We talk a lot about the ‘money system’. In what sense does money form a ‘system’? Does it have a function or purpose? Does it have interconnections? Does it have identifiable elements?
1. Elements of a money system
The elements of a money system include the structures and institutions that create it – governments, central banks and commercial banks – the ‘players’ who use it – individuals, consumers, traders, savers, investors, employers and employees, businesses, voluntary organisations, government agencies – and the processes that manage it – creation of loans, designation of currencies, transaction mechanisms, debt collection procedures and many others.
2. Interconnections in a money system
The simplest money system we might imagine would have three people who agree to use some object to ‘keep score’ of exchanges between themselves. At this level the purpose, the elements and the potential interconnections are relatively simple. Once we scale up to a nation state with millions of people using the same medium of exchange for myriad purposes with multiple elements and uncountable interconnections, it is no longer possible to analyse its complexity and feedback loops. This is why oversimplified economic ‘models’ and theories so often fail in their prognoses and predictions. Unforeseen or unintended consequences of economic or financial actions are common.
The money ‘system’ embraces multiple, often conflicting, purposes. For instance, when we use money for trade, we are not saving it for future use and when we save or invest, we take money out of general circulation, which can affect the state of the economy for everyone else. Add interest payments into the mix and investment can become a risky medium with big winners and losers. Irresponsible banks and governments can quickly corrupt the medium of exchange that everyone else depends on for exchange.
Depending where you draw the line around the ‘system in focus’, it may even be appropriate to talk about multiple money ‘systems’ serving different purposes for different users, all interacting with each other through multiple feedback loops. Clearly, money means very different things to a beggar on the street thinking about the next meal and to an investment banker looking for the next deal. Yet these two actors are part of the same money ‘system’ if they both use the same monopoly national currency to do their business.
3. Reforming the money system
The complex of these multiple purposes, elements and interconnections can lead to great crashes in which a lot of people get hurt. The 2008 financial crisis was just the latest and most spectacular in a long line of crises stretching back decades. An International Monetary Fund Working Paper identified147 banking crises, 218 currency crises and 66 sovereign debt crises between 1970 and 2011. This is ‘systemic’ – or in-built – instability.
In the long history of money, there have regularly been calls to reform it from one group or another for whom it was not working well. Some want to keep money scarce and valuable to protect their wealth. Others want a plentiful but stable medium of exchange so they can eat or plan for the future. Money must serve many masters. You can read some of the history of monetary reform in the UK in my previous blog post.
There has been a small but largely ignored monetary reform movement in the UK for decades. It sponsored a handful of Early Day Motions in Parliament with proposals for reforming the national money supply that gathered little support. Since the 2008 crisis, however, a new force has arrived on the scene in the form of the Positive Money (PM) campaign. It has made smart use of modern social media with short videos and bite-sized information to reach a much wider audience with messages of monetary reform.
Positive Money’s analysis and proposal
PM clearly divides its website into three areas: The Issues; How Money Works; Our Proposals. Each section gives a clear overview of that theme, then breaks it down into detailed sub-sections followed by lots of helpful links to explanatory videos, books and articles.
1.The issues of our money system
The first issue raised by Positive Money is how many individuals and businesses are trapped in debt because most money in the UK is created by banks when they make loans. The only way to get extra money into the economy is to borrow it from banks. House prices have constantly been inflated by the hundreds of billions of pounds of new money that banks created in the years before the financial crisis. There is persistent inequality because our money is issued as debt and the interest that must be paid on this debt results in a transfer of wealth from the bottom 90% of the population (by income) to the top 10%, exacerbating inequality. Environmental destruction is accelerating because there is a direct link between the perceived need for continuous economic growth and damage to nature through exploiting natural resources for monetary profit. Money creation is undemocratic because banks create 97 per cent of the money supply when they make loans, so they control where newly created money goes and have the power to shape the economy. In the 5 years before the financial crisis, the banks approved a total of £2.9 trillion in loans. Over that same period, the government spent a total of £2.1 trillion. So banks’ power to create money through loans, gives them more ‘spending power’ to shape the economy than the whole of our elected government. There are regular financial crises because banks are able to create too much money, too quickly, and use it to push up house prices and speculate on financial markets. A ‘boom and bust’ economy fuelled by easy credit is bad for jobs and businesses, creates systemic instability and makes environmental sustainability impossible. Taxpayers foot the bill for financial crises because the proceeds from creating new money go to the banks rather than the taxpayer, and because taxpayers end up paying the cost of financial crises caused by the banks.
After this presentation of a range of problems created by the current monetary system, the second area of the website explains how money works.
2. How our monetary system works
Positive money also shows how most of the money in our economy is created by banks, in the form of bank deposits – the numbers that appear in your account. 97% of the money in the economy today is created by banks, whilst just 3% is created by the government as notes and coins. Bank loans create numbers in a customer account, which then act like electronic IOUs circulating in the economy until a loan is paid off, so banks can effectively create a substitute for printed money. Banks create new money whenever they make loans and there are several statements by experts from the Bank of England that confirm this fact. In short, money exists as bank deposits – IOUs of commercial banks – and is created through some simple accounting whenever a bank makes a loan.
Banks aren’t middlemen between savers and borrowers as many people think. By creating money in this way, banks have increased the amount of money in the economy by an average of 11.5% a year over the last 40 years. From the time when the Bank of England was formed in 1694, it took over 300 years for banks to create the first trillion pounds. It took only 8 years for banks to create the second trillion.
In a short historic overview Positive Money also explains how banking evolved out of the inconvenience of carrying heavy coins around and the need for better security into note-issuing and finally deposit-making. The 1844 Bank Charter Act only stopped the creation of paper bank notes – it didn’t refer to other substitutes for money, such as bank deposits or ‘loans’ so banks could still create money simply by opening accounts for people or companies and adding numbers to them. Computers revolutionised banking so that today over 99% of payments (by value) are made electronically. With the rise of computers and financial deregulation, banks received almost unlimited power to create new money and are only required to keep a tiny fraction of their liabilities in reserve for emergencies (fractional reserve banking).
Deposit money now makes up over 97% of all the money in the economy – around £2.1 trillion, compared to only £60 billion of cash. By value of payments, bank deposits are used for 99.91% of transactions and transfers, with cash being used for just 0.09% of transfers. Consequently, the physical currency issued by the state has been almost entirely replaced by a digital currency issued by private companies. The UK’s money supply has been effectively privatised.
3. Positive Money’s Proposal
Positive Money’s proposal for reform makes three fundamental demands:
1. Take the power to create money away from the banks, and return it to a democratic transparent and accountable process
2. Create money free of debt
3. Put new money into the real economy rather than financial markets and property bubbles.
PM staff have written a 64 page report “Sovereign Money: An Introduction” , which outlines their reform proposals in detail. They claim the economy would be more stable and society better off if we transfer the power to create money from the banks back to the state, working in the public interest. This can happen if the Bank of England creates money and transfers it to the government to be spent into the real economy (rather than the financial or property markets). This reform would transfer the ability to create new money exclusively to the state, creating a ‘sovereign money’ system.
Taking the power to create money out of the hands of banks would end the instability and boom-and-bust cycles that are caused when banks create too much money in a short period of time. It would also ensure that banks could be allowed to fail without bailouts from taxpayers. It would ensure that newly created money is spent into the economy, so that it can reduce the overall debt burden of the public, rather than being lent into existence as happens currently.
The power to create all money, both cash and electronic, would be restricted to the state via the central bank. Changes to the rules governing how banks operate would still permit them to make loans, but would make it impossible for them to create new money in the process.
Banks would then serve two functions:
1. The payments function: Administering payment services between members of the public and businesses, and holding funds safe until they need to be spent.
2. The lending/saving function: acting as an intermediary (middleman) between savers and borrowers.
The central bank would be exclusively responsible for creating as much new money as was necessary to support non-inflationary growth. It would manage money creation directly, rather than using interest rates to influence borrowing behaviour and money creation by banks (as is the case at present). Decisions on money creation would be taken independently of government, by a newly formed Money Creation Committee (or by the existing Monetary Policy Commitee). The Committee would be accountable to the Treasury Select Committee, a cross-party committee of Members of Parliament who scrutinise the actions of the Bank of England and Treasury.
Positive Money’s presentation of the systemic instabilities caused by the money system and the profit-seeking mechanism by which commercial banks create most of the money we need creates a compelling case for reform.
Its proposals for reform are, however, much less convincing to this writer. To be fair to PM, it has also responded to many criticisms of its proposals but even its responses leave me uneasy about several major aspects.
A critique of the Positive Money Proposal
In my opinion, any credible reform proposals needs to meet three criteria:
(a) they need to be ‘systemic’ ie looking at the whole system, not just a part of it
(b) they need to be economically credible
(c) they need to be politically desirable.
1. Systemic reform
PM effectively proposes replacing a banking cartel with a government cartel. It seems like a mechanistic nineteenth century solution to complex twenty-first century problems rather than a systemic response to systemic problems. PM claims that “in a sovereign money system, there is a clear thermostat to balance the economy. In times when the economy is in recession or growth is slow, the Monetary Creation Committee will be able to increase the rate of money creation to boost aggregate demand. If growth is very high and inflationary pressures are increasing, they can slow down the rate of money creation. At no point will they be able to get the perfect rate of money creation, but it would be extremely difficult for them to get it as wrong as the banks are destined to.”
This is a bold claim that does not answer a fundamental question: on any given day, how would a committee sitting in London decide how much money the economy needs? By looking at trading statistics, GDP, how exactly? There are no known instruments that can measure such a critical statistic because the economy and financial system are complex and emergent, like all systems. The myriad of purposes and connections that need to be served by a single national currency cannot be reduced to a single number.
PM goes so far as to admit that its proposal would be less flexible than the current system of banks creating money in response to consumer demand. It is not clear how a less flexible system of money creation would help the economy, individuals or the environment. Nature teaches us that more diverse, flexible systems are more resilient and better able to withstand shocks than monocultures. Any credible systemic reform needs to demonstrate how the various system elements – users of money, commercial banks, central bank and government – can be realigned to be more flexible and better serve the needs of users, rather than replacing one monopoly with another.
Another reason why PM’s proposal is not a systemic solution is that it assumes a single national currency as the norm that everyone aspires to. In fact, monetary history shows us that people will accept almost any object as money so long as everyone else does. Stones, shells, beads, copper, silver, paper and now computer digits command belief so long as belief in them as a medium of exchange lasts. Single national currencies controlled by central banks are an eighteenth century invention that paved the way for globalisation but their monopoly is bought at a price of essential economic and social diversity. Over the last thirty years people all over the world have experimented with non-national currencies – local, regional and virtual – that do not replace national currency but complement it. They fill other niches that scarce national currencies cannot fill. A truly systemic reform would allow for currency diversity, not try to impose even greater currency uniformity than currently exists.
2. Economically credible
Over the last few years, the UK has experienced some of the most economically and socially damaging policies in living memory, in the form of ‘austerity’. Many economists have condemned these policies as counterproductive and yet the government has persisted with them, dressing them up as unavoidable or blaming the poor or people in debt for systemic problems caused by the reckless lending of banks and the poor regulatory oversight of government.
PM’s proposals give government the power to create the money it needs without raising taxes or incurring debt so it could theoretically pay for all public services and stimulate the wider economy in the process. No government has ever done this – they have always incurred more debt and raised taxes to service the debt – so this would be economically unknown territory and hard for anyone to predict the effects.
What is also uncertain are the economic effects of restricting commercial banks to simply being intermediaries for existing money and forbidding them to create new money. PM claims it would prevent the chaos of irresponsible lending that led to the 2008 crisis, that better oversight and regulation of banks simply won’t work and that it would automatically create a more stable and just money system but these are theoretical assertions that have no grounding in practice yet. An economically credible reform needs to provide enough flexibility to all economic actors – businesses, individuals, government – to do their business in a complex, globally networked modern economy.
3. Politically desirable
England had a ‘sovereign’ money system for centuries – the king or queen strictly controlled the nation’s money supply and punished any counterfeiters with death. Experience showed that this system could not keep up with the complex needs of a growing economy, let alone the abuses of the sovereigns themselves, and so the Bank of England – one of the world’s first central banks – was born and the power of commercial banks grew with it. Just because this system has in turn led to great abuses is not an argument for a reactionary policy to create a new state monopoly of the money power, which in turn could lead to great abuses in the wrong hands.
PM proposes that a government appointed committee, accountable to Parliament, should alone decide how much money the nation needs to do its business. Given the increasing ‘democratic deficit’ in Britain’s political system, isn’t this a little naive? Who appoints this committee? Do members of the committee represent a true cross-section of society and economic interests or will it just be the usual members of the ‘great and the good’? What happens in the case of disagreement about how much money the country needs?
An alternative proposal
For me, there are just too many unanswered questions about the political mechanics of this proposal for it to be either desirable or credible. Government plays a critical role as a ‘referee’ and rule setter in the money system but not as a micro-manager and certainly not as the monopoly issuer of monopoly money. I fear that Positive Money’s great work of analysing the very real problems created by the current system is not matched by the credibility of its proposals. I fear that, out of desperation for something different, they are grasping for centralised solutions that, if implemented, could end up achieving the opposite of what they hope and just create new problems.
In a complex world, noone has all the answers and it is crucial that we enable systemic solutions to the multiple economic, social, demographic and environmental problems facing us to emerge naturally rather than forcing top-down solutions that people may come to regret. Complex systems require frameworks and processes rather than levers and pulleys to function optimally.
I would rather support a campaign group in drafting a piece of legislation that creates a framework for multiple money systems with equal legal status to emerge – let’s call it “The Money Diversity Bill”. This bill would allow for:
(a) government created, debt- and interest-free money for running national services
(b) more strictly controlled, interest-free, bank created money for business and personal loans
(c) city and regional currencies for regional development
(d) virtual and crypto-currencies for transnational trade.
And the government would be required by the new law to establish two agencies with branches in each UK region:
(e) a monitoring and evaluation agency using the best statistical techniques for measuring relative currency flows and economic effects
(f) an education and training agency for demonstrating the pros and cons of different types of money systems.
If you would like to comment on this article please write to the author and MONNETA expert John Rogers.