Tag Archives: speculation

The Economy does not Exist

Perhaps now being in my eighth decade I can look back with some perspective on society. While I must admit that wisdom does not necessarily come with age, one’s vision and understanding does sharpen over time. What becomes increasingly evident is the follies of mankind and in particular the politicians. One often repeated folly occurs when politicians say that … must be done for the sake of the economy. To their listeners it sounds impressive, but it is just yet another must say meaningless phrase that politicians say. The economy does not exist, it is not a thing as such. It is merely a word that economists give to a series of activities that create wealth, and the means by which that wealth is distributed. The crofter the Outer Hebrides and the investment banker in London will be included by the government statistician as being part of the British economy, but the link between the two is tenuous. Rather it is better to say that the economy is lots of different things that involve wealth creation and distribution, but it is no more than that.

There is a very simple example that illustrates this point. Government ministers take policy decisions that they claim are for the benefit of the economy, but which in reality damage significant sectors of the economy. British governments have pursued policies designed to keep the exchange value of the pound high. The reasoning being that as so many of our goods are imported from abroad, if foreign currency is relatively cheap compared to the cost of the pound, imports will be comparatively cheap. As over 50% of our food comes from abroad, it makes the fruit and vegetables in the supermarket cheap to buy. However this same policy is damaging to our domestic manufacturing industry. If the pound is expensive in terms of foreign currencies, it makes British exports expensive and foreign imported manufactured goods cheap. Consequently British manufacturers are hit twice, their expensive imports are hard to sell abroad and they are increasingly undercut in the domestic market by cheap foreign imports. This is why British manufacturing industry only accounts for 10% of national output (GDP) and why of all the developed countries the U.K. has the largest trade deficit as a percentage of GDP.

What I am trying to say is that by treating the economy as one thing, rather than several things, government economic policy making is condemned to be both wrong headed and damaging. Anyone looking back over government economic policy, will see a series of constant policy errors and misjudgements.Observing this record of failure politicians came to believe that a policy of doing nothing or as little as possible was the best policy option. From this came Neo-Liberalism and free market economics. There was an equally obvious conclusion that politicians could have drawn and that was that governments had been using the wrong economic policies or applying them correctly, which they preferred to ignore. Also it was a terrible misreading of history, a recovery from the ravages of war in 1949s and 50s was only made possible by the government regulation of the economy. Money was directed towards rebuilding the economy away from consumption. Rationing of goods was very unpopular, but it made possible the post war economic recovery.

Today the only economic policy measure used is monetary policy, the government believes that by controlling the supply of money they can best manage the economy. One way they control the money supply is through varying interest rates. Their reasoning is that of interest rates are low people will be encouraged to borrow more and the increase in the amount of money in circulation will increase the demand for goods and services so increasing economic growth. What they don’t understand is that a policy of cheap money can be bad for the economy. Interest rates are the price paid to borrow money and as such the price at which money is borrowed should be high enough to discourage foolish and silly investments. Unfortunately when money costs next to nothing to borrow it encourages many foolish speculative investments. As money borrowed today can buy shares that can be sold tomorrow at a profit. If only a higher price was charged for borrowing money such speculative punts would be discouraged.

Government ministers need to realise that a booming stock market is not the economy, but only one part. The froth on the coffee. When money is made so easily by speculating, why bother with the long term investment that business desperately needs. Such investment does not deliver the quick and astronomic returns of speculation, it only delivers in the future. Why wait several years for a return on your money when a speculative will deliver a profit tomorrow or the day after. Consequently the UK’s investment in infra structure is as low as that of the European basket case, Greece.

South Korea offers an instructive comparison. After the Korean War in 1951, it was a basket case. The country’s economy had been devastated by war. Now South Korea is one of the world’s major manufacturing nations. This was a country which the government actively interfered in the economy. What it employed was sectorial economics, in which the government decided on which industrial sectors to promote and how to support them. Samsung was originally a manufacturer of agricultural machinery, who following the dictates of the government concentrated on the manufacture of electronic goods. Samsung is now one of the world’s leading manufacturer of electronic goods. Neo-Liberal Britain’s last major manufacturer of electronic goods GEC disappeared long ago, after its directors made a series of foolish acquisitions.

The only large British owned and managed manufacturing industry is in engineering, where there are two remaining industrial giants. BAE and Rolls Royce. It is no coincidence that these two companies have been in receipt of government largesse in the form of defence contracts. Sometimes politicians cannot see what is in the front of their noses.

Obviously South Korea is not without its problems, it does as does all developed countries have a severe youth unemployment problem. However in ten years time South Korea will still be a major manufacturing nation of hi-tech goods, the same cannot be said of the U.K. Quite possibly it will continue on the path of slow decline, which has been its history this century. Only if politicians stop believing that there is an economy and instead acknowledge the economic reality, they might develop policies that promoted economic growth and welfare and not the reverse.

*This essay owes a considerable debt to Markus Gabriel’s book ‘Why World does not Exist’

London’s dire housing situation, are the banks also to blame for this?

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Reading a blog by Holly and Rhiannon on the New Statesman’s website prompted this post. In their blog they described the appalling conditions in which many young people live in London. Conditions reminiscent of those prevailing in the poorest parts of Victorian London. While the obvious villains are the new breed of landlord exploiting a dysfunctional housing market, these people are merely the catspaw in a highly dysfunctional inegalitarian society. Who are the real villains. One group are the third of MP’s who are buy-to-let landlords, who put their chance to earn a profit above the needs of the poorly housed young. What really is happening is a structural change in the economy that disadvantages the young and the poor, who are often the same. There is at the heart of this change a familiar villain the bankers and the City of London.

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How the bankers can in large part be blamed for the poor living conditions of the young in private rental accommodation can be explained by the structural change in the British economy engineered by the banking community. This explanation starts with how a business makes a profit. There are two ways either that business develops and new product or service that people want or it acquires the right to sell an existing service or product and is able to increase the price at which it sells the product or service by exploiting the market. Apple with their successful IPhone would be an example of the first and Centrica and the other energy companies that make up the dominant cartel of energy companies would be the other. Bankers in part have made their money in part through the second route. The banking market is dominated by the big four who can exploit the market for money handling services by collaborating informally. Credit card charges are exorbitantly high and yet no bank undercuts the others by offering a low interest rate credit card. Any deals offered are merely incentives to change card companies. The £80 billion of bonus payments to be paid to the bankers this year is merely another example of increasing the charges for money transaction services made by the banks, its the exploitation of a captive market.

However there is a way of profit making unique to the banks. To understand this other way it is necessary to go back to Tudor times and Henry VIII. Henry was constantly overspending building and furnishing palaces fit for a Renaissance Prince. There were also the almost constant wars against France and the need to build a modern navy to defend the UK against aggressors. When faced with the inability to pay his bills Henry resorted to debasing the currency, that is reducing the quantity of precious metals in the currency. This enabled him to produce many more coins with his limited stock of gold and silver. The losers in this situation were Henry’s creditors who received payment in the new debased currency. The pound in their pocket was now worth much less. Debasing the currency was a common practice for insolvent monarchs who wished to reduce their debts to manageable proportions. Unfortunately this new debased coinage had the effect of impoverishing the less well off as it was inflationary and increased food prices. When the less well off were the majority it had a very negative impact on national well being. Contemporary bankers like Henry VIII have similarly debased the pound sterling to benefit themselves at the expense of the rest of the nation.

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What is little understood is that in contemporary Britain it is the banks that are responsible for the supply of money in the form of bank deposits. Only 2% of money in circulation is notes and coins. It is banks through the process of credit creation that create most of the money in circulation. Realising the significance of this power governments in the Social Democratic era, but since 1971 all limits on the power of banks to create money have been removed by successive governments. The only limit of the amount of money the bank create is what the bank decides its reasonable to create. Perhaps leaving the bankers to decide how much money to create is not the best of economic policies. When Lehman Brothers collapsed it shocked many observers to discover that the banks deposits (bank money) was 50 times greater than its reserves. Later it was discovered that this was general practice and in fact many banks exceeded that ratio.
EU regulations require that banks equity total 1.5% by value of a banks deposits, which means European Banks are entitled to create bank money (deposits) that are 66 times the size of their reserves. The UK banks are marginally sounder as the ratio for them is 1:50. However their opposition to this limit and pleas for delay in its implementation suggest that even that ratio is exceeded in practice by our banks.

The power to issue money gives the banks incredible power. In 2010 the UK’s GDP(National Income) was £1.46 trillion, while bank deposits I estimate as totalling £7.3 trillion. Anybody glancing at these figures will realise that it gives the banks the power to dictate the direction of the economy. It is a power the banks don’t hesitate to use, most notably in 2009/10 when they succeeding in persuading (!) the government to save the banks by adopting a policy of national austerity.

This control of the nation’s money supply gives the banks the ability to direct the nation’s spending policies. If these excessive bank funds had been directed into developing the nation’s infra structure or long term industrial development their effects would have been less pernicious. It is no coincidence that this period of exponential growth in bank money was the period in which the number of new build homes declined catastrophically. To build a new housing estate meant money would be tied up for a long time in a construction project, which was unattractive when quick returns where available in other sectors in the housing industry. With a febrile housing market money lent on mortgages offered a quick return as there was always a large turnover in housing stock. Money was always being repaid from the sale of houses by customers wanting to move up in the housing market. Not only that but mortgage loans could be bundled up and be sold on as as part of a Collaterized Debt Obligation to other banks providing yet another source of ready cash.

The superior purchasing power of the banks enabled them to redirect activity in the housing market away from new build houses to the sale and resale of ‘second hand’ houses. There was a collapse in effective demand for new build houses, as all the money was going elsewhere to more profitable forms of speculation. Simultaneously the rise in prices of traded houses pushed up the prices of starter homes, reducing the purchasing power of the incomes of the first time buyer. Now the average house price is 5 times the average income, whereas most of recent history it was 3 times. Banks had effectively debased the domestic currency by reducing its purchasing power in terms of what really mattered, securing a home.

This change was effectively masked by a decline in interest rates, which reduced the cost of mortgages. In an economy in which people increased derived an income from property speculation it did not seem to matter.

Speculation in the various financial markets further increased the incomes of bankers and traders in the City of London. Bonuses of £1 million were becoming common place for traders in the City of London. It comes as no surprise to discover that this year England has become the largest market for Ferrari. What must be understood that the vast profits derived from this trading was money profits not real profits. It did not add to national wealth so much as become a charge on national wealth. Given that the bankers etc. now had control of a disproportionate share of the nation’s money they could outbid the rest of the population for the most desirable goods and services. Chelsea and Knightsbridge became the home of bankers, poorer residents were pushed out into other areas. Even less expensive areas in London such as Islington have become no go areas for professionals other than those who work in the financial trades.

Inflation figures whether shown in the Consumer Price Index or the Retail Price Index fail to show the extent of the true devaluation of the domestic currency. Since housing is one of the most significant items purchased in an individual’s lifetime it should be shown in a separate index and that would indicate the true decline in the value of the domestic currency. Giving bankers control of the money supply has resulted in them debasing the domestic currency as effectively as Henry VIII. Instead of reducing the value of the content of the currency, they reduce the value of the currency by increasing its supply of money, making each domestic pound worth less. Further by gaining a stranglehold over government economic policy they have been able to limit the incomes (money held) by the majority through persuading the government to adopt supply side economics and domestic austerity, which have kept incomes for the majority in real terms at 2003 levels, which means the bankers and the super rich can through their spending increasingly determine what is produced in the UK. The shrunken purchasing power of the majority means they have less say over what is produced, therefore less affordable housing.

UK government through surrendering control of the money supply to the banks have been able to remake the economy so that increasingly not just bankers but increasingly large parts of the population to look too making income through speculative activities, rather from gainful employment. It is a population with little optimism for the future that is attracted to the gambling websites, as they see it as the only chance of making money. A speculative economy in which the financial elite make fortunes through speculation in currency, commodities and equities is an unfair society as most are denied that opportunity. One such speculative activity is the buy-to-let property market in London, with prices increasing at a rate of 11% a year, the buyer cannot fail to make money. Since all too often its a short term speculative investment there is no desire to make the purchased property habitable.

Bankers I believe share a disproportionate part of the blame for the housing crises in the UK. Only by taking control of the money supply away from the banks can a fair and equitable society be created. There are lots of policies that could achieve this, one of the best is increasing the banks to hold a larger ratio of share equity (reserves) to bank deposits. A gradual increase of the amount of equity to deposit ratio to 1:10 would end many of the evils of the current system.