's more, it's a real theory, a rigorous theory, with equations and optimization and all, not like the loosey-goosey stuff free-bankers churn out. What more can Selgin possibly want?"
A lot more, actually. Because, notwithstanding all its bells and whistles and tweakability (the quality of lending itself to publishable variations), the Diamond-Dybvig model isn't a formal representation of free banking at all. It's a formal representation of the same cartoon version of free banking that, if I guess correctly, informs most tacit free banking theories. More precisely, it's a formal model that takes as its starting point the assumption than an unregulated banking system is one that might at any moment fall victim to random yet system-wide runs.
I'm not saying that the D-D model is anything less than ingenious. In fact, it isn't easy at all to come up with a model that obeys the rule of not having agents do anything that doesn't increase their expected utility, and yet have it imply occasional if not frequent disasters. In this case, it took some doing. Diamond and Dybvig had to assume away, among other things, (1) the difference between a bunch of idiosyncratic banks and a single representative bank; (2) bank equity, which would otherwise drive a wedge between adverse shocks and bank insolvency; (3) any distinction between banks' reserves and an economy's consumption goods (which makes consumption equivalent to disintermediation); (4)...well, read Kevin Dowd's excellent survey if you want the whole rather long list. The gist of it all, anyway, is that in Diamond and Dybvig we have, not a formal model explaining the workings of some actual banking system, laissez-faire or otherwise, but a formal and in that sense only "rigorous" re-telling of a hackneyed textbook banking myth.
Does any of this prove that the self-aware free banking theorizing of myself, Kevin Dowd, Larry White, and others is any good? Of course it doesn't. Our theories might be perfectly lousy, and I suppose some of them are so. But at least we've arrived at these theories deliberately, after consulting evidence from actual free (or at least relatively free) banking systems, and with due attention to criticisms that our attempts have elicited. Of course it's possible nonetheless that some of the tacit theories informing the case for intervention are, for all their slap-dashed-ness, closer to the mark. But what are the odds? Better, I'm sure, than those of a chimp typing War and Peace. But not nearly enough to bet on.
But the point of my remarks isn't to pass judgement on the views of critics of free banking. It is merely to encourage more of them to join in a more explicit debate concerning what a free banking system would look like, and how well it might perform.
The Forgotten Depression, Jim Grant's excellent book about the 1920-21 downturn and the recovery that followed, has generated a burst of critical commentary from persons anxious to reject the principal conclusion Grant draws from that episode. That conclusion, in brief, is that the U.S. was able to recover relatively quickly from at least one deep slump (and the '21 slump was deep, to judge not only from price statistics but also from available if sketchy unemployment statistics) despite authorities' refusal to resort to either fiscal or monetary stimulus. On the contrary, Grant observes, both fiscal and monetary policy were, according to today's Keynesian-influenced understanding, more contractionary than expansionary.
I've no desire to plunge into the general controversy concerning what other lessons one might safely draw from the 1920-21 episode, except to point out (as many of Grant's critics fail to do) that Grant himself resists drawing many other conclusions. He never claims, first of all, that Harding-administration-type policies might have been a dandy solution in 2008. Nor does he insist that post-2008-style expansionary fiscal and monetary policies would have made for a less satisfactory recovery had they been employed in '21. "We can't know what might have been," Grant writes (p. 2) "if Wilson and Harding had intervened as presidents in of the late 20th and early 21st centuries are wont to do." Grant merely settles for observing that "When, as 31st president, Hoover did intervene--notably, in an attempt to prevent a drop in wages--the results were unsatisfactory" (ibid.) The results of FDR's more aggressive interference with price and wage cuts, through the NRA and AAA, were, I would add, still more so.
If there's a foolish generalization lurking about here, or anywhere else in Grant's book (say, for instance, a "citation of the 1921 economic recovery as somehow refuting everything we’ve learned about macroeconomics since then," or an assertion to the effect that "If only we had let wages and prices crash in 2009, we would be in la la land right now,") I hope someone (Paul? Barkley?) will be so kind as to point it out to me. I also hope Barkley will explain to me why, in purporting to refute Grant's thesis, he compares what happened in 1920-21, not with what transpired in 1929-33 (which is the one episode concerning which Grant himself draws comparisons) but with what happened in various post-WWII recessions to which Grant himself never even refers.
My concern here, in any event, isn't with the general lessons that either should or shouldn't be drawn from the post-21 recovery, but with a particular myth concerning that recovery, namely, the myth that, contrary to what Grant and others have suggested, the Fed did in fact help out, and help out in a big way, by loosening of monetary policy.
Barkley Rosser has been particularly anxious to make hay with this claim, especially in the post (linked above) written in response to the recent Cato Book Forum over which I presided, featuring Grant's book. (For his part Krugman settles for a mere link to Barkley's post--this in a post implicitly accusing Grant, whose book Krugman almost certainly didn't bother to read, of laziness!) "In 1921," Barkley writes, "the Fed reversed course and lowered the discount rate back down to 4%. The economy then went into its rapid rebound. I note that in his remarks at Cato, at least Larry White did note this point as a caveat on all the proceedings. Bordo et al also note that both Irving Fisher and also Friedman and Schwartz pinpointed the role of the Fed in all this and declared it to have behaved very irresponsibly in the entire episode. But for Grant and Samuelson, the Fed barely even existed then."
The claim about Fed easing having ended the 21 slump has been repeated by many others, including The Economist, which in its review of Grant's book observes that "The Fed brought on the 1920-21 depression with high interest rates. Those rates drew in gold anew, which, along with deflation and political pressure, eventually caused the Fed to relent and lower rates. The slump and recovery were thus not the spontaneous product of the free market but of deliberate policy, much as in later recessions." Another proponent of this view is Daniel Kuehn, who has written two articles and several blog posts countering Austrian claims about the implications of the 1920-21 episode. In a comment responding to a laudatory David Glasner post concerning his work on the subject, for example, Kuehn claims that Fed "loosening...definitely played a prominent role in the recovery" from the 1921 slump.
What, then, are the facts of the matter? One fact, or set of them, to which Barkley and Co. refer, is that the Fed banks did indeed lower their discount rates, from 7%, where they'd stood since June of 1920, to 6.5% in May 1921, and then all the way to 4.5% in November 1921. (The further reduction to 4% to which Barkley refers did not occur until June 1922.) But, as Scott Sumner has been tirelessly observing for some years now, even under an interest-rate targeting regime, a low policy rate doesn't necessarily mean easy money. Instead, low rates can reflect slack demand for funds, and indeed tend to do just that in any slump. A Wicksellian would say that what matters isn't where rates stand absolutely, but where they are relative to their "natural" counterparts.
But treating the discount rate as an indicator of the stance of monetary policy with reference to the 1920-21 episode is even worse than treating it so in reference to more recent experience. In recent times, you see, the relevant policy rate has been, not the Fed's discount rate--the rate at which it extends discount-window loans--but the federal funds rate, to which, in the good old day's before the recent recession, it assigned a target value, to be achieved using open-market operations, by means of which the supply of federal funds (that is, overnight loans of bank reserves) would be either increased or reduced sufficiently to bring the funds rate to its target level. A decision to "lower interest rates" by the Fed thus tended to imply a decision to expand the monetary base by adding to the Fed's security holdings. Thus, although low rates didn't necessarily mean "easy" money, a decision to target lower rates did at least tend to mean more money.
Back in the 20s, on the other hand, a lowering of the Fed's policy rate--here, not the federal funds rate but the discount rate--might not even imply an increase in Fed lending or security purchases. In reducing its discount rate from 6.5% to 4.5%, for example, the Fed merely allowed banks possessing the requisite commercial paper to discount that paper with it at the newly reduced rates. Whether they would do so, however, depended on whether the rates in question were low, not merely compared to previous rates, but relative to market rates generally or, again, to "natural" rates. If not, the volume of discounting might not budge, and the lower rates would not imply any actual monetary expansion, except perhaps relative to the contraction that might have ensued had rates remained high.
So, did the Fed, by lowering its discount rate, actually give the U.S. economy a dose of monetary stimulus? It did not, as can be readily seen by referring to the chart below, reproduced from Nathan Lewis's New World Economics blog:
As you can see from the chart, although there was some increase in "bills discounted" in response to the Fed's lowering of its discount rate, the increase was slight compared to the massive decline in total Fed non-gold assets since 1920. What's more, it was more-or-less perfectly--and by implication quite intentionally--offset or "sterilized" by means of Fed sales of government securities. The Fed's contribution to recovery, in short, consisted, not of any actual monetary stimulus, but of a mere cessation of what had been a precipitous decline in its interest-earning asset holdings.
This isn't to say that monetary expansion played no part in the post-1921 recovery. In fact, it played a significant part. But the expansion that took place was due solely to gold inflows, which were themselves encouraged by relatively high interest rates as well as by falling prices--that is, by the normal working of the price mechanism rather than by activist Fed policy. (In the 30s as well, by the way, such recovery as took place was entirely the result not of Fed easing--or of fiscal stimulus--but of the dollar's devaluation and subsequent gold inflows from Europe.) That gold flows (as opposed to Fed easing) contributed to the post-1921 recovery is itself a fact that Jim Grant readily acknowledges; his book's 17th chapter is called "Gold Pours into America."
In fine, far from having overlooked the real cause of the recovery, as his critics claim, Grant seems to have gotten it just right, whereas they all seem to have been led astray by an interest-rate red-herring.
While preparing this post I was unaware of Bob Murphy's reply to Krugman's remarks, which is very much worth reading.
I visited Quito and Guayaquil in Ecuador last month to speak at conferences celebrating the fifteenth anniversary of official dollarization. The conference in Quito was sponsored by the Universidad de San Francisco de Quito, headed by Dr. Santiago Gangotena; in Guayaquil by the think tank IEEP which is headed by Dora de Ampuero. Although dollarization is popular and successful, the government appears to be working to undermine it. Here are some highlights from the remarks I prepared.
Dollarization and Free Choice in Currency
The dollarization of Ecuador was not chosen by policy-makers. It was chosen by the people. It grew from free choices people made between dollars and sucres. The people preferred a relatively sound money to a clearly unsound money. By their actions to dollarize themselves, they dislodged the rapidly depreciating sucre and spontaneously established a de facto US dollar standard. (Many commentators refer to this decentralized process of voluntary currency switching “unofficial dollarization.” I prefer to call it popular dollarization, or dolarización popular.) Finally, in January 2000, Ecuador’s government stopped fighting their choice. Until that point the state tried to use legal penalties or subsidies to slow currency switching. Today the state threatens an attempt to reverse the people’s choice through legal compulsion. Such policy actions violate the widely accepted principle that the individual is sovereign over his or her own household property.
Everyone knows that free and open competitive markets better serve consumers (and producers) than state-granted monopolies. For example, it is clearly better for consumers to have several mobile phone companies competing for their business than to be subject to monopoly pricing from a single state-licensed monopoly. To make economic policy with the individual’s welfare in mind requires policy-makers to respect the principle of individual sovereignty in markets.
Many economists have thought, however, that currency is an exception to the rule. They don’t understand how there can be a competitive choice among currencies. Theory tells them that “network effects” ensure that a single monetary standard (silver, gold, US dollar, sucre, Mexican peso, euro, et cetera) prevails in any economy. The usual policy conclusion from this line of argument is that, since the market will only have a single provider in any case, the state should run the monetary system in the public interest.
Such economists are only looking at the blackboard and not at what is happening outside the window. (Evidently they have never lived where multiple currencies have been widely used.) Transactional network effects do exist, not only at the national level but at the global level: other things equal, you prefer to use the money that more of your trading partners use. Ecuadorans chose the US dollar over (say) the Swiss franc precisely because of such network effects. But current network size is not the only characteristic that matters to consumers and businesspeople when choosing among currencies for use in transacting, saving, or posting prices. The costs of holding and using a currency also matter. When people are free to choose, they will abandon an established currency, no matter how locally dominant, that is being so rapidly issued that its purchasing power is rapidly disappearing. If the established monetary standard could never be dislodged by free choice, then Ecuador would still be using the sucre.
Economists or policymakers who argue against a country’s dollarization, even when its people clearly demonstrate a preference for the dollar, either fail to think about dollarization as a market phenomenon that grows from individual choices, or they don’t believe that individuals deserve respect. Instead they think about the monetary system only as a tool to be engineered and manipulated by expert policy analysts (presumably themselves). They conduct themselves not as citizen advocates, but as technical advisors to the state.
Ecuador’s success with dollarization
Although some local critics of dollarization in 1999 predicted that the transition from the sucre to the dollar would cause a deep recession with high unemployment, the opposite happened. Due to high inflation, the people had of course already dollarized themselves by the end of 1999. Making dollarization official in January 2000 helped to complete the transition from the disorder of a collapsing currency to the calm of a relatively stable currency. The economy did not fall further into recession but responded with growth. After a steep drop in real output in 1999 (-4.74%), output growth returned to the positive range in 2000 (1.09%), then resumed a healthy pace in 2001 and 2002 (4.02% and 4.10%). Growth under dollarization has continued to be much healthier than under the sucre regime. From 2000 to 2013, Ecuador’s real GDP grew 75% in total, a compound annual rate of 4.4%. During the previous 13 years, 1987 to 2000, total real growth was only 36%, an annual rate of only 2.4%.
Today, the Ecuadoran economy is doing quite well on several standard macroeconomic indicators. The American economist Steve Hanke provides one way to rank its performance in his article in the magazine Globe Asia in May 2014. There he defines and applies a “misery index” in which a country’s current misery index = inflation rate + lending interest rate + unemployment rate (all bad things), minus per capita GDP growth over the previous year (a good thing). Venezuela has the worst score, the #1 highest measured macroeconomic misery not only in South America, but in the world. Ecuador’s score is the best in South America. Is dollarization responsible? Yes. The only two countries with better scores in Latin America are El Salvador and Panama, the only other dollarized countries.
Dollarization has also brought improvement to Ecuador’s banking system, according to two analysts at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. Mynam Quispe-Agnoli and Elena Whisler, in a 2006 article, noted correctly that dollarization, by ruling out an official lender of last resort able to create dollar bank reserves with the push of a button, eliminates an important source of moral hazard. In this way dollarization has the potential to reduce risky bank behavior, and thus so “make banks runs less likely because consumers and businesses may have greater confidence in the domestic banking system.” Lacking the expectation that “the monetary authority would come to the rescue of troubled banks” whether solvent or insolvent, banks in a dollarized system “have to manage their own solvency and liquidity risks better, taking the respective precautionary measures.”
We have long seen this benefit realized in the stability of banks in offshore centers like the Cayman Islands, the Bahamas, Jersey and Guernsey, and Panama, which have no official lenders of last resort – and no crises. The Atlanta Fed analysts saw it being realized in Ecuador as well. Ecuadoran banks now hold higher reserves and a greater share of liquid assets overall, and hold safer asset portfolios than in the 1990s. Just as importantly, because it has eliminated large swings in the inflation rate and in the expected inflation rate, dollarization “fosters an environment beneficial to financial intermediation.” In particular, it encourages the public to hold greater bank deposits (the ratio of deposits to GDP in Ecuador, which was just below 20 percent in 2000, is today just above 30 percent) and thereby provides a greater volume of funds to investors. On the lending side, loan quality has improved because banks no longer face loan default risks due to exchange rate swings that render borrowing firms unable to repay. Meanwhile, as compared to a system with partial dollarization, banks themselves have become less prone to large devaluation losses, because dollarization eliminates the devaluation risk that used to arise from currency mismatches on bank balance sheets.
While 15 years is only a fraction of a century, it is not too much to hope that Ecuador’s banking system is following in the path of Panama’s. With more than a century of dollarization, Panama has the deepest financial markets and most efficient banks in Latin America.
To summarize, official dollarization in Ecuador has (1) lowered inflation, (2) fostered financial deepening and thereby real growth, and (3) lowered transaction costs for importing, exporting, and making remittances. What it has not done, of course, is to limit the growth of government spending while government revenue has grown, although it has eliminated the ability to cover deficits by printing money.
While we celebrate Ecuador’s fifteen years of success with dollarization, and think about extending it, we must take note of two dark clouds on the horizon.
First, Ecuador still has a central bank. Although the BCE is presently precluded from issuing paper currency, it continues to be assigned by public law “the responsibility of implementing the monetary, credit, foreign exchange and financial policies formulated by the Executive.” Why? We should have no doubt that the Executive would dearly love to once again have a monetary policy to conduct. We should expect the BCE’s own funcionarios to seek to enlarge the scope of the bank’s discretionary powers, if only in the sincere hope that they could do more good. But we know that the direction of greater discretion in monetary policy leads back toward the conditions of 1999. With dollarization, a central bank is completely unnecessary.
Second, I have been learning with concern – as I am sure you have – about the plans of the national government of Ecuador to issue its own digital mobile-phone currency. The idea is for the Banco Central to issue dollar-denominated electronic credits that customers of the government-owned mobile phone network CNT can use to make payments by phone. As the Associated Press reported August 2014: “Such mobile payments schemes are already popular in African nations including Kenya and Tanzania, where they are privately run. The new currency was approved, and stateless crypto-currencies such as Bitcoin simultaneously banned, by Ecuador’s National Assembly last month. The official in charge of the new currency, Fausto Valencia, said the software is already used in Paraguay by cellphone companies.”
There is no reason to believe that a national government can run a mobile payment system more efficiently than private firms like Vodafone (which originated and runs the successful M-Pesa system in Kenya) and Tigo (which runs the Giros Tigo system in Paraguay). Why not let the private mobile phone companies also compete to provide mobile payments in Ecuador, issuing their own dollar-denominated account credits? Instead they are banned unless they use the government’s credits. Such a ban is costly to ordinary consumers. Evidence from around the world shows that payment by mobile account credits is the type of service that firms in a competitive market can produce, will produce when there is a normal rate of return to be earned, and produce at lower cost than state-owned enterprises.
The government insists that its new system will be “voluntary.” But when the state gives itself a monopoly on a service, blocking individuals from the voluntary choice to use another provider, the option to “take it or leave it” is not fully voluntary. If the government sincerely wishes to help the poor and unbanked, it should let private providers enter the competition, which will drive down the fees that the poor and unbanked will have to pay.
It is very curious that a law supposedly seeking to provide the poor with low-cost access to payment systems would ban Bitcoin. (The only other country in South America to ban Bitcoin appears to be Bolivia.) In countries that receive income from remittances, Bitcoin has the potential to noticeably increase national income by lowering the cost of remittance. What the family in the home country receives is much closer to the amount that the worker abroad has paid to send when the worker uses Bitcoin rather than Western Union or another old-fashioned high-priced system. Researchers at the Pew Center in the United States estimate that remittances account for about 3% of Ecuador’s GDP. In 2012 the average Ecuadoran working in the United States sent home $2607 dollars. So this is not a trivial matter. Bitcoin remittances could contribute many dollars to the pockets of Ecuador’s poor.
A report from the news service Payment Week says of the government’s mobile payment project: “The currency will serve as… a way for the country to regain some control over its economic system. The production of the new currency would completely depend upon demand.” But these two sentences can’t both be true. The new system can’t both allow the government to “regain some control” over the economy and also make the volume of credits “completely depend on demand,” which implies that the government is passive and exercises no control.
Given that is doesn’t make economic sense, why does the government want to issue mobile payment credits as a monopolist? It seems likely that the project is meant as a fiscal measure. One million dollars held by the public in the form of government-issued credits is a million-dollar interest-free loan from the public to the government. According to Payment Week, “The government has said it won’t use the [new] currency to fund public spending,” but this is hard to fathom. If the project makes a profit, where else would the profit go?
If the government can make a profit at mobile payments, even though they have no expertise or comparative advantage in the area, surely Movistar or Claro can operate more efficiently and make larger profits, even while charging lower fees. Why not let the private sector operate in this area? Why not let the public choose which firm has the most reliable and trustworthy service? If the government desires to subsidize the use of the service by the poor, it has the option of issuing them vouchers. It need not provide the service itself, and certainly not as a monopolist.
Personally, I would find dollar-denominated account credits that are claims on Movistar or Claro more credible than claims on the government of Ecuador. After all, unlike the government, neither company defaulted on its bonds in the past 12 years. Claims on private companies are legally enforceable. The company cannot suspend payment or devalue its IOUs without taken to court and forced to pay or dissolve. Competition for business compels payment firms them to worry about reputation, and so compels them to manage the business so that their readiness, ability and willingness to pay is not in doubt. A government agency, by contrast, cannot be sued for breach of contract, and has no concern about maintaining a good reputation when it has no competitors. If CNT or the BCE decides to devalue mobile credits against the US dollar, holders have no remedy in court. People who are thinking about holding the credits need to consider the default risk. The “backing” requirements in the law are completely toothless against a government that chooses to default.
In sum, there is no plausibly efficient or honorable reason for the Ecuadoran government to go into the business of providing an exclusive medium for mobile payments. Consequently it is hard to make any sense of the project other than as fiscal maneuver that paves the way toward official de-dollarization. I gather that President Correa does not like the way that dollarization limits his government’s power to manage the economy. He has compared the limitation to “boxing with one arm.” But as I have already emphasized, retiring the government from boxing against the economy by means of money-printing is precisely dollarization’s great virtue.
That's the title of my contribution to Cato's online forum on "Reviving Economic Growth." The forum anticipates a conference on "The Future of U.S. Economic Growth" being held at Cato all day tomorrow.
My forum piece is an edited version of a somewhat longer paper I plan to publish separately.
Happy Thanksgiving to all of my fellow free bankers out there!
Today is our biggest secular national holiday. Not everyone celebrates Christmas or Easter much less other national holidays like Memorial Day or Labor Day, but I don't know anyone who doesn't like Thanksgiving. So, as we sit around eating turkey or some other dinner of thanks, remember also that we acknowledge the beginning of native currency competition in America. While there was always competing use of different national currencies (basically different denominations and weights of gold and silver) in what would become the American colonies, and in that sense America was founding on free banking principles, Thanksgiving gives us a time to remember the birth of a truly American free banking experience.
Yes, wampum was, arguably, the first native American free banking episode. Here is the description of the birth of the first native American currency, wampum, from the 1883 Ancient Landmarks of Plymouth by William T. Davis, the former president of the Pilgrim Society (pp. 57-9):
No legal-tender scheme, in these later days, has been bolder in its conception, or more successful in its career than that of the Pilgrim Fathers, which, with the shells of the shore, relieved their community from debt, and established on a permanent basis the wealth and prosperity of New England. Many of the Indian tribes not acquainted with the use of wampum, were instructed in its use and before the enterprise could be successfully carried out, and adopted it greedily when when it was fully understood. This currency of the early days was made from purple and white parts of the quad-haug shell, round, about a sixteenth of an inch in thickness, and a quarter of an inch in diameter, with a hole in the middle for stringing on strings of bark or hemp, the purple and white alternating on the string, the purple of double the value of the white, and the while value at five shillings per fathom.
Unfortunately, the success was relatively short-lived. Here is a follow up to that development in the Rhode Island colony by Oliver Payson Fuller, The Hisory of Warwick Rhode Island: Settlement in 1642 to the Present Time published in 1875 (pp. 59 and 70) explaining,
The currency of the colony, wampum page, which had been in use from the earlier settlement, had fallen so low in value that was declared to be no longer legal tender. The other colonies had abandoned it some time previously. Massachusetts had commenced the coining of silver ten years before...
As there was no restriction in relation to the manufacture of peace, a large amount came early into circulation, and as early as 1649, a law was passed lowering the standard of black page one third, and four instead of three per penny was the legal rate.
There were even differences between new
Coke currency and classic English currency even of the same name, explains Fuller, p. 70, "Forty shillings of the New England currency was equivalent to thirty shillings of English currency."
I guess this shows that inflation is as American as apple pie--though some things are definitely sweeter than inflation.
I'm so dizzy my head is spinning
Like a whirlpool it never ends
And its you, girl, making it spin
You're making me dizzy*
Tell me I'm not with it, if you must, but the fact is that until a couple of days ago I'd never heard of Izabella Kaminska, who bills herself as a "finance blogger" and believer in something called the "collaborative economy," in which sharing things takes the place of buying and selling them, the result being, she claims, a reduced carbon footprint.
Although I rather doubt that we're likely to witness an end to our "propensity to truck and barter" anytime soon, I don't doubt that such an event would in fact reduce carbon emissions: there would, for one thing, be a lot less less breathing going on. But what concerns me isn't Ms. Kaminska's general economic philosophy, to call it that. It's her vertiginous spin on free banking, which she saw fit to air this past week, first on FT Alphaville, and then on a blog of her own called, appropriately enough, Dizzynomics.
All this might have gone happily unremarked had the Econ Blogosphere's Grand Pooh Bah not seen fit to deem the last of these disorienting missives worthy of his readers' attention. And so it happens that, Despicable Free Banking Nobody though I am, I find myself submitting, for The Rt. Hon. GPB's consideration, my own humble post, the gist of which is that Ms. Kaminska hasn't the foggiest idea what she's talking about.
Because I addressed some errors in Ms. Kaminska's FT post in comments to that post itself, I'll embellish a bit here rather than repeat myself.
In discussing the founding of the Bank of England, Kaminska refers to the risk that "a private syndicate" took in "lending money to" the "UK" government. Let pass the anachronism. What matters is that the arrangement in question involved, not a loan directly made by the parties in question, but one made from the proceeds of a public stock offering, the lure for which consisted of monopoly powers the new Bank was expected to command. The stock sold in 12 days, and though the investors (again, not the scheme's principals) could hardly avoid taking some risk, their gamble had every appearance of being a darn safe one. According to Sir John Clapham (History of the Bank of England i, p. 20), among the various projects being floated in those times, "the Bank with its Parliamentary backing, its high sounding name, and its guaranteed income from the taxes was a very attractive proposition. The speed of the subscription need not surprise those more familiar than any pamphleteer of 1695 could be with how and why men invest."
I comment in the FT post itself on Kaminska's suggestion that the Bank of England was particularly effective at enhancing England's prosperity, so let me add here some brief excerpts from the source I referred to in that comment: Rondo Cameron's chapters on "England" and "Scotland" from his edited volume, Banking in the Early Stages of Industrialization (Oxford University Press, 1967). "The English banking system from 1750 to 1844, " Cameron observes, "was far from ideal in its contributions to either stability or growth of the economy as a whole." Topping Cameron's list of that system's infirmities is the Bank of England itself, whose "contributions to industrial finance were negligible, if not negative." Regarding Scotland Cameron says, in contrast, first, that despite having been "a poor country by any standard" in 1750, it "stood with England in the forefront of the world's industrial nations" a century later, and, second, that "the superiority of its banking system stands out as one of the major determining factors" of this relatively rapid growth.
Ms. Kaminska's estimate of the contribution of the Bank of England's monopoly privileges toward British economic stability is just as unfounded as her opinion regarding its contribution toward British prosperity. "Before the Bank knew it," she writes, "its notes had become the most liquid and trusted in the land." Actually, because the Bank didn't even bother to have branches beyond London before 1826, its notes were until that time seldom seen beyond the metropolis. (Nor, prior to the French wars, did the Bank issue notes for less than the princely sum of 10 quid.) If the Old Lady's notes were nonetheless judged safer than those of country banks, that was because those banks were severely under-capitalized and under-diversified. And why was that? Because they were not only denied Joint-Stock status, but subject to a rule limiting their ownership to six partners or fewer. In short the country banks--the only sort, remember, allowed to operate wherever the Bank of England chose not to--were by law prevented from achieving any reasonable degree of financial diversification and strength. Here we see how, like most apologists for central banks, Ms. Kaminska fails to appreciate how the advantages commanded by such banks have as their precise counterpart limitations imposed upon all others. Little wonder so many English country banks fell victim to the Panic of 1825! Contrast, again, the situation in Scotland at the time, with three chartered banks and twenty-nine provincial ones, all commanding nationwide branch networks, and not one bank failure since a private bank failed in 1816--and even that one paying 19s on the pound! "Certainly Scotland," Sir John observes, "appeared to have secrets of sound banking that England might inquire into."
Ms. Kaminska is sanguine enough to allow that the Bank of England's powers tempted it to engage in "imprudent money-printing." But she spoils this lapse from her otherwise unalloyed confidence in the benevolence of state-sponsored monopolies by adding, gratuitously, that the bank was "not helped by the fact that [it] still had to compete with a whole bunch of private banks who were just as keen to issue money to an equally imprudent degree." But, as I've noted, "compete" with "private" (meaning, presumably, country) banks is just what the Bank did not do, at least not until after 1826. Instead, by the terms of its charter it subjected them to inhibiting constraints, and then, having led them on by means of its own generous discounts, reversed course and...let them fend for themselves. (For evidence, see the relevant section of my article, "Bank Lending 'Manias' in Theory and History.")
Kaminska can at least take credit for originality in reporting that, during the 1840s, "a terrible inflation" took hold in England, and that it was to combat that outbreak that Peel's 1844 Act was passed. Alas, the claim owes its originality to the fact that there's not an ounce of truth to it. The same may be said for her claim that the Scottish system was stable only because Scottish bankers "were so good at forging oligopolistic cartels that happily restricted competition." As I noted in my FT comments, there's no evidence that limited entry was a source of any significant monopoly power in Scottish banking. (On the contrary: the system was notoriously efficient.) Nor is there any evidence that Scottish banks policed one another other than by engaging in regular note exchanges, as they would have been no less compelled to do had entry into the industry been open. But let us assume, for the sake of argument, that Ms. Kaminska is correct in holding that oligopoly was the cause of the Scottish system's superior stability. Then why, one wonders, does she not grant that a similar oligopoly might also have made England better off than it managed to be with its patently unstable blend of monopoly and hamstrung polypoly?
In 1833, thanks to a the efforts of the great Thomas Joplin, the terrible Six Partner Rule was partially circumvented by way of the discovery that its language encompassed note-issuing banks only, and not mere banks of deposit. The Bank of England thus faced for the first time competition from other joint-stock banks. Such are the facts. And what does Ms. Kaminska's make of this development? First, that it came, not in 1833--that is, well ahead of Peel's Act--but "in the latter half of the 19th century"; and, second, that it occurred, not because a clever banker discovered a loophole in the law aimed at severely restraining the Bank of England's rivals, but supposedly because restrictions imposed by Peel's Act on the Bank of England itself created "conditions" favoring the rise of "a new type of unregulated" bank. "Some history" indeed.
Ms. Kaminska concludes her remarks on English versus Scottish banking with a long excerpt from the Bank of England's web pages, telling of how it "established the concept of lender of last resort" in the wake of the crises of 1866 and 1890. Had the "concept" thrust down its throat, by Walter Bagehot, is closer to the truth. What that great man had to say concerning the respective merits of the English ("one reserve") and Scottish ("natural") systems is, or ought to be, too well known to warrant repeating.
In her Dizzynomics follow up Ms. Kaminska adds little to the substance of her FT argument against free banking, such as it is, preferring instead to heap anathemas upon free bankers, who according to her reckoning are thick on the ground (were it only so!), and whom she regards as "reason and logic deniers" incapable of grasping the fact "that whenever we've had free-banking systems they've resulted in chaos or alternatively co-beneficial collusion to the point were the system is not free by the standard definition of free."
No one, so far as I know, has ever claimed that the systems generally held out as examples of "free" banking--Scotland, of course, and Canada before 1914, among others--were perfectly so. Not me. Nor Kevin Dowd. Nor Larry White. Nor any other free banker I know. Of course those systems weren't perfectly free. No banking system ever was. Nor has Hong Kong ever witnessed free trade in all its unsullied glory. So what? The question is always whether the examples come close enough to serve as evidence of the likely consequences of the fully-realized alternative. Was Scottish banking, to return to that case, "close enough" to shed light on the consequences of truly free banking? The debate on that question was joined some years back, with Larry White weighing in in the affirmative against the counterarguments of Murry Rothbard, Larry Sechrest, and Tyler Cowen and Randy Kroszner, among others. Ms. Kaminska, having found the opposition's case neatly summarized in a blog post, simply overlooks White's rejoinders. She overlooks as well the not-insignificant body of theoretical work using induction aided by deduction rather than deduction alone to draw inferences about the likely consequences of unalloyed freedom in banking.
Kaminska herself needs no theory, on the other hand, to reach the conclusion that genuinely free banking, unlike the Scottish mongrel, must lead to "chaos." How can she know? As she offers neither evidence nor argument, one must hazard a guess. Mine is that she is referring to the U.S. banking system between the demise of the second Bank of the United States, in 1836, and the outbreak of the Civil War, and that she imagines, as many people do, that because a half-dozen states passed so-called "free banking" laws during that interval, it qualifies as one of perfect freedom from any sort of bank regulation. Excuse me for having had to suppress a yawn just now--it is a long post, after all, and fatigue is setting in, quite possibly for us both. Suffice to say, then, that old banking myths die hard, and that this especially hoary one about U.S. "free banking" seems harder to kill than Rasputin himself. That it is mostly hokum is nonetheless easily established: just have a look at any post-1975 work by an economic historian on the subject, including the locus classicus, Hugh Rockoff's The Free Banking Era: A Re-Examination (Arno, 1975). (A later survey piece is here.)
A misreading of the same U.S. experience seems also to inform several of the obiter dicta that follow Kaminska's opening thrust, including her claim that free bankers fail to "appreciate that it was standardizing certain subjective [?] values like weights, distances, time [sic] itself that has allowed society to cooperate, grow and thrive." (Because antebellum state banking laws generally prohibited branching, state banknotes tended to be subjected to discounts when encountered any distance from their source; in contrast, in the Scottish and Canadian systems, where banks were free to establish branch networks, banknote discounts were unknown.) Ditto her belief that free bankers "advocate a Wild West model where no one can trust anyone and everyone has to do due diligence themselves." (Though it's true that the antebellum [old] west was inundated by all sorts of phony bank paper, that result came about, not because banking was unregulated there, but because territorial authorities, by having outlawed it, made their citizens perfect targets for phony notes purporting to come from legitimate banks down east. Where banking was more, though not perfectly, free, as in 19th century Canada or Scotland, in contrast, it sufficed to trust one bank, and to accept only those notes regarded as current at that bank, to avoid trouble.)
I hope I've said enough to suggest why I find it remarkable than anyone should take Ms. Kaminska's ramblings on free banking (or, I now feel justified in saying, on any subject whatsoever) seriously. Perhaps no one does. Still I wish Tyler hadn't given those ramblings more currency by advertising them, without the benefit of critical comment, on Marginal Revolution: here, surely, is a case where sharing adds to rather than subtracts from the world's burden of hot air.
*Tommy Roe, "Dizzy."
The good news is Wycomb member Steve Baker's excellent speech in Parliament on "Money Creation and Society," the transcript of which I copy below in full.
The bad news is this silly response in FT Alphaville, to which your correspondent has appended a comment.
* * *
Money Creation and Society
Steve Baker (Wycombe) (Con): I beg to move,
That this House has considered money creation and society.
The methods of money production in society today are profoundly corrupting in ways that would matter to everyone if they were clearly understood. The essence of this debate is: who should be allowed to create money, how and at whose risk? It is no wonder that it has attracted support from across the political spectrum, although, looking around the Chamber, I think that the Rochester and Strood by-election has perhaps taken its toll. None the less, I am grateful to right hon. and hon. Friends from all political parties, including the hon. Members for Clacton (Douglas Carswell) and for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) and the right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher), for their support in securing this debate.
One of the most memorable quotes about money and banking is usually attributed to Henry Ford:
“It is well enough that people of the nation do not understand our banking and monetary system, for if they did I believe there would be a revolution before tomorrow morning.”
Let us hope we do not have a revolution, as I feel sure we are all conservatives on that issue.
How is it done? The process is so simple that the mind is repelled. It is this:
“Whenever a bank makes a loan, it simultaneously creates a matching deposit in the borrower’s bank account, thereby creating new money.”
I have been told many times that this is ridiculous, even by one employee who had previously worked for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation of the United States. The explanation is taken from the Bank of England article, “Money creation in the modern economy”, and it seems to me it is rather hard to dismiss.
Today, while the state maintains a monopoly on the creation of notes and coins in central bank reserves, that monopoly has been diluted to give us a hybrid system because private banks can create claims on money, and those claims are precisely equivalent to notes and coins in their economic function. It is a criminal offence to counterfeit bank notes or coins, but a banking licence is formal permission from the Government to create equivalent money at interest.
There is a wide range of perspectives on whether that is legitimate. The Spanish economist, Jesús Huerta de Soto explains in his book “Money, Bank Credit and Economic Cycles” that it is positively a fraud—a fraud that causes the business cycle. Positive Money, a British campaign group, is campaigning for the complete nationalisation of money production. On the other hand, free banking scholars, George Selgin, Kevin Dowd and others would argue that although the state might define money in terms of a commodity such as gold, banking should be conducted under the ordinary commercial law without legal privileges of any kind. They would allow the issue of claims on money proper, backed by other assets—provided that the issuer bore
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all of the risk. Some want the complete denationalisation of money. Cryptocurrencies are now performing the task of showing us that that is possible.
The argument that banks should not be allowed to create money has an honourable history. The Bank Charter Act 1844 was enacted because banks’ issue of notes in excess of gold was causing economic chaos, particularly through reckless lending and imprudent speculation. I am once again reminded that the only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.
Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab): I welcome today’s debate. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point about learning from history. Does he agree with me that we should look seriously at putting this subject on the curriculum so that young people gain a better understanding of the history of this issue?
Steve Baker: That is absolutely right. It would be wonderful if the history curriculum covered the Bank Charter Act 1844. I would be full of joy about that, but we would of course need to cover economics, too, in order for people to really understand the issue. Since the hon. Gentleman raises the subject, there were ideas at the time of that Act that would be considered idiocy today, while some ideas rejected then are now part of the economic mainstream. Sir Robert Peel spent some considerable time emphasising that the definition of a pound was a specific quantity and quality of gold. The notion that anyone could reject that was considered ridiculous. How times change.
One problem with the Bank Charter Act 1844 was that it failed to recognise that bank deposits were functioning as equivalent to notes, so it did not succeed in its aim. There was a massive controversy at the time between the so-called currency school and the banking school. It appeared that the currency school had won; in fact, in practice, the banks went on to create deposits drawn by cheque and the ideas of the banking school went forward. The idea that one school or the other won should be rejected; the truth is that we have ended up with something of a mess.
We are in a debt crisis of historic proportions because for far too long profit-maximising banks have been lending money into existence as debt with too few effective restraints on their conduct and all the risks of doing so forced on the taxpayer by the power of the state. A blend of legal privilege, private interest and political necessity has created, over the centuries, a system that today lawfully promotes the excesses for which capitalism is so frequently condemned. It is undermining faith in the market economy on which we rely not merely for our prosperity, but for our lives.
Thankfully, the institution of money is a human, social institution and it can be changed. It has been changed and I believe it should be changed further. The timing of today’s debate is serendipitous, with the Prime Minister explaining that the warning lights are flashing on the dashboard of the world economy, and it looks like quantitative easing is going to be stepped up in Europe and Japan, just as it is being ramped out in America—and, of course, it has stopped in the UK. If anything, we are not at the end of a great experiment
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in monetary policy; we are at some mid point of it. The experiment will not be over until all the quantitative easing has been unwound, if it ever is.
We cannot really understand the effect of money production on society without remembering that our society is founded on the division of labour. We have to share the burden of providing for one another, and we must therefore have money as a means of exchange and final payment of debts, and also as a store of value and unit of account. It is through the price system that money allows us to reckon profit and loss, guiding entrepreneurs and investors to allocate resources in the way that best meets the needs of society. That is why every party in the House now accepts the market economy. The question is whether our society is vulnerable to false signals through that price system, and I believe that it is. That is why any flaws in our monetary arrangements feed into the price system and permeate the whole of society. In their own ways, Keynes and Mises—two economists who never particularly agreed with one another—were both able to say that currency debasement was the best way in which to overturn the existing basis of society.
Even before quantitative easing began, we lived in an era of chronic monetary inflation, unprecedented in the industrial age. Between 1991 and 2009, the money supply increased fourfold. It tripled between 1997 and 2010, from £700 billion to £2.2 trillion, and that accelerated into the crisis. It is simply not possible to increase the money supply at such a rate without profound consequences, and they are the consequences that are with us today, but it goes back further. The House of Commons Library and the Office for National Statistics produced a paper tracing consumer price inflation back to 1750. It shows that there was a flat line until about the 20th century, when there was some inflation over the wars, but from 1971 onwards, the value of money collapsed. What had happened? The Bretton Woods agreement had come to an end. The last link to gold had been severed, and that removed one of the most effective restraints on credit expansion. Perhaps in another debate we might consider why.
Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the end of the gold standard and the increased supply of money enabled business, enterprise and the economy to grow? Once we were no longer tied to the supply of gold, other avenues could be used for the growth of the economy.
Steve Baker: The hon. Gentleman has made an important point, which has pre-empted some of the questions that I intended to raise later in my speech. There is no doubt that the period of our lives has been a time of enormous economic, social and political transformation, but so was the 19th century, and during that century there was a secular decline in prices overall.
The truth is that any reasonable amount of money is adequate if prices are allowed to adjust. We are all aware of the phenomenon whereby the prices of computers, cars, and more or less anything else whose production is not determined by the state become gently lower as productivity increases. That is a rise in real living standards. We want prices to become lower in real terms compared to wages, which is why we argue about living standards.
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Sir William Cash (Stone) (Con): My hon. Friend is making an incredibly important speech. I only wish that more people were here to listen to it. I wonder whether he has read Nicholas Wapshott’s book about Hayek and Keynes, which deals very carefully with the question that he has raised. Does he agree that the unpleasantness of the Weimar republic and the inflationary increase at that time led to the troubles with Germany later on, but that we are now in a new cycle which also needs to be addressed along the lines that he has just been describing?
Steve Baker: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. What he has said emphasises that the subject that is at issue today goes to the heart of the survival of a free civilisation. That is something that Hayek wrote about, and I think it is absolutely true.
If I were allowed props in the Chamber, Mr Speaker, I might wave this 100 trillion Zimbabwe dollar note. You can hold bad politics in your hand: that is the truth of the matter. People try to explain that hyperinflation has never happened just through technocratic error, and that it happens in the context of, for example, extremely high debt levels and the inability of politicians to constrain them. In what circumstances do we find ourselves today, when we are still borrowing broadly triple what Labour was borrowing?
Ann McKechin (Glasgow North) (Lab): I am interested to hear what the hon. Gentleman is saying. He will be aware that the balance between wages and capital has shifted significantly in favour of capital over the past 30 years. Does he agree that the way in which we tax and provide reliefs to capital is key to controlling that balance? Does he also agree that we need to do more to increase wage levels, which have historically been going down in relation to capital over a long period of time?
Steve Baker: I think I hear the echoes of a particularly fashionable economist there. If the hon. Lady is saying that she would like rising real wage levels, of course I agree with her. Who wouldn’t? I want rising real wage levels, but something about which I get incredibly frustrated is the use of that word “capital”. I have heard economists talk about capital when what they really mean is money, and typically what they mean by money is new bank credit, because 97% of the money supply is bank credit. That is not capital; capital is the means of production. There is a lengthy conversation to be had on this subject, but if the hon. Lady will forgive me, I do not want to go into that today. I fear that we have started to label as capital money that has been loaned into existence without any real backing. That might explain why our capital stock has been undermined as we have de-industrialised, and why real wages have dropped. In the end, real wages can rise only if productivity increases, and that means an increase in the real stock of capital.
To return to where I wanted to go: where did all the money that was created as debt go? The sectoral lending figures show that while some of it went into commercial property, and some into personal loans, credit cards and so on, the rise of lending into real productive businesses excluding the financial sector was relatively moderate. Overwhelmingly, the new debt went into mortgages and the financial sector. Exchange and the distribution of wealth are part of the same social process. If I buy an apple, the distribution of apples and money will change. Money is used to buy houses, and we
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should not be at all surprised that an increased supply of money into house-buying will boost the price of those homes.
Mr Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley) (Lab): This is a great debate, but let us talk about ordinary people and their labour, because that involves money as well. To those people, talking about how capitalism works is like talking about something at the end of the universe. They simply need money to survive, and anything else might as well be at the end of the universe.
Steve Baker: The hon. Gentleman is quite right, and I welcome the spirit in which he asks that question. The vast majority of us, on both sides of the House, live on our labour. We work in order to obtain money so that we can obtain the things we need to survive.
The hon. Gentleman pre-empts another remark that I was going to make, which is that there is a categorical difference between earning money through the sweat of one’s brow and making money by lending it to someone in exchange for a claim on the deeds to their house. Those two concepts are fundamentally, categorically different, and this goes to the heart of how capitalism works. I appreciate that very little of this would find its way on to an election leaflet, but it matters a great deal nevertheless. Perhaps I shall need to ask my opponent if he has followed this debate.
My point is that if a great fountain of new money gushes up into the financial sector, we should not be surprised to find that the banking system is far wealthier than anyone else. We should not be surprised if financing and housing in London and the south-east are far wealthier than anywhere else. Indeed, I remember that when quantitative easing began, house prices started rising in Chiswick and Islington. Money is not neutral. It redistributes real income from later to earlier owners—that is, from the poor to the rich, on the whole. That distribution effect is key to understanding the effect of new money on society. It is the primary cause of almost all conflicts revolving around the production of money and around the relations between creditors and debtors.
Sir William Cash: My hon. Friend might be aware that, before the last general election, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) and I and one or two others attacked the Labour party for the lack of growth and expressed our concern about the level of debt. If we add in all the debts from Network Rail, nuclear decommissioning, unfunded pension liabilities and so on, the actual debt is reaching extremely high levels. According to the Government’s own statements, it could now be between £3.5 trillion and £4 trillion. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is extremely dangerous?
Steve Baker: It is extremely dangerous and it has been repeated around the world. An extremely good book by economist and writer Philip Coggan, of The Economist, sets out just how dangerous it is. In “Paper Promises: Money, Debt and the New World Order”; a journalist from The Economist seriously suggests that this huge pile of debt created as money will lead to a wholly new monetary system.
At the 32nd Annual Monetary Conference on November 14, 2014, I presented my paper "Bitcoin Will Bite the Dust", which was co-written with Martin Hutchinson. Below is the transcript of my talk and PowerPoint slides. I welcome your comments. A video of the panel is available on Cato's website (my talk starts at minute mark 7:30).
The PowerPoint slides to accompany the talk are here.
[Slide 1]. Good morning everyone. Bitcoin is the most radical innovation in the monetary space for a long time: an entirely private system that runs itself and does not depend on trust in any central authority. Instead, it relies on distributed trust – trust in the network – to maintain the integrity of the system. We can well understand the attractions of such a system – a tamper proof money supply, no monetary discretion, no QE, no central bank.
There is only one small problem: despite its success to date, Bitcoin is not sustainable. This means it will collapse. What cannot go on, will stop.
Let’s go back to basics. As a first pass, compare Bitcoin to the stone money in Milton Friedman’s case study. In this story, the people of the island of Yap in Micronesia used large round limestone disks as money. These were too heavy to move, so when ownership was to be transferred, the owner would publicly announce the change in ownership. The stone would remain where it was and the islanders would maintain a collective memory of the ownership history of the stones.
Similarly, in Bitcoin, the record of all transactions, the blockchain, is also public knowledge. Both the stone money and Bitcoin share a critical feature: both operate via a decentralized collective memory.
[Slide 2]. Bitcoin is a type of e-cash system in which there is no central body to authorize transactions; instead, these tasks are carried out collectively by the network. The network verifies transactions through competition between individual bitcoin ‘miners’ seeking rewards in the form of new bitcoins. It is this competition that maintains the integrity of the system. This takes us to Bitcoin’s value proposition.
[Slide 3]. The first point is that the system does not depend on trust on any one body to keep its promises; instead, the only trust required is distributed trust. The second point is that it has no single point of failure: it cannot be brought down by knocking out any particular entity. The third point is a high degree of anonymity. This has enabled some bitcoiners to operate outside of government control. Bitcoin is a dream come true for anarchists, criminals and proponents of private money. The fourth pillar of the value proposition is security against tampering: this comes from the incentive-compatibility built into the system. Underlying that, security comes from the Bitcoin protocol, the Constitution of the system. These features ensure that players play by the rules and that bitcoins are not over-issued.
[Slide 4]. Unfortunately, there is a fundamental contradiction at the heart of the system. The problem is that it requires atomistic competition on the part of the miners who validate transactions blocks. However, the mining industry is characterized by large economies of scale. In fact, these economies of scale are so large that the industry is a natural monopoly. The problem is that atomistic competition and a natural monopoly are inconsistent: the inbuilt centralization tendencies of the natural monopoly mean that mining firms will become bigger and bigger – and eventually produce an actual monopoly.
There are not one but two reasons to see mining as a natural monopoly. The first is based on risk aversion. If two miners merge their operations, they get the same expected return as if they mined on their own, but they obtain a return with a higher probability. If miners are risk averse, they are better off by pooling and sharing their profits. But if it makes sense for any two individual miners to pool, it makes sense for any two groups of miners to pool. The limiting case is then one big mining pool, a monopoly.
The second reason for a natural monopoly is even stronger: the negative externalities of competitive mining. The expected marginal benefit from mining depends on the amount of hash power expected by an individual miner, but the difficulty of mining depends on the hash power expended across the network. Individual miners do not take into account the negative cost externalities that their own activities impose on other miners. We then get an equilibrium in which excessive resources are devoted to mining activities: there is excessive use of bandwidth, excessive use of energy and excessive investment in computing resources. In the early days, a home PC could produce hundreds of bitcoins a day; now, a state of the art mining machine can expect to mine only a fraction of a bitcoin a day. We estimate that the energy power devoted to bitcoin mining has increased by a factor of at least 10 billion. Most of this is pure waste as the system could be maintained on a single server. A single operator could avoid most of this waste.
The implications of these centralizing tendencies are totally destructive of the Bitcoin system. They destroy every single element of its value proposition: one by one, the dominos fall down.
[Slide 5]. The first casualty is decentralized trust. Once the individual miners coalesce into a dominant player, then that entity has control over the system: it decides which transactions are to be deemed valid, and which are not. We then have to trust that entity not to abuse its position and are back to the trust model that Bitcoin had tried to escape from.
Going back to our island of stone money, imagine if everyone woke up one morning unable to remember who owned which stones. However, one individual still claims that he can remember and helpfully offers to remember for everyone else. One wonders how well that would work!
By this point, the dominant player has taken control over the system: it becomes the monarch – albeit, a constitutional monarch still constrained by the Bitcoin protocol. Once that dominant player emerges, it also becomes a point of failure of the whole system: one can bring down the system by taking him out. One could imagine Uncle Sam being very interested: if he wanted, he could now take Bitcoin down and stop all that money flowing to the bad guys he is after.
The next casualty is anonymity. A dominant player cannot possibly operate in a clandestine manner beyond the knowledge of law enforcement. And if it cannot operate anonymously, then it cannot escape government regulation. Anonymity would then disappear. The likelihood is that the government would destroy anonymity at a stroke by requiring that the dominant player insist that users register themselves by providing photo ID, social security numbers and proof of address.
It would also become clear that the system no longer assures incentive compatibility. In fact, it never did: it’s just that the system’s incentive compatibility weaknesses took time to become clear.
The last domino to fall would be the Bitcoin protocol. The protocol no longer provides any discipline on the system, because the dominant player can rewrite it at will. At some point the temptation to tamper with it would be too much to resist. Just a like a modern central bank, it would start throwing out bits of the protocol it didn’t like – like the bits that constrain over-issue of bitcoins. The Bitcoin monarchy would then become an absolute monarchy - assuming that there was anyone else left in the system by then.
The question crying out for an answer is why users of bitcoin would continue to have any confidence in the system when every single element of its value proposition had been kicked down. The obvious answer: they wouldn’t.
Remember also that the willingness of any individual to accept bitcoin is entirely dependent on his or her confidence that other people will continue to accept it. There is nothing in the system to anchor the value of bitcoins because bitcoins have no alternative use-value. They are not like gold or tulips.
Nor is there any rational reason to trust in the dominant player to behave itself. Trust comes from credible assurances – it comes from credible precommitment, a willingness to post performance bonds and to submit to account. There is simply no way that a shadowy dominant mining pool can provide such assurances. I doubt it would be willing to anyway.
The most prominent mining pool is GHash.IO. Here is a snapshot from its homepage [Slide 6].
The page announces that GHash is the number 1 mining pool, is trusted by 300k users, and dates all the way back to late 2013(!). We don’t know for sure who is behind it or where it is based. What we do know is that it has a logo that looks like the hammer and sickle and it has a bad rep. It pointedly refuses to adhere to the principles of high-level Bitcoin idealism that the other players adhere to. It has also been associated with a double-spend attack on a gambling website last year. Very reassuring.
Now this might just be coincidence: GHash also shares its name with a character in the film Ghostbusters. Here is a picture [Slide 7].
Cute critter, eh? In the film, Ghash is a power-obsessed poltergeist who pulls other ghosts into a massive mouth in his torso. Once swallowed up, they are drained of their powers until there is nothing left. Meanwhile, Ghash gets bigger and more powerful. By the time the ghostbusters encounter him, he had become too powerful to control: he was able to shoot beams from his eyes, pull up floorboards, disarm the ghostbusters and throw them around at will. Perhaps GHash is a spectral entity in more ways than one!
John Pierpont Morgan once said that the essence of banking is character. Someone I do not trust would not get any money from me on all the bonds in Christendom, he said. We don’t see much of that character here! If you really trust such an outfit with your wealth, we have a bridge to sell you. In any case, there is no reason to want to trust such an entity when you can use reputable systems such as PayPal instead.
[Slide 8].Anyway, return to the main storyline: The whole Bitcoin system eventually becomes a house of cards: there is nothing within the system to maintain confidence in the system, and anything – a scandal, a government attack, whatever – could trigger a loss of confidence leading to a run that brings down the entire system. The rational decision is to sell before that happens. If enough individuals think the same way – and why shouldn’t they? – their expectations will become self-fulfilling: there will be a stampede for the exit, the price of bitcoin will drop to its intrinsic value – zero – and the system will collapse. Only question is when. With the specter of GHash hovering over the system, our guess is soon.
Now I dare say our message is a disappointment to Bitcoiners. I share that disappointment: it would have been great if Bitcoin could displace government money. However, Bitcoin is an experiment, most experiments fail – and Bitcoin is another failed experiment. I don’t wish it so, but that is the way it is. We make this prediction before the event: if we are wrong, we will eat humble pie afterwards. But we don’t think so.
There is also the Bitcoiner lunatic fringe. Their response to even the mildest criticism is to foam at the mouth and hurl abuse at wicked Disbelievers. To them we say: OH DO GROW UP! And if you won’t listen to us, take Voltaire’s advice: “To succeed in life it is not enough to be stupid. You must also have good manners.”
In the meantime, Bitcoin is a sell. Thank you.
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