Showing posts with label derivatives. Show all posts
Showing posts with label derivatives. Show all posts

Saturday 26 December 2020

The Truth about Money: Money Good; Money Bad

What is money?

Anything can be used as money:  paper, tokens, clay tablets, seashells, tree bark, pixels on a computer screen, strokes on a ledger somewhere, even people.  Historically, not just slaves and cumal were used as money.  The Bible tells us a man can beat his servant because "he is his money" (Exodus 21:20-22).  As Jacob Goldstein reiterates throughout Money:  The True Story of a Made-up Thing:    "money is money because we believe it’s money."

However, some things become like money (a soft way of saying they become money) even when people doubt, question or just don't notice.  Silver, data, Modigliani nudes, and, most importantly, "commercial paper" have all become forms of money despite doubts, questions and ignorance.

                        In 2008, the day after the Lehman bankruptcy, this Modigliani

                        sold for $150 million (USD). Someone was shifting

                        currency from the stock market to the art market.

Money Good

Goldstein quotes Marco Polo who wrote that his readers would not believe this but  "the Great Kaan [of the Mongol empire] causeth the bark of trees, made into something like paper, to pass for money all over his country."  The result of the Kaan's "bark of trees" money was a unified, stable and prosperous empire.  When the Ming Dynasty attempted to return to traditional (money-less) ways in China, the result was three hundred years of poverty, deprivation and starvation.  Even today, world-wide, getting food from farmers' fields to the shelves of your local grocery store is facilitated by; in fact, dependent upon money.

Money is infinite

In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, one after another, representatives of the US Federal Reserve announced that they could provide a limitless supply of US dollars to support American businesses?  Of course, it's obvious that money is a product of our collective imaginations and is therefore infinite (or at least only limited by our collective imaginations), but it was unprecedented for the Fed to publicly confirm this fact.   

Wealth inequality versus poverty 

Steve Pinker was quite right to point out the difference between wealth inequality and poverty in his tome Enlightenment Now.  What Pinker calls the "lump fallacy" is the mistaken notion that the economy is a "zero-sum" game:  "that if some people end up with more, others must have less."  On the contrary, if history shows, as Pinker claims it does, that we have all prospered over time--even if unequally--we have nothing to complain about.

Pinker's point is well taken, but I suspect that in this argument he might be confusing wealth and money, the real economy and the financial markets.   Money is infinite but the planet itself is finite, and its wealth/resources are similarly limited.  The real economy becomes very much a game of winners and losers when the biggest winners are willing to sacrifice the planet for short-term gain through, for example, global warming (which, as Pinker later argues, is the real and most threatening problem of our time).

What every kid should know about money

Perhaps I need to remind you, dear Reader, and myself that this blog is about education.  I really don't know what is being taught in grade schools and high schools these days, but shouldn't every middle-schooler know how money is created? 

Goldstein concurs with every other source that I have consulted on the subject: "Most of the money in the world is not just stored in private banks; it is created by private banks."  I found it reassuring that Salman Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, has a very straightforward explanation, directed at high-school students, of how private banks create money.  Khan displays the mathematical formula which shows that for every $1000 which the Federal Reserve introduces into the monetary system, private banks, using the fractional reserve system, create $10,000.  

The Federal Reserve was created at a "secret meeting"

As long as farmers are getting paid and the grocery store is getting paid and I have enough money to pay for groceries, who cares how the money was created?  Is it a problem that private banks create money?  To answer this question we would, of course, first have to acknowledge that private banks do create money. 

According to the "History" section of the Federal Reserve website, the Fed began with a gathering which included a senator, his secretary, an economist and three private bankers who met in November, 1910, on Jekyll Island.  (The name sounds like something from a Gothic novel, but the place does exist.  I played golf there once and even slept in the famous Jekyll Island Clubhouse which was pretty run down by the time I stayed there.)  The secrecy of the meeting is emphasized in the "Federal Reserve History."  Senator Aldrich . . .

went to great lengths to keep the meeting secret, adopting the ruse of a duck hunting trip and instructing the men to come one at a time to a train terminal in New Jersey, where they could board his private train car. Once aboard, the men used only first names – Nelson, Harry, Frank, Paul, Piatt, and Arthur – to prevent the staff from learning their identities. For decades after, the group referred to themselves as the “First Name Club.”

Despite the fact that the  Federal Reserve is a model for monetary systems all over the world (including in Canada, Russia and China), and there are widely available descriptions of how the system works, more than 100 years later, the shadow of secrecy still seems to hover over how the system works and how private banks create money. Consequently, as I outline in How Is Money Created, for conspiracy theorists, the Fed is part of a cabal of satanist bankers out to control the world while, for others, it is an altruistic gathering of civil servants.  Officially and perhaps most accurately, it is a mix of the private and the public.  However, which is the dog and which the tail, and who wags whom remains a matter of debate.

Commercial banks, investment banks and shadow banks

For most of us, a bank is a bank.  (However, if you googled "types of banks," you might be in for a surprise.)   As Alan Blinder explains in After the Music Stopped,

[ . . ] commercial banks do have deposits--that's why we call them banks.  Investment banks do not.  They fund themselves almost entirely by borrowing. Remember, with a 40-to1 leverage, capital constitutes a mere 2.5 percent of assets.  They must borrow the other 97.5 percent.
Blinder points out that "By most estimates, the shadow banking system was [in 2008]  far greater than the conventional banking system."  "The shadow banking system," as Blinder explains is "a complex latticework of financial institutions and capital markets that are heavily involved in various aspects of borrowing and lending."  The important takeaway here is that these shadow banks are non-banks and therefore not regulated as stringently as commercial banks.  Current estimates of the size of the shadow banking system put it at $1.2 trillion.

In a 2015 post, I reported estimates of the unregulated derivatives market as being between 710 trillion and 1.2 quadrillion US dollars.  At the time,  I remember thinking these numbers were too big to be believed.  How could there be an unregulated market that was 50 times greater than the GDP (the total value) of the US economy?  According to Investopedia the current (2019) value of the derivatives market is estimated to be over a quadrillion dollars or 10 times the GDP of the entire world.

Commercial paper is money

The mind boggles at the size of these numbers.  How are they possible?  What are the mechanics that allow such fantastically large amounts of money to be created? When I read that "financial institutions  . . . are heavily involved in various aspects of borrowing and lending,"  I interpret that they are creating money.   As Goldstein explains, the collapse of 2008 "is a story about money itself—a new kind of money that started flowing through a new kind of banking system that nobody quite knew was a banking system."  This new kind of money is "commercial paper."  It usually comes in denominations of $100,000  and is issued by commercial banks and investment banks on behalf of large companies seeking funding. 


About having private banks create money, Goldman comments, "For nearly a hundred years, some of the smartest economists in every generation have said this is a horrible way to do money."  One solution, as Goldman describes, is "dazzlingly simple":

The root of the issue is that basic banks do these two, very different things. (1) They hold our money and make it easier for us to get paid and make payments. (2) They make loans. The dazzlingly simple argument from all of these great economists comes down to this: split those into separate businesses. Variations on this idea are usually called “100% reserve banking” or “full-reserve banking” (as opposed to the current, fractional-reserve banking system)  [. . . .]
Another solution now being debated and seriously considered, as Goldstein reports, is called "Modern Monetary Theory or MMT, for short."  The underlying principle is that the government should take over control of the creation and distribution of money to ensure full employment and sustainable development of available resources, reducing the money supply to prevent inflation when these objectives are met.  Oddly, much of what has been happening in the context of the 2020 pandemic, with governments distributing money directly to businesses and individuals, seems in line with Modern Monetary Theory.  We are in the process of discovering how the theory works in practice.

Whatever the future holds, it is inevitable, as Goldstein concludes:

that money will change. The way we do money will look as strange to our great-great-grandchildren as a world where banks print their own paper money with pictures of Santa Claus.


In response to this post, one of my readers (Thanks D!) email a link to this Front Burner podcast on Modern Monetary Theory:  Never Mind the Deficit!

Thursday 23 March 2017

Saint Mathew Pray for Us! Bank Deregulation Is Back!

Shock and awe and bank deregulation

Amid the boom and flash of the spectacular political theatre going on right now, you may not have noticed the announcements in a single utterance on television or in columns in the back pages of your local newspaper—“banks need to start lending money again,” (Trump on CNN), “President Donald Trump promised a meeting of community bankers to strip away some Dodd-Frank financial regulations” (B3 Globe and Mail 10 March 2017) and White House fires Preet Bharara “the high-profile Manhattan prosecutor known for his pursuit of public corruption and Wall Street crime” (A18 Globe and Mail 11 March 2017)—bank deregulation is back! “Bank deregulation” was the precursor to the financial collapse of 2008 causing banks and financial institutions to go bankrupt, individuals to lose homes, jobs and pensions, and triggering the government bailouts of the banks costing taxpayers what is now estimated to be a trillion dollars.  (Historically the British and Americans defined “billion” and “trillion” differently, but these days the American definition seems to prevail.  In the American system, a “billion” is a thousand million and a “trillion” is a thousand billion. Here is a more visual and visceral sense of how much a trillion is.)   The “Dodd-Frank regulations,” about to be "stripped away," were the rules put in place to prevent the collapse of 2008 from happening again.

Saint Mathew, the patron saint of bankers and accountants

Saint Mathew was an apostle of that Jesus the Anointed (who was voted “God” by the Council of Nicaea in 325).  Mathew is the alleged evangelical author of the first gospel of the New Testament  (although his name was not attributed to the text until after he was long gone, and oddly, in the gospel, he refers to himself in the third person--but then again so do I sometimes), and the patron saint of bankers and tax collectors (these days we might suggest that he choose a side), of accountants and money in general  He has a lot to answer for.  Even though I have graduated from agnosticism to atheism since beginning this blog, I’m recommending prayer in this case, because there really don’t seem to be any other options.  Bank deregulation isn’t just on the agenda, it seems a foregone conclusion.  

Bank regulation, bank-robbery deregulation; tomato, tomaato

I have to confess that I broke my pedagogical rule of Do No Harm Part II: Avoid Irony in my last post on bank robbery, but the point I wanted to make is that the next time you hear someone talking about “deregulating banks,” you can substitute “deregulating bank robbery”  and discover that the arguments, the logic and justifications turn out to be the same. So what?  We may be living in a global oligarchy these days with wealth dictating government policy and the law, but perhaps there is some measure of solace in being able to say, “I know you are going to screw us because you have that power, but forget being smug and self-righteous because we know what you’re doing.”

Step one of being un-fooled is to understand what the expression “bank deregulation” means.  Here are three words that you need to know in order to know what "bank deregulation" is all about: "derivatives," "leverage," and "rent-seeking."

  • Derivatives.  I may have talked “derivatives” to death in my earlier post, but basically what you need to understand is that “derivative” means that banks and financial institutions can “bet” on the stock and bond markets.  “Bet” is the important word here.  As described in The Big Short (both book and film), these “derivatives” are not investments in companies or products or services, they are simply companies and individuals betting that a stock will go up or down without actually investing in the company they are betting on or against.  Finance people make “derivatives” sound reasonable by describing them as “insurance”; as in you buy an insurance policy on your house to protect yourself against the possibility that it might burn down.  However, a derivative is more like buying an insurance policy on your cigar-smoking, alcoholic neighbour’s house in the hopes that his house will burn down—so why not buy him a bottle of vodka and a box of cigars for Christmas, his birthday, etc?  In the film version of The Big Short derivatives are shown as being like following your neighbour to the casino and when he bets two dollars on the roulette table, you bet 10,000 dollars with someone else that he is going to lose his two dollars, and someone else bets 100,000 dollars that you are going to lose your 10,000—that’s the derivatives market.  The derivatives market is estimated to be between between 710 trillion and 1.2 quadrillion US dollars.  (see "The Size of the Derivatives Bubble").  Just to put those numbers in perspective once again the total GDP of the USA is 17 trillion.

  • Leverage. How are these crazy numbers possible?  How is it possible that so much money—40 to 70 times the total wealth of the USA, 700 to 1000 times the amount of US paper currency which actually exists in circulation—is being gambled?  The answer is “leverage” (that’s chapter six in The Art of the Deal, the book which Trump’s ghost writer, who wrote the book, called “a tissue of lies”).  “Leverage” is what “bank deregulation” is all about.  If a bank has assets worth one million dollars, the average person might imagine that a bank can therefore lend out to clients up to one million dollars.  Under current US banking regulations the leverage ratio is 4%, which translates as a ratio of 1 to 25.  In other words, if the bank has 1 million dollars, they can lend 25 million dollars.  That’s right; for your mortgage or your car or your kid’s education, they can lend you 24 million dollars that they don’t have—but you, of course, must repay in money that you actually have.  (By the way, the mortgage that you owe to the bank is considered one of the bank's assets.  If you owe the bank $200,000, by regulation the bank is considered to have that money within its assets.)  The current "leverage ratio" (1 to 25) is the key regulation that banks find too onerous, limiting and difficult to comply with.  They want to change the leverage ratio so they can lend you even more money that they don’t have.
  • Rent-seeking.  This is the concept that we really need to watch out for.  The idea has been around since the 1970s, and is being much discussed in financial circles.  I found out about it reading Christia Freeland's Plutocrats:  The Rise of the New Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else.  You might imagine that with all this money floating around it should be easy to cure cancer, end world hunger and poverty, offer everyone daycare and free education from kindergarten to PhD, but as the operations of rent-seeking become more obvious, it is becoming apparent that all this fabulous wealth doesn't actually produce anything, and it isn't the result of anything being produced.  Monumental wealth is being produced simply through the manipulation of government regulations, in particular the laws govern finance and banking. "Money" has become like Tinkerbell's pixie dust, not tied to anything of value, but available to the super rich to sprinkle on politicians, and for politicians to sprinkle back in greater measure on the super rich by adjusting the regulations for banking and finance to their whims and favour.  The disappearing middle class can look back on "trickle-down economics" and crumbs from the big table as "the good old days" because pixie dust may float in cosmic clouds above  but the .1% are exceptional at keeping it afloat and have little motivation to let it fall on the rest of us.

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