Sunday, 15 February 2015
Is more lending / debt desirable or not?
(Warning: this is yet another of my pro-full reserve banking rants)
The great and the good – aka the dozy elite – often deplore the rise in household and other debts over the last decade or so. But in the next breath they’re quite likely to warn that excessive bank regulation will cut bank loans and hence economic growth. So do they want more lending / debt or less?
One of the worst offenders is Vince Cable, the UK’s so called “Business Secretary”. For example, according to this Financial Times article he claims (scarcely believable this) that commercial banks shouldn’t be forced to have more capital because that would allegedly cut down on bank lending and bank created debt, which would damage economic growth. Well if there’s one thing nearly every economist now agrees on, it’s that banks SHOULD HAVE more capital. Indeed, Martin Wolf, chief economics commentator at the Financial Times argues that banks should have VASTLY MORE capital: much more than advocated by the Basel regulators.
But in contrast, Cable says here, “I am very concerned by the build-up of household debt in relation to income.” And if you want to watch more members of the great and the good brigade hyperventilating about excessive household debts, see here.
Anyone can take some event or variable, e.g. an interest rate rise, and point to one or two consequences. In contrast, and far more useful is to work out the OPTIMUM level of interest rates, debts, lending etc. So what set up would give us the OPTIMUM amount of lending and debt?
Optimisation: the free market.
It’s widely accepted that the FREE MARKET gives an optimum allocation of resources, bar a number of specific areas where a totally free market does obvious harm: e.g. giving factories freedom to pollute their surroundings. Or in economics jargon, we can’t allow externalities. Also a free market is a scenario in which there are no subsidies (unless there are very good social reasons for subsidies). Indeed it is widely accepted that bank subsidies should be removed, though the elite is moving at a snail’s pace to actually remove such subsidies. Or as Labour politician Michael Meacher so eloquently put it, “The pusillanimity of the new capital reserve requirements was accompanied by almost unbelievable procrastination.”
In fact, advocates of so called “free banking” advocate a removal of all bank subsidies, and indeed taking that further: letting private banks issue their own dollar bills, pound notes, etc.
Free banking is OK by me as long as depositors have the option of some sort of totally safe state backed account to lodge their money in. With a view to achieving the latter, William Hummel advocates that everyone should be able to open an account at the central bank. But that’s just one way of doing it. As an alternative, one could have commercial banks act as agents for the central bank.
Moreover, totally safe accounts of the latter sort are already up and running. In the UK there’s the state run savings bank National Savings and Investments. And in the US there are money market mutual funds which invest only in short term government debt.
And what do you know? The latter system, i.e. totally safe, state run accounts combined with a more or less “anything goes” private banking system is pretty much what full reserve banking consists of, a system I back. There’s just one constraint that needs to be put on those private banks (and free banking enthusiasts won’t agree with this), and that is to restrict their freedom to issue any sort of liability which is too near to being money. Reason for that is that private banks, as is currently the case, issue most of the country’s money supply, and if a series of such banks collapse, the country’s money supply vanishes or is dramatically reduced. As Irving Fisher put it in the 1930s, “The most outstanding fact of the last depression is the destruction of eight billion dollars-over a third - of our "check-book money"- demand deposits.” That just isn't acceptable.
To put it in economics jargon, letting private banks issue the country’s money supply involves an externality: those banks periodically impose catastrophic crashes / credit crunches on the economy. That needs to be disposed of just as the pollution externality mentioned above needs to be disposed of.
The optimum amount of lending and debt would arise where borrowers and lenders are free to come to any mutually acceptable agreement they like: using a bank as an intermediary or not. The main constraints needed are first, private banks’ freedom to portray their liabilities as money should be constrained or outlawed. Second, to make up for that constraint, the state should make totally safe accounts available to anyone who wants them.
Under that system, there is no state support for lending entities / lending banks. And that in turn means that all stakeholders in those entities are effectively shareholders: i.e. in the worst case scenario, they stand to lose 100% of their stakes. So that means a big rise in capital ratios, which in turn would reduce lending somewhat. But if that lead to any reduced GDP, that’s no problem because the latter reduction can be dealt with by standard stimulatory measures: interest rate cuts, a bigger deficit or whatever.