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Posts Tagged ‘Banking’

This was the title of George Selgin (CFMA, Cato) talk at the Institute of International Monetary Research (IIMR) and the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) seminar, ‘Quantitative Easing. Triumph or Folly?’ (3rd Nov. 2016). The title of course evokes Ben Bernanke‘s words at the conference held in 2002 to honour Milton Friedman for his 90th birthday; in his speech Bernanke ended with some words that have resonated everywhere in the midst and the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis in 2007-09: ‘Let me end my talk by abusing slightly my status as an official representative of the Federal Reserve. I would like to say to Milton and Anna: Regarding the Great Depression. You’re right, we did it. We’re very sorry. But thanks to you, we won’t do it again.‘ True, banks’ deposits have not contracted (as it did happened in the early 1930’s) around 30% in the recent crisis, but broad monetary growth (M2) plummeted in 2009 and did have a subsequent impact in the extension, amplitude and the severity of the crisis.

The 1930’s crisis is the historical precedent used by George Selgin to judge the Fed’s response to the two major financial crises occurred since the establishment of the US Fed in 1913; the Great Depression and the Global Financial Crisis. Selgin resorts to well-established monetary theory to recommend an early intervention in monetary markets in case of a banking crisis occurs in order to prevent the payment system and financial markets from falling. And he does so by using Walter Bagehot‘s well-known criteria for central banks to act effectively as the lenders of last resort in a monetary system where the reserves are held by a single bank: (1) the central bank must act promptly and provide loans to illiquid but solvent banks with no limit (2) against collateral (assets that would have been used in normal times) and (3) at a penalty rate; that is an interest rate higher than the normal or policy rate.

Did the Fed abide by those criteria?

As you can surely tell by the title of his talk, Selgin is very critical with the lack of an effective response of the Fed in 2008, which ended up in a drastic fall in monetary growth in the economy in 2009 (see the rate of growth of US M2 since 2007 here). Normally banks’ deposits at the central bank are a sort of a restriction that constraint the potential expansion of their balance sheets. The Fed’s policy of increasing the remuneration US banks’ deposits (or excess reserves) in the midst of the crisis (at a time where there were not many profitable investments options for banks) turned those deposits at the Fed as an asset. In this new policy scenario US banks comfortably sat on a vast amount of cash at the Fed, and did get a profit for doing so; this indeed discouraged them from channelling the money lent out by the Fed to the economy and resulted in an ineffective threefold expansion in the US monetary base. This recent example helps to explain the lack of a mechanical connection between expansions in the monetary base and those in  broader measures of money (such as M2, which hardly grew, if at all, at the time).

Watch out George Selgin’s video with his talk in full here for further details. In a nutshell, according to Selgin it was a combination of bad policy measures which caused the Great Contraction and not an inevitable policy outcome. Enjoy the talk!

Juan Castañeda

 

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The recent financial crisis has challenged quite many of the benchmarks and established monetary economic theory used in the 1990s and 2000s to analyse and prescribe monetary policy decisions. To be frank, we all have learned something in the recent crisis. Let me just list some of the lessons of the crisis I believe all and sundry very much agree on:

  • Changes in the monetary base are not good indicators of overall inflation. The three, four or even fivefold expansion of the central banks’ balance sheets has not been accompanied by inflation. It is broad money what explains inflation over the medium and long term.
  • In times of crisis, and even more if severe banking/financial crises occurred, central banks are not (cannot be) independent. In their current form central banks are indeed the bankers of governments and this becomes very evident when public revenues collapse and public spending soars, resulting in a much more expensive access to credit (if at all) and a greater and greater appetite to borrow money from the central bank. Perhaps the best we can do is to run healthy public finances in times of expansion so that the threat of ‘fiscal dominance’ is minimised and contained as much as possible.
  • CPI ‘inflation targeting’, at least as pursued in the years prior to 2007/08, is not enough to preserve monetary and financial stability over the medium and long term. Particularly in the four years running up to the crisis CPI inflation remained fairly stable (with some spikes though to oil price shocks mostly) and central banks achieved their inflation targets, consisting in a rate of Consumer Price Index inflation around 2% over the long term. However many other economy prices, in particular both financial and real assets’ of various types, did increase quite significantly, and now we know that in an unsustainable way.
  • At least in the current institutional setting, the lender of last resort (LOLR) function of central banks is an essential tool to preserve the functioning of monetary markets and thus of financial markets. As I will detail in a later post this does not mean bailing out too risky and insolvent banks (and even less bailing out their managers and shareholders), but preserving the sound operation of the financial and payments systems as a whole. The conditions to do this are very well-known to monetary historians and I am afraid they are many times forgotten.
  • Monetary aggregates (money) played virtually no role in the framing of monetary policy decisions before the crisis. However, it has been more than eight years now with historically low (policy) nominal interest rates, so central banks have had to resort to a different source of policy measures; that is, the expansion in the amount of money by the so-called Quantitative Easing (QE) operations. And what are they but purchases of bonds and even equity that ultimately aimed to increase the amount of money in the economy?
  • Central banks are not running out of weaponry. In our modern monetary systems, where central banks create the ultimate source of liquidity in the economy, there is virtually no limit for central banks to create more money. Central banks can (as they have done in these years) extend the maturity and the amount of the lending provided to the banking sector, increase their purchases of both private and public assets from financial and non-financial institutions, they can also purchase equity in the market, … .
  • Tightening bank regulation in the midst of one of the worst financial crisis in recent history can only aggravate the impact and length of the crisis. The raising of the capital ratios and the establishment of new liquidity ratios by the so-called ‘Basel III Accord’, initially  announced in the Autumn of 2008, forced banks to even contract more their balance sheets (to cut down their liabilities, deposits mainly). This resulted in sharp a fall in money growth and the worsening of the crisis, which had to be (partially) offset by central banks extraordinary policy measures (such as QE) to prevent money supply from falling even further.

There are many other much more disputable issues related to monetary economics and monetary policy indeed. But if we only agreed on the above we would be putting a remedy to some of the biggest gaps if not ‘holes’ in this field and thus creating the conditions to establish a much sounder and sustainable monetary policy framework.

I will devote a single entry to each of the them in the following weeks.

Juan C.

 

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Very, very basic hints on how a fractional reserve and fully centralised monetary reserve monetary system works

It seems to be unnecessary but, given all it’s being said by all and sundry in the last two weeks, may I remind the kind readers of this blog that the current monetary crisis in Greece is just a textbook example of how a fully centralised monetary system works. I would have thought that the members of the recently appointed new government in Greece were well aware of the institutional and economic constraints of the euro, as well as the very much restricted range of manoeuvre a monetary union allows to its members. Let’s start with the very basics:

Under a fractional reserve and fully centralised monetary system such as ours, the ultimate source of liquidity is under the control of a central bank, the single issuer of the currency with legal tender power. The Greek economy (along with quite some other countries in the euro area) has been running persistent and quite significant current account deficits and, particularly since the outbreak of the 2007-08 financial crisis, has required the extraordinary assistance of the ECB. When no one was willing to lend out money to Greece, the ECB has not only taken part on the bail-out successive plan(s) granted to Greece but also, and most importantly, has been accepting Greek government bonds as collateral in its main refinancing operation with Greek commercial banks. The latter has been key to maintain a regular source of liquidity to the Greek economy and thus to avoid the collapse of its national monetary system and a run on Greek banks.

Along with the loans, the ECB (actually the so-called Troika with the other two institutional lenders, the EU Commission and the IMF) has imposed conditionality on the provision of the loans granted to Greece. And of course, this is the (natural) expected behaviour of any lender: those willing to lend out their money would like to be sure the borrower will be able to honour his debts. Needles to say that successive Greek governments have accepted the deal because no other international creditor was willing to make a loan to the country or to accept Greek bonds as collateral. Who else but your central bank could take such a high risk and keep on hoarding in its portfolio assets nobody wants? (By the way, all the shareholders of the ECB are contributing to these loans and supporting this continuous financial assistance in accordance to their percentage in the capital of the bank).

Now a new government in Greece is playing a quite risky game, with potentially disastrous consequences for the country. All along the campaign, Syriza has been denouncing the ‘imposition’ of the bail-out programmes and the loss of sovereignty of the Greek government in favour of the interests of the international creditors (let us leave aside the meaningless and populist rhetoric used by its dealers to refer to the bankers, capitalists and free marketeers as those wickedly pulling the strings in the shadow … ). They claim that the debt is unfair and needs to be restructured, if not partially or totally written off (may I remind one more time that a more than 50% ‘voluntary’ haircut was already accepted by private bondholders in 2012). Actually the new finance minister has been very busy in his recent road trip throughout   Europe to demand a change in the rules of the game; as if he was in a position to do so. Let me remind again few very basic facts in this regard:

– The more radical the demands of the Greek governments the more difficult it will become to find any other source of liquidity in international markets and thus the more dependent the Greeks will be on the single source of money available, the ECB. Actually the risk premium of Greek bonds has already exploded in the last two weeks and thus this situation has already materialised.

– The message that the Greek government couldn’t be willing to fulfil the conditions of the bail out programme has already increased capital flights out of the country and this shouldn’t be surprising at all (as it already happened back in 2012). And again, in this financially stressed scenario Greek banks are even more fragile and exposed to high liquidity constraints, which can only be sorted out by the assistance of the ECB (if willing to accept Greek bonds as collateral).

In this context we may well understand last week’s Mr Draghi’s reaction to the demands of the Greek government; in particular, his announcement that since next Wednesday Greek banks will no longer have access to the regular financing operations of the ECB via the ordinary discount of Greek bonds as collateral. This can only mean two things: either (hopefully) the precipitation of a new mutually beneficial deal between the new Greek government and the Troika or, if not feasible, the most likely sudden collapse of Greek banks as soon as the ECB stops providing liquidity to them on a regular basis. Well, perhaps another alternative might happen, which is the return to the national (devalued) currency (see an alternative in line with the introduction of more monetary competition in Europe here).

I do not know who advices the new Greek government on these matters but it would help to familiarise first with the very basics on money and central banking. All my best wishes to the Greeks of course!

Juan Castaneda

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A conversation on money, central banks (and much more)

GoldMoney has just published a very interesting video on money and the current Eurozone crisis. In the video, James Turk interviews Professor Pedro Schwartz (San Pablo University, Madrid) on how central banks create money in our days and on the risks of the current expansionary monetary measures announced and developed by two major central banks, the ECB and the Federal Reserve of the US. As you will see, Professor Schwartz masterly explains how money is created “out of the blue” and why he thinks the ECB is actually disregarding its own Statutes, that clearly establish the prohibition of lending to any national government. How is the ECB doing so? Very easy; by purchasing public bonds of the States in crisis indirectly, in the secondary markets, and by accepting those bonds as valid and unlimited collateral in the conduction of the standard open market operations. Doing so the ECB is actually loosing its independence from political bodies and governments, and it is expanding its own remit; which was just to preserve price stability in the Eurozone, and not injecting money to foster GDP growth in the short run or to finance the State(s). Professor Schwartz also talks about the risks of inflation in the medium to the long term coming from the current (massive) injections of liquidity of central banks in the money markets.

In sum it is a very clear and interesting video that I do strongly recommend not only to any student of Economics, but also to anyone interested in how money is created in our days.

You will find below the summary of the conversation as extracted by GoldMoney.

Juan Castañeda

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GoldMoney’s James Turk interviews Prof. Pedro Schwartz who is the president of the Economic and Social Council of Madrid. They talk about bank regulation, the creation of money out of thin air and the beauty of the free market system.

They discuss how banks have expanded despite of government regulation which Schwartz in large attributes to the granted privilege of fractional reserve lending. Using this procedure a bank can create loans above the actual amount of deposits at hand and therefore create new money. This also leads to fragility in the banking system and to boom and bust cycles. Schwartz argues for a leaner and more effective regulation of financial markets as the current regulation has not worked in regards to the financial crisis.

They talk about the “tennis” between the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank when it comes to the creating money out of thin air. Schwartz states that the ECB is disregarding the rules that were aimed to guard it from being influenced by political pressure. Despite the opposition of the German Bundesbank they are buying government bonds. This is equal to digital money printing and Schwartz scents that it is not being done for monetary policy, but for the stimulation of the economy which goes beyond the original remit of the bank.

However despite the injections of new liquidity by the ECB Europe is still in recession, because interbank lending has dried up. That means that banks are parking much of the liquidity back at the ECB. The big question will be what will happen to inflation once the economy starts to pick up again and those funds find their way into the real economy. Schwartz also questions whether it is a productive business when banks can make a profit by borrowing money from the ECB at 1% interest and then turning around to buy government bond which yield 5% or 6%.

A serious inflationary disaster will only be prevented if governments will succeed in reducing their deficits and stop selling bonds. Schwartz states that cutting government spending is the only viable solution to the problem. To accomplish this there has to be a change in social mentality so that people recognise that nothing is free and that the government sector has to shrink. In the end the market is the most efficient mechanism of allocating resources according to the wants and needs of people.

This video was recorded on 14 September 2012 in Madrid.

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(Summary from: http://www.goldmoney.com/video/pedro-schwartz-on-the-creation-of-money-out-of-thin-air.html)

 

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Article originally published in GoldMoney Research (15th May 2012)

Improving the banking system

Governments grant central banks a monopoly on the creation of hard currency. At the same time, we ordinarily make transactions with other means of payment supplied by commercial banks. This is possible because in our monetary system commercial banks are able to create so-called bank money. These means of payment consist of different banks’ deposits that can be used with cheques, bank transfers, credit or debit cards and direct billings, which make our lives much easier as we do not have to hold or carry bank notes or coins to make ordinary transactions.

However, commercial banks are not free to issue their own currency. Bank money has to be denominated in the currency issued by the national central bank and the banks are legally required to redeem their sight deposits in the currency of the central bank at any time. However, the need to back any single deposit of their clients does not necessarily mean that the bank is keeping all our money in their vaults at all times. According to current regulations, they just have to keep a tiny fraction of it. This is the legal reserve ratio. In the eurozone this is 2% of banks’ total deposits; and for this reason we call it a fractional reserve monetary system. This system allows for easy expansion of the money supply, but it also involves a significant risk: that of bank runs caused when depositors all try to take their money out of banks at once.

Banks started to operate under a fractional reserve system in the early modern era, when it started dawning on them that in ordinary times, few clients actually asked for the money kept on deposit. So they started to lend part of it out. By doing so, new deposits were created and hence new means of payments. Consequently, banks increased their balance sheets as well as their profits quite substantially, as the costs of backing their new deposits were much lower than the earnings coming form the new loans. Since the mid to late 19th century, with the expansion and development of modern banking, banks were able to offer these new means of payment more efficiently – which did not require the use of paper notes or coins. As a result, banks realised that their clients needed less and less physical currency, which resulted again in a reduction in reserve ratios.

But during the 19th century the gold standard regime – championed by the British Empire – was an effective means to limit monetary expansion, both from central banks and commercial banks, as they still had to keep gold in reserve to back their issuance of money and credit. However, with the abandonment of the classical gold standard during the First World War, banks no longer needed to keep valuable assets in their vaults as the new reserve money of the economy was the notes of the central bank; which, in theory, could be expanded overnight with no tangible costs. This new system, in combination with the running of purely discretional monetary rules, resulted in excessive money creation and, finally, in more inflation and output instability in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Consequently, fractional reserve systems based on fiat currency tend to over-issue money unless strictly controlled by the central bank, or by the emergence of free competition in money. With the former, the central bank commits to a sound monetary rule focused on maintaining the purchasing power of money. Under this rule, both the central bank and the commercial banks are able to create means of payments but are subject to restrictions.

As sight deposits are redeemable at very short notice, banks could be required to fully back all their sight deposits with an equivalent amount of notes. Hence, the reserve ratio would amount to 100% of all sight deposits. Under this regulation, banks could only create new means of payment by lending the money kept in their time or savings deposits. It would result in a more stable monetary system but at the cost of having a less developed banking system, and thus a much smaller money supply.

In my view we do not have to go all the way towards a 100% reserve ratio to preserve the stability of the monetary system, while allowing for the development of the banking system. The gold standard seen in Britain and other countries during the 19th century is a good example of a self-correcting monetary system that nonetheless operated on a fractional reserve basis.

However it is achieved though, greater recourse to preserving the purchasing power of money would go a long way to improving our current monetary system.

Juan Castañeda

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