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Thursday, December 25, 2008

Understanding Money

by John H Hotson

PCDForum Article #15 (June 01 1996)

An understanding of the true nature of money is essential for those seeking economic reforms toward the creation of sustainable societies. People today have more erroneous ideas about money than Victorians had about sex, so please read the following with care.

Let's begin with the distinction between "legal tender" money which only the government or its agency, the Bank of Canada in the case of Canada, can create, and the "money" created by private banks - and increasingly by "near banks". If you happen to have a Bank of Canada note, on it you will read the words "This note is legal tender".

These notes, and checks drawn on the Bank of Canada, are the only legal money in Canada. What that means is that if you owe someone $20 and you give him a $20 bill he is paid and if he refuses payment in this form you are absolved of the debt. By contrast, he does not have to accept your check drawn on a private bank, or even a certified check of a private bank. Money issued by the Bank of Canada is sometimes called "Right of Purchase" money to distinguish it from "Promise to Pay" money created by private banks.

While private banks are in effect creating money out of nothing, they are providing an important service as their "promise to pay money" is for many purposes safer and more convenient to use and store than actual cash. Furthermore, it costs the banks billions of dollars to maintain the payments system that clears your check back to your account and to keep the necessary records. All those nice, or not so nice, people who work in those banks, deciding who gets a loan and what happens if they can't pay have to be paid their salaries. Banks also have to pay phone bills, electricity, heat and so on. What they create is intangible, but at the same time very real. Essentially, the bank is substituting its promise to pay - which is accepted as money - for your promise to pay, which is not.

Today only about four percent of the money in circulation in Canada is Bank of Canada legal tender. In other words, 96 percent of our money is created by private banks. In 1945 the Bank of Canada accounted for 27 percent of our money. At that time the bank rate of interest was only 1.5 percent and the Canadian economy boomed.

Some 96 percent of the "money" we are now using is not Bank of Canada "legal tender", but rather the promise of private banks to pay the bearer Bank of Canada legal tender on demand. This promise is what a private bank provides for you when you take out a loan with the promise to repay it with interest. The bank knows that mostly you don't want legal tender. What you want is a checking account or a bank issued check for the amount borrowed so that you can send the bank's promise-to-pay to folks you owe money to - folks who also don't want legal tender, but do want to deposit your check in their own bank account.

The money supply of Canada increases at the moment a bank issues you a loan. As you repay your loan the money supply shrinks. So money is being created and destroyed every day.

Banking came into existence as a fraud. The fraud was legalized and we've been living with the consequences, both good and bad, ever since. Even so it is also a great invention - right up there with fire, the wheel, and the steam engine.

In the 16th century as the gold and silver the Spanish had stolen from the American Indians poured into Europe, coins grew larger, more plentiful and heavy. Merchants needed a safe place to keep them when they weren't needed. The goldsmiths had large safes and fierce dogs and it became customary to leave coins on "safe deposit" with them. Next people saw that a "gold certificate" or warehouse receipt signed by the goldsmith was more convenient to circulate than those heavy coins made of soft metals that quickly wore out if they passed hand to hand. So the smiths printed up receipts in convenient denominations promising payment in gold to whomever presented the receipt. Some people took to writing notes to the smith ordering him to transfer the ownership of some of their coins to someone else. Thus the personal check was born.

Then one day one of the smiths had a brilliant, and wholly dishonest, idea. He noticed that people so much preferred his paper money to its "gold backing" that the gold in his vault hardly circulated - some of it hadn't moved in years. So he thought, "I could print up some extra gold certificates and lend them out to gain the interest". The idea was irresistible, and thus banking was born!

Just 300 years ago, in 1694, William Patterson talked King William III into chartering a private bank with the official sounding title of "The Bank of England". The King had another war to fight with France's King Louis XIV and not much money to pay for it. Being a Dutchman, he was unpopular with the British Parliament and it balked at voting the needed taxes. The royal credit was zilch because of his predecessors' extravagance. What to do?

He jumped at Patterson's promise to lend him lots of "Bank of England Notes" - which had little or no gold "backing" - at a reasonable sounding three percent interest. Thus national debt was born.

King William seems never to have asked His Royal Self the obvious question, "Why the hell should I pay William Patterson interest to print money for me? Why don't I get a printing press and print some money myself?" Nor did he notice that his humble subjects in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in what would one day become the United States, had already come to just this solution to solve a similar problem.

In 1690, the Massachusetts Bay Colony decided to do its bit in King William's War by invading Canada. The soldiers were told, "We can't pay you, but the French have lots of silver. So beat them out of it and we will pay you with the spoils." But the French won and the soldiers came back to Boston sore, mean and unpaid. Necessity being the mother of invention, a bright Yankee named Benjamin Franklin thought of printing up government "promissory notes", declaring them "legal tender" and using them to pay the soldiers. That worked so well that the other colonies copied the idea. From that day until the American Revolution (1775-1782) there were no banks in the thirteen British North American colonies.

By the time of the Revolution, Pennsylvania was the richest place on earth. Franklin liked to boast that part of the credit was due to the government money he printed. As he pointed out, the government could spend the money into circulation for a new bridge or school, then tax the cost back over the useful life of the project. It could also lend the money to businessmen at five percent interest instead of the ten percent the British banks charged. Or it could transfer the money into circulation to take care of widows, orphans and other unfortunates. Pennsylvania made so much money out of creating money - and selling off lands stolen from the Indians - that it hardly had to levy any taxes.

When word of this reached Great Britain, the Bank of England decided to destroy the competition of the colonial money. It got Parliament to forbid the colonies to produce any more of the stuff and the fat was on the fire. The Continental Congress met and defied Parliament and the King by issuing its own currency - the Continental. As Franklin saw it, the attempt of Britain to restrict the colonies from issuing paper money was one of the main causes of the Revolution.

The Continentals paid for most of the cost of the revolution. Since they had to be overissued, prices rose greatly. Much of the inflation, however, was caused by massive British counterfeiting of the Continentals. "You revolting Yankees like paper money? Here! Have lots of it!" So Americans still have a saying. "Not worth a Continental". After the war banking came to America.

Some historians have much criticized this method of financing the American Revolution and held up British practice as a model of "sound finance". However, as William Hixson shows in his book, Triumph of the Bankers (1993), those historians have it backwards. According to Hixson, the total cost of the war to the Americans was about $250 million and much of this was financed by the "Continentals" and other paper monies. An additional war debt of $56.7 million accumulated some $70 million in interest before it was all paid off in 1836.

The direct war costs to the British government came to about $500 million. However, the British financed their side of the war almost entirely with borrowed money. Since they have never since reduced their national debt below $500 million, they still owe this money! Assuming a modest average interest rate of four percent, the British taxpayer has by this time paid the British bondholder over $4 billion in interest on the initial $500 million loan - and is still paying! Sound finance?

What a pity that King William did not have a Benjamin Franklin to advise him! What a pity that the wisdom of Franklin was lost and Alexander Hamilton was able subsequently to charter the Bank of The United States modeled directly on the Bank of England! What a pity that many historians, like many non-historians, so badly misunderstand money and banking!

The financial system the world has evolved on the Bank of England model is not sustainable. It creates nearly all money as debt. Such money only exists as long as someone is willing and able to pay interest on it. It disappears, wholly or partially, in recurring financial crises. Such a system requires that new debt must be created faster than principal and interest payments fall due on old debt.

A sustainable financial system would enable the real economy to be maintained decade after decade and century after century at its full employment potential without recurring inflation and recession. By this standard, a financial system that creates money only through the creation of debt is inherently unsustainable.

When a bank makes a loan, the principal amount of the loan is added to the borrower's bank balance. The borrower, however, has promised to repay the loan plus interest even though the loan has created only the amount of money required to repay the principal - but not the amount of the interest. Therefore unless indebtedness continually grows it is impossible for all loans to be repaid as they come due. Furthermore, during the life of a loan some of the money will be saved and re-lent by individual bond purchasers, by savings banks, insurance companies, et cetera. These loans do not create new money, but they do create debt. While we use only one mechanism - bank loans - to create money, we use several mechanisms to create debt, thus making it inevitable that debt will grow faster than the money with which to pay it. Recurring cycles of inflation, recession, and depression are a nearly inevitable consequence.

If, in the attempt to arrest the price inflation resulting from an excessive rate of debt formation, the monetary authorities raise the rate of interest, the result is likely to be a financial panic. This in turn may result in a sharp cutback in borrowing. Monetary authorities respond to bail out the system by increasing bank reserves. Governments may also respond by increasing the public debt - risking both inflation and growing government deficits.

Governments got into this mess by violating four common sense rules regarding their fiscal and monetary policies. These rules are:

1. No sovereign government should ever, under any circumstances, give over democratic control of its money supply to bankers.

2. No sovereign government should ever, under any circumstances, borrow any money from any private bank.

3. No national, provincial, or local government should borrow foreign money to increase purchases abroad when there is excessive domestic unemployment.

4. Governments, like businesses, should distinguish between "capital" and "current" expenditures, and when it is prudent to do so, finance capital improvements with money the government has created for itself.

A few words about the first three of these rules, as the fourth rule has been discussed extensively elsewhere.

1. There is persistent pressure from central bankers and academic economists to free central banks from the obligation to consider the effects of their actions upon employment and output levels so that they can concentrate on price stability. This is a very bad idea indeed. Dominated by bankers and economists, central banks are entirely too prone to give exclusive attention to creditor interests to the exclusion of worker interests. Amending central bank charters to give them independence from democratic oversight, or to set up "price stability" as their only goal would complete their subjection to banker interests. Canada's own Mackenzie King said it all, "Without Government creation of money, talk of sovereignty and democracy is futile".

2. Anyone who understands that banks create the money they lend can see that it makes no sense for a sovereign government, which can create money at near zero cost, to borrow money at high cost from a private bank. The fact that most governments do borrow from private banks is one of the greatest errors of our times. If a government needs money created to pay for public spending it should create the money itself through its own bank; or spend the money debt and interest free as the United States did during the Revolution and again during the Civil War. If a government does not wish to "monetize" its deficits during periods of unusual need such as wartime, it should either make up the deficit with higher taxes or borrow only from the non-bank public - which cannot create the money it lends to the government.

3. One of the most mistaken ideas, with which Canadians especially are cursed, is the idea that a country should maintain its interest rates higher than those of its main trading partners "to attract foreign investment". To begin with, high interest rates inhibit real investment spending on new buildings, machinery and equipment by diverting funds to finance government deficits. Furthermore, the foreign funds attracted to Canada by high interest rates cannot be spent on Canadian employees and products. They are only useful for importing foreign goods and making payments on foreign debts. Moreover, these funds bid up the value of the Canadian dollar in foreign exchange markets, giving foreign goods a domestic price advantage over similar goods produced in Canada, while making it harder for Canada to export. Thus the inflow of foreign funds actually contributes to a "current account deficit" and depresses the Canadian economy. Those who argue that Canada must borrow on "capital account" because she has a "current account deficit" have cause and effect totally reversed. Canada has a current account deficit because she is borrowing on capital account. What she needs to do is to stop borrowing, lower interest rates until she stops attracting foreign funds, and let the Canadian dollar find its own level in the foreign currency markets.

When the Bank of Canada encourages the Canadian government, provinces, and municipalities to borrow in New York and Tokyo it is a betrayal of Canada. Where should they borrow when new money is needed for government spending? They should borrow at the government owned Bank of Canada, paying near zero interest rates - just sufficient to cover the Bank's running expenses.


John H Hotson was professor emeritus of economics University of Waterloo and executive director of the Committee on Monetary and Economic Reform (COMER), a Canadian based network of economists working for economic and monetary reform. This article is based on a series he published in the October 1994, November 1994, and January 1995 issues of Economic Reform, the COMER newsletter, Comer Publications, 3284 Yonge Street, Suite 500, Toronto, Ontario, M4N 3M7, fax (416) 486-4674. He gave the PCDForum permission to use this material only five days before his untimely death on January 21 1996 following heart surgery.

People-Centered Development Forum papers may be reprinted, and distributed freely with appropriate credits without prior permission.

Bill Totten


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