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The Gods Among Us

In the beginning there was Money.  Well, not exactly.  There was barter.  There was a high degree of vertical integration, which is a fancy way of saying if you wanted something back then, it was pretty much up to you to grow it or make it yourself.  What trade existed was largely between members of the tribe or village or group.  If some guy made a pretty cool hunting knife, and his wife was nagging him for a deer to butcher and eat, a trade of the knife for the deer (or parts of it) might take place.  Trading was simple, uncomplicated, and very very slow.  Life was brutal and short.  At the end of the day, when you had run out of you, you had also run out of future.  You aged quickly and died young.  When groups of nomads found a place to their liking, they sometimes stayed, settled in, and became agrarian.  Society became more complex, and slightly greater specialization of labor became possible.  One family could grow things from the soil; another could domesticate animals as a source of meat.  There was still no Money.

Trading in this primitive context was still taking place among the so-called Indians on this North American continent when the first Europeans arrived.  The native Americans were fascinated with some of the baubles brought over by the Europeans and willingly traded furs for them.  Eventually some commodities became so commonplace and essential to daily life in primitive societies that they took on new importance as a means of facilitating trade.  Salt, because it was needed by everyone for daily purposes, came to assume more importance as a form of “money” than it formerly had as just salt.  Since everyone had salt, and used salt, goods and services were traded using salt as the store of value and medium of exchange between trading partners.  The same was true of other things of universal value, including furs.  Because of their prized ornamental value and scarcity, gold and silver  became universally accepted as Money. 

The term store of value is very important.  Without some universally accepted warehouse of value that had been produced, all exchange was limited to what could be immediately produced and immediately consumed.  No long term planning was possible, and without long term planning, the Industrial Revolution with its complex machines and processes was impossible.  Modern society was impossible.  The invention of Money was a prerequisite to all the amenities of life as we know it.  Without the invention of Money, we would all still be primitives.  In spite of Rousseau’s idealization of the Noble Savage, the Garden of Eden it was not.  Man was the victim of ignorance, superstition, disease, and unmitigated natural disaster the likes of which are only occasionally experienced today in the poorest parts of the world.

In primitive society, wealth was limited to whatever a person could produce in a day, or a month, or a year of his own individual effort.  All other wealth was acquired by confiscating the values produced by others at the point of a spear, or in time, at the end of a gun.  All great monuments of history were made possible by the confiscation, not only of others wealth, including their grain, their herds, their tools, but also the confiscation of the people themselves, physically.  People became property, to be used and exploited by their conquerors.  When Rome was starving because of crop failure, their solution was to conquer Egypt with their legions, make that part of North Africa a vassal state and require them to ship their grain to Rome at prices Rome dictated.  You might say that Rome “nationalized” Egypt;  Cleopatra, in name at least, still “owned” the means of production, but the prices were dictated by Rome, her Master.  For a while, she was able to continue her pretense of being in charge of her country, of being Queen.  Then one day Caesar extended an invitation she could not refuse:  to come to Rome to visit, as his “guest”.  The dress code for the event was a little intimidating–naked, in shackles, to be paraded as the spoils of war through the crowds of Roman rabble and oglers, the nobility and the great unwashed.  Cleopatra committed suicide.

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Rome, of course, did not invent slavery.  Man was a part of Nature, and you took what you wanted, if you could.  You formed groups and tribes for this purpose, for there was greater safety and strength in those groups and tribes.  There was no concept of the individual or individual rights; you were a member of your group, and your survival depended on that group.  If your group won, you confiscated the property of your rivals, including his children and women.  Anyone you had no use for, such as the old or the sick or the dangerous, you killed.  And of course, if your enemies prevailed, you shared the same fate. 

If you were successively victorious, you celebrated by building temples to the gods who had blessed you, or you worshipped the gods among you  Of course you also built monuments and palaces to your leaders and warriors, as totems to their greatness.  And if your civilization succumbed to a rival some time later, your enemy sat on your thrones and lived in your palaces that they acquired the same way you did–by force.  You supplicated your gods and you placated your gods, and you worshipped and obeyed your kings and princes as gods themselves, or the sons of the gods, or the direct representatives of the gods.  And sometimes the Great Leaders and Warriors had to share the power in an uneasy alliance with the Priests and Shamans who controlled and manipulated the fears and superstitions of the human herd, who provided opaque and inscrutable explanations for why things sometimes went wrong, who demanded sacrifices for the gods of both this world and the next.  It reminds us somewhat of the chief economists and central bankers  ‘divining  the liver’ of the economy, reading the stars, making their prognostications and gobbledygook commentary about what it all means, and who also require sacrifices so that the gods may be propitiated.

There were two ways to acquire wealth; the tedious, slow way of trading successfully with others, or the riskier but faster way–to seize what others already had.  You could do this as a petty murderer; or as a tribal leader, a mass murderer if the occasion demanded it.  You could enslave others, or you could be enslaved by others.  The spoils went to the winner.  For those who chose the route of peaceful and voluntary trade with others, the advent of Money was an organic process that developed naturally as a more efficient way to trade.  It expanded the possibilities of what could be traded, as Money was a way to store value.  Money was a symbol of value that had been created and was warehoused somewhere else.  If on the other hand, you were a Ruler, Money facilitated the confiscation of the wealth of your subjects.  As a Ruler, you saw Money as nothing more than an extension of your right to plunder your subjects; if you insisted that your subjects pay their taxes to you in salt, or grain, or gold, you didn’t care what medium of exchange they used among themselves, as long as you controlled the form in which they paid you.  This became your Treasury.

As the Ruler, what did you need a Treasury for?  Well, your subjects didn’t always have the products or skills to do what you wanted.  So you had to bring people and products in from other places, and to do this you had to trade with them.  You could force your own subjects to engage in slave labor, but you could not do so with others outside your domain, for most likely they belonged to another Ruler, another Tyrant.  They were his property, not yours.  If the other people were accustomed to gold as a means of exchange, as you were, trading was simple.  If they did not use gold, trade quickly got more complicated.  Now there were two forms of money, your gold and whatever they were using.  A rate of exchange had to be negotiated.  If they were using salt, then you had to establish how much salt was equal to an ounce of gold.  Your joint answer to this question would become your exchange rate between two kinds of money.

You also need a Treasury to finance your wars.  You may have had your own troops, but many, if not most wars were fought with soldiers-for-hire, mercenaries.  Either way, they had to be paid.  If soldiers didn’t get paid, they and their families didn’t eat, and when people don’t eat, they get deeply unhappy.  Unpaid soldiers have a nasty habit of slipping away in the night and disappearing.  So they had to be paid, with Money that would be recognized and accepted by others with whom the soldiers would want to trade.  In ancient societies, soldiers were paid in coin.  When the Treasury of the Ruler was low, he would order his minions to shave slivers of metal off the coins, then melt the shavings down to forge new coins.  The coins of the realm tended to get smaller and smaller and people would notice and feel they were being defrauded.  And of course, they were.  By the Ruler, who was trying to expand his Money supply the only way he knew how.  When Rulers figured out alloys, they would instruct their keepers of the Treasury to mix base metals with the precious metal, again in an effort to take the existing amount of gold or silver and make it go farther by cheapening it.  When people felt they were being cheated, they demanded additional coins in payment to make up for the parts shaved off, or the new alloy coins.  They started making etched ridges along the circumference of the coins, so that if any shaving of the edges was attempted, they would know it because the ridges would be missing.  All through history people everywhere showed a basic desire to keep what was theirs, and all through history they tended to distrust their Rulers intentions with their money.  And with good reason.  The Rulers treatment of their Money was the equivalent of a cheating pair of scales.

Over the millenia, nothing has really changed very much.  With the advent of the printing press, it became a lot easier to steal from one’s subjects.  Until shortly after World War I, the currencies of the world’s governments continued to be pegged to gold as a means to facilitate trade between nations on an objective standard.  Because the rest of the modern world had been decimated by the ravages of what had come to be known as The Great War, the American dollar had become the currency of the world; in other words everyone was willing to be paid in American greenbacks because it was agreed that those dollars could be redeemed in gold on request from the American Federal Reserve, our central bank.  Because there was a steady loss of gold over the years from the American Treasury, President Nixon unilaterally decided to take the American dollar off the gold standard in 1971.  Confidence in the American dollar was waning, and foreigners wanted the gold instead.  Well, no more.  The Law of Unintended Consequences prevailed, as always.  In today’s world, when foreign governments acquire larger quantities of another nation’s currency than they are comfortable with, they sell the undesired currency on world markets.  You see, paper money, like gold, oil, cotton, grain, or cattle, can be sold in markets created specially for the purpose.  Currency is bought and sold on what is called a Foreign Exchange market, or FOREX for short.  Well, after Nixon took us off the gold standard, foreign governments rushed to get rid of their dollars by dumping them on the world market, exchanging dollars for other currencies then considered more valuable.  When there are more sellers than there are buyers, the price of a commodity goes down.  The dollar is a commodity, and the price of the dollar went down.  Now let’s make this next connection in a flying intuitive leap:  A paper dollar unattached to an objective gold standard has no value in and of itself.  It represents only the faith of the people who use it.  When it is obvious that governments are trying to unload a lot of dollars, it quickly erodes people’s confidence in that dollar.  When the confidence in the value of the dollar goes down, what the dollar is able to purchase goes down also.  When it takes more dollars to purchase the same item than it used to, you have inflation.  The same thing has happened as when an ancient Ruler mixed other metals with gold in order to create more of it.  The purchasing power of the unit of currency goes down when people don’t trust it; so they want more of it in payment than they used to.  Prices go up.  If you have the same quantity of a currency as you had before, but the purchasing power of that currency has done down, you have just become poorer, as surely as if someone had robbed you during the night.

When Rulers, or governments, for whatever reason, add to their Money supply, you have more money chasing the same goods, which means the purchasing power of the unit of currency goes down, which is just another way of saying the price went up.  The price is nothing more than how many units of currency are required to purchase an item, any item.

The American consumer nation became an empire of debt in order to pay for all the goodies it imported from foreign nations.  America paid those nations in dollars, and by 2001 almost 80% of all dollars in existence were held by foreigners according to Bonner and Wiggin in Financial Reckoning Day Fallout.  Under normal circumstances foreigners can get rid of dollars by buying American goods in return, and this keeps foreign currencies in balance.  That didn’t work because we were importing way more than we were exporting, so the imbalance grew.  Foreigners could have once again dumped their excess dollars on the foreign exchange market, which would have driven the value of the dollar down, which would have made foreign goods more expensive, and our exports cheaper.  That would have reduced demand for foreign goods, and reduced their sales to us.  They wanted to keep their factories going at full production, and that meant continuing to sell to America at maximum levels.  So instead, what did the foreigners holding excess dollars decide to do?  They decided to get rid of those dollars by buying up American assets, including businesses, real estate, and financial investments.

But the plot thickens.  At about the turn of the millenium, America was in the throes of a recession.  The Federal Reserve, determined to make this go away, decided to make credit cheaper by lowering interest rates to unheard of levels.  They wanted Americans to buy, and they figured the best way to do this was to make money cheap.  Cheap credit, combined with government incentives to lenders to make residential mortgages available to people unlikely to pay those mortgages, resulted in a lot of toxic mortgages out there.  Because money was cheap and easy, demand for residential real estate went through the roof, and that of course, caused the prices for that real estate to go through the roof as well.  So prices of real estate are spiraling up, money continues to be cheap and easy, there are a flood of unworthy mortgages.  Now for the rest of the story.  The flip side of cheap money is that lenders, who make their profits off of interest they charge, now have sharply reduced profit margins because their product, money, is too cheap!  They are practically giving it away!  What to do?  Simple:  slice and dice these toxic mortgages that everyone knows are going to result in default by the borrowers, repackage them, take them off the lenders hands, and sell them to ????  Why the foreigners who are holding more dollars than they know what to do with, and let them buy them at outrageous premiums!  And why would they do so?  Why, because the prices of real estate have been spiraling upward like the forced steam of a 19th century locomotive.

Now to put this in perspective, if you got a twenty-dollar bill from an ATM machine, and then went to the grocery store to make a purchase only to find your twenty-dollar bill is counterfeit, what would or could you do?  The bank won’t take it back, and the grocery store won’t accept it as payment.  The one last holding the counterfeit bill takes the hit.  That would be you.  You are out $20.  Unless of course you go up the street to McDonalds or Starbucks and use the same bill to make a purchase, and get change in non-counterfeit denominations.  You have successfully handed off your risk of loss to someone else.  This is what the lenders and Wall Street did with the toxic mortgages.  They pawned them off, at exorbitant profit to the first suckers they could find–the foreigners looking for a place to put their excess holdings of American dollars.  Foreigners such as foreign central banks, for example.

The rest, as they say, is history.  The bubble price level of real estate popped, the mortgages were much higher than the value of the properties that collateralized them, the foreign holders of these toxic repackages had a fit, American lenders who didn’t leave the party early enough got stuck with a lot of non-performing loans, which meant that they no longer had sufficient reserves on hand to cover their exposure to those bad loans (which meant they were insolvent and a prime target for a run on them by their depositors.)  Then there were the insurors of these toxic assets who were extremely overleveraged and ready to go under, starting with AIG.  The American government came to the rescue, and bailed out the banks, the insurors, the foreign central banks.  How did they pay for all this?  At the heart of it all is a defective product–the toxic mortgages and the packages they became a part of.  There is no market for mortgages worth 30% less than the homes that are the collateral.  And to make matters worse, the prices continue to drop, and no one really knows how to determine what these properties are worth, other than to put them out to sale in a market where no one is buying.  So the Federal Reserve decides to buy the toxic financial instruments at prices that are made up, pure fiction.  And the Fed buys these mortgages with more fiction, pretend money.  Money created by making  book entries in digital ledgers.  The banks receive the digital money, their reserves are stabilized, and they are removed from the Endangered Species list.

There is only one problem.  The Fed, when they came to save the day, expanded the money supply of the world’s largest debtor nation to a degree unprecedented in history.  The whole world’s financial system continues on life support, and the machine is making disturbing noises.  You see, there is one minor detail everyone seems to be forgetting.  There are only two ways to acquire wealth:  produce value, or steal the value produced by someone else.  This nation’s value comes from its manufacturing plants, research and development departments, its science labs and production facilities.  There are no current economic indicators that reliably tell us these numbers are improving.  So can we print our way to recovery and prosperity?  Ben Bernanke says we can.  Tim Geithner says we can.  The President says we can.  In time, all that wildly inflated Money supply is going to work its way out into the economy, which means the purchasing power of the dollar is going to drop.  When ordinary people sense in their gut that the value of their dollar is dropping, they will rush to get rid of their dollars, just like foreign governments did in the last ten years.  But who will take them?  As the floor drops out of the dollar, we will rush to spend them in the morning, because they will be worth less by the evening.

Will the government’s debts be honored?  Of course.  Everyone who is owed will be paid.  With currency devalued to a fraction of its face value when it was borrowed.  But who can argue?  Everyone can see the numbers printed on the paper.  We will all be poorer, except those favored few who are in on the insider trading, who get rid of their money first. 

The remainder of the burden will be borne by the taxpayer.  Isn’t it amazing how much better we can feel, knowing we are taxpayers and not slaves?  Would we ever agree to becoming slaves?  Of course not.  At exactly what point does a taxpayer subjected to Washington’s gang warfare become a servant of the State? 10%?  25%?  50%? 75%?  Are we perhaps like Cleopatra, passively accepting our vassal state, as long as we are allowed to pretend we are still a free people?  Do you think Cleopatra felt better knowing that her country’s production of grain was being confiscated for the “good of society”, society as defined by her captors?  Roman society?  Like every other tyrant cum Benefactor in history, Cleopatra eventually got what she deserved, for she also was one of them.  She too had been one of the Gods. 

The claim of governments to control over money has no basis in nature or any rule of law recognizing individual rights and private property.  Statists all believe in the moral superiority of the collective; for them the sovereignty of the State trumps the sovereignty of the individual the State supposedly serves.  It is not hard to figure out which philosophy prevails in our culture.  The well funded collectives who contributed heavily to the campaigns of our politicians have been generously rewarded.   And what of the well-heeled financiers, bankers, stockholders and managers of the insurance companies, the foreign central bankers, and our own professional bureaucrats who created this problem?  They are the very ones selected to be bailed out or worse, chosen to correct it!

We, the individuals, the smallest and most unprotected “group” in the nation, will foot the bill.  Between inflation and taxation, dear Reader, it is our wealth that will be confiscated or destroyed.

Perhaps, like Cleopatra, we too have been given an invitation we cannot refuse.

The gods are still among us.

The Global Poker Playoffs: a short story about Money Supply

Mayer Amschel Rothschild, the godfather of modern banking, purportedly said “Give me control of a nations money supply and I care not who makes the laws.”  What did he mean by that?  Is it true?  Since the Federal Reserve Bank controls the money supply of the United States as the world’s largest and most influential Central Bank, does this mean that this institution is more powerful than Congress, more powerful than the Executive Branch of the government, that it operates above and beyond the control of the Republicans or Democrats?  Is the Federal Reserve above the law?  Was Rothschild right?  What exactly is the money supply, anyway?

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Let’s begin at the beginning.  What is banking?  Before modern banking, virtually all trade was in the form of barter.  Barter only works when there is a double coincidence of wants, which means you have hot dogs for sale at the same time that I have lemonade for sale, and you happen to want my lemonade at exactly the same time that I have a craving for a hot dog.  We both want whatever commodity the other is selling at the same time.  Obviously, this kind of trade quickly becomes very cumbersome, slow, and difficult.  Eventually people found that certain commodities became so common, and so universally in demand, that they became more useful as a means of exchange than for their original value.  This is, for example, how salt came to be used as money.  Originally it was universally desired for its ability to season and preserve food.  People started using salt as a means of trading all other commodities, because they all knew that if they received payment in the form of salt, they could in turn use that same salt to trade with others.  Salt became more valuable as money than it was as just salt.

In time two precious metals replaced salt:  gold and silver.  They were used as money because they were universally in short supply, universally desired, they were portable, and they had high value for their volume and weight.  Gold and silver had to be mined from the ground, and there was no way any speculator was going to be able to mess with the “money supply” of the day by pumping large amounts of new gold or new silver into existing circulation.  These metals were too hard to find, too hard to dig out of the ground, too expensive and too labor intensive to extract from the soil for the money supply to expand unexpectedly or significantly.  The money supply in the form of all the gold and silver in circulation was stable and therefore not prone to change.  The purchasing power of an ounce of gold did not change much.

Because these metals were heavy, in time individuals became gold brokers:  that is, they stored the gold for others.  They would receive the gold, and write out a receipt to the owner of the gold.  The owner of the gold would then use that paper receipt in the same way he would have used the actual gold:  as money.  These gold brokers, also called goldsmiths, quickly learned that mostly the gold just sat in their warehouse collecting dust, and they decided they would write more receipts than they had gold.  In theory, each receipt they wrote could be redeemed at face value for real gold, and that was 100% true when they only wrote receipts at a 1 to 1 ratio for the gold.  When they wrote twice as many receipts as they had gold, they were counting on the high unlikelihood that the holders of both sets of receipts would attempt to redeem them at the same time on the same day.  Eventually they wrote more and more receipts for the same stockpile of gold.  Why would they do this?  Because they charged interest for the use of these receipts.  Now for a moment, just stop and think of the profit potential of this racket.  You own no gold.  You agree to warehouse someone else’s gold, and you give him a receipt.  Then nine more people come to you for a loan of x amount of gold, but you don’t give them gold, you give each of them another receipt.  All ten of those receipts now in circulation are acting as the same amount of money as the gold on deposit—multiplied by ten!!  You as the goldsmith have increased the money supply out of thin air!!  There are ten receipts floating around out there, each of them supposedly redeemable by the same brick of gold in your warehouse.  And the goldsmith is charging interest on all those pieces of paper, and he is counting on only one of the borrowers asking to redeem his receipt at a time.  And thus is born the fractional reserve system of banking.  At heart the system is based on fraud:  the banker (or goldsmith) is pretending that he has the full value of the paper he gives you available for redemption should you ask for it, when he knowingly has only a fraction of that amount available.  He is playing the odds at the margin, betting the future of his business on the odds that you will not ask for it all back at one time, or even at the same time as his other customers.

The money supply is the total number of receipts he has in circulation out there at any given time.  Now let’s fast forward to the current 21st century.  You’ve already figured out that receipts have morphed into money, or currency.  Now all of a sudden, it becomes much easier to mess with the money supply, i.e. all the currency in circulation at any given moment.  How?  Well, since currency is no longer redeemable for precious metals, it is in effect anchored to nothing more than the willingness of the public to use it and accept it.  So if you want to increase the money supply, all you have to do is print more paper currency and slip it into circulation.  But in the digital age even that isn’t necessary.  Printing of currency is done to replace worn out currency, and other than that, printing is used only metaphorically to mean digits transmitted electronically; journal entries into a national bookkeeping system.

Central  Banks are created to facilitate the manipulation of the money supply in a nation.  The Central Bank is a consortium of the largest banks in a nation that acts like a cartel, like OPEC does for oil producing nations, and it acts as the lender of last resort for all the other banks in that nation.  It pools the national money supply, and makes funds available to its member banks as the need arises.  It is determined what the amount of reserves should be required for each dollar the member banks loan out.  Now let’s do some simple math.  If it helps, get out a piece of paper and a small calculator and follow me along here for a minute.  Suppose the Federal  Reserve loans $1,000,000 to a member bank, Bank A,  at its inter-bank interest rate (lower than the public rate).  Suppose also that Bank A is required to keep 10% of all deposits in reserve.  So it keeps $100,000, or 10% in reserve.  Bank A then loans out the balance of the $1,000,000, or $900,000 to a customer of the bank.  The customer takes the face amount of his new loan, or $900,000 and uses it to buy something from a supplier.  The supplier deposits the $900,000 in his bank, Bank B.  Bank B keeps 10% of that $900,000, or $90,000 on reserve, and loans out the balance of $810,000 to another of its customers.  Just keep doing this for fifteen consecutive transactions, and you will discover that the original $1,000,000 that the Federal Reserve loaned to Bank A has already become almost $8,000,000 in circulation, with over $200,000 of the original $1,000,000 available in the fifteenth bank!  Almost as if by magic, in just fifteen transactions, $1,000,000 has been multiplied to $8,000,000 in the money supply.

So why would anyone want to expand the money supply?  Politicians do, in order to create inflation.  Inflation is increasing the money supply in order to reduce the purchasing power of the currency, in our illustration, the dollar.  This is called intentionally debasing the currency.  When you have more money chasing the same amount of goods and services available for exchange, the price of the goods and services goes up.  Which is another way of saying it now takes more of the currency to purchase the same thing.  This is good for debtors, and bad for creditors.  Why?  The debts the debtor owes are being paid back with dollars that have less purchasing power.  The creditor gets the face amount of his principal back, but those dollars now have less purchasing power than when he loaned them out.  Suppose that creditor loaned out those funds at 5% interest, but they are repaid to him with 7% less purchasing power.  That lender will soon be out of business.  He has lost money.

Now, who is the biggest debtor you can think of?  Come on now, try hard, it will come to you.  Yes!  The U.S. government.  As the theory went, it never mattered how much money the government borrowed, as long as it borrowed from its own citizens.  But if that government paid its own citizens back with intentionally devalued currency, it actually committed an act of fraud against its own citizens, did it not?  It picked their pockets without a vote.  If a political party raised taxes by an equivalent amount, it would be summarily voted out of office.  But when the Federal Reserve Bank does the dirty work for them, through the back door, financially illiterate people just shrug their shoulders; what can anyone do about inflation?  It’s probably those greedy businessmen raising prices to improve their profits!

But wait a minute, you say!  Stop!  The government hasn’t been just borrowing from its own citizens.  It’s been borrowing from foreign nations and global investment funds.  In fact it has borrowed so much from these foreigners that many of them have doubts about the ability of the U.S. government to ever repay them, even with devalued currency.  They have stopped buying U.S. government debt.  So let’s see, now.  The citizens of the country aren’t buying much of the government debt; the foreign governments have stopped buying U.S. government debt; our government is running out of potential lenders.  Who can it borrow from next?  Ah, they found a creative answer:  the U.S. government will go to their lender of last resort, and borrow from them.  Who is that?  You guessed it:  the Federal Reserve Bank.  How does the U.S. government borrow from the Fed?  The U.S. government borrows money by selling Treasury Bonds, which are nothing more than a government-issued I.O.U.  A Treasury bond, also called a T-bill, is a debt instrument, a promise to repay at some future time.  When no one else wants to buy them, the government sells them to the Fed.  In buying the bonds, the Fed gives the Treasury money to spend, which puts it into the money supply of the nation.  And when you increase the money supply by $1,000,000, in the fractional reserve banking system, after only fifteen transactions, with a 10% reserve requirement, that money has been multiplied by a factor of 8, with money still working in the system.  What happens when you inflate the money supply by hundreds of billions, or trillions, as has been happening in the last 24 months?

So the Fed creates money out of thin air, gives it to the government, which puts it into circulation into the economy in an effort to jump start the economy.  So where’s the inflation that should be there?  Prices are holding their own or even going down slightly.  What’s going on?

I’m going to address this and other questions in my next article, but in conclusion of this one, I want to paint a mental image for you.  The U.S. government isn’t the only nation in this poker game.  All of them are on board.  As one of our original patriots said in a totally different context, “We’ll all hang together, or we’ll each hang separately.”  No one wants to be left out of this poker game.  All of the currencies of the world are tied to the dollar, and have been for over forty years.  Most of the rich countries and many of the emerging nations have invested heavily in U.S. debt; so much so that if the U.S. decides to default, it can take the global financial system down with it.  So as the U.S. goes, so goes the world.

Now picture a large room with many tables and poker players, all engrossed in the Global Poker Playoffs.  Every player acts civilly, but every player ultimately seeks to trump all the others.  About a dozen or so of the players have nuclear weapons strapped to their belts, and the weapons are hot.  Nerves are raw.  Every player in the room knows that he is playing with the entire wealth of his family and tribe back home, and he knows he dare not come home empty handed.  His life might depend on it, and certainly his stature in his community, his personal economic future.  His family would share in his economic loss and disgrace.  In the center of the room is the largest table, with the biggest players.  The playing is intense, and the bidding escalates.  No one calls, no one dares to call, and the chips pile up in huge piles on the table.  Everyone is starting to question what resources lie behind those chips, and everyone knows what the risks are if a player isn’t good for his bets.  Everyone knows everyone else is bluffing, but no one dares to call, because everyone has overplayed his hand.  Suddenly the unthinkable happens.  Someone bumps the table; piles of chips fall over, spilling into each other, rolling towards the edge of the table.  Players start grabbing for the most valuable chips at the margins, upsetting the entire table.  Nervous hands move quickly towards their belts, chaos breaks out in the room, some run for the exits . . .

Financial Literacy: When a Bank Collapses

There has been so much debate about bank bailouts, and most people have nothing more than uninformed, generalized opinions on the subject, usually based on personal philosophies about the proper role of government in our nation’s economy. Bernanke and the Fed have maintained that the bailout was absolutely necessary in order to stop the economy from charging over a cliff. Is this what really happened? Or are the big banks an informal extension of the government already, and the taxpayers are routinely called upon to bail them out due to their poor business judgments? And if the latter is true, then surely such government “protection” creates a moral hazard in that the banks know  no matter how foolhardy or careless they may be,  when push comes to shove their survival is assured, i.e.  Big Business always gets saved by Big Government! Exactly how did the banks, particularly the Big Banks, get in so much trouble? How exactly was this related to the real estate bubble? Get part of the picture in this short video: Financial Literacy: When a Bank Collapses at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oG0ry145ymc.

Financial Literacy: Deflation: When an Economy Implodes on Itself

As I have discussed in other posts, every good, service, and commodity has a value, and that value is denominated, or measured in terms of the national currency; in our case the value of anything is measured in dollars.  (Go to Billionaires Who Can’t Afford a Loaf of Breadhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HGfsQimC0mw)  Even money has a value that fluctuates, and there are events that trigger changes in the value of money.  Money is measured by it’s purchasing power, and economists spell this with capital letters Purchasing Power (PP).  Money by itself has no value; it is only a symbol and a medium of exchange, so the real question is how much of anything can you exchange a dollar for??  I have covered what happens during a period of inflation, and the costs of everything as measured in dollars goes up, which means the value of the dollar (or its purchasing power) goes down.  People think they are better off with rising wages, but factoring in the decreased ability of those wages to purchase, they are actually worse off. 

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Deflation is the opposite.  During a period of deflation there is not enough money in circulation to buy the goods and services available.  Ironically one of the reasons for this could be that the population is nervous about their financial future and they start saving their money instead of spending it.  The money is there, but it is not in circulation, because people (and companies) are not in a mood to take risks.  When people aren’t buying, companies lay off employees, which contributes to the overall feeling of insecurity.  Because people aren’t buying, companies slow down manufacturing, and the amount of product they keep in inventory in their warehouse and distribution centers goes down and is not replaced.  In order to improve sales, they lower prices.  Since wages are the price of labor, that means the wages gradually go down also.  That means there is less money to spend, and the cycle feeds on itself.  In this way an entire economy can implode on itself.

Something needs to be said about the effects of inflation and deflation on debt at this point.  During times of inflation, prices (including wages, the price of labor) are going up; the purchasing power of those dollars is going down.  If you owe fixed-interest debt during a period of inflation, your wages will inflate with the rest of the economy, but your debt, which is fixed by contract with your creditor, remains the same.  That means you will be paying your debt back with cheap dollars, dollars that are worth less than they were when you incurred the debt.  During inflation, debt can be your friend, and the enemy of your creditor.

During deflation, however, debt is your enemy.  Your debt is once again, fixed by contract to a certain amount of dollars, but your wages, along with the rest of the economy, are deflating, or going down.  Your debt can hang you during a time of deflation.

Hear more about this at  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a4qsy8n5DjI

Financial Literacy: Measuring the Mood of the Mob by the Price of Gold

At various times throughout history money, or currency, has been based on metals, usually silver or gold.  This created an objective value to the currency of the period.  A dollar, for example, was worth an ounce of gold, or 1/10 of an ounce of gold, or 1/20 of an ounce of gold.  Governments and rulers, who always want to spend more money than they take in, either for their own enrichment or in order to bribe voters, usually try to debase their currency.  Kings about once a generation used to re-mint their coins (paper currency wasn’t invented yet), using the need to have their own image on the coin as the excuse, and they would dilute the gold content by mixing other metals with the gold, or slightly downsize the coin itself, but calling it by the same name as its predecessor.  When governments became well established, they usually did a ‘bait and switch’ routine and substituted printed money for metal coin, and again called it by the same name attached to a unit of its metal predecessor.  So a gold dollar was now called a paper dollar, as if their value were the same!

Once governments discovered the delights of the printing press, they would print as much money as they felt they could slip past their gullible and unaware subjects.  Acceptance by the herd was essential, and when the debased currency was widely rejected, it was not uncommon for a ruler to create stiff penalties, including the death penalty, for not accepting the paper currency as legal tender.  The reason governments prefer to print money is first of all so they are not bound by the usual principles of fiscal discipline (Don’t spend more than you make) but also every time they print money, they are actually lowering the unit value of that currency, reducing its purchasing power.  They are actually picking the pockets of their citizens, especially the most conservative ones who save.  The money these citizens save will not buy as much when it is finally spent as it would have immediately upon their having received it.

When citizens get nervous about the stability of the banking system, their political system, or their own personal safety, they are inclined to buy gold.  Gold does not pay interest, and it is still only worth what a buyer is willing to pay for it, but because there is a fixed quantity of it at any given point in time, its value tends to be very stable.  This is why nervous people buy gold as a hedge against inflation.  Gold is not without risk, however.  At times when the madding crowd is enamored of another of its periodic manias, interest in gold will wane as the herd stampedes in a new direction.  When demand falls off, the price of gold drops, like anything else.  Even in times of rising price of gold, there is always the possibility of the government confiscating it (that has been done by OUR government, as well as many others.)  Ultimately the government has the guns, and whatever we have is pretty much by permission.  A democracy, as I have written many times, is no guarantee of anything more than mob rule.  All people, in any period of history, need protected most from those they elect over themselves.  Inevitably their public servants become their masters.  Even here, the freest nation on earth, the Constitution guaranteeing both individual rights and the limitation of government’s powers, has been under steady attack for well over a hundred years by many activists who resent its restrictions.  They want to harness the coercive power of government to an endless list of programs to protect us from ourselves, and of course, with them at the levers of distribution and power.

For a short video on how the price of gold is a measure of the mood of the mob, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yuDZQFPgXCw

Financial Literacy: Why Governments Secretly Like Inflation

The dirty secret of all governments is that contrary to popular opinion, they do not hate inflation.  All governmental corruption begins when they discover the power of the purse, and that they can use the public purse to perpetuate their power, privilege, and benefits.  Over time all legislators and power brokers arrogate to themselves the means to stay in office and the luxuries it affords at the general taxpayer’s expense.  So of course we hear how the purpose of the Federal Reserve and Congress is to maintain a strict control over inflation, that the Fed is independent of the government, and that it is immune to political influence.  At best this is a Trojan horse.  Inflation is the primary tool used by every government to live beyond its means, and by its “means” we mean its ability to tax.  For taxation is the Achilles heel of all governments, for carried to excess it inspires armed revolution and fall from power.  Governments raise taxes at their peril.  Inflation, however, is a hidden tax, for it is how the government spends and borrows beyond its ability to repay.  By printing money and increasing credit, thereby increasing the money supply, the government creates inflation.  How does this happen?

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When there is X amount of money in circulation in an economy chasing Y amount of goods and services, and you increase X to 2X chasing the same Y amount of goods and services, you have increased demand for those goods and services, but you have not changed the supply of them.  When demand outstrips supply, the general price level rises.  The rise in prices is a result of manipulating the money supply, NOT by an increase in productivity.  In other words, the increase in the money supply is NOT the same thing as an increase in wealth.  It is an artificial increase that may give everyone a case of the warm fuzzies, until they realize their pockets have been picked while they were celebrating!  This is what happened in the last ten years during the “real estate bubble’.  Millions were celebrating their rapid rise in wealth, and we were saturated with boastful claims of “instant equity”.  What we had was hyperinflation of real estate prices but no increase in underlying wealth.  It was a bubble, and it contained only air, no wealth.  Taxing authorities were flush with new revenue from the inflated values of real estate, and the money poured in.  Politicians were ecstatic, and plans for distributing  the tax revenue to friends and benefactors proliferated.  Everyone was having a great time at the party.  The last ones to leave got stuck with the clean-up.  Governments went from riches to rags over night.  The Fed cranked up the printing presses as their only resort.  People weren’t spending, the taxable base was shriveling like a late-harvest grape in the hot sun, and governments everywhere started warning about necessary cut-backs in services.  And the homeowners, well they have inflated mortgages and inflated property taxes, and deflated value.  They were taxed all right, but by stealth.

If the government had tried, during the peak of the bubble, to raise comparable amounts of revenue through increases in taxation, there would have been riots in the streets.  But the inflation they created by expanding credit markets, was in fact a very clever, hidden tax.  Incredibly, the governments response to the crisis has been,  once again, to expand the money supply.  The inflationary impact of all the newly printed money they have injected into the system is muted, for the moment, by the lag in spending and the poor demand for goods.  But the expanded money supply is out there, lurking comfortably in the books of the banks afraid to acknowledge and write off all the toxic loans of the boom years.    The banks have used the money to shore up their sagging balance sheets, just in case, and the public has decided to save rather than spend.  The economy is lurching like a schizophrenic paranoid between euphoria and deep depression.  The surface temperature of the economy says we are recovering, but further analysis says the virus is still with us.  The government maintains,  like a modern gestalt therapist, that if we all believe we are well, we can transform belief into reality.  Therefore we all need to put on a happy face and spend, spend, spend our way out of the malaise.  The money supply is the lifeblood of our economy.  Believing that we are hoarding the money supply like bad children  the government has applied leeches to relieve the pressure, and to get the excess blood out and into circulation.  So it has borrowed and printed money for bailouts for banks and tax payers, cash for clunkers, and nationalizing whole industries.  Like a drunk conductor at the wheel of a runaway train, there is nothing that Big Government cannot do, cannot fix.  Why didn’t anyone ever think of this before—when there is a downturn due to previous bad policy, the solution is to print your way to prosperity.  Remember twenty years ago when it was “The economy, stupid!”; well, now its “The money supply, stupid!”

The good news is the bad news.  As the economy staggers uncertainly toward a seeming full recovery, the excess money that has been pumped into the system and has been lurking out of sight in the banks will finally have its much delayed impact when it finds its way into the economy.  The Fed operation was a success; unfortunately the patient died.  As the government lurches  madly between transfusions and leeches, between the silent killer of inflation and the bludgeon blows of direct taxation and deflation, eventually in frustration and exhaustion and confusion we will do what all very ill patients do–put our lives and our destinies in the hands of the doctor.  For after all, the doctor knows best, right?  And at the end of the day, there won’t even be any ambulance chasers to file malpractice lawsuits.  It’s illegal to sue your government.  Why?  For starters, they have the guns.

For a brief video on why inflation permits the government to “repay” the national debt at a huge discount, go to  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ov21dnYHjXE

Financial Literacy: How Fractional Reserve Banking Multiplies the Money Supply

One of the reasons why so few people show an interest in economics is that in today’s world the subject is complex and defies simplistic definitions.  But that is so true of much of our modern society.  It is not uncommon these days for older folks to refuse to learn e-mail and to shake their heads in wonderment at their grandchildren deftly manipulating electronic hand-held games totally beyond the grasp of their elders.  What IS of grave concern is the fact that the achievements of our scientists and engineers have aided and abetted the dumbing down of successive generations.  We have heard much of the income gaps in our society; we hear much less about the widening chasm between the educational level of the designers and engineers of our world and the end-users of our world.  Not to mention the grade inflation of our educational system.  Hence we sometimes find students in Advance Placement who still cannot read and write well.  I would be remiss in my duty to you, my reader, to imply that you can understand the economic world you live in without effort.  There are times when you will still have to reach for the dictionary, and hopefully you have several in your home, and even more hopefully, they are well worn and used!  Or more likely, you have an online dictionary marked as a favorite.  Even though I exert considerable effort to simplify and clarify an otherwise arcane and difficult subject, I would suspect that my articles have little appeal to those addicted to instant gratification.  I simply do not know how to reduce some concepts to a sound byte level.  Take for example, the concept of the money supply. 

The money supply is a very important concept with those entrusted with the well-being of our macro-economy (the BIG picture).  There are, for example, endless arguments among economists about what properly constitutes the money supply.  We’ll skip most of that stuff and stick to essentials.  Let’s start with the fact that in the profession and in the media, the money supply is referred to as M.  Yep, that’s it, M as in Mickey Mouse, Mars bars, or of course, M&Ms.  To me, the latter connotes Money and Masochism, which sort of go together.  Of course, economists talk of M1, M2, M1a, etc.  That is largely to impress us.  Or maybe to impress themselves.  It has absolutely no effect on the accuracy of their predictions.    But it seems to be a requirement imposed upon all financial advisors and analysts to use jargon composed of largely a minimum of four or more syllables per word to convince us that, like all priesthoods, they know what we cannot possible grasp with our feeble minds.  But let us bravely press on . . .

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The money supply is important, because money is a commodity like everything else, and is therefore subject to the laws of supply and demand.  You no doubt have a firm handle on the concept of money supply in your micro-economy.  You hopefully know how much money is in your wallet, and in your checking account, and under your mattress.   You intuitively know how much money to count, and you intuitively know how liquid it is.  The green stuff in your wallet is very liquid; the money in your checking account is immediately accessible through your debit card, and the $100 Uncle Fred owes you, well, probably better not count that.   And you know you can’t touch that CD of yours for at least another 45 days without a severe penalty.  Not liquid.  You’ve got it.  You do know the importance of counting all this stuff, and on any given day you have a pretty good idea what’s there. 

You may have noticed that the money whips in and out of your wallet (and your life) pretty quickly.  That’s called the velocity of money.  If you think velocity isn’t important, think about how you’d feel if your employer delayed your paycheck a week or two—just because he wanted to slow time down a little.  Why does velocity matter to you?  Because you have bills to pay and commitments to keep, and time is of the essence.  You may have noticed that your creditors share this obsession of yours with time.  That’s another important concept, that there is a time value to money.  You’re getting it.  You’re almost an economist now!  Now have you ever wondered how many different people have used the same twenty dollar bill you just spent at the grocery store?  What does the grocery store do with it, and who gets it next, and how many times will it change hands over and over again in, say, the next week?  month?  year?  That twenty dollar bill is part of the money supply, and the speed with which it changes hands is called its velocity.  Economists try to total up all such money in circulation, and they try to predict the likeliest outcome if it grows or shrinks.

Just as with you, the money supply in the macro-economy changes with dizzying rapidity.  There are things that governments can do with the money supply that make it grow or shrink.   Governments and politicians think voters will love them more if they can control what an economy does, or at least make it look like they are controlling it.  Mostly they try to control what people think they are doing.  They get very good at taking the credit for good things that happen, and passing the buck on bad things that happen.  They practice looking statesman-like a lot.  After a while, people get to thinking that government people are responsible for everything, good and bad, that happens to them.  Politicians know this, and they don’t want to lose their jobs.  Because of their jobs they get invited to the best parties, and sometimes get free trips to strange places.  And they get great benefits.  Sometimes it frightens politicians that some of their voters might understand some of this economic stuff a little better than they do.  It doesn’t present well before the cameras.  Have you ever noticed how photogenic most of our politicians are?  We want our politicians to look statesman-like.  Even if they were a C- student in school. 

Now let’s add another term to our economics vocabulary:  fractional reserve banking.  This means exactly what it looks like.  The banks are required to keep back, in reserve, a percentage of all the deposits they take in.  Banks make their money by taking other people’s money in, and then loaning it out with interest.  They are not allowed to loan everything out that they took in.  They have to keep part of it in the back room, out of use.  They know (most of the time) that everyone is not going to walk in and ask for all of their money at one time.  So if they keep 10% or so back, that is usually enough to cover the withdrawals by their depositors at any given time.  Not everyone who takes out a loan actually repays it.  Some default on their loans.  If someone defaults on a $10,000 loan, fractional reserve banking works in reverse.  That $10,000 belonged to depositors, and now that it is gone, it reduces the bank’s ability to loan by ten times that amount, or $100,000!  Remember all those foreclosures?  Those were all bad loans.  But the banks don’t want to write them off as bad loans on their books.  Each of those bad loans reduces the banks ability to loan by a multiple of ten!  As a matter of fact, when the bank adds up all the bad loans and multiplies by ten, it may discover it doesn’t have enough in reserve now to cover its good loans.  That means the bank is insolvent and by all rights should go out of business.

Those bad mortgages have collateral, the properties against which the money was borrowed.  But the market price of real estate has dropped precipitously, and the properties are now worth 1/4 or 1/3 less than what was borrowed in many cases.  No one really knows what those properties are worth until they are sold on the market.  Buyers and Sellers together set the price.  But once the property is sold, the bank has no choice but to use the sale price of the property as the number they have to use to determine how much money they lost on the loan.  If they loaned $100,000 against a property, and it sells for $60,000 at auction, the bank has to write off the difference, or $40,000.  That means the bank has to either shrink their outstanding loans by $400,000 (factor of ten), or they must increase their reserves by $40,000.  Since nobody knows how many bad loans are out there, and nobody knows how much money will be lost on each one of them, no one really knows how many banks, or which banks, will be insolvent and go out of business.  The government gave the banks (some banks) a lot of money, but the banks are keeping that money in the back room to add to their reserves.  That means they can’t use that money to increase lending.  And if the banks aren’t lending, credit is more or less frozen, and if businesses and households cannot borrow, the economy freezes up, unemployment goes up, and voters get very unhappy and nervous.

The banks, and the government, have found some solutions.  One is to deny.  They do this by simply changing their accounting rules.  Instead of calculating what the properties are  worth at current sale prices (called marking to market) they write down the loans based on these properties to an artifically selected number that is less painful than the market numbers.  In other words its a game called Pretend.  If we pretend we didn’t lose that much money, we didn’t.  And if we didn’t lose that much money, then our bank doesn’t have to raise our reserves quite so much.  Secondly, the government decides which banks get to go out of business.  Friends and big campaign contributors get special, preferential treatment.  Third, the government will buy the toxic assets (bad loans).  They will sell Treasury Notes (how the government borrows) and also print money to pay for the toxic assets.  The money that is printed increases the money supply.  As that new money finds its way into the economy, it grows through the fractional reserve system of banking.  Listen to an explanation of how that works here:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d-vYzQvfAAs.

We are going to talk a lot more about the money supply,  because the Federal Reserve tries to control the economy by manipulating the money supply.

Financial Literacy: The Origins of Banking

Financial Literacy: The Origins of Banking

Financial Literacy: Billionaires who can’t afford to buy a loaf of bread.

by on August 3, 2009
in Economics, money

Everything has a “trading value” and it is expressed as a price.  This includes the value of human labor, regardless of whether it is of the menial type, such as hammering nails, or intellectual labor, such as a performing rock star or a concert pianist or a novelist or a scientist.  The value of any given labor is determined by those who purchase the product of that labor, i.e. a newly constructed house, a repaired dishwasher, going to a movie, or a new prescription drug developed through scientific research.  The value of all labor is expressed as a price.  The price of labor is its compensation, whether in the form of hourly wages, salary, commissions, royalties, percentages of sales or profits, or whatever.

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Even money has a value, and like every other traded commodity, the price of money fluctuates.  The reason for this is that money has no intrinsic value; it has no value in, and of, itself.  The only value of money is in its function as a medium of exchange.  The value of money is measured by its Purchasing Power (PP).  Obviously there is a big difference between a dollar that will buy you a whole loaf of bread and a dollar that will only buy you two slices of bread. 

The value of money, i.e. it’s Purchasing Power, goes down as prices go up.  Again, if the price of a loaf of bread went from $1 to $2, one dollar now only has the ability to purchase 1/2 loaf of bread.  This is called inflation.  Inflation debases, or reduces the Purchasing Power of the dollar.  When the price of labor inflates, wages go up, but the wage earners standard of living does not go up, because the Purchasing Power of every dollar of his wages went down.  Continually increasing wages is always a part of an overall inflationary spiral, where the price of everything goes up, and the value or purchasing power of the currency goes down.

The key to improving the overall standard of living is not by raising wages, but by raising productivity.  Then the cost of everything goes down in real terms, and every dollar trades for greater amounts of goods and services.  An increase in productivity results in raising the Purchasing Power of your dollar.  This is not inflation.  This is real growth.  Increases in productivity are achieved, not because people work harder, but because technology automates more and more activities.  Human labor is still required, but more goods are produced for every hour of input.

A grasp of this concept will help you to appreciate why government’s insistence on periodically raising the minimum wage does not improve anyone’s lot in life.  It temporarily and artificially inflates the price of labor without any matching rise in productivity.  It raises wages as measured in dollars, but without raising the Purchasing Power of those dollars, it only succeeds in devaluing or cheapening those dollars.  Minimum wage legislation is nothing more than a cheap, symbolic gesture to buy votes, and it contributes to an inflationary spiral.  Legislating an increase in the price of labor is no different than legislating a lower price of bread; they are efforts to force trading at fixed prices, rather than letting the prices fluctuate according to the agreements arranged between two or more free trading partners.  When governments attempt to force trading and fix prices, they create “black markets” which is where people do what they really want to do anyway.  When governments legislate minimum wages, one of the unanticipated results is frequently people buying and selling their time and services “under the table”.  This is a form of a “black market”.

So remember, when dollars go up, productivity must also go up, or your dollars become worth less in their ability to purchase.  How rich would you feel with a wheelbarrow load of dollars that didn’t have enough purchasing power to buy a single loaf of bread?  This type of thing has already happened!  Listen to it here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HGfsQimC0mw

Financial Literacy: The Money Supply and Inflation

Financial Literacy: The Money Supply and Inflation

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