Thursday, January 29, 2015

A moral case for bank money

From Magic, Maths and Money:
Finance is a skeleton that supports the development of a healthy society, not a utility that plumbs the economy together. The justification for this observation is historical. Richard Seaford has argued that the culture that emerged in Greece some two and a half thousand years ago, creating a unique approach to science and democratic politics, was a consequence of a peculiar Greek invention; money, a token that signifies trust between citizens. The flowering of European culture, and the genesis of modern science, in thirteenth century Europe followed, and some argue was a consequence of, a period of rapid monetisation of society that initiated the end of feudalism. Similarly, western Europe’s development accelerated ahead of the rest of the world in the seventeenth century powered by financial innovations in the Netherlands and Britain.

Charles Mackay in his classic comparison of England’s South Sea Bubble and France’s, almost simultaneous, Mississippi Bubble, emphasises the different reactions in France and Britain to the credit bubbles. In the aftermath of the crises, the French inhibited the development of private banks but maintained the autocratic political system, whereas the British reformed the political system and enabled the development of finance. The results of Britain’s Financial Revolution were Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions along with the eclipse of France as a global power. For France, dependent on taxation to fund the state, there was the ultimate collapse of the political system in bloody revolution.

Getting the structure of our financial system right is not a trivial matter.

One argument gaining support is that the root of recent problems in finance is the private creation of money by banks, and so the solution is to strip banks of this ability. What this would entail is not clear but a core theme is that transactions would involve minted cash (physical or electronic), not paper money. We can visualise the practical consequence of this in little brown envelopes on pay-day containing coins and Bank of England notes. No bank transfers, certainly not in the foreseeable future, meaning no debit cards at the supermarket checkout and the replacement of cyber-crime by good old-fashioned robbery. This makes concrete part of the problem  Martin Wolf identifies when he makes the observation that "The transition to a system in which money creation is separated from financial intermediation would be feasible, albeit complex."   It might prove impossible to get through the Christmas binge, when there is widespread short-term demand for cash.  Could a computer system cope with the funds transfers associated with Black Fridays and Cyber Mondays without the ability to create money? Banks, in this environment, would come to resemble peer-to-peer lending facilitators and the consequence would be that people who have wealth, or are connected to wealthy networks, could buy expensive things, but for the majority it would be harder to get a mortgage.  While this might sound a bit draconian to the British, Germans still have a preference for cash and traditionally live in rented accommodation, having long connected debts (schulden) and guilt (schuld) and, after all, they have done well economically.

Unfortunately it is not certain that German economic success rests on the German preference for cash. An equally plausible explanation is the structure of the German banking system, which, unlike the British and U.S. systems, is not dominated by private profit seeking banks but has a significant sector of not-for-profit, regional, financial institutions. An IMF paper highlights how countries with this type of financial system, including France and Spain, did not require the massive government bailouts that British and U.S. banks did in 2008-2009. Mutuals and public banks create money in the same way as privately owned banks and so preventing banks from creating money seems to be a rather extreme solution when the problem might be elsewhere.

Calls to prevent banks from creating money to ensure financial stability resemble calls to ban the internal combustion engine to prevent climate change. It would clearly go a long way to solving the problem, in theory, but is totally impractical. One group who would like to see the debate on banking reform focus in on money creation are the banks themselves, because they can be confident that if this is where the debate is centred, nothing will change. Most voters need bank credit just as they need cars....MORE