Savings and the alchemy of credit

October 27, 2010

— Ann Pettifor is Director of Advocacy International and a Fellow of the New Economics Foundation. The opinions expressed are her own —

The governor of the BoE argues that: “We will have to save more, even though the immediate concern is to ensure a recovery in demand.”  This is contradictory because saving will lower demand. It is also a counsel of despair. Most economists argue that savings drive capital investment, lower interest rates, and allow firms to create jobs. As Professor Victoria Chick notes, this confusion arises from our early experience of bank money. We leave school, get a job and then find a deposit in the bank.

Apparently our effort created that deposit.  The reverse is true: we were able to work because credit, or bank money, created deposits in the first instance. And this credit (created through a process closest to alchemy) starts with ‘Quantitative Easing’ (QE). If the banking system functions well, QE cascades through the commercial banking system.   The employer borrows, invests, and creates jobs.

Sadly, the British banking system is now dysfunctional, and neither the BoE nor government dare  fix it. Credit creation was until recently mysterious. Then we heard of something apparently new – ‘QE’. Money or credit, we realised, was not mobilised from savings of individuals, or taxpayers.  It was simply conjured out of thin air. Governor Ben Bernanke explained how on CBS’s ’60 Minutes’ .  Asked “was the $160 billion for the AIG bail-out raised from taxpayers?” he replied:

“No. The banks have accounts with the Fed, much the same way that you have an account with a commercial bank. So to lend to a bank we simply use the computer to mark up the size of the account that they have with the Fed”.

‘Using the computer to mark up the size of the account’  is a process shrouded in opacity by bankers and academics. A pity – because credit created ‘out of thin air’ is one of mankind’s most ingenious inventions.  As a result of QE, economic activity — and our prosperity — has not depended on savings, on the silver and gold in vaults, or on what we can afford now. Instead it has depended on what we can do.

The creation of credit by a well-functioning regulated banking system allows us to do what we can do – on condition that demand for that activity is appropriately stimulated. Otherwise ‘Queasing’ alone is like buying a belt three times your size, and hoping to get fatter. QE and fiscal stimulus, carefully sequenced, stimulate and enable economic activity to take place. Economic activity in turn, creates income – to repay the credit. Not the other way around.

Of course, if the banking system creates more credit than potential for economic activity, it fuels inflation. If the system creates less credit than economic potential, as now, then we face today’s threat: deflation and prolonged recession.

It has been extraordinarily difficult for economists, not to mention ordinary punters, to get their heads around QE despite enjoying its benefits since the 18th century. In the UK QE was used in 2008-9 to support government borrowing. The government needed £155 billion in 2009-10.  Under QE, the BoE purchased gilts to the total value of £185 billion. From this perspective, over this period, QE financed, in a roundabout way, the whole of government borrowing.

This gives the lie to the ‘bond market vigilantes’.  Under QE, the bond market is circumvented. Credit creation is a formidable, dangerous power, which if unregulated foments the kind of crises endured since the 1970s, when credit creation was liberalised. Private bankers used their powers recklessly. Whereas the consensus blames unions for the inflation of 70s, Mr Posen of the BoE argues that mistakes were due to bankers who “overestimated potential growth and overheated our economies, causing high inflation.”

Credit was created and money lent recklessly, at high real rates of interest. This explains the inflationary asset bubble of the last two decades – to which central bankers turned a blind eye. Recently Andrew Moss, CEO of Aviva, assembled a group of thinkers to debate the decline in individual savings.   I argued (á la Charlie Bean ) that savings are harmful in a recession, especially when government deliberately contracts public investment. In the UK public sector losses of £84bn will be piled on the £64bn of GDP lost since the beginning of 2008 – including  a £44 billion collapse in private sector investment – when the British economy is more than 10 percent below  trend growth.

At times of crises, the banking system creates credit, disburses it affordably to both public and private sectors to invest to tackle the gravest threats facing society. Today, those threats – to insurance companies like Aviva  – include prolonged economic failure and extreme weather events.

To deal with these we should focus once more on the ‘alchemy’ of credit creation, sequence it with demand stimulus , and turn our economies around. Sadly, we lack both a Roosevelt and a Keynes to make this happen.

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As we move forward I wonder if it is time to consider and admit that joblessness is now structural and how to fund such without raising taxes. Would it be possible now to consider the forming of a department which invests in companies and commodities where the profits fund the growing jobless and their related social needs? The bottom line being that without the consumer there can be no capitalism. Perhaps every citizen should become a shareholder, if not directly then indirectly through the intervention of government. It is hard to see taxes able to rise enough to bear the economic weight of a growing jobless population otherwise

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