Britain’s productivity paradox

In 2012 the British economy created 580,000 new jobs yet output stagnated; more work produced the same amount of stuff. Indeed, British workers were producing 2.6 percent per hour less in Q3 2012 than in Q1 2008. Labour productivity is now 12.8 percent below its pre-recession trend.

This phenomenon, of increasing inputs producing an unchanged or decreasing amount of output, which has been christened Britain’s ‘productivity puzzle’, is one of the most perplexing in current economic debate. Indeed, even Nobel laureate Paul Krugman recently declared himself stumped.  

It’s an important debate both politically and economically. Politically, because Labour can point to grim GDP figures and claim the coalition is failing while the coalition can point to impressive job growth and claim they are succeeding. Economically, because increasing productivity, producing as much with less or more with as much, is the root of increasing wealth.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies recently offered three explanations for this decline in labour productivity. First, the fall in real wages thanks to inflation has seen firms retain and/or take on more labour. Second, business investment remains 16 percent below the pre-crash peak giving workers fewer tools to work with. Third, record low interest rates and forbearance on the part of banks is propping up inefficient enterprises.

There is a grain of truth in all these explanations but we might be missing the wood for the trees. Perhaps the actual explanation for the productivity puzzle is both simpler and more profound. Labour productivity is determined by two things: the skill of labour, and the quantity and quality of the capital at the disposal of that labour. On both fronts Britain has done pretty poorly.

Britain’s labour force is losing its qualitative advantage over others, notably in East Asia, thanks to a hideously dysfunctional state education system. According to the Programme for International Student Assessment which compares students across countries, in 2000 Britain ranked 7th in reading, 8th in maths and 4th in science. By 2008 it had slumped to 17th in reading, 24th in maths, and 14th in science. Any measures which can improve this dismal performance could be expected to improve British labour productivity in the longer term.

It is a similar story regarding the capital available to its workers. In 2001 it was estimated that a British worker had 25 percent less capital to work with than an American worker, 40 percent less than a French worker, and 60 percent less than a German worker. Why is capital so vital and how might we get more of it?

There are two types of goods: capital goods and consumption goods. Consumption goods are those that immediately meet our needs, what Carl Menger called “goods of first order”. Capital goods, what Menger called “goods of higher order”, are those which meet our needs indirectly. Bread is a consumption good, the flour and the milling stone (among others) are capital goods.

If our need is to eat we can satisfy it immediately via the labour intensive method of picking apples from trees or berries from bushes. Obviously this source of food would sustain very many less people on much more monotonous diets than we have today. We are able to eat more and better because we have capital which enables us not only to produce and consume more but also to produce and consume things we couldn’t have before with purely labour intensive methods.

Thus, to borrow Murray Rothbard’s example, Robinson Crusoe could pick 20 berries per hour from a bush by hand but could shake 50 berries out in an hour with a stick. Alternatively Crusoe could make the milling stone, grind the flour, and undertake the other capital production needed to make a loaf of bread. He could enjoy something he couldn’t enjoy in any quantity at all previously.

But making the stick or the milling stone will take time, time we cannot spend either picking berries or relaxing. We must forgo an act of consumption, either of berries or of leisure. We must save, in other words. This is the essential truth of capital accumulation; it comes from saving.

So does maintenance of the capital stock. To borrow from Rothbard again, a truck with a working life of fifteen years which makes 3,000 trips can be said to be using up 1/3,000 of itself each time it participates in the transformation of bread from ‘higher order’ wholesale to ‘first order’ sandwich. If saving is not undertaken to allow for the replacement of the truck at the end of the fifteen years this production process will cease. The capital, the truck, will have been consumed in every loaf it carried on those 3,000 journeys.

This is why countries that grow rich are those that save; they accumulate the capital per worker which enables them to produce ever greater amounts. In the late 18th century British textile workers earned six times what Indian textile workers earned because they had the capital goods to make them six times more productive. This is why we see saving nations in the Far East becoming wealthier as we wonder how our current standard of living will be maintained.

Britain, meanwhile, has some of the lowest savings rates even in the generally savings-averse developed world. We are seemingly attached to the Keynesian idea that consumption, rather than something we do when we are rich, is something we do to become rich. We have a government which can hand out leaflets on budget day telling savers they are on their side while turning a blind eye to quantitative easing and 0.5 percent base rates.

The result is that by deskilling and capital consumption we have become a lower productivity, lower wage economy. There is only a puzzle because we are reluctant to face this grim truth. Greece was recently reclassified as an emerging market. Might Britain be on its way to joining her?    

This article originally appeared at The Commentator

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Heavens on Earth: Exploiting human ingenuity

The social sciences provide few controlled experiments; there is no Cern Laboratory for sociology or economics. But the 20th century provided something rather close.

The impoverished, war-torn Korean peninsula was split in two, the North trying communism and the South opting for capitalism. After 60 years South Koreans are on average three inches taller than North Koreans and live 12 years longer.

Germany and its capital city were split down the middle in 1945, the west going capitalist and the east going communist. The architects of the Workers’ Paradise in the east had to build walls to stop the unappreciative proles escaping to the west to be exploited. And then the Workers’ Paradise collapsed.

The results of these experiments have proved problematic for statists. In recent years the economist Ha-Joon Chang has become popular on the left for arguing that the economic success of West Germany and South Korea relative to their eastern and northern neighbours is not because of a lack of state intervention but because they had just the right kind of intervention in just the right amount. For Chang there is nothing inherently wrong with a Gosplan, you just have to make sure you have the right boffins drawing it up.

In his new book, Heavens on Earth, JP Floru utterly rejects this argument. He takes eight case studies, from Britain’s Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries to Singapore’s journey to prosperity, and argues that the spectacular results achieved came from the release of market forces. Where Chang prescribes intensive government involvement in the economy, Floru recommends that politicians and bureaucrats set up a solid legal framework then get out of the way.

Economically speaking, the source of the increase in wealth these countries experienced was increasing productivity, the production of as much with less or more with as much. The increase in the quantity of goods and services available for consumption which this permits is the essence of increasing wealth.

The Theory of Comparative Advantage, outlined by David Ricardo 200 years ago, extends this worldwide. As a unit a country will grow rich if it produces goods or services for which the inhabitants of other countries are willing to exchange the goods and services they have produced. And countries will see their terms of trade improve the more efficient, or productive, they are.

Floru’s argument echoes that of Douglas Carswell’s recent book The End of Politics, its central feature the ‘Hayekian Knowledge Problem’. Economics is, as Alfred Marshall wrote, “a study of mankind in the ordinary business of life. It examines that part of individual & social action  which is most closely connected with the attainment and with the use of material requisites of well-being”.

It is not, as much mainstream neo-classical economics would suggest, the study of the allocation of given resources among known ends via some identified production function. It is, in fact, the study of the process of the discovery of all these things; resources, ends, and means.

The knowledge of how best to produce cars, linen, or financial services does not exist in some one place where one of Ha-Joon Chang’s Platonic philosopher kings can simply go and get it prêt-à-porter. It is lurking somewhere, probably dispersed, in the vast collective brain made up of each individual in the wider economy, and it has to be discovered.

A free market economy is far better at tapping this collective brain and efficiently discovering and coordinating the hidden, dispersed information it contains than a state command system which relies on the brains of a handful of experts. That is the lesson of Korea and Germany.

There is an incredible amount of economic gloom as debts rocket, growth stagnates, and incomes fall in the developed world. But, as the United Nations recently reported,

“The world is witnessing a epochal ‘global rebalancing’ with higher growth in at least 40 poor countries, helping lift hundreds of millions out of poverty and into a new ‘global middle class’. Never in history have the living conditions and prospects of so many people changed so dramatically and so fast”.

Thanks to free market capitalism more people are living better than ever before.

Since at least 1798, when Ricardo’s friend Thomas Malthus predicted a destiny of misery for mankind, there have been people warning of an imminent end to our material progress. But whatever the situation with regard to his material resources, one truly inexhaustible resource man possesses is his (or her) ingenuity, or human capital in the economists’ terminology. A system which allows for the maximum exploitation of this ingenuity, of its discovery and coordination, remains humanity’s best hope for the ever more prosperous future which is on offer.

In 1776 Adam Smith wrote that “Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice”. JP Floru’s excellent new book performs the vital service of reaffirming this fundamental lesson.

This article originally appeared at The Commentator

Why do smart people still choose Keynes over Hayek?

The ridiculous and the sublime

On October 17th a group of concerned economists wrote to the Times. The current economic woes, they wrote, were down to insufficient spending/increased saving. “[W]hen a man economizes in consumption”, they argued, “and lets the fruit of his economy pile up in bank balances or even in the purchase of existing securities, the released real resources do not find a new home waiting for them.” Crucially, “In present conditions their entry into investment is blocked by lack of confidence.” The government should step in and spend to make up the shortfall they said.

On October 19th another group of economists replied with their own letter to the Times. They believed that the cause of the economic problems was monetary mismanagement which had created “a deficiency of investment-a depression of the industries making for capital extension, &c., rather than of the industries making directly for consumption.” They argued for the necessity of increased saving to readjust this and explicitly rejected any role for government spending, writing that “many of the troubles of the world at the present time are due to imprudent borrowing and spending on the part of the public authorities.”

But this was October 1932 and the letters were written by John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich von Hayek. It says much about the essentially static nature of economic knowledge that an 80 year old debate remains so compelling today that it continues to inspire radio shows, debates, books, and even rap-offs.

Keynes’s economics, in a nutshell, argues that of the two components of ‘effective demand’, consumption and investment, investment is prone to volatile swings. As Keynes put it, investment spending was reduced when their expected payoff, the Marginal Productivity of Capital, dipped below the cost of financing them, the interest rate.

Why might this happen? “Animal spirits” was Keynes’ answer; “Don’t ask me guv” in other words. Whatever it was that tipped investors from optimism into effective demand-sapping pessimism is exogenous to the model; it cannot be accounted for by it.

Either way, the policy prescriptions of the Keynesian model are obvious. Financing costs must be held down with low interest rates and the Marginal Productivity of Capital must be underwritten by a government guarantee to purchase, with deficit spending if need be, whatever output industry might produce. Low interest rates and deficit spending. That is the Keynesian prescription for prosperity.

Hayek’s theory is very different. For Hayek, when low interest rates cause an expansion of credit, this credit flows into some parts of the economy before others. This blows up bubbles in the affected part of the economy, be it in housing, internet stocks, or tulips.

At some point, Hayek argues, the inflationary effect of this credit expansion overwhelms any wealth effect and interest rates begin to rise. With no further credit available to purchase the bubble assets the prices of these assets and their attendant industries collapse. This is the bust.

A major difference between Hayek’s theory and Keynes’s is that for Hayek the bust as well as the boom is endogenous to the model, it is explained by it. The bust isn’t caused by “animal spirits” switching inexplicably out of the clear blue sky, but by the predictable outcome of actions undertaken in the boom.

As Hayek’s model is radically different from Keynes’s, radically different prescriptions follow from it. Viewing the cycle as a whole Hayek believed that preventing a future bust was as important as fighting the current one and he proposed measures to limit the ability of banks to swell credit, his favoured solution being competing currency issue by banks.

More immediately, Hayek argued that as the bubble assets and attendant industries had been pumped up by unsustainable injections of inflationary credit, they could only be liquidated; any attempt to preserve their value would only prolong the bust or, as bad, set another cycle in motion. Sound money and non-intervention was the prescription of Hayek and his fellow Austrian Schoolers.

Looking back over the last few years you have to ask how intelligent people, examining the evidence, can still choose Keynes over Hayek. In both Britain and America we had monetary policy makers working to keep financing costs down with low interest rates. We had governments running budget deficits and applying fiscal stimulus to economies which were already growing. We followed the Keynesian prescription for prosperity and we still ended up with a bust – a bust which Hayekians, with their superior model, saw coming.

The answer lies in the prescriptions. Keynes, with his cheap credit and shower of borrowed money, is a pleasant prospect. Indeed, Paul Krugman, one of the most uncompromising modern Keynesians, believes that “Ending the depression should be incredibly easy”, all we need is cheaper credit and more borrowing. Just, in fact, what we had going into the crisis.

Hayek, on the other hand, offers a more painful prospect. As his mentor Ludwig von Mises put it:

There is no means of avoiding the final collapse of a boom brought about by credit expansion. The alternative is only whether the crisis should come sooner as the result of a voluntary abandonment of further credit expansion, or later as a final and total catastrophe of the currency system involved”

Which of these vistas would you prefer to gaze upon?

But these theories should be judged not on how warm and fuzzy they make us feel but on how accurate they are. On that score Hayek wins hands down yet some still cling doggedly to Keynes. It’s for the same reason the aunt who gives you chocolates is preferred to the aunt who makes you do your homework.

This article first appeared at The Commentator

London Mises Circle November Meet Up

Hayek with Harris and Seldon at the IEA

The seminars hosted by Ludwig von Mises, first in Vienna and later in New York, have a key place in the history and development of Austrian economics. Such figures as Hayek, Rothbard, and Hazlitt all attended.

Inspired by this the London Mises Circle is holding a seminar at the Institute of Economic Affairs at 6:30pm on November 1st.

The resurgence in popularity of Austrian Business Cycle Theory in recent years has prompted renewed criticism of ABCT. In a recent article A Reformulation of Austrian Business Cycle Theory in Light of the Financial Crisis one of the leading Austrians, Joseph Salerno of Pace University, responds to some of these criticisms and makes some additions and refinements to ABCT. We will be aiming to discuss these at November’s meeting.

All are welcome. If you have any questions please email londonmisescircle@gmail.com.

Class war, Adam Smith, and the Marginal Productivity Theory of Distribution

Father and son

There is a pleasure almost cruel in seeing someone deploy irrefutable logic to destroy an opponent’s arguments. I felt it this week reading George Reisman’s Open letter to Warren Buffett where the well booted doctrines of Karl Marx got another kicking. By now Marx and his followers ought to be used to this sort of punishment at the hands of Austrians. Eugen von Böhm Bawerk produced his devastating destruction of Marx’s economics, Karl Marx and the Close of His System, back in 1896.

But Paul Samuelson was right when he said that “Karl Marx can be regarded as a minor post-Ricardian”. Marx simply took the aggregative, labour value theory based economics of David Ricardo and took them to their dismal and erroneous conclusions. And when Reisman writes “The doctrine of class warfare is a derivative of the exploitation theory, whose best-known proponent is Karl Marx” we ought to point out that it is found also in Ricardo’s predecessor Adam Smith.

Class War in The Wealth of Nations

Book One, Chapter VIII, of The Wealth of Nations is titled ‘Of the wages of labour’.  Smith charts the development from a situation of subsistence production where “the whole produce of labour belongs to the labourer” via the emergence of private property (which gives rise to rent) and stock (which gives rise to profit) to one where a payment for a good must be divided between the labourer (wages), the landlord (rent), and the stockholder (profit).

Smith goes on to say that “It seldom happens that the person who tills the ground has wherewithal to maintain himself till he reaps the harvest. His maintenance is generally advanced to him from the stock of a master, the farmer who employs him and who would have no interest to employ him, unless he was to share in the produce of his labour, or unless his stock was to be replaced to him with a profit” Smith says that “The produce of almost all other labour is liable to the like deduction of profit”.

Here we have the genesis of the Marxist theory of the workers alienation from the means of production, exploitation, and ‘class war’. Workers do not receive the full product of their labour as they did in the “early and rude state of society which precedes…the accumulation of stock and the appropriation of land”. Instead, this product goes to the stockholder as profit and the labourer receives wages.

With wages, Smith states, “The workmen desire to get as much, the masters to give as little as possible”. We have Marx’s “contending classes”. Smith goes on

It is not, however, difficult to foresee which of the two parties must, upon all ordinary occasions, have the advantage in the dispute, and force the other into a compliance with their terms. The masters, being fewer in number, can combine much more easily…In all such disputes the masters can hold out much longer. A landlord, a farmer, a master manufacturer, or merchant, though they did not employ a single workman, could generally live a year or two upon the stocks which they have already acquired. Many workmen could not subsist a week, few could subsist a month, and scarce any a year without employment. In the long-run the workman may be as necessary to his master as his master is to him, but the necessity is not so immediate.

Smith argued that wages would rise when an economy was growing but otherwise he posited a clear general tendency for wages to feel only downward pressures. From this flowed the idea of the ‘subsistence wage’ with which Malthus earned economics the tag of “the dismal science” and Lasalle’s Iron Law of Wages. Wages will stagnate, Smith argues, and profits will rise. Warren Buffett would not disagree.

But looking at the passage from Smith we can see much wrong with it, or at least, much that has no application today.

First, Smith says that stockholders are “fewer in number” than labourers and thus have a kind of oligopoly power. The error here, perhaps less when Smith was writing, is to regard labour as homogeneous. It isn’t. Skills, like capital, can be specific to a certain role and, thus non-transferable. Just as a “tractor is not a hammer”, Joleon Lescott is not Mariah Carey. You wouldn’t consider putting Mariah Carey on Darren Bent at corners and you probably wouldn’t want to hear Joleon Lescott sing Without You.

It follows that workers with different skills are not substitutes for one another; they are not, in other words, in competition. No brain surgeon ever accepted a lower wage from the fear that the hospital might hire a juggler instead.

Of course, where labour is unskilled it is homogeneous and we would expect to see the increased competition for jobs and resultant low wages which we do. At this skill level, also, capital can be substituted for labour providing a further downward pressure. The answer here is not to raise the banner of class warfare but to accumulate skills.

Second, Smith says that stockholders “can combine much more easily”. However, in practical experience, such cartels are always plagued with problems as we see with OPEC. If a cartel sets a minimum price there is always the temptation for one member to sell below that price and capture the market. Although here we are considering the case where a cartel is setting a maximum price for its labour inputs, the analysis is unchanged as we shall see.

Wages and the Marginal Productivity Theory of Distribution

Thirdly, Smith contends that “In all such disputes the masters can hold out much longer”. This might well be true but the question has to be asked; why would they? If, by hiring a worker at £30,000 per year a stockholder would increase his profit by £40,000 per year, why would that stockholder hold out, throwing away £10,000, in an attempt to drive the worker down to £20,000?

It could be said that the stockholder will lose out on £10,000 this year but will gain £20,000 in every subsequent year. But Smith said that stockholders were “fewer in number”, not that there was only one, so there are those cartel problems. Thus, if, in the initial period, stockholder A is willing to forgo £10,000 and hold out for a wage of £20,000 stockholder B will step in and offer the worker £30,000. He will make £10,000 profit while stockholder A makes nothing. There is a saying about stepping over a dollar to pick up a penny, in this case stockholder B picks up both.

Indeed, if the worker adds £40,000 to profits it makes sense for the stockholder to employ them at any wage up to that (tax wedges notwithstanding). We have arrived, as economists did after 1870, at the Marginal Productivity Theory of Distribution. This simply states that a factor (labour or capital) will be paid to the value of its marginal product.

So, if hiring a first barman generates £100 a week extra profit for a pub landlord that barman will be paid up to £100. If, however, hiring a second barman adds only £80 a week the marginal product of bar staff has fallen to £80 a week and so will the wage even of the first. If hiring a third barman adds just £50 a week and no one will take the job at that wage no one else will be hired and £80 a week will be the wage.

Of course, if there are two barmen earning £80 a week one could go on a cocktail course. His mojito’s might prove a draw, his marginal product will rise and so will his wage. By doing the course, ‘upskilling’, the first barman is differentiating his labour from that of barman two. Their labour is heterogeneous.

Smith himself saw a situation where in a growing economy, one in which the profits of stockholders were increasing, demand for labour would also increase. In this case “The scarcity of hands occasions a competition among masters, who bid against one another, in order to get workmen, and thus voluntarily break through the natural combination of masters not to raise wages”.

However, as we’ve seen, because of heterogeneity on both the labour (due to non-transferable skills) and stockholder (due to cartel issues) sides of the wage bargain it is this which is the general case and not the previously enunciated tendency for wages to fall and profits to rise. Because some ‘hands’ are skilled at some things and other ‘hands’ at other things there is at any given time a “scarcity of hands” in any profession requiring a modicum of skill. And because we have a number of potential “masters” we have at any given time “competition among” them.

Both profits and wages can rise together and the zero sum thinking of Marx and Buffett can be discounted. But Adam Smith’s role in this thinking should not be forgotten either.

This article first appeared at The Cobden Centre

Is the bond bubble the biggest yet?

Forever blowing bubbles

In March 2000 the NASDAQ Composite index broke. From a peak of 5,048.62 on March 10th, 24 percent up on late 1999, the NASDAQ Composite had slumped to half that by the end of the year.

The bursting of the dot com bubble sent unemployment shooting up from less than 4 percent in late 2000 to 5.75 percent in late 2001. And it stayed there. Indeed, American unemployment didn’t peak until mid 2003 when it hit 6.25 percent.

As unemployment refused to budge and inflation slowed in early 2001 Alan Greenspan acted. Between January 2001 and June 2003 Greenspan slashed the Fed funds rate from 6.5 percent to 1 percent where it stayed until June 2004.

The effects are well known. With the economic foundations in place for an asset boom, institutional factors took over to decide which asset would do the booming. In this case government action like the Community Reinvestment Act, government bodies like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and a minefield of moral hazard in a financial sector which knew it would be bailed out of any trouble, combined to direct the flood of credit into housing.

All booms and busts follow this pattern. An expansion of credit unsupported by real savings provides an economic base for a boom bust cycle and the institutional superstructure dictates which asset or assets will be the locus.

Since the credit crunch of 2007, and especially since the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, central banks around the world have indulged in a massive expansion of credit not backed by savings. This looks very much like the foundation for another boom bust cycle. Where will it originate?

The trick is to follow the money and this means examining the institutional factors. Central banks have pumped their money into banks, who have sat on it, and, via Operation Twist, the EFSF, Quantitative Easing, or whatever, into government bonds. Is this where we will see the next bubble?

Let’s take a moment to explain how bonds work. If I want to borrow £100 I can issue a £100 bond with a maturity of one year, meaning that a year from now I will have to pay the buyer of the bond £100.

But I am unlikely to be loaned the full £100 by the person who buys the bond. If they did they would be giving me £100 now in return for £100 365 days from now. But to a buyer these two things, £100 now and £100 next year, are not the same.

The reason for this is time preference which is the basis of interest. If you are offered £100 which you can have today or £100 which you can have next year (the situation our lender is in) time preference dictates that you will prefer to get the £100 today. In other words, even though £100 is £100, time has a value so that the same thing offered at different points in time will be valued differently.

Put simply, something today is valued higher than the same thing at some future point. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, as they say.

To offset your preference for the £100 today over the £100 next year I would need to change the offer so that you give me £100 now and I repay £105 next year. An interest rate of 5 percent has emerged.

So if you issue a £100 bond you might only get £95 for it, this being the bond price. But you will still have to hand over £100 on maturity; the £5 difference is the interest, or the yield in bond market parlance. (The yield would be given as 5.26 percent as it would be a percentage of the bond price not its face value)

From this it should be obvious that bond prices and yields move in opposite directions. If the price rose to £96 the yield would fall to £4 (4.16 percent) and if the price fell to £94 the yield would rise to £6 (6.38 percent). In some cases bond prices can rise above face value giving a negative yield, meaning that lenders are paying for the privilege of lending.

Bonds prices are subject to the same supply and demand pressures as any other. So when demand rises/supply falls we will see higher prices and lower yields, and when supply rises/demand falls we will see lower prices and higher yields.

Let’s step back into the real world. Greek bond yields are high because few believe they will get the face value on maturity which, given Greece’s hideous debt problems, is a reasonable assessment. There is little appetite for Greek bonds and, with budget deficits of 8 percent of GDP, there is plenty of debt for sale. Germany, meanwhile, has a relatively sounder economic outlook and low (even negative) yields.

But Britain has Greek levels of debt and German interest rates, a new bond market conundrum. One reason is that of the vast expansion of credit undertaken by the Bank of England since at least 2008 much has flowed into British government bonds. Currently the Bank holds about 25 to 30 percent of British government debt.

A bubble is where asset valuations become divorced from the fundamentals of that asset’s ability to produce a return. A government with sound finances backed by a robust economy should enjoy low bond yields. But does this sound like Britain’s government or economy?

By pumping bond prices up and yields down this monetary action has helped inflate a bubble in bonds just as surely as previous credit expansions have inflated other bubbles.

Is the bond bubble the biggest yet?

This article originally appeared at The Commentator

The euthanasia of the rentier: Why the assault on savers must end

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Take that thrift!

With the British economy flat lining, America’s stumbling, and Europe’s in a nosedive, the clamour is growing for policymakers to ‘do something’. The Bank of England is, once again, being urged to deploy the weapon of Quantitative Easing – the spending of newly created money on long term assets.

Would this do any good? It hasn’t so far. The truth is that money is not wealth, goods and services are, and a central bank simply producing more money does not make us wealthier. But if central banks can’t create more wealth by creating more money they can redistribute the wealth there is.

This has been happening in Britain for nearly four years. Between October 2008 and March 2009 the Bank of England slashed interest rates from 5 percent to the historic low of 0.5 percent. When this failed to reignite economic growth the Bank resorted to £325 billion worth of QE. Whereas the Bank usually works on the short term end of the Yield Curve when setting the base rate, with QE it set out to pull down the long term end.

The stated aim was to put money into banks to get them lending again. I’ll leave it to you to judge how far the programme has succeeded in that aim, but one predictable side effect has been to lower returns all along the curve.

And this matters. With policymakers pulling every trick to keep interest rates everywhere as low as possible, Britain’s savers are being ravaged. On one estimate they are being robbed of £18 billion per year. Simon Rose, of pressure group Save Our Savers, puts the figure savers have been stripped of at £100 billion since the start of the crisis, “a staggering amount of money” he says “given that it would pay for the Olympics ten times over.”

The Bank’s monetary shenanigans haven’t boosted growth (cheerleaders have fallen back on the old argument that they have, at least, staved off catastrophe – again, I’ll let you be the judge). They have caused a vast transfer of wealth away from Britain’s savers and towards debtors and zombie banks and this is bad economic policy for reasons of growth and stability.

An entrepreneur with an idea must spend money on premises, wages, and all kinds of other possible outlays before seeing a single penny in revenue. The only way the entrepreneur can fund this outlay is from savings, either their own or other people’s channeled through a financial institution.

An increase in saving allows this period between embarking on production and sale of the product to lengthen (or fund other production periods for other goods). The lengthening of the production period, in turn, permits more stages of production,increasing ‘roundaboutness’ as the Austrian economist Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk put it.

Take shelter, a basic human need. Without the savings to sustain us over a prolonged production period, the period between embarking on production and using the shelter must be short, perhaps as long as it takes us to find a cardboard box. But with savings we can extend the production period and introduce many more intermediate stages. We can purchase land, draw up plans, purchase materials, hire labour etc.

The story of human material progress can be characterized as the lengthening of production processes enabling ever more intermediate steps. In short, savers are the difference between a three bed terrace and a cardboard box.

This much is not controversial; almost all economists agree that saving is an indispensable ingredient of increasing wealth. But the attack on savings risks shorter term instability too.

Lowering the base rate and QE works the same way, just on different ends of the Yield Curve; assets are purchased from banks with money newly created by the Bank of England.  From the point of view of a bank there is no difference between money deposited with it by savers and money it receives from the Bank of England in return for financial assets; it can lend out and earn profits on both.

But from the point of view of the wider economy there is a huge difference between the two types of ‘savings’. When savers deposit their funds with a bank they are doing so because they wish to withdraw this money in the future to fund consumption then. The resultant fall in interest rates, which makes it possible for firms to borrow to invest in the means to supply this future consumption, represents the actual time preferences of economic agents.

The ‘fake savings’ of Bank of England deposits, however, represent no such thing. While they can be lent and borrowed to fund investment projects with longer production periods there has been no change in the time preference of economic agents. There will be no real savings to purchase the output of these enterprises in the future.

When this is revealed these unprofitable enterprises will be liquidated causing recession. It is, thus, only the deposits of savers which can provide the capital which allows for longer production processes and increasing wealth on a stable and sustainable basis.

In his ‘General Theory’ in 1936, John Maynard Keynes looked forward to “the euthanasia of the rentier” when interest rates would be driven to zero and capital would be free and abundant. This nonsense, as much as anything else he said, represents a threat to our economic growth and stability. The assault on savers must end.

This article originally appeared at The Commentator

Why the euro is working

It’s just misunderstood

The euro is a disaster. The single currency is falling apart because it does not have a central fiscal authority or a central bank capable of acting as lender of last resort standing behind it. Because of this it was doomed from the start and everybody knew it.

This line of thinking, stretching from the pages of the Telegraph to the New York Times, is so widespread that it might seem ridiculous to challenge it. Indeed, I subscribed to it myself. But lately I’ve been having second thoughts. Is it, in fact, possible that the euro is working in exactly the way it ought to be?

Let’s go back to basics and look at what we want our money to do. As I wrote recently

“The textbook functions of ‘money’ are familiar to anyone with a smattering of economics; a medium of exchange, a store of value, and a unit of account. But each of these functions is entirely dependent upon money maintaining its value. If the value of the pound fluctuates it is no more useful as a unit of account or measure than a twelve inch ruler which kept changing length. Money which declines in value is a poor store of value.

Historically, when its value declines beyond a certain point people stop storing their wealth in money and trade it for commodities as quickly as possible. This acceleration in velocity of circulation exacerbates the decline in value and can trigger hyperinflation. And money which is rapidly losing value can cease to fulfil the function of medium of exchange if people refuse to accept it, legal tender laws or not.

So the value of money must be maintained for it to serve its functions and value is determined by supply and demand. Money is demanded for transactions, buying and selling. A few coin collectors aside, people do not demand money for its own sake but because they wish, at some point in the future, to exchange it for goods or services.”

So what is the greatest threat to this maintenance of purchasing power which we desire from our money? Historically it has come from currency issuers, almost always governments, who have issued excess amounts of currency to pay their bills and caused a decline in the purchasing power of everyone else’s money in the process.

In the last century this was taken to lamentable extremes. John Maynard Keynes wrote in 1931 that “A preference for a gold currency (which could not be produced at will by monetary authorities) is no longer more than a relic of a time when governments were less trustworthy in these matters than they are now”

The following decades proved Keynes’s faith in politicians to be grossly misplaced. We’ve all heard of the Weimar inflation but over the twentieth century the dollar and the pound lost about 90 percent of their value. This didn’t happen smoothly. As D R Myddelton writes, during the Keynesian golden age “The pound’s purchasing power halved between 1945 and 1965; it halved again between 1965 and 1975; and it halved again between 1975 and 1980. Thus the historical ‘half-life’ of the pound was twenty years in 1965, ten years in 1975 and a mere five years in 1980”

As a result of such monetary mismanagement many countries sought a way to get their politicians’ hands off the printing press. No one was willing to go the whole hog and reintroduce the gold standard (which had tied the issue of currency to the amount of gold the issuer held) but the German model, with the Bundesbank independent from the government, was widely copied.

The whole point, to repeat, was to remove from government the power to print excessive amounts of money to cover their own expenses and, in doing so, ruin everyone else’s money. That considered, the euro is actually performing well.

Given the dire state of several eurozone economies, this may seem a bizarre thing to say. But can Spain’s horrific unemployment really be blamed on the euro when it hasn’t been under 8 percent since 1979? Is it really the fault of the euro that the Greeks chose to pay their pastry chefs, radio announcers, hairdressers, and steam bath masseurs (among 600 other “arduous and perilous” professions) a state pension of 95 percent of their final salary when they retire at 50?

Spain’s unemployment predates the euro and won’t be solved until a labour market which makes it practically impossible to hire and fire is reformed. Greece’s politicians have to stop promising Greeks that they can spend one third of their life retired, living on money borrowed from the Germans. ‘Reforming’ the euro can’t help with either of these. Indeed, by forcing governments to address these structural issues the euro could be seen to be doing them a service.

But these steps will have to be taken against the backdrop of a debt crisis. This is where calls for the European Central Bank to act as lender of last resort or for fiscal union to match monetary union are heard. The fatal flaw of the euro, these people say, is that it cannot be produced at will by governments to pay their bills.

But then, that is, and always was, the whole point. If a given country cannot pay its bills, is the solution for it to run the printing press and devalue everyone’s money or is it for that government to stop making spending commitments it can’t keep?

Countries like Greece are faced with massive borrowings in a currency which they cannot produce at will. Those who argue that this represents a fatal cleavage between monetary and fiscal policy and that a single fiscal policy must stand behind a single currency to bridge it are arguing that the solution is to put the power to make spending commitments in the same hands as the power to print money. The lessons of history are that this does not end well.

This article originally appeared at The Commentator

The euro – lessons from history

Dinner money

When currencies and monetary arrangements have broken down it has always been because the currency issuer can no longer fight the lure of the seigniorage to be gained by over issue of the currency. In the twentieth century this age-old impulse was allied to new theories that held that economic downturns were caused or exacerbated by a shortage of money. It followed that they could be combated by the production of money.

Based on the obvious fallacy of mistaking nominal rises in wealth for real rises in wealth, this doctrine found ready support from spendthrift politicians who were, in turn, supported by the doctrine.

Time and again over recent history we see the desire for seigniorage allied with the cry for more money to fight a downturn pushing up against the walls of the monetary architecture designed to protect the value of the currency. Time and again we see the monetary architecture crumble.

The classical gold standard

At the start of the twentieth century much of the planet and its major economic powers were on the gold standard which had evolved from the 1870s following Britain’s lead. This was based on the twin pillars of (1) convertibility between paper and gold and (2) the free export and import of gold.

With a currency convertible into gold at a fixed parity price any monetary expansion would see the value of the currency relative to gold decline which would be reflected in the market price. Thus, if there was a parity price of 1oz gold = £5 and a monetary expansion raised the market price to 1oz = £7, it would make sense to take a £5 note to the bank, swap it for an ounce of gold and sell it on the market for £7.

The same process worked in reverse against monetary contractions. A fall in the market price to 1oz = £3 would make it profitable to buy an ounce of gold, take it to the bank and swap it for £5.

In both cases the convertibility of currency into gold and vice versa would act against the monetary expansion or contraction. In the case of an expansion gold would flow out of banks forcing a contraction in the currency if banks wished to maintain their reserve ratios. Likewise a contraction would see gold flow into banks which, again, in an effort to maintain their reserve ratios, would expand their issue of currency.

The gold standard era was one of incredible monetary stability; the young John Maynard Keynes could have discussed the cost of living with Samuel Pepys without adjusting for inflation. The minimisation of inflation risk and ease of convertibility saw a massive growth in trade and long term cross border capital flows. The gold standard was a key component of the period known as the ‘First era of globalisation’.

The judgement of economic historians Kenwood and Lougheed on the gold standard was

One cannot help being impressed by the relatively smooth functioning of the nineteenth-century gold standard, more especially when we contemplate the difficulties experienced in the international monetary sphere during the present century. Despite the relatively rudimentary state of economic knowledge concerning internal and external balance and the relative ineffectiveness of government fiscal policy as a weapon for maintaining such a balance, the external adjustment mechanism of the gold standard worked with a higher degree of efficiency than that of any subsequent international monetary system

The gold exchange standard and devaluation

The First World War shattered this system. Countries printed money to fund their war efforts and convertibility and exportability were suspended. The result was a massive rise in prices.

After the war all countries wished to return to the gold standard but were faced with a problem; with an increased amount of money circulating relative to a country’s gold stock (a problem compounded in Europe by flows of gold to the United States during the war) the parity prices of gold were far below the market prices. As seen earlier, this would lead to massive outflows of gold once convertibility was re-established.

There were three paths out of this situation. The first was to shrink the amount of currency relative to gold. This option, revaluation, was that taken by Britain in 1925 when it went back onto the gold standard at the pre-war parity.

The second was that largely taken by France between 1926 and 1928. This was to accept the wartime inflation and set the new parity price at the market price.

There was also a third option. The gold stock could not be expanded beyond the rate of new discoveries. Indeed, the monetary stability which was a central part of the gold standard’s appeal rested on the fixed or slow growth of the gold stock which acted to halt or slow growth in the currency it backed. So many countries sought to do the next best thing and expand gold substitutes to alleviate a perceived shortage of gold. This gave rise to the gold exchange standard which was put forward at the League of Nations conference in Genoa in 1922.

Under this system countries would be allowed to add to their gold reserves the assets of countries whose currency was convertible into gold and issue domestic currency based on this expanded stock. In practice the convertible currencies which ‘gold short’ countries sought as reserves were sterling and dollars.

The drawbacks were obvious. The same unit of gold could now have competing claims against it. The French took repeated advantage of this to withdraw gold from Britain.

Also it depended on the Bank of England and Federal Reserve maintaining the value of sterling and the dollar. There was much doubt that Britain could maintain the high value of sterling given the dire state of its economy and the dollar was weakened when, in 1927, the Federal Reserve lowered interest rates in order to help ease pressure on a beleaguered sterling.

This gold exchange standard was also known as a ‘managed’ gold standard which, as Richard Timberlake pointed out, is an oxymoron. “The operational gold standard ended forever at the time the United States became a belligerent in World War I”, Timberlake writes.

After 1917, the movements of gold into and out of the United States no longer even approximately determined the economy’s stock of common money.

The contention that Federal Reserve policymakers were “managing” the gold standard is an oxymoron — a contradiction in terms. A “gold standard” that is being “managed” is not a gold standard. It is a standard of whoever is doing the managing. Whether gold was managed or not, the Federal Reserve Act gave the Fed Board complete statutory power to abrogate all the reserve requirement restrictions on gold that the Act specified for Federal Reserve Banks (Board of Governors 1961). If the Board had used these clearly stated powers anytime after 1929, the Fed Banks could have stopped the Contraction in its tracks, even if doing so exhausted their gold reserves entirely.

This was exacerbated in the United States by the Federal Reserve adopting the ‘real bills doctrine’ which held that credit could be created which would not be inflationary as long as it was lent against productive ‘real’ bills.

Many economists, notably Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek, have seen the genesis of the Depression of the 1930s in the monetary architecture of the 1920s. While this remains the most debated topic in economic history there is no doubt that the Wall Street crash and its aftermath spelled the end of the gold exchange standard. When Britain was finally forced to give up its attempt to hold up sterling and devalue in 1931 other countries became worried that its devaluation, by making British exports cheaper, would give it a competitive advantage. A round of ‘beggar thy neighbour’ devaluations began. Thirty two countries had gone off gold by the end of 1932 and the practice continued through the 1930s.

Bretton Woods and its breakdown

Towards the end of World War Two economists and policymakers gathered at Bretton Woods in New Hampshire to design a framework for the post war economy. Looking back it was recognised that the competitive devaluations of the 1930s had been a driver of the shrinkage of international trade and, via its contribution to economic instability, to deadly political extremism.

Thus, the construction of a stable monetary framework was of the most utmost importance. The solution arrived at was to fix the dollar at a parity of 1oz = $35 and to fix the value of other currencies to the dollar. Under this Bretton Woods system currencies would be pegged to gold via the dollar.

For countries such as Britain this presented a problem. Any attempt to use expansionary fiscal or monetary policy to stimulate the economy as the then dominant Keynesian paradigm prescribed would eventually cause a balance of payments crisis and put downward pressure on the currency, jeopardising the dollar value of sterling. This led to so called ‘stop go’ policies in Britain where successive governments would seek to expand the economy, run into balance of payments troubles, and be forced to deflate. In extreme circumstances sterling would have to be devalued as it was in 1949 from £1 = $4.03 to £1 = $2.80 and 1967 from £1 = $2.80 to £1 = $2.40.

A similar problem eventually faced the United States. With the dollar having replaced sterling as the global reserve currency, the United States was able to issue large amounts of debt. Initially the Federal Reserve and Treasury behaved reasonably responsibly but in the mid-1960s President Lyndon Johnson decided to spend heavily on both the war in Vietnam and his Great Society welfare program. His successor, Richard Nixon, continued these policies.

As dollars poured out of the United States, investors began to lose confidence in the ability of the Federal Reserve to meet gold dollar claims. The dollar parity came under increasing pressure during the late 1960s as holders of dollar assets, notably France, sought to swap them for gold at the parity price of 1oz = $35 before what looked like an increasingly inevitable devaluation. Unwilling to consider the deflationary measures required to stabilise the dollar with an election due the following year, President Nixon closed the gold window on August 15th 1971. The Bretton Woods system was dead and so was the link between paper and gold.

Fiat money and floating exchange rates

There were attempts to restore some semblance of monetary order. In December 1971 the G10 struck the Smithsonian Agreement which sought to fix the dollar at 1oz = $38 but this broke down within a few months under the inflationary tendencies of the Federal Reserve. European countries tried to establish the ‘snake’, a band within which currencies could fluctuate. Sterling soon crashed out of even this under its own inflationary tendencies.

The cutting of any link to gold ushered in the era of fiat currency and floating exchange rates which lasts to the present day. Fiat currency gets its name because its value is given by governmental fiat, or command. The currency is not backed by anything of value but by a politicians promise.

The effect of this was quickly seen. In 1931 Keynes had written that “A preference for a gold currency is no longer more than a relic of a time when governments were less trustworthy in these matters than they are now” But, as D R Myddelton writes, “The pound’s purchasing power halved between 1945 and 1965; it halved again between 1965 and 1975; and it halved again between 1975 and 1980. Thus the historical ‘half-life’ of the pound was twenty years in 1965, ten years in 1975 and a mere five years in 1980”

In 1976 the pound fell below $2 for the first time ever. Pepys and Keynes would now have been talking at cross purposes.

Floating exchange rates marked the first public policy triumph for Milton Friedman who as long ago as 1950 had written ‘The Case for Flexible Exchange Rates’. Friedman had argued that “A flexible exchange rate need not be an unstable exchange rate” but in an era before Public Choice economics he had reckoned without the tendency of governments and central banks, absent the restraining hand of gold, to print money to finance their spending. World inflation which was 5.9% in 1971 rose to 9.6% in 1973 and over 15% in 1974.

The experience of the era of floating exchange rates has been of one currency crisis after another punctuated by various attempts at stabilisation. The attempts can involve ad hoc international cooperation such as the Plaza Accord of 1985 which sought to depreciate the dollar. This was followed by the Louvre Accord of 1987 which sought to stop the dollar depreciating any further.

They may take more organised forms. The Exchange Rate Mechanism was an attempt to peg European currencies to the relatively reliable Deutsche Mark. Britain joined in 1990 at what many thought was too high a value (shades of 1925) and when the Bundesbank raised interest rates to tackle inflation in Germany sterling crashed out of the ERM in 1992 but not before spending £3.3 billion and deepening a recession with interest rates raised to 12% in its vain effort to remain in.

Where now?

This brief look back over the monetary arrangements of the last hundred years shows that currency issuers, almost always governments, have repeatedly pushed the search for seigniorage to the maximum possible within the given monetary framework and have then demolished this framework to allow for a more ‘elastic’ currency.

Since the demise of the ERM the new vogue in monetary policy has been the independent central bank following some monetary rule, such as the Bank of England and its inflation target. Inspired by the old Bundesbank this is an attempt to take the power of money creation away from the politicians who, despite Keynes’ high hopes, have proved themselves dismally untrustworthy with it. Instead that power now lies with central bankers.

But it is not clear that handing the power of money creation from one part of government to another has been much of an improvement. For one thing we cannot say that our central bankers are truly independent. The Chairman of the Federal Reserve is nominated by the President. And when the Bank of England wavered over slashing interest rates in the wake of the credit crunch, the British government noisily questioned its continued independence and the interest rate cuts came.

Furthermore, money creation can reach dangerous levels if the central bank’s chosen monetary rule is faulty. The Federal Reserve has the awkward dual mandate of promoting employment and keeping prices stable. The Bank of England and the European Central Bank both have a mandate for price stability, but this is problematic. As Murray Rothbard and George Selgin have noted, in an economy with rising productivity, prices should be falling. Also, what ‘price level’ is there to stabilise? The economy contains countless different prices which are changing all the time; the ‘price level’ is just some arbitrarily selected bundle of these.

An extreme example, as noted by Jesús Huerta de Soto, is the euro. Here a number of governments agreed to pool their powers of money creation and invest it in the European Central Bank. The euro is now widely seen to be collapsing. So it may be, but is this, as is generally assumed, a failure of the architecture of the euro itself?

Let us remember that the purpose of erecting a monetary structure where the power to create money is removed from government is to stop the government running the printing presses to cover its spending and, in so doing, destroy the currency.

The problem facing eurozone states like Greece and Spain is presented as being that they are running up debts in a currency they cannot print at will to repay these debts. But is the problem here that these countries cannot print the money they need to pay their debts or that they are running up these debts in the first place? The solution is often offered that either these countries need to leave the euro and adopt a currency which they can expand sufficiently to pay their debts or that the ECB needs to expand the euro sufficiently for these countries to be able to pay their debts. But there is another solution, commonly called ‘austerity’, which says that these countries should just not run up these debts. As de Soto argues, the euro’s woes are really failures of fiscal policy rather than monetary policy.

It is thus possible to argue that the euro is working. By halting the expansion of currency to pay off debts and protecting its value and, by extension, preventing members from running up evermore debt, the euro is doing exactly what it was designed to do.

There is a growing clamour inside Europe and outside that ‘austerity’ alone is not the answer to the euro’s problems and that monetary policy has a role to play. The ECB itself seems to be keen to take on this role. But it is simply the age-old idea, based on the confusion between the real and the nominal, that we will get richer if we just produce more money. Germany is holding the line on the euro but history shows that far sounder currency arrangements have collapsed under the insatiable desire for a more elastic currency.

REFERENCES

ANDERSON, B.M. 1949. Economics and the Public Welfare – A Financial and Economic History of the United States 1914-1946. North Shadeland, Indiana: Liberty Press

BAGUS, P. 2010. The Tragedy of the Euro. Auburn, Alabama: Ludwig von Mises Institute.

CAPIE, F., WOOD, G. 1994. “Money in the Economy 1870-1939.” The Economic History of Britain since 1700 vol. 2: 1860-1939. Roderick Floud and D.N. McCloskey, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 217-246.

DRUMMOND, I. 1987. The Gold Standard and the International Monetary System 1900-1939. London: Macmillan

FRIEDMAN, M. 1950. “The Case for Flexible Exchange Rates” Essays in Positive Economics. 1953. Friedman, M. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 157-203.

HOWSON, S. 1994. “Money and Monetary Policy in Britain 1945-1990.” The Economic History of Britain since 1700 vol. 3: 1939-1992. Roderick Floud and D.N. McCloskey, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 221-254.

HUERTA DE SOTO, J. 2012. “In defence of the euro: an Austrian perspective”. The Cobden Centre, May 29th

KENWOOD, A.G., LOUGHEED, A.L. 1992. The Growth of the International Economy 1820-1990. London and New York: Routledge

KINDLEBERGER, C.P. The World in Depression 1929-1939. London: Pelican

MYDDELTON, D.R. 2007. They Meant Well – Government Project Disasters. London: Institute of Economic Affairs

ROTHBARD, M. 1963. America’s Great Depression. BN Publishing

SAMUELSON, R.J. 2010. The Great Inflation and its Aftermath – The Past and Future of American Affluence. New York: Random House

SELGIN, G. 1997. Less Than Zero – The Case for a Falling Price Level in a Growing Economy. London: Institute of Economic Affairs

TIMBERLAKE, R. 2008. “The Federal Reserve’s Role in the Great Contraction and the Subprime Crisis”. Cato Journal, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Spring/Summer 2008), James A. Dorn, ed. Washington DC: Cato Institute, pp. 303-312.

VAN DER WEE, H. 1986. Prosperity and Upheaval – The World Economy 1945-1980. London: Pelican

This article originally appeared at The Cobden Centre

Money demystified: Stopping Keynes’s one man in a million

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It’s on diversion

I’ve found that if I write an article about taxes, whether its avoidance or the 50p band, it’s likely to generate angry replies. But when I write about monetary matters, interest rates or Quantitative Easing for example, there is often a silence. Perhaps this is because few people share my interest in it, perhaps it’s because they think it less important than I do. Or perhaps, to borrow from Keynes, it’s because monetary policy works “in a manner which not one man in a million is able to diagnose”?

The textbook functions of ‘money’ are familiar to anyone with a smattering of economics; a medium of exchange, a store of value, and a unit of account. But each of these functions is entirely dependent upon money maintaining its value. If the value of the pound fluctuates it is no more useful as a unit of account or measure than a twelve inch ruler which kept changing length. Money which declines in value is a poor store of value.

Historically, when its value declines beyond a certain point people stop storing their wealth in money and trade it for commodities as quickly as possible. This acceleration in velocity of circulation exacerbates the decline in value and can trigger hyperinflation. And money which is rapidly losing value can cease to fulfill the function of medium of exchange if people refuse to accept it, legal tender laws or not.

So the value of money must be maintained for it to serve its functions and value is determined by supply and demand. Money is demanded for transactions, buying and selling. A few coin collectors aside, people do not demand money for its own sake but because they wish, at some point in the future, to exchange it for goods or services.

Under our present system money is supplied by the central bank. If people demand money to facilitate transactions why do central banks supply it? The motivations of the central banks who supply money are not the microeconomic ones of meeting transaction demand but macroeconomic ones which can change from time to time such as spurring GDP growth, decreasing unemployment, lowering inflation, exchange rate stability, or some combination of a couple of these. This is monetary policy.

Monetary policy is shrouded in mumbo jumbo but can be understood by anyone. Quantitative Easing, lowering the discount rate or the repo rate, Operation Twist, all of these monetary maneuvers executed by central banks essentially boil down to the same thing: the increase or decrease in the supply of money and credit to achieve some, one or two of the macroeconomic goals mentioned above.

When central banks reduce interest rates they purchase financial assets from banks with newly created money who then lend out some portion of this new money thus lowering interest rates. On the rarer occasions when they want to raise rates they do the opposite. Quantitative Easing is remarkably similar; it only really differs in that instead of buying short terms assets the Bank of England buys long term assets all of which, so far, have been UK government debt. Banks, in theory, then lend some portion of this new money out thus lowering these longer term interest rates.

There’s an obvious concern here. If money has to hold its value in order to fulfill its essential functions and if money supply is a crucial determinant of that value then won’t the tinkering about with the money supply affect its value?

But there’s another concern. Almost all the economic thinking upon which modern monetary policy is based models increasing the supply of money and credit as a once-and-for-all rise in everyone’s money holdings, proportionate to how much of the money supply they held before. This scenario is rather odd theoretically. If it’s true then monetary policy can have almost no traction and is pointless, all we will see are proportionate increases in price levels.

This line of theorizing is followed, it seems, simply to avoid thinking about the unpleasant consequences of monetary policy; the covert redistribution of wealth from the less well connected to the insiders and the permanent redistribution of wealth from those, like pensioners, on fixed incomes.

These consequences follow inevitably from the inclusion of time, an integral part of human existence and of sound economics as cause and consequence can only take place through time. If we include time we can look at how these expansions in the supply money of money and credit come about when central banks purchase assets from a bank. This bank now has money to lend out which it does. Its interest rates may fall but so will its borrowing costs (what it pays the central bank). As we see today, such action can lead to the sort of false profits which trigger multi million pound bonuses.

But there is a further benefit to these early receivers, these insiders. They receive this new money when prices are at the old level; it takes time for them to rise. As such, these early receivers are able to use new money to buy goods, services and assets at the old prices. However, as they spend this money and it is then spent by the second receivers, and then the third receivers’ etc prices are bid up. By the time the new money reaches those farthest from the monetary injection, the politically least well connected, often the poorest, the new money will have lost this power. They will simply face higher prices.

This is how monetary policy works. Central banks cannot create wealth but they can redistribute it. And the system confers a tremendous power upon those who exercise it. They are Keynes’s one man in a million and it’s in their interests, via mumbo jumbo, to keep it that way. Don’t let them.

This article originally appeared at The Commentator