Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Will someone stop this man before he hurts himself?


From today's Open Europe news summary:

Juncker unveils his €315bn investment package for Europe
Speaking to the European Parliament this morning, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker unveiled his plan for a €315bn investment fund – backed by €8bn from the EU budget (underpinning €16bn in guarantees) and €5bn from the European Investment Bank (EIB). The rest of the funding will come from the private sector with the public funds acting as first loss protection for riskier investments. Juncker also called on member states to commit further funds, promising that, for each public €1 given, €15 of investment would be created. Juncker added, “If Member States chip in capital to the [investment] fund, we will not take these contributions into account in our assessments” of countries’ deficit and debt under EU fiscal rules.


This summary of EU Commissioner Juncker's so-called "investment plan" would be worthy of discussion in an Austrian economics class. One could have the class point out all the fallacious, embedded assumptions, such as whether third parties have any insight into the real economic needs of Europe. As Ludwig von Mises pointed out a hundred years ago in his Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth, no economic calculation is possible in the absence of property rights. Since EU bureaucrats do not own the property that they will put at risk, they have no way of rationally establishing ordinal preferences. In other words, the EU will not know if it is investing to satisfy the highest needs of the market. But this is just one problem and probably not even the most onerous. There is the problem of creating money out of thin air, which ignores the importance of time preference in determining the real wishes of property owners to save more or save less and, thus, provide real savings to the loanable funds market. The problems go on and on, yet one expects that Commissioner Juncker will proceed undeterred by the few lone voices of dissent in Brussels.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Path to the Perfect Reserve Currency

Much has been written lately, including by me, about the coming rejection of the dollar as the primary reserve currency of the world's most important central banks. My prediction is based upon two things: one, that the Federal Reserve is controlled by inflationist politicians whose main goal is to monetize the federal government's vast annual budget deficits; and, two, that the rest of the world is getting fed up with holding ever more fiat dollars of decreasing purchasing power. In the first instance, as long as the Fed can get away with printing dollars that ultimately are used to purchase federal government debt, there is no reason for it to cease federal debt monetization or for the federal government itself to balance its budget by reducing the welfare/warfare state. In the second instance, it is in the self interest of the rest of the world to find an alternative to being robbed by loss of the dollar's purchasing power. In short, if the Fed does not stop debasing the dollar, its status as a reserve currency will continue to erode. If the Fed wants the dollar to remain the world's reserve currency of choice, it must raise interest rates rather than print more money and the government must slash its spending to avoid imposing higher taxes. If it chooses neither of these, or in such small increments as to make little difference, then I fear the dollar is doomed as the world's primary reserve currency.

The Definition of the Best Reserve Currency

Central banks hold reserves in order to facilitate international trade. Individuals and companies within a monopolized currency area (either an individual nation or some region, such as the euro zone) must exchange their local currency for some other nation's currency in order to import goods and services. Likewise, individuals and companies within a monopolized currency area must convert foreign currency to  local currency in order to pay their local suppliers for producing goods and services that are sold abroad and for which they were paid in foreign currency. They do this through the central bank. Alternatively, individuals and companies may decide to conduct these exchanges in a third currency, one that is accepted in most of the world. Since the end of World War II the US dollar has performed this role, meaning that the world is willing to hold dollars (or dollar denominated assets, such as US Treasury bonds), that circulate outside the borders of the US. Thusly was developed over time the eurodollar and the petrodollar markets, for example.

But simply saying that the world has preferred to hold US dollars does not explain why it preferred to do so. We have lost sight of the fact that there were real reasons for the eurodollar and petrodollar markets, which transcended some mystical faith in the dollar and the US. The world simply had recognized that the dollar was the most marketable currency to hold, I believe mainly for both geopolitical (think a VERY strong military) and economic (think the most free) reasons. But now those reasons are evaporating, creating an opening for some other, better currency.

Definition of the perfect reserve currency

The market wants a currency which retains its purchasing power and can be exchanged readily for the most varied real goods, services, and assets. As long as nations issue fiat currencies, only a nation with a large internal market will find that its currency is accepted as one of many reserve currencies. If no one else will accept that currency, it always will be accepted in the monopolized currency zone of the central bank that issued it. For example, it is possible that the eurodollar and petrodollar markets could end, forcing holders of US dollars to exchange them for goods and services in the one part of the world that MUST accept dollars--the US. Holders of dollars know that they can exchange their holdings for American assets, products, and services. The American market is huge, offering lots of choice; whereas, a smaller market, such as Singapore or Russia, would have fewer assets, goods, and services for exchange against the Singapore dollar or the Russian ruble. Much has been written of late that Russia, whose economy is one tenth the size of the US,  wants to end what it calls the dollar's "special privilege". But there is a natural limit on the demand by central banks to hold Russian rubles, because Russia exports mainly commodities and few goods or services. Furthermore, property rights in Russian companies and other assets are not seen by the market to be as secure as those in Western countries. China's yuan might fare better than the ruble, because China exports many more goods to the West than Russia; thus, holders of yuan would have somewhat more confidence that they could find readily marketable goods in exchange for yuan.

Gold backing adds to a currency's marketability

But there is one step that small market countries or those with questionable dedication to defending property rights could take that would enable them to make their currencies attractive to hold nonetheless. They could tie their currencies to gold. Gold backing provides two important assurances to potential holders. One, gold cannot be inflated at the stroke of a key on a central bank computer; therefore, the currency could not be debased and would retain its purchasing power. And, two, gold is acceptable intrinsically anywhere in the world. The holder of a gold backed currency can look beyond ultimately exchanging his currency in the issuer's monopolized currency zone; he can exchange the currency for gold and spend it on real assets, goods, and services anywhere in the world.

Guaranteed gold redemption provides even greater currency marketability

But the risk to a holder of gold backed currency has not yet been completely removed. Two further hurdles need to be crossed. One, the holder needs to know that the issuer of the gold backed currency is not secretly issuing currency that is not backed by the commodity, what Mises calls "fiduciary media". At the Bretton Woods Conference  in 1944 the US promised to maintain a dollar to gold ounce ratio of thirty-five to one. The International Monetary Fund was established at the same Bretton Woods Conference and charged with ensuring that the US honored the agreement, but it failed to do so. The US issued so much unbacked (fiduciary) media that the Fed suffered a run on its gold reserves as the US's trading partners scrambled to redeem US dollars for gold at the promised price. Therefore, an issuer of a gold backed currency needs to open its books to periodic and random independent audits.

But even independent audits are not completely sufficient. Complete confidence in a currency requires that the holder be able to take possession of the actual specie without incurring undue cost. For example, the gold might be held in a remote or possibly dangerous location, such as Moscow or Tehran. Worse yet, the currency issuer might refuse to redeem its currency for specie upon demand even though it had honored its promise not to issue fiduciary media. For example, holders of rubles might not be allowed to take possession of the physical gold in Moscow, even though independent auditors had established that the ruble had not been debased by the Russian central bank. This risk could be mitigated by the currency issuer establishing gold redemption centers in many, convenient places around the world. These redemption centers would promise to surrender specie upon demand for any issuer willing to contract with it to do so and by the currency issuer moving sufficient specie there to reassure the market.

Sound money conveys no special privilege on the issuer

Sound money--i.e., money that is backed one hundred percent by specie and for which provisions have been made for safe and dependable redemption--actually conveys no special privilege upon the issuer but, rather, an obligation. The "special privilege" that critics of the dollar have expressed  refers to the Fed's ability to debase its currency. Were it not allowed to do so, the Fed would become simply another market participant producing a good or service desired by the market. In a sound money environment, If the market discovered that the Fed had debased the dollar, demand to hold dollars would quickly erode. The market's demand to hold dollars would fall and its demand to hold other, sounder currencies would rise. Once found to be issuing fraudulent, fiduciary media--i.e., media not backed one hundred percent by specie--international demand to hold dollars might never return, because the Fed's reputation for honesty had been destroyed. I fear that the dollar's reputation has been destroyed. It is no secret that base money in the US has risen tremendously, from $569 billion in March 2000 to $4,083 billion in September 2014. In that time the Fed's inventory of gold has remained the same at 261.5 million ounces. This abuse of the market has opened the door for others. If any country could convince the market that its currency was sound, by following the principles outlined above, international demand to hold that currency would rise, supplanting the dollar as the world's primary reserve currency. Furthermore, it would be doing all international market participants a favor. Remember, providing a sound currency conveys an obligation to the issuer to honor its promises; it does not convey a privilege to cheat the market by printing unbacked currency.

The benefits that accrue to issuers of sound money are all ancillary. For example, the British pound represented more than the fact that it was backed by specie redeemable upon demand. The convertible British pound was representative of a nation that honored the rule of law, fair dealing, honesty, and prudence. British law was exported to the world, as was its form of government, because the world recognized that these institutions were part and parcel of its financial and economic success. British bankers, lawyers, and businessmen gained in statue and real wealth because they upheld these values. The redeemable British pound was a daily verification of trust in everything British. In other words, Britain led by example, and the example was the British pound.

But we're not at the perfect reserve currency yet!

So far we have assumed that only central banks can issue money that would be accepted by international traders as a reserve currency. But there still is one risk to holders even of fully redeemable, gold backed currency--the risk of sovereign suspension of gold redemption by all (or most) of the major central banks. This is exactly what happened at the start of World War I. Regardless of the reason for suspension of gold redemption, a central bank would be protected from court action by its national government. National governments hold the monopoly of coercive force within their sovereign area, so holders of the currency could be denied redemption there, although they might have access to partial redemption of gold held at remote locations. However, a private issuer of a redeemable gold backed currency would have no such protection and national governments would have little incentive to provide it. Courts in many countries could attach the assets of the currency issuer and even bring criminal charges of fraud against the principals, a risk that central bank bureaucrats need not face. Therefore, the  ultimate reserve currency is one that is issued by private institutions, such as international banks.

Conclusion

The world needs honest money founded in law to which men everywhere can seek justice in the protection of their trade, property, and wealth. Honest, sound money is representative of an entire society's dedication to the rule of law, fair dealing, prudence, and reliability. There is no secret to sound money, only dedication to providing its ready and convenient redemption. The nation that adopts these principles will thrive.


Saturday, November 22, 2014

My paper delivered at the Mises Canada Conference on Prices and Markets

Toronto Prices and Markets Conference
November 7 - 9, 2014



The First Step to Returning to Sound Money:
requiring 100% reserves on bank demand deposits
by Patrick Barron

The most important characteristic of sound money is that it is backed one hundred percent by reserves. Let us acknowledge that the fiat money that we all use is comprised of pieces of paper in our pockets and demand accounts in banks. We may access our demand accounts in banks via paper checks, electronic debit cards or some other means.

Two Ways for New Money to Enter the Economy

In the fiat system we currently live in there are two methods by which new money enters the economy. In the first method, the Fed conducts open market operations in which it buys an asset with money it creates out of thin air. It pays for these assets with money that it creates out of thin air.

Once created, most of these new fiat dollars end up as reserves in the banking system and will remain there until the Fed sells some asset in a reversal of its prior open market operation. It can sell the asset only by offering it at a price low enough to entice buyers, which may mean raising the interest rate.

The second method by which money can enter the economy is via bank lending. Under the present fractional reserve banking system, one dollar of new reserves can be pyramided into around ten dollars of new money.  The bank credits a demand account when it makes a loan. This money was created out of thin air by the banking system. Historically, banks have created more money via their lending operations than the Fed has via open market operations, because each dollar of new reserves can create multiples of new money via bank lending

The Explosion of Excess Reserves

Prior to the Fed's unprecedented expansion of base money in 2008, there were very few excess reserves in the banking system. The banks quickly expanded lending--and, thus, the money supply--to convert any new, Fed produced excess reserves into required reserves. Banks simply used their reserves to the fullest in order to make more money.


 Unique Opportunity to Mandate One Hundred Percent Reserves


To stop inflation in the Austrian sense--i.e., stop the increase in the money supply--requires two things. First, the Fed must stop increasing reserves. Second, the banking system must stop pyramiding these reserves into new money. Both must be stopped, but ending fractional reserve banking addresses the most immediate danger, because the banking system capacity for increasing the money supply is many times that of the Fed's capacity for manufacturing new reserves.

However, there is a new, bigger danger now. Whereas in the past total reserves were very low and there were almost no excess reserves in the banking system, today the numbers are growing each month. As of October 15, 2014 excess reserves amounted to $2.693 trillion.  The ratio of required reserves ($.132 trillion) to bank demand accounts ($1.615 trillion) was 8.2%.

If the banking system utilizes these excess reserves as efficiently in the future as it has in the past, checking balances could increase by twelve fold for each dollar of excess reserves.  But it gets worse.

Checking balances could go from $1.615 trillion to $34.456 trillion (($2.693 trillion/8.2%) + $1.615 trillion). If we add the $8.619 trillion of savings, money market accounts, and small certificates of deposit to the mix of reservable liabilities, the ratio (i.e., required reserves/reservable liabilities) drops to 1.29% (($.132 trillion/($1.615 trillion + $8.619 trillion)) from 8.2%.  Total bank deposits that effectively can be withdrawn upon demand would increase by 77.5 fold for each new dollar of reserves!!!! This means that total reservable liabilities could go to $219 trillion (($2.693 trillion/1.29%) + $1.615 trillion +$8.619 trillion).  Therefore, excess reserves of this proportion are a ticking time bomb of monetary inflation.

The Realization Rothbard's Deposit and Loan Banks

The obvious way to end fractional reserve banking is to raise the reserve from its current, multi-tiered, complex system to requiring one hundred percent reserves. Fortunately, the Fed's expansion of excess reserves has given us an opportunity, that may be fleeting, to divide the banking system into deposit banking and loan banking and require one hundred percent reserves on deposit banking.  Total bank reserves are greater than bank demand deposits...$1.615 trillion of demand deposits and $2.825 of total bank reserves.  The Fed could require that the new deposit banks maintain one hundred percent reserves on their current level of demand deposits without creating more reserves. The deposit banks would not be allowed to lend their demand deposits. Demand deposit customers would pay the deposit bank for money transfer services. The banking system's other deposits of savings, money market, and certificates of deposit would move onto the liability side of the loan bank.  The loan banks assets would be its loans and investments.  The deposit bank's assets would be fiat money reserves.  The deposit bank would make its money through fees alone. It would not be allowed to  invest its customers' deposits. Customers' savings, money market, and certificate of deposit accounts at the loan banking side would be backed by its loans and securities, the size of the bank's capital account, and the banker's reputation. These non-demand, savings and time accounts would be seen for what they really are: loans made to the bank.

Enforcing 100% reserves on bank demand deposits would mean that the banking system would be defined by the following equation:

Bank demand accounts = Bank reserves (cash in bank vaults plus reserve accounts at the Fed)


Adding "cash held outside bank vaults" to both sides of the above equation gives this result:

M1  = The Monetary Base

  


Transition Issues

The transition from our current system--in which demand accounts are mixed with time accounts and both are lent or used to purchase securities, which results in multiple owners of demand funds--will require some time to sort out. Here are five such issues:

1. Currently the public expects that savings, money market, and some short term certificates of deposits may be redeemed upon demand with no loss of principle and some insignificant loss of interest, just as it expects to redeem checking deposits upon demand. This will not be the case when these deposits are moved to the loan bank. There may be some overnight financing of trade, for which the depositor might earn interest, but most deposits in the loan bank will carry a longer maturity, so that the banker can conduct proper asset/liability management; i.e., ensuring that his loans are being repaid at approximately the same time as his deposits mature, so that he can meet his depositors' possible withdrawal of funds.

2. A corollary of the above issue is the possibility that, prior to the imposition of 100% reserves on demand deposits, current holders of savings and money market accounts may choose to move some of these funds into their demand accounts in order to ensure that the deposits are backed by fiat reserves. They would conclude that the current interest rate on these funds is insufficient to entice them to leave them in the loan bank, secured by loans of unknown quality. Savings, money market, and small certificates of deposit comprise $8.619 trillion as of October 15, 2014. There are not enough excess reserves in the system at the present time to back all these deposit funds by fiat reserves. Nevertheless, the banking system would still have $1.210 trillion in excess reserves after requiring that all demand accounts be backed one hundred percent by reserves ($2.825 trillion of total reserves minus $1.615 trillion of demand accounts). So, the banking system could absorb the public transfer of roughly one trillion of its roughly eight trillion dollars of savings and money market accounts into the deposit banks. Then, the loan banks would have to entice the rest of the depositors not to switch by raising the rate paid on their deposits. It would have $10.675 trillion in loans and securities as assets (per www.federalreserve.gov/releases/h8/current/), which should yield sufficient income to entice current holders of savings and time deposits to leave their funds in the loan bank. The other way to resolve this issue would be to have the Fed create the necessary excess reserves and give them to the banking system. This remedy was suggested by Professor George Reisman at the Mises Circle in Newport Beach, California in 2009.

Regardless of the mix of demand deposits to savings deposits after the one hundred percent fiat reserve requirement becomes law, all excess reserves must be removed from the banking system and the public must understand that normal commercial law will require that only demand deposits are backed by reserves.

A demand deposit must display all of the following characteristics:

a. The balance in the deposit bank does not earn interest, because the banker cannot lend the money to someone else.

b. The depositor pays fees for the deposit bank's services.

c. The balance of the account must be instantly redeemable at full face value upon demand.

d. The redemption does not require prior notice to the bank.

The deposit bank's demand deposits must equal its reserves, whether held in the form of cash or as a deposit at the central bank. A new loan could be made at the loan bank only after repayment of an existing loan or a decision by a holder of a demand deposit to transfer some of his money to the loan bank in order to earn interest. In other words, loans must be funded out of a prior act of saving and not from fiat money creation.

3. The loan side of the banking system may sustain losses in the near term, since the interest rate charged to borrowers cannot be adjusted upward on most loan contracts in order to pay for the probable increase in deposit rates required to entice savings and time depositors to keep their funds in the loan bank. The loan banks would have some reduced costs, such as the expense of paying for the money transfer and settlement system--checks, debit cards, etc. These services would be transferred to the deposit bank, where the depositors pay fees for all services. Plus, the FDIC would be liquidated, so neither deposit nor loan banks would incur that expense or the expense of paying for periodic FDIC examinations. In the long run, after the system has stabilized, the market would determine both loan and deposit rates, and only the most astute bankers would survive and prosper.

4. Legislation is required to mandate 100% reserves on demand deposits. Such legislation would finally correct the underlying error that has plagued the banking system for two hundred years; i.e., the series of court cases in England--Carr v.Carr (1811), Devaynes v. Noble (1816), and Foley v. Hill and Others (1848)  that ruled that a deposit is a loan to the bank and not a bailment.

5. Stopping the money printing presses most likely will trigger a severe recession, as those non-wealth generating, bubble activities, which are supported by a continuing source of new money will collapse and be replaced over time by real wealth generating activity. But one should not conclude that it was the stopping of the money printing presses that created this situation. Money printing produced the bubble activities that must be purged at some point, either earlier, when we have some control over money matters, or later following a general, catastrophic economic collapse.

Conclusion

The Fed has created an opportunity to make the move to 100% required reserves on demand deposits. The banking system would be divided into deposit banks, which would hold only demand deposits and for which the 100% reserve requirement would pertain, and loan banks that would act as fiduciary intermediaries for those seeking to invest their excess demand funds. We would have an honest banking system under the same rule of commercial and criminal law as all other commercial enterprises. As long as deposit bankers kept 100% reserves, the money supply could neither shrink nor expand. Loan banks would disclose that their liabilities were held at risk, which is no different than buying a stock or bond. Reputable private auditors would ensure that deposit bankers were following the 100% reserve rule and that loan bankers were not operating a Ponzi scheme. Ordinary district attorneys would enforce the law, eliminating the need and expense for government regulators and deposit insurance. Stockholders would be subject to unlimited liability for fraud.


This proposal deals only with ending the banking side of money inflation. The next step would be to ensure that no entity can manufacture fiat reserves out of thin air.  Either the Fed itself would be prohibited by law from doing so, via its open market operations, or Congress could abolish the Fed and establish some agency to insure that the now fix supply of money is backed by the government's gold reserves at whatever price is required to back all of M1 by the Fed's 261.5 million ounces of gold. At that point anyone could take gold to this agency and get dollars at the fixed rate or take dollars to this agency and get gold at the fixed rate. Once the public understands the true nature of money as something that has legal backing to a commodity at a contract rate--such as the dollar to gold ratio of $35 per ounce, as established at Bretton Woods--it would understand that any trusted agency could produce money, not just governments. At that point legal tender laws could be abolished and money production would be privatized and governed by normal commercial and criminal law. Sound money would have returned to its rightful place in the market.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Planning begins for a euro-free Europe

From today's Open Europe news summary:

In an interview with RTL, Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem admitted that the Dutch government looked at what would happen if plans to save the euro “didn’t succeed”. His predecessor Jan Kees de Jager added separately that the Netherlands had worked on the issue with Germany and that teams of experts looked at how the Guilder could be reintroduced.


Notice that the Dutch are consulting with Germany in planning for the demise of the euro. In my opinion the Dutch would not reintroduce the guilder; they would decide to become a deutsche mark country, as would many other European countries...perhaps all of Europe eventually. This would herald the beginning of the end of worldwide monetary inflation by central banks. If the US, Britain, China, and Japan did not stop debasing their currencies, demand to hold these currencies as central bank reserves would fall precipitously because international companies would want to settle their trades in the best currency available; i.e., the deutsche mark.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Tax avoidance is NOT tax evasion

From today's Open Europe news summary:

The Telegraph reports that David Cameron is expected to use the G20 gathering of world leaders this weekend to press for greater sharing of tax information to crackdown on avoidance. Open Europe’s Raoul Ruparel is quoted in City AM discussing Luxembourg’s tax agreements with multinationals – the details of which were leaked – and the implications for European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.


The G20 nations are determined to harmonize taxes the world over at a high rate and allow no legal escape anywhere. British prime minister David Cameron is the latest world leader to succumbed to the siren call of being able to milk his people for an even greater share of the fruits of their toil without fear that they will seek legal protection elsewhere. What these parasites on the people's wealth have in common is a fear of tax competition. They give lip service to the benefits of competition in the private sector, and most countries have criminal laws against economic collusion, yet they fear competition for themselves in the realm of taxes and law.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Europe, 25 years after the fall of the iron curtain

01:38:28
Added on 11/12/14
178 views
Many thanks to my friend Dr. Philip Bagus for forwarding the link to me. In addition to the address by former Czech president Vaclav Klaus, there were excellent presentations by Dr. Bagus of King Juan Carlos University in Madrid, Mr. Mach of the Czech Republic, and Richard Sulik of Slovakia.

Dr. Bagus' informed the audience that almost one hundred years ago Ludwig von Mises explained the impossibility of socialism in his Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth. If Europe had listened to Mises, think of the misery it would have avoided, including that of today. His talk starts at the 58 minute mark. Dr. Bagus is author of the very influential The Tragedy of the Euro, which explains that the euro is misconstructed and will suffer the same fate as any inadequately protected commonly held resource.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Maastricht Treaty? We don't need no stinkin' Maastricht Treaty!

From today's Open Europe news summary:

ECB Executive Board member Yves Mersch said yesterday that the ECB will begin purchasing Asset Backed Securities (ABS) next week. He added that, “should the situation deteriorate further”, purchases of sovereign debt remain an option.
Bloomberg Reuters


The European Central Bank is strictly prohibited by its founding Maastricht Treaty from buying sovereign debt, yet it plans to do so anyway. 

Here is a direct quote from the Treaty:

21.1. In accordance with Article 104 of this Treaty, overdrafts or any other type of credit facility with the ECB or with the national central banks in favour of Community institutions or bodies, central governments, regional, local or other public authorities, other bodies governed by public law, or public undertakings of Member States shall be prohibited, as shall the purchase directly from them by the ECB or national central banks of debt instruments. 

This should be a lesson to all who believe that people in positions of power somehow will behave differently once in office. Public Choice Theory tells us the opposite; i.e., that people in power are just as self-centered and likely to pursue their personal goals rather than the public ones which they are commissioned to uphold.

Remember Barron's law (tongue in cheek!): An institution that CAN print money WILL print money.