Getting the effect of cash entirely wrong

An amusing proof that it’s possible to start from an interesting place and then fall over into complete nonsense. The point at issue being that the amount of cash floating around the British economy has increased in recent years. OK, well, why, and what, if anything, might we want to do about it?

The chief cashier of the Bank of England says that only about a quarter of the cash they put into circulation is used to buy and sell things. The rest of it is either shipped overseas – which we will put to one side for the moment – kept outside of the banking system ie (hoarded), or used to support the shadow economy (iestashed). In other words, not in circulation at all but stuffed under mattresses.

If you look at the trend growth of that cash “in circulation” over the last few years, it has accelerated past GDP growth as well as past the amount of money being taken out of ATM machines. And we also know that the use of cash in retailing has continued to fall steadily. That means the “cash gap”, between the small amount of cash that is used to support the needs of commerce and the large amounts of cash that are used for other purposes, has been growing. The interesting question is: why?

There are two pretty simple alternatives. If the amount of cash that is being hoarded has been growing, that would suggest people have lost confidence in formal financial services. Or, that they have so little knowledge of basic arithmetic that they are happy to have inflation eat away their store of value while forgoing the safety and security of bank deposits, no matter what value of the interest paid.

Well, no, not really, a bit of elementary economics would tell us that when interest rates are on the floor, as they have been “over the last few years”, and inflation has been notable by its absence, then people will be more willing to hold cash, even just inert cash, than when they could have stuck it in the bank and got some interest to over the losses from inflation. So, actually, an increase in cash in circulation is just what we would have expected in recent years. And we’ve not even any evidence that this produces an increase in the financing of the grey or black economies: after all, our general analysis of monetary conditions currently is that the velocity of circulation has fallen. Meaning that we need more cash to finance the same amount of activity: just as we need more base money to finance the rest of the economy which is why QE.

So, the terrors are unproven. But what really boggles is this:

Charles and Jonathan estimate that the grey economy in the UK could have expanded by about 3% of UK GDP since the beginning of the current financial crisis. That means there are an awful lot of people not paying tax, and simple calculations will show that the tax lost that can be attributed to cash is vastly greater than the seigniorage earned by the Bank of England – the money the bank earns from issuing notes. Cash makes the government considerably worse off – and that means us.

It’s that last phrase. We are not the government and the government is not us. It’s not necessary to come over all entirely Mancur Olson to note this. If the government has insufficient money to defend the nation that might indeed impact us in a negative manner, if it’s not got enough to finance Ed Miliband’s pension then that’s of less impact upon the rest of us.

And, clearly, if government is sucking less money out from our own economic activities to finance those of Ed Miliband then we are better off (even if Ed and Justine are not).

Another way of putting this is that it is not true that everything belongs to the government and we only get what is left after its exactions. Even if the grey and or black markets are expanding this does not make us worse off: it is, after all, difficult to see how an expansion of economic activity does make us worse off.

There is a deeper point behind all of this which is that there are those entirely seriously suggesting that in the near future the country should simply stop using cash. In order, so it is said, to crack down on the horrors that is tax evasion. Which is silly in one manner, because cash is simply a method of keeping score of who owes what to whom, as is all money. And if people are denied one method of doing so then another will be invented. But the part that horrifies us is this idea that the erasure of tax evasion would be worth the the erosion of the simple freedom to truck and barter as one wishes. Where all transactions, even the most minor, would be open to both the examination of the State and the payment of its tithe.

Yes, we really are saying that some level of tax evasion is the only outcome consistent with the maintenance of the general liberty. And we’d rather have that general liberty than we would the payment of the supposedly proper tithes, thank you very much.

Why these crash programmes to build houses won’t work

There’s any number of plans out there to create massive housebuilding programmes. There’s even that lovely Corbynite idea that the Bank of England should just print lots more money to pay for them: along with an insistence that this simply won’t be inflationary. Nope, not at all. Because there’s slack in the economy, you see?

And yes, there is most certainly slack in the economy. But spraying money around and the inflationary effects of doing so does rather depend upon whether there’s slack in that part of the economy that you’re spraying money at:

Two-thirds of British building companies have had to turn down work because they do not have enough skilled tradesmen, according to a survey by the Federation of Master Builders.
The trade body for construction firms said that 66pc of its members have had to refuse new business because of a lack of resources while almost half have been forced to outsource work.
The bosses of some of Britain’s biggest housebuilding companies have spoken out this week about the shortage.

Thus the problem in housebuilding is more of a structural one than a short term financing one. Meaning that just spraying money at the sector will only raise wages of those in short supply to do the work. And that is, erm, inflationary, isn’t it?

So perhaps it isn’t a very bright idea to simply print more money to firehose into this sector then?

The euro is driving Finland to depression

The Finnish economy has been hit by three shocks over the past decade:

  1. Nokia has more or less disappeared;
  2. The paper industry is in crisis;
  3. And recently the Russian crisis has hurt Finland’s economy too.

These have all caused a very significant change in Finland’s current account balance, which over the past 15 years has gone from a sizeable surplus (around 9% of GDP in 2001) to a small deficit (around -1% of GDP in past four years).

This would under normal circumstances require a (real) exchange rate depreciation to restore competitiveness. However, as Finland is a member of the euro such adjustment has not been possible through a nominal depreciation of the currency and instead Finland has had to rely on an internal devaluation through lower price and wage growth.

However, Finland’s labour market is excessively regulated and non-wage costs are high, which means that the internal devaluation has been very sluggish. As a result growth has suffered significantly.


In fact, Finland’s real GDP level today is around 5% lower than at the onset of the crisis in 2008. This makes the present recession – or rather depression – deeper and longer than the Great Depression in 1930 and the large Finnish banking crisis of the 1990s. Rightly we should call the present crisis Finland’s Greater Depression.

European Central Bank policy obviously has not helped. First of all, the 2011 rate hikes from the ECB had a significantly negative impact on Finnish growth. Second, the shocks that have hit the economy are decisively asymmetrical in nature. This means that Finnish growth increasingly has come out of sync with the core Eurozone countries – such as Germany, Belgium and France.

Hence, Finland is a very good example that the eurozone is not an “Optimal Currency Area”, where one monetary policy fits all countries.

Concluding, the crisis would likely have been a lot shorter and less deep had Finland had its own currency. This would not have protected Finland from the shocks – Nokia would still have done badly, and exports to Russia would still have been hit by the crisis in the Russian economy, but a currency depreciation would have done a lot to offset these shocks.

To illustrate this, compare the pegged economies (in red in the graph below) of Finland and Denmark with the free-floating economies of Sweden, Iceland and Norway (in green).


Should Finland leave the euro now? It’s hard to say, but it seems clear that Finland shouldn’t have joined in the first place.

Are there other options? Yes. Significant labour market reforms that weaken the power of labour unions and reduce non-wage costs would make internal devaluation easier. But such reforms are notoriously hard to implement politically and the discussion and the response from the Finnish government to the Greek crisis has shown the Finnish governing coalition is extremely fragile. This is hardly a government, which should be expected to be able to push through the needed reforms.

See also my three earlier blog posts on Finland:

Lars Christensen is a Senior Fellow of the Adam Smith Institute and blogs as the Market Monetarist.

Perhaps this isn’t really the Greek solution


The assembled professors of the Alma Mater have given us their collective wisdom on the Greek crisis:

The institutions have to agree to a relaxation of fiscal austerity, at least until Greece is on the recovery path. Austerity during a recession is the wrong policy as it deepens the recession. Continuation of the stringent austerity measures implemented by Greece is delaying recovery. More fiscal austerity could fail the creditors too, if recovery is so slow that the fiscal deficit increases. Public investment has collapsed completely and providing more funds for investment projects that can improve the infrastructure and create jobs should be given priority.
Although some progress has been made, further structural improvements are necessary, including pensions and VAT, anti-corruption, tax compliance, and institutional reform of product and labour markets. It is important that the Greek government acknowledges that there is still a lot to be done and comes up with credible proposals.
The Greek economy is not likely to recover as long as there is still significant uncertainty about the future and there is no credible path towards a situation in which the Greek debt is sustainable. It is essential to achieve an early agreement to get Greek debt levels to sustainable levels, even if it is to be conditional on progress elsewhere. Conditionality on structural improvements is a good way forward.

Well, yes, OK. Greece should do all of those supply side reforms, lower the relative wages and thus get the economy booming again. Or we could heed the wisdom of Milton Friedman in the quote there. Instead of having to have this internal devaluation, this heavy austerity needed to bring down sticky prices like wages, we could just have a change in one single price in the economy, the external value of the internal money. You know, a devaluation.

Amusingly, this is one of the times that Friedman agrees with Keynes, even with the New Keynesians of today: prices are sticky, notably downwards, and wages especially so. Thus an economic policy which depends upon pushing down wages is going to require a great deal of pain to work.

Better, by far, not to have had the euro in the first place.

Yes, your humble writer here is extremely biased on this subject. But also correct.

If you want to know why rule by the Great and the Good doesn’t work

Consider this from Simon Jenkins as an example of why rule by the Great and the Good doesn’t work.

But such is the political arthritis now afflicting Europe’s “technocratic” rulers that they ignored the fact. They concentrate on their one concern: somehow extending Greece’s repayments so German, French and British banks could have even larger loans underpinned. It is bankers, not Greeks, who are being “bailed out”. They want Greek taxpayers to go on paying interest even if the principal is as beyond reach as a tsarist bond.

No Sir Simon, just no.

Of Greece’s some €320 billion in debt a couple of percentage points is owed to foreign banks. That’s actually what the problem here is: there’s no bankers that anyone can go and steal the money from.

The debts are owed to: the IMF, which in effect means the governments of the countries that own the IMF. The ECB, which means the countries that own it (ie, the eurozone governments). The EFSF, which is guaranteed by the eurozone governments. Then there’s bilateral loans from …yes….the eurozone governments.

The Greek banks do own Greek Treasuries, both bonds and bills: and these are all pledged to the ECB as collateral for the cash they need to remain open. This is actually what the problem is in the negotiations. If there were any rapacious capitalists holding any appreciable amount of the debt then they would be haircut without anyone caring in the slightest. That near all of the money is owed to taxpayers of other countries is the problem.

This would have been a valid criticism of the 2010 to 2012 actions, where the banks’ debt holdings were largely unloaded onto those taxpayer guarantees. But it’s simply incorrect to claim that banks have anything beyond the most minimal exposure today. Whatever this is this isn’t a crisis about protecting bankers.

And that, of course, is why that rule by the Great and the Good, by the wise Solons, by a technocracy, doesn’t in fact work. For the obvious reason that all too many of them haven’t a clue about whatever it is that they’re supposed to be managing or making public policy upon.

This is not to say that they’re all idiots, of course it isn’t, but rule by the ill informed isn’t a great step forwards now is it?