Enlightened Economics

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Archive for the ‘Banking’ Category

• 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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• Gold and Silver Rise Again as History’s Chosen Currencies

Posted by Ron Robins on March 13, 2011

By Ron Robins. First published February 25, 2011, in his weekly economics and finance column at alrroya.com

Gold, “the ancient metal of kings,” is reasserting itself as the currency of choice as it has done again and again since the earliest of human times. In our modern era, as central banks and governments fight to devalue their currencies to gain purported trade advantages, gold rises in value against them all. And central banks are buying gold again amidst serious doubts as to the size of some of their real physical gold holdings. Silver too is experiencing a similar re-emergence. The reasons for gold and, to a lesser extent, silver acting as currencies, are easy to understand.

Gold’s history as a currency extends back thousands of years. The western world’s first known standardised minting of gold currency took place in 564 BCE by King Croesus of western Asia Minor. However, it is also believed that China in the fifth and sixth century BCE, minted the Ying yuan gold coin as well. In the great Gupta Empire of India, from 320 to 550 CE, gold coins were used throughout its domain. And in the early Islamic world around the time of the Prophet Muhammad, the gold dinar coin led as its currency. In Europe, gold coins became an important or central monetary unit for the Greeks, Romans, Venetians, Dutch, Spanish and British.

During approximately 1870 to 1910 all major countries linked their currencies to gold, thereby adopting the gold standard. However, China was the exception preferring a silver-based standard. The first silver coins are reported as being minted by King Pheidon of Argos around 700 BCE.

Gold and silver have historically asserted themselves as monetary mediums due to their intrinsic value. They are consistent, divisible, durable and convenient, and they are nobody’s liability.

Unlike paper money, gold, particularly, has proven itself in maintaining its value over many centuries. The World Gold Council (WGC) says that, “since the 14th Century, gold’s purchasing power has maintained a broadly constant level… an ounce of gold has repeatedly bought a mid-range outfit of clothing… in the fourteenth century… in the late 18th century and… at the beginning of this century (2000 to 2008)… On the other hand, the US dollar that bought 14.5 loaves of bread in 1900 buys only 3/4 of a loaf today. While inflation and other forces have ravaged the value of the world’s currencies, gold has emerged with its capacity for wealth preservation firmly intact… [whether] in the face of financial turmoil… [as] a crisis hedge… [or] as an inflation hedge.”

Since their origins, central banks have realised the importance of gold, and sometimes silver, as a strategic part of their reserves. Commenting on the rapidly rising price of gold, Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the US Federal Reserve, said in a Bloomberg report on September 9, 2009, that, “[the rising gold price is] an indication of a very early stage of an endeavor to move away from paper currencies… What is fascinating is the extent to which gold still holds reign over the financial system as the ultimate source of payment.”

And this is also because, “[the central banks] no longer trust each other… [and] there’s this perception that different countries are trying to weaken their currency in order to get a competitive advantage,” said Francisco Blanch, head of global commodity research at Bank of America Merrill Lynch at a New York City November 2010 conference, reports Fastmarkets. Among the countries whose central banks are increasing their gold reserves are China, India, and Russia—all countries with mammoth trade surpluses and foreign exchange reserves.

However, as throughout history, he who owns gold and how much he owns is often shrouded in secrecy. For a central bank, covertly selling and buying of gold and its currency can be used to secretly manipulate the value of its currency. Some indirect proof of this comes again from Mr Greenspan during testimony to a US Congressional committee in 1998. He remarked that, “central banks stand ready to lease gold in increasing quantities should the price rise.” Therefore, declaring the precise gold holdings of a central bank might be akin to giving away ‘trade secrets.’

Central banks worldwide supposedly hold around 30,000 tonnes of gold, perhaps 20 to 25 per cent of all the gold ever mined. But true independent verification of their holdings is not available. The US based Gold Anti Trust Committee (Gata) has compiled extensive and critical information concerning western central bank gold holdings. Their information and that from other sources suggests the actual physical gold holdings of some western central banks could be 30 to 50 per cent lower than publicly reported.

As an example, the US boasts official gold holdings of 8,133.5 tonnes. However, it is known that some, perhaps a significant portion of these holdings, have been leased out to various financial entities and might not be returned without huge financial losses. Ron Paul, the chairman of the influential US Congress’s Domestic Monetary Policy Subcommittee of the House Financial Services Committee, is so concerned about such activities that he is calling for a full public audit of US gold holdings.

Additionally, gold is possibly set to play a reinvigorated role in the international monetary system. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) as well as most members of the G20 are seeking alternatives to the US dollar as the world’s principal reserve asset. And in this regard, gold—perhaps silver too—could be included in a basket of currencies and commodities that create the basis for a new international unit of exchange (currency).

Moreover, an RBC survey of global financial executives and business leaders reported on Yahoo! Finance on February 3 that “just 52 per cent of respondents expect the dollar to be the world’s currency in five years,” and that “gold is coming back as a reserve currency ‘of sorts,’” says Marc Harris, head of global research at RBC Capital Markets.

Probably since the beginning of civilisation, gold especially, but silver as well, have served as monetary vehicles. Gold has demonstrated itself to hold its value over centuries and in many diverse cultures. And despite today’s sophistication with paper money, gold is still seen by central banks as the ultimate source of payment. Concerns are growing that the real physical gold holdings of some major central banks might be substantially lower than they have reported, and as they unabashedly devalue their paper money, gold and silver rise once again as history’s chosen currencies.

Copyright alrroya.com

Posted in Banking, Economics, Finance & Investing, Gold & Precious Metals, Monetary Policy | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

• A Global Central Bank and Currency?

Posted by Ron Robins on February 16, 2011

By Ron Robins. First published January 27, 2011, in his weekly economics and finance column at alrroya.com

There are many paths forward for the global monetary system, but the hitherto unthinkable is becoming debatable: a global central bank and currency. However, despite the recent financial distress and potential for further financial calamity, the creation of such a new institution or currency is far off. But would a global central bank with possibly its own currency help bring monetary solace, universal prosperity and humankind together? Or would such a bank and currency result in yet another calamitous monetary failure?

The 2008-2009 financial debacle showed just how unprepared the global financial system was to deal with a loss of faith in, and imploding of, the global banking system. To stave off a global financial meltdown, the central banks of the US, the EU, Japan and many others around the world advanced vast sums in loans and guarantees to banks and financial entities. And the US Federal Reserve (the Fed) in particular loaned out hundreds of billions of dollars to foreign-owned banks, in effect acting as a bank of last resort to the global banking system.

As big as the Fed is, it and other central banks, for many reasons, may not be able to address the demands of a future global financial maelstrom with possibly even larger calls for loans of last resort. For the Fed, this is due to 1) the declining relative importance of the US economy and the dollar in relation to the global economy, and 2) potential political interference in its activities.

The mounting problems and lessening importance of the US economy and its dollar globally are obviously why a new international currency regime is being considered. International Monetary Fund (IMF) data (published in The Economist magazine) shows that while the US now makes up about 24 per cent of global gross domestic product (GDP), its dollar accounts for 84 per cent of foreign exchange transactions. Furthermore, over 60 per cent of international central bank reserves and about 60 per cent of global bank deposits are denominated in US dollars.

The continuing use of the US dollar internationally is largely dependent on the performance of the US economy and its domestic fiscal and monetary policies. Domestically, the US government is growing massive unsustainable debts while the Fed is hugely expanding the creation of new money and the buying of US government bonds (its quantitative easing programs). These actions are likely to further devalue the US dollar globally. Thus, holders of US dollars and assets will increasingly be less interested in retaining them.

Rising to compete with the US dollar has principally been the euro. However, with its member countries’ debt problems, the attention is turning primarily to China’s yuan. It is probably no accident that on January 12 China made a significant step forward in yuan foreign exchange convertibility by allowing it to trade in the US. China has also recently made deals with Russia, Brazil and other countries to settle trade accounts in yuan.

Such gains in the international acceptance of the yuan make it likely to be included in the revised and re-invigorated Special Drawing Rights (SDR) issued by the IMF. The SDR is presently a type of currency used in a limited way among central banks and the IMF. However, its role could eventually be expanded and in the decades ahead might even form the basis of a global currency.

The SDR comprises a basket of currencies that include the US dollar, yen, euro and pound sterling. Besides including the yuan, a revised form of SDR might include additional currencies and even gold or other commodities as well. As gold has an inherent market value, proponents for its inclusion suggest it could help bring further stability to the SDR. Changes to the SDR are favoured by many countries such as Russia and France.

Hence, the IMF may well begin to act in the coming years as a quasi global central bank. However, Barry Eichengreen of the University of California in the US cautions—quoting the Economist magazine of November 4, 2010—that, “no global government… means no global central bank, which means no global currency. Full stop.” Economists like Mr Eichengreen have the weight of evidence on their side regarding the need for a global government before a true global central bank and currency could come about. One only needs to look at the European Central Bank’s problems to see how the lack of an overarching, integrated and authoritative governance structure greatly impeded its ability to deal with the recent crises.

Advocating against the concept of a global central bank and currency are some free market proponents such as Ron Paul, a US Republican and now chairman of the powerful US Congress’s Monetary Policy Sub-committee. He and many others believe currencies should be freely chosen and have intrinsic value, backed by commodities, most likely that of gold. They say without gold backing, any currency and central bank issuing such currency, is deemed to eventual failure due to the historical fact that governments inevitably print excessive amounts of money. This ‘printing’ thereby debases the currency’s value and essentially commits fraud against the holders of the affected currency.

It is possible that the world may proceed towards a global central bank and currency over time. In the near future, the IMF will probably revise, re-invigorate and expand its SDR program to assist in the transition from reserve dependence on the US dollar. But the dangers with the SDR are that it is still largely linked to the viability and variability of national economies and their domestic policies and currencies. Advocates of a completely free market approach such as that proposed by US Congressman Ron Paul might also hold sway. The idea of a global central bank and currency is still just an idea. But it is an idea arising out of the calamity of our present day reality. It deserves hot debate.

Copyright alrroya.com

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