Category Archives: Money and Banking

My PhD Thesis on-line!

Should anyone really be interested – my doctoral thesis ‘Money and Production – A Pluralist Analysis’ is now available from the University of Stirling document repository at https://dspace.stir.ac.uk/dspace/handle/1893/1141

It examines various theories of money’s origin and sustainability, both ‘orthodox’ and ‘heterodox’, and analyses the link between money and real economic outcomes. Most of it is understandable without advanced mathematical skills!

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On the ‘Impossibility’ of Paying Interest

I note a considerable amount of interest in some ideas by Chris Martenson – who has a website and offers tutorials entitled ‘The Crash Course’. He suggests that the current way we are living is unsustainable and we’d better start preparing for when it all goes pear-shaped (which will be pretty soon according to him). There are three pointers to this alarming turn of events – two fairly genuine, I think, and one based on a misunderstanding.

The two issues I would share his concern about are Climate Change and so-called ‘Peak Oil’ – the impact of the likely future decline in oil production as reserves are exhausted. Their exact impact is, of course, open to ongoing debate.

His misunderstanding involves the impact of interest payments on the monetary system. Now Dr Martenson is a neuro-toxicologist by training, rather than an economist. Otherwise he would probably be aware that the problem of how interest can be paid when all money is created through lending is one that has troubled many economists, particularly those of the monetary circuit school, to which I would describe myself as loosely attached. But in fact it has a very simple solution, once one learns to distinguish between money stocks and money flows. Continue reading On the ‘Impossibility’ of Paying Interest

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Downgrading Moody’s

Moody’s threatened to downgrade Spain’s debt yesterday. Why do we pay any attention to anything they, or the other ratings agencies, say?

In conclusion, I have tried to show that Moody’s managers deliberately engineered a change to its culture intended to ensure that rating analysis never jeopardized market share and revenue. They accomplished this both by rewarding those who collaborated and punishing those who resisted…The adjusted European CLO Rating Factor Table appears to have been adopted for the sole purpose of preserving Moody’s European CLO market share despite the fact that it might have resulted in Moody’s assigning ratings that were wrong by as much as one and a half to two notches….every single investor in a Moody’s rated European CLO may have a claim against Moody’s for damages associated with the fact that their CLO investments were not priced correctly.

Testimony from Mark Froeba, former Moody’s Senior Vice President, to the US Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, June 2nd 2010.

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The Nature of Modern Money

I posted this short piece on the Scotland Quo Vadis discussion site yesterday, in response to a piece by Gordon Morgan suggesting the ‘printing of money’ would be a better option than government spending cuts.

It’s important to take a step back and consider the nature of money in the modern economy. It’s taken me about 15 years to get to grips with it – but maybe I’m slow, and it could be done in 5…

All modern money is created as debt – government or private. It’s a symbol of a promise to provide some good or service in the future. Problems arise when promises are unfulfilled, either in the quantity or the quality of goods provided. If there’s a lot of money around and not many goods, prices tend to rise.

Problems also arise when not enough money is created, or the money created is not actually used to purchase enough of the goods provided. Then we have demand failure, recession and unemployment. Continue reading The Nature of Modern Money

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Adam Smith and the Financial Crisis

Adam Smith
Adam Smith

I’ve now made available a three-part piece on Adam Smith. It starts by considering his credentials as an egalitarian thinker whose embrace of the ‘invisible hand’ of the free-market was less complete than his deregulating champions at the Adam Smith Institute would claim. This reappraisal is based on a recent book by Professor Iain McLean (Adam Smith – Radical and Egalitarian, Edinburgh University Press, 2006). I then go on to assess Adam Smith’s writing on money and banking in relation to crises in the 18th century and 21st century banking systems.

Start reading the article here.

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Money and Inequality

Where does the money go?
Where does the money go?
I’ve just posted a paper I produced in 1998, which seems rather prescient. I made the point that the hidden growth of money was leading to fairly predictable changes (not for the better) in our economy and society. Here’s some excerpts from the introduction:

Although income inequality appears to be a fact of life there remains general agreement that there should be such a thing as social justice, if this is given to mean at least an approximation to equality of potential achievement. This apparent incompatibility can only be reconciled if money income is neither the only measure of human well-being and fulfilment nor the only means to achieving it. Yet it may well be that the fundamentals of the global financial and economic system are such as inevitably to both widen income inequality and also to increase the importance of money in achieving individual well-being and happiness. Continue reading Money and Inequality

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Willem Buiter on Debt and Deficits

Edinburgh from the Scott Monument
Edinburgh from the Scott Monument
Last night, here in Edinburgh, I attended a fascinating lecture by Willem Buiter, founding member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee and author of the celebrated (in certain circles!) Maverecon blog on the Financial Times website. Sadly, the blog is discontinued as Professor Buiter is now the Chief Economist of Citigroup, the US banking and finance giant.

Despite this last fact, Prof Buiter is an interesting economist. Although coming from the mainstream tradition, he is an independent thinker and pragmatic analyst who isn’t afraid to follow his analysis to unexpected conclusions. In the course of his lecture and in conversation afterwards, it seems he isn’t too constrained by his current corporate role. I hope he will forgive me for reproducing his thoughts here as accurately as I can. Continue reading Willem Buiter on Debt and Deficits

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Debt and Deficits – Sustainable but Unfair

At the end of January 2010, UK government debt stood at £848bn and around 60% of GDP. The European Commission says ‘additional fiscal tightening measures’ are required. The Tories warn that investors are getting anxious and that the ratings agencies (who also certified the security of mortgage-backed derivatives) are about to downgrade the UK government’s debt, with the likely consequence of increased interest rates to pacify bond-holders.

Two-thirds of Treasury bonds are held by UK citizens and institutions – mainly banks and pension funds – that rely on them as secure and predictable basic assets. This is UK government money owed to UK citizens by the UK government. It is a purely internal redistribution of claims that cannot be compared, as it sometimes is, to household debt. The one-third of Treasury bonds held by foreign investors, such as other central banks and financial institutions, is a rather different story. Clearly these bond-holders have less direct interest in the long-run health of the UK economy, and so may and sometimes do, exert pressure on governments to increase the rates of return on the new bonds they issue. Were these rates of return to exceed a reasonable expectation of the political and economic tax revenue capacity of the UK government, then there would be difficulty in continuing to fund the current level of debt in the same way. In fact this situation seems a long way off. Currently interest rates are low, UK debt is not particularly high relative to other countries, and the UK has strong social and economic assets to back its liabilities. This makes UK government debt a particularly safe form of wealth in a time of economic turbulence and one that tightening capital regulations are likely to create even more demand for. The real question about the UK’s debt is not so much whether it is sustainable, but whether it is fair. Continue reading Debt and Deficits – Sustainable but Unfair

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The Reality-based Economics Community Strikes Back

An important step in making economic scholarship relevant to the post-crisis world may have been taken last week in Cambridge, UK. A number of economists that do not subscribe to the majority view of how the economy works met to consider what a ‘New Economics’ might look like. While new in several senses, the ‘New Economics’ does not lack deep roots. It is founded in ideas that have taken on new life in the last two years, such as those of John Maynard Keynes from the 1930s and Hyman Minsky from the 1970s. Keynes’s insight was that because the saving of individuals does not automatically translate into investment by firms, government spending may be required to make up for low private sector demand in times of recession. Minsky’s observation was that there is a tendency for firms to optimistically over-borrow in good times to the extent that they become prone to collapse when times turn bad. These insights have become current in the financial media, yet what underpins such ideas and why they must become embedded in our economic thinking, has not.

Modern economics has insisted that the economy as a whole can be studied as a stable outcome of markets that are populated by completely rational and fully-informed individuals. To the extent that this ignores what we know of human knowledge and behaviour, ignores the existence of economic institutions such as firms, banks and governments and ignores the outcomes of actually existing markets, this can be justified by the gnomic utterings of Milton Friedman. Continue reading The Reality-based Economics Community Strikes Back

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The banks, the BBC and ‘Economic Activity’

Is ‘economic activity’ always a good thing? The banks hit by the bonus tax have raised the spectre of lost incomes and tax revenue if they choose to relocate away from the UK. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has recently sought to justify the licence-fee by calculating the revenues its commissioning generates for independent production companies. But it’s a deeply misleading idea that the benefit of any activity can be calculated by measuring the quantity of money that is involved in purchasing or producing it. Because money is the definition of wealth to each of us as individuals, it’s easy to forget that in itself it is pretty much worthless paper or more commonly today, an electronic pattern on digital media. For the welfare of the nation in which it is generated money represents no additional wealth whatsoever. Continue reading The banks, the BBC and ‘Economic Activity’

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