An interesting view of what bankers actually do

It’s a commonplace in the public square these days that bankers are the evil ones, designing odd products like a CDS or CDO, to trap the unwary investor into parting with all their worldly wealth. and then there’s the occasional expression of a more obviously sensible view, as in this one about Islamic banking:

Many of the instruments Irfan discusses were sold by major banks that saw them as just another opportunity. This is not surprising: Governments and wealthy individuals wanted financing that complied with their religious requirements, and banks gave it to them. Irfan, by contrast, longs for an Islamic finance industry that caters to “small and medium-sized enterprises, retail customers, the man in the street” and offers something “beneficial to everyone, irrespective of creed.”

The actual book is about Islamic financing, a subject we find quite fascinating. For of course the basis of said Islamic financing is an outright denial of something that we hold to be an obvious truth: there’s a time value to money. That there is is what leads to there being an interest rate and also to all those other techniques like discounting to get to net present values and so on. We take these to be simply obvious truths about the universe that we humans inhabit and one can, as experiments have, derive the existence of that time value by studying small children. A baby doesn’t get the idea of delayed gratification for greater gratification, a three year old will usually grasp the idea of two sweeties tomorrow instead of one now and a 6 year old might go for two in a week for one now. This is an interest rate and it does seem to be innate in human beings.

So, obviously, it could be seen as a little odd that we not only enjoy but thoroughly approve of these various Islamic alternatives. For they all (things like Sukuk bonds and so on) depend upon the absolute rejection of interest, that very thing that we insist is part of the fabric of our reality. The reason we so like Islamic finance is because all of he successful forms of it are actually constructs that, in the face of the religious insistence that there should be no interest, actually operate in a manner to ensure that there is a time value to money and that there is an interest rate, interest which has to be paid.

Which brings us back to what we liked about that description of banking: they bankers are simply providing what their customers want. Seems a more honest trade than many to us, enabling someone to meet their religious obligations while still saving for their old age and the like.

The problem with the bank levy and other Pigou taxes

This is both extremely disappointing and also par for the course:

The Liberal Democrats plan to hit the UK banking industry with an additional £1bn tax bill, which the party says will help eliminate the country’s deficit.

The supplementary charge will be in addition to the existing bank levy, which is on track to raise £8bn in this parliament, said Danny Alexander, the Liberal Democrat chief secretary to the Treasury.

The annual levy on banks, which was introduced in 2010, currently brings in around £2.5bn a year. Mr Alexander’s proposals are expected to take that up to £3.5bn a year.

The point is that the bank levy is a Pigou tax. There’s an externality in the market which is not being included in prices. The tax is there to make sure that that externality is included in prices.

The externality is that the “too big to fail” banks receive, as they are too big for the government to allow them to fail, implicit deposit insurance over and above that on offer through the normal regulatory schemes to all deposit taking institutions. This means that they can finance themselves at lower than free market rates and it’s the taxpayer that picks up the risk.

The solution, as we noted and praised when the levy was introduced, is to charge an insurance premium on those deposits that are insured in this manner. And that’s how it does work: it’s only on the deposits of the too big to fail banks, it’s only on those deposits which are not insured through other schemes and it takes account of the riskiness of a run in said deposits (thus long term bond finance pays a lower rate than at sight deposits). That’s all how it should be.

And the point about Pigou taxes is that it doesn’t matter what happens to the revenue. Sure, it’s nice to have ‘n’all that, but the point is to correct the market, not to raise revenue.

Thus the idea that the rate should be changed in order to increase the revenue raised is nonsense. It’s violating the very point and rationale for having the levy in the first place.

It’s also entirely par for the course. No politician can see a potential revenue source without wanting to bathe in it. And that, sadly, is the problem with Pigou taxes. They’re economically efficient, rational and make the world a better place. Until we come to the politicians who implement them when, over time, they will inevitably lose their original justification and simply become another method of gouging someone or other so as to bribe the electorate.

What’s economically efficient, rational and making the world a better place when a Minister’s seat is at risk at a looming election, eh?

Better to reverse QE than raise interest rates

That is, of course, a chart of the American, rather than UK, money supply. But much the same has happened to our own money supply under the same QE program. And it’s also telling us that it would be better to reverse QE than it would be to raise interest rates. So the idea that that debt could just be cancelled doesn’t fly we’re afraid.

We all know that at some point we’re going to have decent economic growth again, unemployment will fall to a minimum (that frictional unemployment that reflects people changing jobs, not involuntary unemployment) and that then inflation will start to rise again. We all also know, because Milton Friedman told us so, that inflation is always a monetary phenomenon. And, finally, we all also know that base money creation is more inflationary than credit creation: or boosting M1 leads to more inflation than the same boosting of M4 would cause.

It’s putting those all together that tells us that we should reverse QE. Think through the future: so, we get out of this liquidity trap, this zero lower bound. The velocity of money returns to something like normal. At which point we’ve got two choices as to how to reduce the accompanying inflation. One is to raise interest rates, the standard response. But that works on M4, it slows credit creation. We could also reduce that money supply by reducing M1: reversing QE. And as above, we think that shrinking M1 would have more effect on reducing inflation than reducing M4 would.

Another way of saying the same thing is that the amount we’d have to raise interest rates to choke off inflation will be higher if we don’t reverse QE than if we do. And this will be true for decades to come as we gradually get back to the right sort of relationship in size between M1 and M4. Or, not reversing QE means that we have to accept more economic pain to reduce inflation than if we reverse QE. For decades.

Which rather puts the kibosh on that idea so trendy over on hte left. Which is that as one part of the government owns the debt of the government we could just cancel that debt and reduce the debt burden. But doing that permanently increases that base money supply and thus permanently increases the interest rates we’ll need to slay inflation in the future.

So, reverse QE before raising interest rates.

You should be very careful what you wish for

An interesting little observation from Ed Lazear:

There are basically two ways that the average economywide wage can fall. There might be a shift in employment away from high-paying to lower-paying industries; in other words, the economy is producing more “bad jobs.” The other way is that the overall composition of work might be the same, but wages for the typical job in most sectors have fallen.

Normally, economywide wage changes reflect what happens to the wage of the typical job. But between 2010 and 2014 there were also significant declines in the proportion of the workforce employed in two high-paying industries. Those declines contributed to overall wage declines—and they may have been caused by policy mistakes.

The share of the private workforce employed in the BLS-defined industries “financial activities” and “hospitals” decreased by about 5% between 2010 and 2014. Jobs in these industries pay 29% and 24%, respectively, above the economy mean. Because a smaller share of labor is working those high-wage industries, the typical job in the economy is now lower-paying than in 2010.

What has been happening here in the UK?

Well, our highest paying industry by a long way is wholesale finance, The City. And for several years that industry was shrinking. And average wages were declining. The City is now expanding again and average wages are rising. It would not do to insist that all of both the rise and fall depends upon the hiring practices of The City. But certainly some of it does.

Which leaves us in a state of some amusement. For of course it is those who have been whingeing most about the domination of the financial markets who have been complaining loudest about the fall in wages. Be careful what you wish for for you might well get it.

Competing monetary rules: modern free banking possibilities

With the emergence of new digital currencies and, in particular, crypto-currencies (the most prominent of which, being Bitcoin), one can wonder how different Free Banking might look in the modern economy.

In the past, monetary rules had been based on metallic content. Now, they are often focused on inflation-targeting, nominal-GDP targeting and so on. Though Free Banking would be desirable, Ben Southwood and Sam Bowman have previously argued for nominal GDP targeting in its stead, as the pragmatic, preferred alternative for monetary policymakers. Saying that, George Selgin argues that most free banking systems lead to effectively 0% NGDP targets.

Of course, the one thing that all these monetary rules have in common is their aim to foster expectations-stability. However, stabilising expectations with respect to one variable often still leaves unstable expectations with respect to another variable; modifications of the Taylor rule may stipulate that we should raise or lower interest rates according to the output gap, inflation rate etc. but this still does not mean that people will be able to forecast when or by how much the interest rates will rise in advance since one’s expectations with respect to other important variables are hardly stable.

Bitcoins have a monetary rule with respect to the rate of increase of the money supply that is determined by an algorithm that periodically halves the speed at which Bitcoins are rewarded to the successful miner (mining being the process by which they are created) and, furthermore, the number of bitcoins in existence can never exceed 21 million. However, Bitcoins still suffer from exchange-price volatility. Other crypto-currencies also have different monetary rules. So it’s quite clear that developments in the state of technology enable different types of monetary rules to be implemented.

In a modern free banking system, then, there would be competing monetary rules between the various different currencies (whether they are issued by banks or obtained through other mechanisms made possible by the state of technology). Since each monetary rule implemented hitherto attempts to stabilise expectations with respect to a certain variable, picking a currency would essentially involve each agent choosing between differing monetary rules and, therefore, independently and rationally stabilising their expectations according to their priorities.

Even Keynes wrote on the importance of understanding

The dependence of the marginal efficiency of a given stock of capital on changes in expectation, because it is chiefly this dependence which renders the marginal efficiency of capital subject to the somewhat violent fluctuations which are the explanation of the Trade Cycle … this means, unfortunately, not only that slumps and depressions are exaggerated in degree, but that economic prosperity is congenial to the average business man.

So even in a Keynesian framework, modern free banking, through more diverse, competing monetary rules, could help ease the excessive malaises of business ‘cycles’!