Then one day, the first batch of IOUs comes due. But guess what? The person who scribbled his name on the IOU can’t pay me back right now. In fact, lots of the borrowers can’t. I try to hush this embarrassing fact up as long as possible, but pretty soon you get suspicious. You want your million dollars back — in cash. I try to sell the IOUs and their derivatives that I hold, but everyone else is suspicious too, and no one buys them. The insurance company tries to cover my losses, but it can only do so by selling the IOUs I gave it!
So finally, the government steps in and buys the IOUs, bails out the insurance company and everyone else holding the IOUs and the derivatives stacked on them. Their total value is way more than a million dollars now. I and my fellow entrepreneurs retire with our lucre. Everyone else pays for it.
This is the first level of what has happened in the financial industry over the past decade. It is a huge transfer of wealth to the financial elite, to be funded by US taxpayers, foreign corporations and governments, and ultimately the foreign workers who subsidize US debt indirectly via the lower purchasing power of their wages. However, to see the current crisis as merely the result of a big con is to miss its true significance.
I think we all sense that we are nearing the end of an era. On the most superficial level, it is the era of unregulated casino-style financial manipulation that is ending. But the current efforts of the political elites to fix the crisis at this level will only reveal its deeper dimensions. In fact, the crisis goes “all the way to the bottom.” It arises from the very nature of money and property in the world today, and it will persist and continue to intensify until money itself is transformed. A process centuries in the making is in its final stages of unfoldment.
Money as we know it today has crisis and collapse built into its basic design. That is because money seeks interest, bears interest, and indeed is born of interest. To see how this works, let’s go back to some finance basics. Money is created when somebody takes out a loan from a bank (or more recently, a disguised loan from some other kind of institution). A debt is a promise to pay money in the future in order to buy something today; in other words, borrowing money is a form of delayed trading. I receive something now (bought with the money I borrowed) and agree to give something in the future (a good or service which I will sell for the money to pay back the debt). A bank or any other lender will ordinarily only agree to lend you money if there is a reasonable expectation you will pay it back; in other words, if there is a reasonable expectation you will produce goods or services of equivalent value. This “reasonable expectation” can be guaranteed in the form of collateral, or it can be encoded in one’s credit rating.
Any time you use money, you are essentially guaranteeing “I have performed a service or provided a good of equivalent value to the one I am buying.” If the money is borrowed money, you are saying that you will provide an equivalent good/service in the future.
Now enter interest. What motivates a bank to lend anyone money in the first place? It is interest. Interest drives the creation of money today. Any time money is created through debt, a need to create even more money in the future is also created. The amount of money must grow over time, which means that the volume of goods and services must grow over time as well.
If the volume of money grows faster than the volume of goods and services, the result is inflation. If it grows more slowly — for example through a slowdown in lending — the result is bankruptcies, recession, or deflation. The government can increase or decrease the supply of money in several ways. First, it can create money by borrowing it from the central bank, or in America, from the Federal Reserve. This money ends up as bank deposits, which in turn give banks more margin reserves on which to extend loans. You see, a bank’s capacity to create money is limited by margin reserve requirements. Typically, a bank must hold cash (or central bank deposits) equal to about 10% of its total customer deposits. The other 90%, it can loan out, thus creating new money. This money ends up back in a bank as deposits, allowing another 81% of it (90% of 90%) to be lent out again. In this way, each dollar of initial deposits ends up as $9 of new money. Government spending of money borrowed from the central bank acts a seed for new money creation. (Of course, this depends on banks’ willingness to lend! In a credit freeze such as happened this week, banks hoard excess reserves and the repeated injections of government money have little effect.)
Another way to increase the money supply is to lower margin reserve requirements. In practice this is rarely done, at least directly. However, in the last decade, various kinds of non-bank lending have skirted the margin reserve requirement, through the alphabet soup of financial instruments you’ve been hearing about in the news. The result is that each dollar of original equity has been leveraged not to nine times it original value, as in traditional banking, but to 70 times or even more. This has allowed returns on investment far beyond the 5% or so available from traditional banking, along with “compensation” packages beyond the dreams of avarice.
Each new dollar that is created comes with a new dollar of debt — more than a dollar of debt, because of interest. The debt is eventually redeemed either with goods and services, or with more borrowed money, which in turn can be redeemed with yet more borrowed money… but eventually it will be used to buy goods and services. The interest has to come from somewhere. Borrowing more money to make the interest payments on an existing loan merely postpones the day of reckoning by deferring the need to create new goods and services.
The whole system of interest-bearing money works fine as long as the volume of goods and services exchanged for money keeps growing. The crisis we are seeing today is in part because new money has been created much faster than goods and services have, and much faster than has been historically sustainable. There are only two ways out of such a situation: inflation and bankruptcies. Each involve the destruction of money. The current convulsions of the financial and political elites basically come down to a futile attempt to prevent both. Their first concern is to prevent the evaporation of money through massive bankruptcies, because it is, after all, their money.
There is a much deeper crisis at work as well, a crisis in the creation of goods and services that underlies money to begin with, and it is this crisis that gave birth to the real estate bubble everyone blames for the current situation. To understand it, let’s get clear on what constitutes a “good” or a “service.” In economics, these terms refer to something that is exchanged for money. If I babysit your children for free, economists don’t count it as a service. It cannot be used to pay a financial debt: I cannot go to the supermarket and say, “I watched my neighbor’s kids this morning, so please give me food.” But if I open a day care center and charge you money, I have created a “service.” GDP rises and, according to economists, society has become wealthier.
The same is true if I cut down a forest and sell the timber. While it is still standing and inaccessible, it is not a good. It only becomes “good” when I build a logging road, hire labor, cut it down, and transport it to a buyer. I convert a forest to timber, a commodity, and GDP goes up. Similarly, if I create a new song and share it for free, GDP does not go up and society is not considered wealthier, but if I copyright it and sell it, it becomes a good. Or I can find a traditional society that uses herbs and shamanic techniques for healing, destroy their culture and make them dependent on pharmaceutical medicine which they must purchase, evict them from their land so they cannot be subsistence farmers and must buy food, clear the land and hire them on a banana plantation — and I have made the world richer. I have brought various functions, relationships, and natural resources into the realm of money. In The Ascent of Humanity I describe this process in depth: the conversion of social capital, natural capital, cultural capital, and spiritual capital into money.