Does this mean that Ellen Brown was right all along and that her straw man-bashing Austrian School
critics were therefore wrong?
While contrarians are screaming “hyperinflation!”, the money supply is actually shrinking. This is because most money today comes into existence as bank loans, and lending has shrunk substantially. That means the Fed needs to “monetize” debt just to fill the breach.
On June 3, 2009, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke assured Congress, “The Federal Reserve will not monetize the debt
.” Bill Bonner, writing in The Daily Reckoning
, said it had a ring to it, like President Nixon’s “I am not a crook” and President Clinton’s “I did not have sex with that woman.” Monetizing the debt is precisely what the Fed will do, says Bonner, because it has no other choice. The Chinese are growing reluctant to lend, the taxpayers are tapped out, and the deficit is at unprecedented levels. “Even good people do bad things when they get in a jam. The Feds are already in pretty deep . . . and they’re going a lot deeper.”
But Mr. Bernanke denied it
. “Either cuts in spending or increases in taxes will be necessary to stabilize the fiscal situation,” he said.
Both alternatives will be vigorously opposed, leaving Congress in the same deadlock California has been in for the last year. That makes the monetization option at least worth a look. What is wrong with it? Bill Bonner calls it “larceny on the grandest scale. Rather than honestly repaying what it has borrowed, a government merely prints up extra currency and uses it to pay its loans. The debt is ‘monetized’ . . . transformed into an increase in the money supply, thereby lowering the purchasing power of everybody’s savings.”
So say the pundits, but in the past year the Fed has “monetized” over a trillion dollars worth of debt, yet the money supply is not expanding. As investment adviser Mark Sunshine
observed in a June 12 blog:
“While media talking heads were ranting about how the Fed was running their printing presses overtime to push up money supply, the facts were very different. M1 has actually declined since the middle of December, 2008. During the same six month period M2 has only risen by a little less than 3%.”
The Fed is no longer reporting M3, the largest measure of the money supply, but according to Sunshine:
“We know that broader measures of money supply, like M3, haven’t materially risen in 2009.
M3 followers can get a very rough idea of what M3 would have been, if it were published, by looking at the Federal Reserve quarterly Flow of Funds Accounts of the United States which was distributed yesterday. As it turns out, total net borrowing of the United States (private and public) dropped approximately $255 billion in the first quarter and other indicators of M3 fell or are about flat (on a net basis). . . . This data supports the theory that the fall in private borrowing is more than offsetting the rise in government borrowing and therefore, at least for the time being, financing the deficit isn’t a problem.”
All of this flap about the Fed driving the economy into hyperinflation because it is creating money on its books reflects a fundamental misconception about how our money and banking system actually works. In monetizing the government’s debt, the Fed is just doing what banks do every day. All
money is created by banks on their books, as many authorities
have attested. The Fed is just stepping in where the commercial banking system has failed. Except for coins, which are issued by the government and compose only about one ten-thousandth of the money supply (M3), our money today is nothing but bank credit
(or debt); and we’re now laboring under a credit freeze, which means banks aren’t creating nearly as many loans as they used to. In February, the Bank for International Settlements published research showing that European banks could not settle their debts because of a $2 trillion shortage
of U.S. dollars. Proposals for alternative reserve currencies followed. And in March, Blackstone Group CEO Stephen Schwarzman
reported that up to 45% of the world’s wealth has been destroyed by the credit crisis
. The missing “wealth” cannot be restored without putting the missing “money” back into the system, and that means getting the credit engine going again.
Congress, the Treasury and the Federal Reserve have therefore been throwing money at the banks, trying to build up the banks’ capital so they can make enough loans to refuel the economy. At a capital requirement of 8%, $8 in capital can be leveraged into $100 in loans. But lending remains far below earlier levels, and it’s not because the banks are refusing to lend. The banks insist that they are making as many loans as they’re allowed to make with their existing deposit and capital bases. The real bottleneck is with the “shadow lenders”
– those investors who, until late 2007, bought massive amounts of bank loans bundled up as “securities,” taking those loans off the banks’ books, making room for yet more loans to be originated out of the banks’ capital and deposit bases. In a Washington Times
article titled “Banks Still Standing Amid Credit Rubble,” Patrice Hill wrote:
“Before last fall’s financial crisis, banks provided only $8 trillion of the roughly $25 trillion in loans outstanding in the United States, while traditional bond markets provided another $7 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve. The largest share of the borrowed funds - $10 trillion - came from securitized loan markets that barely existed two decades ago. . . .
“Many legislators in Congress complain that banks aren’t lending, and cite that as an excuse to vote against further bank bailout funds. . . . But Mr. Regalia (chief economist at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce) said these critics are wrong. ‘Banks are lending more, but 70 percent of the system isn’t there anymore,’ he said.”
Seventy percent of the system isn’t there anymore because the traditional bond markets and securitized loan markets have dried up. Writes Hill:
“Congress’ demand that banks fill in for collapsed securities markets poses a dilemma for the banks, not only because most do not have the capacity to ramp up to such large-scale lending quickly. The securitized loan markets provided an essential part of the machinery that enabled banks to lend in the first place. By selling most of their portfolios of mortgages, business and consumer loans to investors, banks in the past freed up money to make new loans. . . .
“The market for pooled subprime loans, known as collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), collapsed at the end of 2007 and, by most accounts, will never come back. Because of the surging defaults on subprime and other exotic mortgages, investors have shied away from buying the loans, forcing banks and Wall Street firms to hold them on their books and take the losses.”
The retreat of the shadow lenders has created a credit freeze globally; and when credit shrinks, the money supply shrinks with it. That means there is insufficient money to buy goods, so workers get laid off and factories get shut down, perpetuating a vicious spiral of economic collapse and depression. To reverse that cycle, credit needs to be restored; and when the banks can’t do it, the Fed needs to step in and start “monetizing” debt.
So why don’t Fed officials just say that is what they are up to and put our minds at ease? Probably because they can’t without exposing the whole banking game. The curtain would be thrown back and we the people would know that our money system is sleight of hand. The banks never had all that money they supposedly lent to us. We’ve been paying interest for something they created out of thin air! Indeed, their credit money is less substantial than air, which at least has some molecules bouncing around in it. Bank credit exists only in cyberspace.
]The Fed is proposing another round of “quantitative easing,” although the first round failed to reverse deflation. It failed because the money went into the coffers of banks, which failed to lend it on. To reverse deflation, the money needs to be funneled directly to state and local economies.
In 2002, in a speech that earned him the nickname “Helicopter Ben,” then-Fed Governor Bernanke famously said that the government could easily reverse a deflation, just by printing money and dropping it from helicopters. “The U.S. government has a technology, called a printing press (or, today, its electronic equivalent),” he said, “that allows it to produce as many U.S. dollars as it wishes at essentially no cost.” Later in the speech he discussed “a money-financed tax cut,” which he said was “essentially equivalent to Milton Friedman’s famous ‘helicopter drop’ of money.” You could cure a deflation, said Professor Friedman, simply by dropping money from helicopters.
It seems logical enough. If there is insufficient money in the money supply (deflation), the solution is to put more money into it. But if deflation is so easy to fix, then why has the Fed’s massive attempts to date failed to do the job? At the Federal Reserve’s Jackson Hole summit on August 27, Chairman Bernanke said he would fight deflation with his whole arsenal, including “quantitative easing” (QE) – purchasing longterm securities with money created on a computer. Yet since 2008, the Fed has added more than $1.2 trillion to “base money
” doing just that, and the economy is still in a serious deflationary spiral. In the first quarter of this year, the money supply actually shrank at a record annual rate of 9.6%.
Cullen Roche at The Pragmatic Capitalist
has an answer to that puzzle. He says that as currently practiced, quantitative easing (QE) is not
really a money drop. It is just an asset swap:
“The Fed doesn’t actually ‘print’ anything when it initiates its QE policy. The Fed simply electronically swaps an asset with the private sector. In most cases it swaps deposits with an interest bearing asset.”
The Fed just swaps Federal Reserve Notes (dollar bills) for other assets (promissory notes or debt) that can quickly be turned into money. The Fed is merely trading one form of liquidity for another, without raising the overall water level in the pool.
The mechanics of how QE works were revealed in a remarkable segment on National Public Radio
on August 26, describing how a team of Fed employees bought $1.25 trillion in mortgage bonds beginning in late 2008. According to NPR:
“The Fed was able to spend so much money so quickly because it has a unique power: It can create money out of thin air, whenever it decides to do so. So . . . the mortgage team would decide to buy a bond, they’d push a button on the computer – ‘and voila, money is created.’
“The thing about bonds, of course, is that people pay them back. So that $1.25 trillion in mortgage bonds will shrink over time, as they get repaid. Earlier this month, the Fed announced that it will use the proceeds from the mortgage bonds to buy Treasury bonds – essentially keeping all that newly created money in circulation. The decision was a sign that the Fed thinks the economy still needs to be propped up with extraordinary measures.”
“Extraordinary measures” was a reference to Section 13(3) of the Federal Reserve Act, which allows the Fed in “unusual and exigent circumstances” to buy “notes, drafts and bills of exchange” (debt instruments) from “any individual, partnership or corporation” satisfying its requirements. The Fed was supposedly engaging in these extraordinary measures to “reflate” the money supply and get credit flowing again. Yet the money supply continued to shrink. The problem, as Roche explains, is that the dollars were merely being swapped for other highly liquid assets on bank balance sheets. That this sort of asset swap will not pump up a collapsed money supply has been shown not only by the Fed’s failed experiments over the last two years but by two decades of failed QE policy in Japan, an economy which remains in the deflationary doldrums. To reverse deflation, it seems, QE needs to be directed somewhere else besides the balance sheets of private banks. What we need is the sort of helicopter drop described by Bernanke in 2002 – one over the towns and cities of the real economy.
There is another interesting lesson suggested by two decades of failed QE: it might
actually be possible for the government to “print” its way out of debt, without triggering the dreaded hyperinflation long warned of by pundits. Swapping dollars for debt hasn’t inflated the circulating money supply to date because federal debt securities already serve as forms of “money” in the economy.
The Textbook Money Multiplier Model . . .
And Why It Is Obsolete
Beginning with some definitions, “quantitative easing” is explained in Wikipedia like this:
“A central bank . . . first credits its own account with money it has created ex nihilo (‘out of nothing’). It then purchases financial assets, including government bonds, mortgage-backed securities and corporate bonds, from banks and other financial institutions in a process referred to as open market operations. The purchases, by way of account deposits, give banks the excess reserves required for them to create new money, and thus a hopeful stimulation of the economy, by the process of deposit multiplication from increased lending in the fractional reserve banking system.”
“Deposit multiplication” is the textbook explanation for how credit expands as it circulates through the economy. In the textbook model, banks must retain “reserves” equal to 10% of outstanding deposits (including deposits created as loans). With a 10% reserve requirement, a $100 deposit can support a $90 loan, which gets deposited in another bank, where it becomes an $81 loan, and so forth, until a $100 deposit becomes $1,000 in credit-money.
The theory is that increasing the banks’ reserves will stimulate this process, but both the Federal Reserve and the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) now concede that the process has not been working in the textbook way. (The BIS is “the central bankers’ central bank” in Basel, Switzerland.) The futile effort to push more money into bloated bank reserve accounts has been compared to adding more apples to shelves that are already overstocked with apples. Adding more reserves to a banking system that already has more reserves than it can use has no
net effect on the money supply.
The failure of QE either to increase bank lending or to inflate the money supply was confirmed in a March 24 paper by Federal Reserve Vice Chairman Donald L. Kohn, who wrote:
“The huge quantity of bank reserves that were created (by quantitative easing) has been seen largely as a byproduct of the purchases (of debt instruments) that would be unlikely to have a significant independent effect on financial markets and the economy. This view is not consistent with the simple models in many textbooks or the monetarist tradition in monetary policy, which emphasizes a line of causation from reserves to the money supply to economic activity and inflation.”
The textbook model is obsolete because banks don’t make lending decisions based on how many reserves they have. They can always get the reserves they need. If customers don’t walk in the door with new deposits, the bank can borrow deposits from other banks, something they can now do at the very low Fed funds rate of .2% (1/5th of 1%). And if those deposits are not available, the Federal Reserve itself will supply the reserves. This was confirmed in a BIS working paper called “Unconventional Monetary Policies: An Appraisal”, which observed:
“The level of reserves hardly figures in banks’ lending decisions. The amount of credit outstanding is determined by banks’ willingness to supply loans, based on perceived risk-return trade-offs, and by the demand for those loans. . . .
“The aggregate availability of bank reserves does not constrain the expansion (of credit) directly. The reason is simple: . . . in order to avoid extreme volatility in the interest rate, central banks supply reserves as demanded by the system. From this perspective, a reserve requirement, depending on its remuneration, affects the cost . . . of loans, but does not constrain credit expansion quantitatively. . . . An expansion of reserves in excess of any requirement does not give banks more resources to expand lending. It only changes the composition of liquid assets of the banking system. Given the very high substitutability between bank reserves and other government assets held for liquidity purposes, the impact can be marginal at best.”
Again, one form of liquidity is just substituted for another, without changing the overall level in the pool.
If bank reserves do not constrain bank lending, what does? According to the BIS paper, “the main . . . constraint on the expansion of credit is minimum capital requirements.” These capital requirements, known as “Basel I” and “Basel II,” were imposed by the BIS itself. It is interesting that the BIS knows that the main constraints on bank lending are its own capital requirements, yet it is talking about raising
them, in an economic climate in which lending is already seriously impaired. Either the BIS is talking out of both sides of its mouth, or its writers don’t read each other.
Another interesting aside arising from all this is the suggestion that the government could actually print its way out of debt – it could print dollars and buy back its bonds -- without creating inflation. As Roche observes:
“(Quantitative easing) in time of a balance sheet recession is not actually inflationary at all. With the government merely swapping assets they are not actually ‘printing’ any new money. In fact, the government is now essentially stealing interest bearing assets from the private sector and replacing them with deposits. . . . This policy response would in fact be deflationary – not inflationary.”
Roche concludes, “the inflationistas
have been wrong and the USA defaultistas
have been horribly wrong.” The “inflationistas” are the pundits screaming that QE will end in hyperinflation, and the “defaultistas” are those insisting that the U.S. must eventually default on its debt. Representing both camps, for example, is Richard Russell
, who writes:
“In my opinion, the US MUST default on its debt. There are two ways to default. One is simply to renege on the debt. . . . The other way to default on the debt is to inflate it away. I’m absolutely convinced that this is the path that the US will take. If the US inflates enough, then over time (many years) the devalued dollar will tend to reduce the power of the debts.”
The failed QE experiments in Japan and the U.S. suggest, however, that there is a third alternative. Printing dollars to pay the debt (referred to by Russell as “inflating the debt away”) might actually eliminate the debt without
creating inflation. This is because federal bonds and Federal Reserve Notes are interchangeable forms of liquidity. Government securities trade around the world just as if they were money. A $100 bond represents a claim on $100 worth of goods and services, just as a $100 bill does. The difference, as Thomas Edison said nearly a century ago, is merely that “the bond lets money brokers collect twice the amount of the bond and an additional 20%, whereas the currency pays nobody but those who contribute directly in some useful way. . . . Both are promises to pay, but one promise fattens the usurers and the other helps the people.”
The Fed’s earlier attempts at QE involved swapping $1.25 trillion in mortgaged-backed securities (MBS) for dollars created on a computer screen. As noted in the NPR segment, many of those securities have come due and have gotten paid off, putting cash in the Fed’s till. The Fed now proposes to use this money to buy long-term Treasury debt rather than MBS. That means the Fed will, in effect, be buying the government’s debt with dollars created on a computer screen. The privately-owned Federal Reserve is not actually an arm of the federal government, but if it were, the government would thus be printing its way out of debt – just as Helicopter Ben proposed in 2002. Recall that he said, “the U.S. government
has a technology, called a printing press” – the U.S. government, not the central bank that has done all the QE to date.
Running the government’s printing presses to pay its bills has not seriously been tried since the Civil War, when President Lincoln saved the North from a crippling war debt at usurious interest rates by printing Greenbacks
(U.S. Notes). Other countries
, however, have tested and proven this model more recently. They include Germany, which pulled itself out of a massive financial collapse in the early 1930s by printing a form of currency called “MEFO bills”; and Australia, New Zealand and Canada, all of which successfully funded public works in the first half of the twentieth century simply by advancing the credit of the nation. China, Malaysia, Guernsey, Jersey, India, Argentina and other countries have also revived their economies at critical times by this means. The U.S. government could do this too. It could print dollars (or type them into electronic bank accounts) and spend the money on the sorts of local public projects that would put people back to work and get the economy rolling again.
Debate continues to rage between the inflationists who say the money supply is increasing, dangerously devaluing the currency, and the deflationists who say we need more
money in the economy to stimulate productivity. The debate is not just an academic one, since the Fed’s monetary policy turns on it and so does Congressional budget policy.
Inflation fears have been fueled ever since 2009, when the Fed began its policy of “quantitative easing” (effectively “money printing”). The inflationists point to commodity prices that have shot up. The deflationists, in turn, point to the housing market, which has collapsed and taken prices down with it. Prices of consumer products other than food and fuel are also down. Wages have remained stagnant, so higher food
prices mean people have less money to spend on consumer goods. The bubble in commodities, say the deflationists, has been triggered by the fear
of inflation. Commodities are considered a safe haven, attracting a flood of “hot money” -- investment money racing from one hot investment to another
To resolve this debate, we need the actual money supply figures. Unfortunately, the Fed quit reporting M3, the largest measure of the money supply, in 2006.
Fortunately, figures are still available for the individual components of M3. Here is a graph
that is worth a thousand words. It comes from ShadowStats.com (Shadow Government Statistics or SGS) and is reconstructed from the available data on those components. The red line is the M3 money supply reported by the Fed until 2006. The blue line is M3 after 2006.
The chart shows that the overall U.S. money supply is shrinking, despite the Fed’s determination to inflate it with quantitative easing. Like Japan, which has been doing quantitative easing (QE) for a decade, the U.S. is still fighting deflation
Here is another telling chart – the M1 Money Multiplier from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis:Barry Ritholtz comments
, “All that heavy breathing about the flood of liquidity that was going to pour into the system. Hyper-inflation! Except not so much, apparently.” He quotes David Rosenberg: “Fully 100% of both QEs by the Fed merely was new money printing that ended up sitting idly on commercial bank balance sheets. Money velocity and money multiplier are stagnant at best.” If QE1 and QE2 are sitting in bank reserve accounts, they’re not driving up the price of gold, silver, oil and food; and they’re not being multiplied into loans, which are still contracting.
The part of M3 that collapsed in 2008 was the “shadow banking system,” including money market funds and repos. This is the non-bank system in which large institutional investors that have substantially more to deposit than $250,000 (the FDIC insurance limit) park their money overnight. Economist Gary Gorton explains
The financial crisis . . . was due to a banking panic in which institutional investors and firms refused to renew sale and repurchase agreements (repo) – short-term, collateralized, agreements that the Fed rightly used to count as money. Collateral for repo was, to a large extent, securitized bonds. Firms were forced to sell assets as a result of the banking panic, reducing bond prices and creating losses. There is nothing mysterious or irrational about the panic. There were genuine fears about the locations of subprime risk concentrations among counterparties. This banking system (the “shadow” or “parallel” banking system)-- repo based on securitization -- is a genuine banking system, as large as the traditional, regulated banking system. It is of critical importance to the economy because it is the funding basis for the traditional banking system. Without it, traditional banks will not lend, and credit, which is essential for job creation, will not be created.
Before the banking crisis, the shadow banking system composed about half the money supply; and it still hasn’t been restored. Without the shadow banking system to fund bank loans, banks will not lend; and without credit, there is insufficient money to fund businesses, buy products, or pay salaries or taxes. Neither raising taxes nor slashing services will fix the problem. It needs to be addressed at its source, which means getting more credit (or debt) flowing in the local economy.
When private debt falls off, public debt must increase to fill the void. Public debt is not the same as household debt, which debtors must pay off or face bankruptcy. The U.S. federal debt has not been paid off since 1835. Indeed, it has grown continuously since then, and the economy has grown and flourished along with it.
As explained in an earlier article, the public debt is the people’s money
. The government pays for goods and services by writing a check on the national bank account. Whether this payment is called a “bond” or a “dollar,” it is simply a debit against the credit of the nation. As Thomas Edison said in the 1920s:
If our nation can issue a dollar bond, it can issue a dollar bill. The element that makes the bond good, makes the bill good, also. The difference between the bond and the bill is the bond lets money brokers collect twice the amount of the bond and an additional 20%, whereas the currency pays nobody but those who contribute directly in some useful way. . . . It is absurd to say our country can issue $30 million in bonds and not $30 million in currency. Both are promises to pay, but one promise fattens the usurers and the other helps the people.
That is true, but Congress no longer seems to have the option of issuing dollars, a privilege it has delegated to the Federal Reserve. Congress can, however, issue debt, which as Edison says amounts to the same thing. A bond can be cashed in quickly at face value. A bond is money, just as a dollar is.
An accumulating public debt owed to the IMF or to foreign banks is to be avoided, but compounding interest charges can be eliminated by financing state and federal deficits through state- and federally-owned banks. Since the government would own the bank, the debt would effectively be interest-free. More important, it would be free of the demands of private creditors, including austerity measures and privatization of public assets.