Enlightened Economics

Economics for an Enlightened Age

Posts Tagged ‘food’

• 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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Posted in Banking, Economics, Monetary Policy | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

• Free Markets Are Rare Indeed

Posted by Ron Robins on February 21, 2008

Most major markets influencing business and consumer decisions are not ‘free.’ They are manipulated by governments to varying degrees. Governments feel that it is for ‘social good’ that they intervene. Here is a brief list of key markets and descriptions of the government interventions. You can decide about the worthiness of these interventions yourself.

Currencies
The world’s most important currency, the US dollar, does not really trade freely. The US Treasury established in 1934 the ‘Exchange Stabilization Fund’ specifically to ‘manage’ the US dollar exchange rate. Its dealings are secret. In 1987, 1998, 2003/4 and likely at many other times, the treasury departments and possibly central banks of the US, Japan, the EU and other countries collectively intervened to manipulate currency values. China has pegged its currency, the renminbi, to the US dollar for many years. As the US complains about Chinese currency manipulation, it needs to come clean about its own efforts first.

I suggest that currency traders and speculators should not be blamed for strong currency movements. They are nearly always reacting to bad or anti-market policies of governments and central banks and generally reflecting the ‘collective consciousness’ of the global financial community.

Stock markets
Stock markets are not free of government intervention either. After the 1987 US stock market crash, President Reagan established the Working Group on Financial Markets, (the ‘plunge protection team’), to effectively stop stock market crashes. How and when it operates is again secret. Journalists and others have tried for years to get information of the Working Group’s meetings and activities, but to no avail. On January 22, 2008, it was believed that the US Federal Reserve purposely reduced its Federal Funds rate by 0.75% just before the US Dow Jones Index was due to open 600 points (over 5%) lower! This move potentially saved the US stock markets from a major crash that day. Here we have a clear – and public case – of market intervention for the purported ‘public good.’

Interest rates
The US Federal Reserve, the EU Central Bank, Bank of Japan – in fact nearly all central banks regularly announce interest rate changes to short term securities. And through their buying and selling of government bonds, they also influence rates on all longer-term securities.

Unfortunately, a largely economically illiterate public clamours for manipulated, low interest rates. Central banks generally oblige, despite them supposedly being mostly ‘independent.’ Artificially induced low interest rates then create excessive borrowing, such as we have seen in housing. A housing bust follows and everyone blames the government – rather than themselves! (Question: who is really best able to set interest rate policy? Is it a country’s central bank or the free market?)

Oil
By controlling over 40% of global oil production, OPEC (the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries), stage-manages global oil production and prices. Not only do they control production levels, but they have been free to cite their oil reserves’ data with no independent verification of what they do actually have in the ground. And there are many reasons – as Matt Simons, eminent oil analyst, suggests – why we need to be sceptical of the Gulf States oil reserve numbers. Again, with the reserves being unaudited by any reputable international agency, OPEC is able to abnormally influence oil prices.

Food
Governments influence agricultural markets to a massive degree. Annual agricultural subsidies in the EU amount to about $75 billion; in the US $55 billion. These subsidies with those of many other countries dramatically distort global agricultural production and prices. The Doha round of World Trade Organization (WTO) free-trade talks floundered largely because developing countries demanded that agricultural trade distorting practices be reduced and eliminated. The developed countries resisted and the trade talks collapsed. For much of the developing world the one area where they could compete – and potentially bring them out of poverty – is with agricultural exports, even with today’s significantly increased transportation costs.

Ethanol and biofuels is another area where government intervention to support markets has caused dramatic negative market dislocations. Food cropland and food crops now going towards the production of ethanol and biofuels has resulted in significantly increasing food prices around the world. In numerous developing countries it has contributed to food shortages and riots.

Two final thoughts…
Unfair economic or financial advantage is often gained by those who have inside knowledge of where and when governments intervene. Indeed, they can ‘front-run’ the governments’ actions and make huge fortunes without the public ever knowing what is going-on. This probably occurs especially in stock markets, where it might be welcomed by the governments who see it aiding their efforts to manipulate markets.

This discussion demonstrates that society does not have, nor apparently really believes in, wholly free markets at this time. Why? It feels that individuals cannot be trusted to do the ‘right’ thing. Yet, as we see here, governments frequently do not do the right thing either! In other posts I demonstrate that high consciousness individuals are much more likely to do the’ better’ thing. Such individuals will allow truly free markets to function and will create affluence, environmental sustainability, and fulfillment, beyond anything envisaged today. To turn things around and to begin to understand how free markets with higher consciousness individuals can work, see these posts Free Markets Need ‘High Consciousness’ Individuals and The Missing Ingredient in Economics – Consciousness!

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© Ron Robins, 2008.

Posted in Economics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

 
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