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Break the Power of Money.

Written By: - Date published: 8:33 am, June 14th, 2009 - 30 comments
Categories: capitalism, uncategorized - Tags:

For some weeks our media has been distracted by various sideshows. Worth, Swineflu, Mt Albert, Flight 447 and of course David Bain, have all in turn captured our national psyche… but meanwhile the most pressing political issue, the global fiscal crisis, grinds on with little comment.

The crisis response more or less worked. Historians will argue about the Paulson-Geithner-Bernanke reaction, but the economy seems to be stabilizing. And now attention turns to the task of the next decade: slowly unwinding the debt that has built up over the past generation.

The Great Unwinding

The staggering growth in credit since the Reagan/Thatcher deregulation 1980’s era has come to an end, now the piper demands to be paid.

* World industrial production continues to track closely the 1930s fall, with no clear signs of ‘green shoots’.
* World stock markets have rebounded a bit since March, and world trade has stabilised, but these are still following paths far below the ones they followed in the Great Depression.
* There are new charts for individual nations’ industrial output. The big-4 EU nations divide north-south; today’s German and British industrial output are closely tracking their rate of fall in the 1930s, while Italy and France are doing much worse.
* The North Americans (US & Canada) continue to see their industrial output fall approximately in line with what happened in the 1929 crisis, with no clear signs of a turn around.
* Japan’s industrial output in February was 25 percentage points lower than at the equivalent stage in the Great Depression. There was however a sharp rebound in March.

Tale of Two Depressions

Is this depressing enough?

German exports fell 28.7% in April compared with April 2008, according to the Federal Statistics Office.

The BBC

And so on. Essentially consumers in the West are grossly over-leveraged:

For about a generation, the U.S. surfed on a growing wave of debt. The ratio of debt-to-personal-disposable income was 55 percent in 1960. Since then, it has more than doubled, reaching 133 percent in 2007. Total credit market debt — throwing in corporate, financial and other borrowing — has risen apace, surging from 143 percent of G.D.P. in 1951 to 350 percent of G.D.P. last year.

Over and again we can see that excessive debt is the fundamental. This is not a normal business cycle recession caused by a normal liquidity squeeze, it is solvency crisis that can only be solved one way. This is what Joseph Stiglitz is now saying:

We need to break up the too-big-to-fail banks; there is no evidence that these behemoths deliver societal benefits that are commensurate with the costs they have imposed.

Break the Banks.

Even within the context of New Zealand’s relatively stable and prudent banking sector, it is apparent that they are more powerful than the Government or Reserve Bank. The exact numbers are hard to come by, but many commentators have stated NZ is one of the most indebted OECD nations… as a result we no longer have control over our economic and social destiny. For generations we have been acting collectively like delinquent teenagers, burning up our environmental heritage and binging on cheap easy credit that over-stimulates economies like P drives an addict.

The dinosaurs economies are writhing, thrashing about in their death-throes; little proto-marsupial NZ needs to be nimble and have it’s wits about it. Any sign of this from Key’s govt?

30 comments on “Break the Power of Money.”

  1. David 1

    Good insightful post. Refreshing departure from the orchestrated “green shoots” mantra. What would complement this would be a similarly insightful followup post detailing “where to from here”. Tougher assignment. With you so far.

  2. Quoth the Raven 2

    There was an answer in it to break up the banks (it would have been much easier if they were let to fail). Once again decentralisation rears its head as answer to our problems, but the vested interests of state capitalism will not allow it. The answer from the capitalists is of course, after socialising their losses, let’s return to privatising their gains. The international banking system is an arm of the state. States around the world have bailed them out they were crucial in getting them to the dominant position they’re in today. So it’s bemusing to me that people from the left would look to the state as the cure to our ills and not the source of it. Social democracy is collapsing around the world because, to turn one of their sayings on its head, they drowned the ideals of the left in the bathtub of government.

  3. Bill 3

    I think the motivations of all governments needs questioning.

    Do they have society’s welfare at heart or are they concentrating on the welfare of corporations and the financial systems that enable corporate activities?

    I’d say from the actions taken so far that it’s the latter.

    So what should be expected of NZ’s government? That they somehow engineer a path back to a situation that existed just before this all began? That seems to be what many on the Social Democratic Left want.

    Why?

    And what are the chances of recreating what was there anyway?

    Oil. Food. Ecology. Just three dots, that when joined indicate no way back to what was before.

    To paraphrase the post, those of a Social Democratic Left persuasion need to be nimble and have their wits about them; be prepared to be imaginative and jettison some dearly held preconceptions if they desire to be a part of a solution rather than participants in the perpetuation of variations to what is ultimately a destructive political economy.

    • Draco T Bastard 3.1

      That they somehow engineer a path back to a situation that existed just before this all began?
      That seems to be what all governments are trying to do – rebuilding the failed system of the previous 3 centuries. Even after all the economic collapses of those centuries has proven beyond reasonable doubt that it doesn’t work.

    • Draco T Bastard 3.2

      That they somehow engineer a path back to a situation that existed just before this all began?

      That’s what all the governments of the world seem to be trying to do – rebuilding the failed financial system of the last three centuries even though all the economic collapses of those centuries has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that it doesn’t work. At this point in time we really need to accept that it’s just the personal ambition and self interest of the ruling class that keeping it there now.

      PS, previous reply disappeared into the ether – delete it if you can find it.

  4. coolas 4

    As long as ‘unearned’ income in the form profit to the investors of capital is held to be more important than the well being of any other interests, we will continue to experience the long agonising death of capitalism. Profit at all cost, untempered greed, has driven the madness of the credit crisis. And as long as we have a monetary system that rewards greed we will have booms and busts, excess and deprivation. F**k the marketplace. Regulation and control is the only way to change the financial system. China’s idea of a single trade currency pegged to a basket of currencies is a good start.

    • burt 4.1

      And as long as we have a monetary system that rewards greed we will have booms and busts

      That is kind of true. The other thing I think we need to understand is that although it is possibly appropriate to point the “greed” finger at the banks in the recent credit collapse, we must not forget that if people had paid their mortgages as they signed contracts saying they would do, we wouldn’t have a credit crisis.

      Sure the banks made some dodgy lending decisions but they did not hold a gun to the borrowers heads and tell them to default on their mortgages. The borrowers who failed to keep their contracts are ultimately responsible for the issues we face today. I know it’s hard to blame the individuals (there are millions of them) rather than the banks (there are dozens of them). But really the easy target isn’t always the right one.

      • Pascal's bookie 4.1.1

        The borrowers who failed to keep their contracts are ultimately responsible for the issues we face today.

        This again. I’ll quote myself from another thread:

        Fair enough, as far as you go.

        But the borrowers are only ever responsible for the effect of the very few, (usually one) loans that they are responsible for.

        The other thing to remember is the loans were sold with the first few years payments being very affordable, the idea sold was that by the time your repayments went up, you would have enough equity in the house to refinance yourself out of sub prime and into a more traditional loan. This was advice given by the banks, the real estate agents and the mortgage brokers. All acting supposedly rationally. They were supposed to be the professionals and some of them had fiduciary duties as well, to varying degrees to various stakeholders. So I think that for the one admittedly bad loan that the typical borrower took out, there is a fair amount of mitigation to be shared around when laying the blame.

        On the other hand, the lenders are likewise responsible for the loans that they lend out. A far larger number. The fact that people wanted to borrow money is not much mitigation at all in my books. The banks knew the role they played in the financial system. They have: no excuse.

        The banks are responsible for pushing managers to sell as many loans as they can, so those loans could be bundled up and tranched, magically turning all this toxic crap into sludge that the credit rating agencies, in their undying wisdom gave AAA status. Then we have the leveraging, and the crappy reinsurance products and all the other nonsense that was used to pretend that these really crappy loans that the banks deliberately and knowingly made, were actually worth something.

        When working out where the blame should go for the mess as a whole, that has required such extraordinary measures to try and stem the damage, the decisions made by individual borrowers hardly enter the picture. It is only if you try and look at borrowers as a group that the idea makes any sense. But they are not in fact a ‘group’ that can be blamed, because they did not do anything as a ‘group’.

        Unlike, for example, the banks. Who have legal person status and made thousands and thousands of bad loans, knowing they were shit, and then leveraged that shit. If not for all that leveraging, if it were just the initial bad loans that were being defaulted, things would not be any where near as bad.

        • burt 4.1.1.1

          RedLogix

          I have no argument with that. I would however like to point out that at the core of the credit crisis were the big ‘state’ lenders who were delivering on social policies that desired a greater percentage of home ownership. This political desire to see more people owning real estate when (as is clearly evident today) they could not afford it is ultimately the root of the problem.

          Intervention by the state for popularity – big issue.

          • Pascal's bookie 4.1.1.1.1

            It’s a shame you’re not more specific.

            If you are talking about freddie and fannie being told to ensure that a certain proportion of the loans they guaranteed were going to minorities, then you’re barking up the wrong tree. Even accounting for this, the fact remains that F&F were not allowed to directly guarantee mortgages that did not meet loan criteria. They did eventually get into subprime stuff, but at the other end, in that they were buying up the tranched products rated AAA. Yep, bad move. Stupid Etc. But not the fault of legislation, rather market forces demanding they get into this new and exciting division that was sweeping the world like a swedish pop sensation. They were late into the game and were losing market share to the unregulated loan outfits that weren’t bound by criteria. No one held a gun to their heads. Perhaps someone should have,. But that would’ve been interfering in the market, which was unpopular at the time.

            It’s well worth noting, in fact necessary to note, that the legislation requiring F&F to loan to minorities was in place since the seventies. No harm for decades, until other things were done, and hey presto, kablooie. Logic suggests that F&F loans were not in and of themselves the problem, but rather that the new changes interacted with the system to cause meltdown.

            If however you are talking about GWB’s ‘ownership society’ you are on firmer ground.

            Of course that rhetoric was used in service of two things. Tax cuts, and financial market deregulation; which were supposed to ‘allow citizens to retain more of their own money’ on the one hand, and on the other hand allow ‘the awesomeness of the self correcting marketplace to deliver it’s innovative fruitfulness to citizens free from the heavy hand of stifling gummint etc’.

            Worked out swell.

      • Pascal's bookie 4.1.2

        Bugger, I used the word Gummint and done got moderated.

        Help!

      • jarbury 4.1.3

        Sure the banks made some dodgy lending decisions but they did not hold a gun to the borrowers heads and tell them to default on their mortgages.

        So why did that happen? What went on last year that led to a situation where so many people defaulted on their mortgages, leading to the current situation.

        I would say the following:

        1) High interest rates
        2) High food prices
        3) High transportation costs.

        These are basic areas of spending (shelter, food and transport) that skyrocketed in price last year. Something had to snap, and something sure did snap.

        So why did those three go up so much?

        For interest rates, they went up to combat inflation. Inflation went up because basic prices were going up so much, particularly for food & transportation costs. So, in my opinion, the second two issues listed above were responsible for the top one.

        For food prices, they went up because basic foods like corn, wheat and rice hit price highs. This has been attributed to shifting crops to making biofuels rather than food. Also attributed to higher transportation costs of shifting food around. So in a way, higher transport costs led to higher food costs.

        And then transportation costs. This was due to the massive oil spike we saw last year. US cities have been built in such an auto-dependent way that people had to keep driving to keep working, so the money had to come from somewhere else (like paying the mortgage). Furthermore, as I’ve mentioned above the flow-on effects of higher oil prices led to inflation and higher food costs.

        So in my opinion it all comes back to the high price of oil last year. This was the straw the broke the camel’s back in my opinion. While the debt levels were unsustainable, I think we could have had a much softer landing if it hadn’t been for the high oil prices.

        The worry is that we haven’t learned from this at all – so when the global economy recovers and oil prices spike again I reckon we can expect a similar result: economic meltdown.

        Capchta: Phallic cities – yes quite!

        • GSK 4.1.3.1

          Phallic cities

          As the GSK has this day been reminded that particular capcha arose first from the mouth of Dr. Ivan Illich (author Medical Nemesis and other profund work.)

          II was out here – Christchurch’s horticultural hall on Oxford Tce – mid-70s and my informant tells me of his remark to one huge audience of a phallic city, with its several high rise buildings which he noted as the plane circled to land..

          Can’t say whether christian folks took to this characterization or not: can say he won rapturous applause from many of the folks there that evening..

          All the way from a Mexican seminary to the hort hall.. for a kiwi link… woooo.. sayeth the GSKs

  5. burt 5

    RedLogic

    Interesting post. I can see where the “Red” in you name comes from but the “Logix” bit is looking a little misplaced. You say;

    The exact numbers are hard to come by, but many commentators have stated NZ is one of the most indebted OECD nations

    And then go on to suggest that National don’t look nimble enough to do anything about it.

    I have commented many times that under Labour the govt was rich and the people were poor. Unfortunately the Govt having taxed the country into submission have also been acting like delinquent teenagers insisting they know everything and how better to spend our money. So much so they sent us into a recession before the global economic crisis even started resulting in the worst case scenario where the govt are poor and the people are poor as well.

    So, why do I think you suffer a logic failure? You seem completely unable to see the part that 9 years of Labour govt played in the situation where we have appalling individual debt ratios and rather seem to only look at National in the here and now. The debt situation hasn’t developed since Nov ’08.

  6. burt 6

    RedLogix

    Apologies for using “RedLogic” in my previous comment, it was a typo.

    As a summary of what I just said;

    There are two hats we need to wear when we look at the current situation we are in with personal debt.

    The outward looking hat “What do we do about it”. That hat certainly makes us look to National for answers. The other hat is “What got us into this situation” and while wearing that hat we need to look at Labour since they have run the country for 9 years leading to the situation we are in now. This looking in and looking out perspective gives us some understanding of what we did wrong and gives us a better chance of not simply repeating the same mistakes as soon as we get past the “current crisis” position.

    • Zaphod Beeblebrox 6.1

      Burt,
      Your comments re: personal debt being NZ’s major problem is decidly accurate, but I doubt see how National have shown that they have any capacity to correct the situation.
      Sure NZ Labour, just like UK Labour and the Clinton and Bush administrations are culpable for their encouragement of debt-driven growth but I would have thought their obsession of underpining economic development through the property and share markets at the expense of things that actually help individuals and business was the problem.
      Can’t see how reducing the size of the government sector will change this.

      • burt 6.1.1

        Zaphod Beeblebrox

        When govt give the people (who do indeed collectively act like delinquent teenagers) what they want so they can win elections the people are not to blame. The govt has many roles (some might say the role of govt is whatever govt define it to be) and one of the roles of govt is to lead the people and steer them toward what is good for them. Simply playing a popularity contest is not the answer.

        Both major parties are guilty of this, arguably we are no better off today under National than we were under Labour. Additionally National may let us make more mistakes at a personal level whereas Labour didn’t trust us to have that independence.

        Which is better for the long term? Telling my kids don’t worry the govt will take care of you or telling my kids – you can’t rely on the govt to look after you?

        I don’t have any argument with the issues or facts that RedLogix highlights, it’s his myopic (emotional analysis rather than logical analysis) “National bad” angle I take exception to.

        • Zaphod Beeblebrox 6.1.1.1

          Burt,
          Agree about the partisan stuff- there’s obviously a lot of baggage being carried about sites like this.
          As far as your concerns about govt imposing its beliefs and morality on our everyday lives, I really can’t see how one side is any better than the other. How do you account for the gang patches legislation in Wanganui? Or the proposed Local Government Act paper before acbinet trying to tell local councils that they can spend as much as they like on roads, public health and water but not on other things?
          I know you can selectively pull out isolated instances to support your cause but it seems to me that oppositions promote things like local democracy and personal freedom and then run as far away from this as they can get once they get into power (Labour did this too).
          The real debate should be what can govt do to make NZ a better place for our kids? And how do you get there?

    • Draco T Bastard 6.2

      The other hat is “What got us into this situation’ and while wearing that hat we need to look at Labour since they have run the country for 9 years leading to the situation we are in now.

      Actually Burt, we need to look at the sick joke that is our present socio-economic system. It’s been collapsing for centuries and requires poverty for it to even look like it’s working. The existence of poverty within the system proves conclusively that it isn’t.

  7. felix 7

    burt, comparing this:

    The borrowers who failed to keep their contracts are ultimately responsible for the issues we face today. I know it’s hard to blame the individuals (there are millions of them) rather than the banks (there are dozens of them). But really the easy target isn’t always the right one.

    with this:

    When govt give the people (who do indeed collectively act like delinquent teenagers) what they want so they can win elections the people are not to blame.

    makes it difficult to see what you’re trying to say.

    Otherwise you make some valid points.

  8. burt 8

    felix

    The banks provide a service not leadership and governance. Banks != Government.

    You can do a better job than that of pulling my comments apart felix!

    • felix 8.1

      I didn’t mean to compare them directly burt, it was the other party I was thinking of – the behaviour of “the masses” in both of your examples is very similar but your conclusions on whether they can be blamed for their actions is very different.

      • burt 8.1.1

        felix

        Yes and no.

        Yes because they both have an interaction with the masses.

        No because we have a massive amount of choice in banks and personal responsibility for the contracts we enter into with them. The govt provides the legal framework that ensures both parties adhere to the contact. However with govt we we elect a monopoly provider of governance and we are collectively responsible for the contact we make with it. I can’t stop the country electing a govt because it offers massive tax cuts, I can stop myself entering into a contract that looks to good to be true or that I cannot afford.

  9. RedLogix 9

    I have commented many times that under Labour the govt was rich and the people were poor.

    Doesn’t stand much scutiny Burt. If the people where genuinely poor there would be no income for PAYE, no expenditure for GST, no profits for Company Tax.

    We’ve been over this ground dozens of time Burt. Dr Cullen was responsible for Govt accounts, not our private ones. If New Zealanders would not save (or at least reduce debt), then at least Labour did it for us.

    In most developed countries the govt accounts for between 30-50% of GDP. NZ sits pretty much in the middle of that range which has evolved fairly naturally as about the optimum. Much more than 50% seems to run off into the zone of diminishing returns, and much less than 30% becomes increasingly dysfunctional.

    Besides you act as if the Govt and the people were somehow isolated, antiethical entities, that a well funded, properly functioning govt was somehow bad for everyone. The fact is that the vast majority of tax is simply recycled directly back into the community either directly in the form of services like health, welfare and education, or indirectly through things like infrastructure, security, governance, standards, trade relations and so on. Money that the govt spends is not lost or wasted, it is simply spent on items of wider social benefit, rather than purely individual benefit. Nor has anyone convincingly shown that public sector spending is inherently less efficient than private.

    But of course if your world-view ONLY admits to the possibility of private benefit, then quite naturally you would be blind to the purposes and merits of a decently functioning government, all tax would of course be theft, and all govt expenditure a shocking waste.

  10. Draco T Bastard 10

    Well said.

  11. Quoth the Raven 11

    Here’s something that speaks to the title of the post:

    Monetary reformers have always been around. They have been warning that the system needs to be fixed, and some of them have even had some good ideas about how to fix it, but their voices have mostly been ignored or drowned out by the vested interests who have promoted an orthodox doctrine that works to their advantage. During periods of severe financial or economic distress, such as the present one, some reformers are able to get space in the media, so today we are hearing calls for a variety of political solutions—abolition of the Fed, direct issuance of money by the government (the “greenback’ solution), a return to the gold standard, tighter regulation of banks and financial institutions, etc.

    Some of these might have a short-run salutary effect, if they could be achieved. But in my view, statist and political approaches are at best futile and at worst inclined to take us further in the wrong direction toward more centralized control and still greater concentration of wealth. They are futile in that the political process in most countries of the world has long since been removed beyond our grasp. If the people are to regain political control, we will need to first assert our economic power, especially our “money power’ by organizing ourselves to mediate the exchange process apart from the banking cartel and without the use of politicized national currencies. Putting the money monopoly under new management will not solve the fundamental dysfunctions that are inherent in it. The “greenback solution,’ for instance, does nothing to eliminate deficit spending and inflation, which are enabled by legal tender laws. So long as political currencies, however issued, are legally forced to circulate at face value, the abusive issuance of money, the debasement of national currencies, and the centralization of power will continue, and the empowerment of communities, relocalization, and the shift to a steady-state economy will be thwarted.

    People need to disengage from the systems and structures that disempower communities and enable a small elite to use the present centralized control mechanisms to their own advantage and purpose. Primary among these is the global monetary and financial regime (the structures of money, banking and finance). I favor an approach that is based on voluntary, free market and community-based initiatives which enable people to transcend the money monopoly and the “war machine.’ Socially responsible businesses and social entrepreneurs have a crucial role to play in organizing these parallel systems that can shift enough power to achieve greater measures of independence and self-determination and bring enormous benefits across the board—social, political, economic, environmental, and cultural.

  12. GSK 12

    Essentially banks make money from fees/charges and debt.

    IMO it is the debt that is the basis of the problem. After all, with user pays the choices re fees/charges are clear and directly related to a service. Such as been the rise of so-called service industry throughout the globalized world.

    Debt though.. something else. On the one side provisioning payment and liquidity to the divers aspects of trade; on the other assets commensurate with all of that industry and enterprise. Theory and its practice.

    Well, not quite. And in a major – trillions – way disconnect. As when ‘assets’ went off corporate balance sheets. The dough, the liquidity was out there – (how else could folks leverage), but the ‘assets’ were out-of-bounds.

    More to the point, out-of-bounds(so to say) made for out of value. Even as credit clouds soared and then poured.

    To my surprise I found no mention of the so-called ‘securitization’ industry that banks and financials created by which they would manage risk. All risk. And so easily. With documents using good solid mortgages to cover lousy mortgages..

    The good got taken for a ride in this industry. or, in market jargon, the good mortgagees cross-subsidised the bad until all became ugly.

    To do this so comprehensively this industry geared everything – synchromeshed – to maximize both profits and margins. And no, not simply on the rising price of property, but the more so on service industry takeover of too big to fail.

    Which is to pitch the banking case upon all – including governments – embroiled, or as some might admit to, willingly embraced.

    Immediately the problems revolve around too great a reliance upon banking and its services: resolution makes for less reliance. Personal levels of less debt is entrain. This is good.

    Institutional alternatives are also good, as, too, greater individual savings. Aiding this would be a gleaned sense of bank responsibility not to repeat prior trust-busting behaviors: larger ‘deposit ratios’ being one method; paying down those next to valueless off-balance sheet assets from profits instead of handouts..

    Time to wrap.. in so doing I’ll just add that breaking the power of banks is not something banks will enable—but their clients and customers must enable. For themselves. After all, as the one saying the service industry wallahs drilled into just about everyone… everywhere… there aint no free lunches..

  13. rave 13

    Money only has power if it can be exchanged for something of value. Its power is to represent value.
    The value is determined by the labor-time in a commodity. Money which speculates on non-values or future non-values, has no value nor power.
    That’s why trillions of bail money is worthless unless those banks can invest it in production, i.e. use it to buy up the remaining land, forests and minerals to turn into commodities. The idea that this can be green is a sick joke.
    Thus Citibank and JP Morgan and whatever behemoths survive as the megabanks have to go to places like Peru and steal virgin land and forests to turn their megabucks into megaprofits.
    If the people fight back like in Peru, or born again socialists like Chavez stop them, their money piles up as so much shit.

    • GSK 13.1

      Rave,

      I was surprised to read your comment as a kind off valedictory for Elizabeth I (of England), who back at the beginning of her reign directed her ruling Council to issue money that all her subjects could rely upon. If they could not rely upon it then they would rely upon her..

      Interesting…

  14. GC Martin 14

    Positively prescient is this snip from Mark Thoma’s blog @ Economist’s View..

    1. Regulations that limit both economic and political power and discourage the buildup of excessive risk.

    2. Regulators willing to assertively enforce existing regulation, think outside the ideological box and take an active role in identifying areas where regulation is inadequate.

    3. Regulators with the means and power to stand up to the biggest and most powerful financial institutions. Making financial institutions less powerful by breaking them up into smaller entities is one means to this end.

    4. A culture within regulatory agencies and their supporting institutions that reinforces and encourages the regulatory process.

    … and for those in need of highly qualified guidance on this important issue.

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