Enlightened Economics

Economics for an Enlightened Age

• Banks’ Cheap Money is Economic ‘Poison’

Posted by Ron Robins on March 13, 2011

By Ron Robins. First published March 10, 2011, in his weekly economics and finance column at alrroya.com

Developed world bankers continue to proclaim that enforced low interest rates—cheap money—will lead their countries back to economic prosperity. But didn’t the same policies a few years ago help bring us to the precipice of financial and economic collapse? Do they still not understand that cheap easy money led to many large US and European banks becoming gambling institutions, eventually failing and bailed out at taxpayers’ expense?

And above all, that cheap easy money enticed people, companies and governments, to become horribly indebted, with many individuals and companies failing. Soon, even developed country governments may go bankrupt. As proof that cheap easy money is again causing extraordinary economic problems, just look at where some of it is now going—to the commodities’ markets. There, it helps inflate food prices, thus causing starvation and food riots around the world.

Do the bankers not read history and know that artificially induced cheap easy money can be economic poison?

Of course one simple reason that many bankers advocate cheap easy money is that it makes them a lot of money. When they can—as they did for many years and still seem able to do—‘leverage-up’ their assets in relation to their equity, they can make multiples of profits compared to before. And since, often courtesy of their benevolent central bank, they can frequently borrow at nearly free rates and ‘invest’ those proceeds in bonds/securities/commodities that often offer high potential returns, it is possible for them to make ever bigger profits.

For most large US and European banks, their assets frequently exceeded their equity by 20 to 60 times before the financial crises. That is, keeping it simple, they were somehow able to leverage every $1 of equity, usually by borrowing funds, to create $20 to $60 of assets! The risk in such high leverage is that a small loss in asset values of say, just five per cent, could wipe out their equity and cause insolvency and bankruptcy.

Unfortunately, very high leverage ratios continue in many developed countries’ banking and financial institutions. (Perhaps this is the real unspoken reason for cheap money: to inflate asset markets to keep the banks semi-solvent! Though, that topic is for another post.)

Therefore, the real story is the culture of leverage and risk that numerous developed world banks now embody as a result of easily available cheap money. This is in contrast to that during much of banking history when money was regularly relatively expensive (with higher rates of interest) than today and often difficult to obtain.

The easily available cheap money encourages enormous ‘moral hazard’ among bankers and all players in the financial system. Moral hazard denotes a lack of morality and a carefree greed mentality that produces excessive speculation. It is this attitude that promotes the creation of maximum leverage and the taking of big risks—and not caring too much about any potential losses as they are covered by others. Bankers under the influence of moral hazard are like addicted gamblers who cannot stop gambling. But the gambling is not at the card table. It takes place in their boardrooms and trading desks.

And fortunately for the bankers they can enjoy their moral hazard largely at the expense of taxpayers. As we know, much of the potential and accumulated massive losses in the US and European financial and banking systems have been transferred to governments and central banks. The US and European governments and central banks make light of these burdens saying that as their economies recover these losses will be greatly reduced. However, the ‘central bank of central banks,’ the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), has issued new global bank regulations (Basel III) that—if implemented—might reign in some of the excesses associated with moral hazard.

Of course not all banks speculate or gamble to the same extent. In Islamic banking, spiritual and ethical considerations greatly restrain speculation. Also, for instance, Canadian banks adhere to more conservative principles and are better regulated and so have not suffered the same fate as that of many of their US and European rivals.

For now though, cheap easy money is seen by bankers as our economic salvation. And it inflates global markets, including those related to food and energy. As their prices rise, the unforeseen repercussions of the bankers cheap easy money ‘poison’ assists in creating starvation, food riots, and political upheaval around the globe.

Furthermore, the continuing high leverage, moral hazard, and gambling tendencies within the banking and financial system assures that some of today’s ‘good’ investments will sour and suffer large losses. Will the taxpayers again assume those losses? If not, then what? Until the cheap easy money poison is banished it continues creating conditions for even bigger economic and social catastrophes in the years ahead.

Copyright alrroya.com


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