“On money, debt, trust and central banking”

The central point of my Jacobin piece on the state of economics was meant to be: Whatever you think about mainstream macroeconomic theory, there is a lot of mainstream empirical and policy work that people on the left can learn from and engage with — much more than there was a decade ago. 1 

Some of the most interesting of that new work is from, and about, central banks. As an example, here is a remarkable speech by BIS economist Claudio Borio. I am not sure when I last saw such a high density of insight-per-word in a discussion of money and finance, let alone in a speech by a central banker. I could just say, Go read it. But instead I’m going to go through it section by section, explaining what I find interesting in it and how it connects up to a larger heterodox vision of money. 

From page one:

My focus will be the on the monetary system, defined technically as money plus the transfer mechanisms to execute payments. Logically, it makes little sense to talk about one without the other. But payments have too often been taken for granted in the academic literature, old and new. In the process, we have lost some valuable insights.

… two properties underpin a well functioning monetary system. One, rather technical, is the coincidence of the means of payment with the unit of account. The other, more intangible and fundamental, is trust. 

This starting point signals three central insights about money. First, the importance of payments. You shouldn’t fetishize any bit of terminology, but I’ve lately come to feel that the term “payments system” is a fairly reliable marker for something interesting to say about money. We all grow up with an idealized model of exchange, where the giving and receiving just happen, inseparably; but in reality it takes a quite sophisticated infrastructure to ensure that my debit coincides with your credit, and that everyone agrees this is so. Stefano Ugolini’s brilliant book on the prehistory of central banking emphasizes the central importance of finality – a binding determination that payment has taken place. (I suppose this was alsso the point of the essay that inaugurated Bitcoin.) In any case it’s a central aspect of “money” as a social institution that the mental image of one person handing a token to another entirely elides.

Second: the focus on money as unit of account and means of payment. The latter term mean money as the thing that discharges obligations, that cancels debts. It’s not evenb included in many standard lists of the functions of money, but for Marx, among others, it is fundamental. Borio consciously uses this term in preference to the more common medium of exchange, a token that facilitates trade of goods and services. He is clear that discharging debt and equivalent obligations is a more central role of money than exchanging commodities. Trade is a special case of debt, not vice versa. Here, as at other points through the essay, there’s a close parallel to David Graeber’s Debt. Borio doesn’t cite Graeber, but the speech is a clear example of my point in my debate with Mike Beggs years ago: Reading Graeber is good preparation for understanding some of the most interesting conversation in economics.

Third: trust. If you think of money as a social coordination mechanism, rather than a substance or quantity, you could argue that the scarce resource it’s helping to allocate is precisely trust.  More on this later.


a key concept for understanding how the monetary system works is the “elasticity of credit”, ie the extent to which the system allows credit to expand. A high elasticity is essential for the system’s day-to-day operation, but too high an elasticity (“excess elasticity”) can cause serious economic damage in the longer run. 

This is an argument I’ve made before on this blog. Any payments system incorporate some degree of elasticity — some degree to which payments can run ahead of incomes. (As my old teacher David Kotz observes, the expansion of capital would be impossible otherwise.) But the degree of elasticity involves some unresolvable tensions. The logic of the market requires that every economic units expenditure eventually be brought into line with its income. But expansion, investment, innovation, requires eventually to be not just yet. (I talked a bit about this tension here.) Another critical point here is the impossibility of separating payments and credit – a separation that has been the goal of half the monetary reform proposals of the past 250 years.2

Along the way, I will touch on a number of sub-themes. .. whether it is appropriate to think of the price level as the inverse of the price of money, to make a sharp distinction between relative and absolute price changes, and to regard money (or monetary policy) as neutral in the long run.

So much here! The point about the non-equivalence of a rise in the price level and a fall in the value of money has been made eloquently by Merijn Knibbe.  I don’t think Borio’s version is better, but again, it comes with the imprimatur of Authority.

The fact that inflation inevitably involves relative as well as absolute price changes is made by Leijonhufvud (who Borio cites) and Minsky (who he surprisingly doesn’t); the non-neutrality of money is the subject (and the title) of what is in my opinion Minsky’s own best short distillation of his thought. 


Compared with the traditional focus on money as an object, the definition [in terms of means of payment] crucially extends the analysis to the payment mechanisms. In the literature, there has been a tendency to abstract from them and assume they operate smoothly in the background. I believe this is one reason why money is often said to be a convention, much like choosing which hand to shake hands with: why do people coordinate on a particular “object” as money? But money is much more than a convention; it is a social institution. It is far from self-sustaining. Society needs an institutional infrastructure to ensure that money is widely accepted, transactions take place, contracts are fulfilled and, above all, agents can count on that happening. 

Again, the payments mechanism is a complex, institutionally heavy social arrangement; there’s a lot that’s missed when we imagine economic transactions as I hand you this, you hand me that. Ignoring this social infrastructure invites the classical idea of money as an arbitrary numeraire, from which its long-run neutrality is one short step. 

The last clause introduces a deep new idea. In an important sense, trust is a kind of irrational expectation. Trust means that I am sure (or behave as if I am sure) that you will conform to the relevant rules. Trust means I believe (or behave as if I believe) this 100 percent. Anything less than 100 percent and trust quickly unravels to zero.  If there’s a small chance you might try to kill me, I should be prepared to kill you first; you might’ve had no bad intentions, but if I’m thinking of killing you, you should think about killing me first; and soon we’re all sprawled out on the warehouse floor. To exist in a world of strangers we need to believe, contrary to experience, that everyone around us will follow the rules.

a well functioning monetary system … will exploit the benefits of unifying the means of payment with the unit of account. The main benefit of a means of payment is that it allows any economy to function at all. In a decentralised exchange system, it underpins the quid-pro-quo process of exchange. And more specifically, it is a highly efficient means of “erasing” any residual relationship between transacting parties: they can thus get on with their business without concerns about monitoring and managing what would be a long chain of counterparties (and counterparties of counterparties).

Money as an instrument for erasing any relationship between the transacting parties: It could not be said better. And again, this is something someone who has read Graeber’s Debt understands very well, while someone who hasn’t might be a bit baffled by this passage. Graeber could also take you a step farther. Money might relieve you of the responsibility of monitoring your counterparties and their counterparties but somebody still has to. Graeber compellingly links the generalized use of money to strong centralized states. In a Graeberian perspective, money, along with slavery and bureaucracy, is one of the great social technologies for separating economic coordination from the broader network of mutual obligations.

The central banks’ elastic supply of the means of payment is essential to ensure that (i) transactions are settled in the interbank market and (ii) the interest rate is controlled. The interbank market is a critical component of our two-tier monetary system, where bank customer transactions are settled on the banks’ books and then banks, in turn, finally settle on the central bank’s books. To smooth out interbank settlement, the provision of central bank credit is key. The need for an elastic supply to settle transactions is most visible in the huge amounts of intraday credit central banks supply to support real- time gross settlement systems

“Two-tier monetary system” is a compressed version of Mehrling’s hierarchy of money. The second point, which Borio further develops further on, is that credit is integral to the payment system, since the two sides of a transaction never exactly coincide – there’s always one side that fulfills its part first and has to accept, however briefly, a promise in return. This is one reason that the dream of separating credit and payments is unrealizable.

The next point he makes is that a supply and demand framework is useless for thinking about monetary policy: 

The central bank … simply sets the desired interest rate by signalling where it would like it to be. And it can do so because it is a monopoly supplier of the means of payment: it can credibly commit to provide funds as needed to clear the market. … there is no such thing as a well behaved demand for bank reserves, which falls gradually as the interest rate increases, ie which is downward-sloping.

An interesting question is how much this is specific to the market for reserves and how much it applies to a range of asset markets. In fact, many markets share the two key features Borio points to here: adjustment via buffers rather than prices, and expected return that is a function of price.

On the first, there are a huge range of markets where there’s someone on one or both sides prepared to passively by or sell at a stated price. Many financial markets function only thanks to the existence of market makers – something Mehrling and his Barnard colleague Rajiv Sethi have written eloquently about. But more generally, most producers with pricing power — which is almost all of them — set a price and then passively meet demand at that price, allowing inventories and/or delivery times to absorb shifts in demand, within some range.

The second feature is specific to long-lived assets. Where there is an expected price different from the current price, holding the asset implies a capital gain or loss when the price adjusts. If expectations are sufficiently widespread and firmly anchored, they will be effectively self-confirming, as the expected valuation changes will lead the asset to be quickly bid back to its expected value. This dynamic in the bond market (and not the zero lower bound) is the authentic Keynesian liquidity trap.

To be clear, Borio isn’t raising here these broader questions about markets in general. But they are a natural extension of his arguments about reserves. 

Next come some points that shouldn’t be surprising to to readers of this blog, but which are nice, for me as an economics teacher, to see stated so plainly. 

The monetary base – such a common concept in the literature – plays no significant causal role in the determination of the money supply … or bank lending. It is not surprising that … large increases in bank reserves have no stable relationship with the stock of money … The money multiplier – the ratio of money to the monetary base – is not a useful concept. … Bank lending reflects banks’ management of the risk-return tradeoff they face… The ultimate anchor of the monetary system is not the monetary base but the interest rate the central bank sets.

We all know this is true, of course. The mystery is why so many textbooks still talk about the supply of high-powered money, the money multiplier, etc. As the man says, they just aren’t useful concepts.

Next comes the ubiquity of credit, which not only involves explicit loans but also any transaction where delivery and payment don’t coincide in time — which is almost all of them. Borio takes this already-interesting point in an interestingly Graeberian direction:  

A high elasticity in the supply of the means of payment does not just apply to bank reserves, it is also essential for bank money. … Credit creation is all around us: some we see, some we don’t. For instance, explicit credit extension is often needed to ensure that two legs of a transaction are executed at the same time so as to reduce counterparty risk… And implicit credit creation takes place when the two legs are not synchronised. ….

In fact, the role of credit in monetary systems is commonly underestimated. Conceptually, exchanging money for a good or service is not the only way of solving the problem of the double coincidence of wants and overcoming barter. An equally, if not more convenient, option is to defer payment (extend credit) and then settle when a mutually agreeable good or service is available. In primitive systems or ancient civilisations as well as during the middle ages, this was quite common. … It is easier to find such examples than cases of true barter.

The historical non-existence of barter is the subject of the first chapter of Debt . Here again, the central banker has more in common with the radical anthropologist than with orthodox textbooks, which usually make barter the starting point for discussions of money.

Borio goes on:

the distinction between money and debt is often overplayed. True, one difference is that money extinguishes obligations, as the ultimate settlement medium. But netting debt contracts is indeed a widespread form of settling transactions.

Yes it is: remember Braudel’s Flanders fairs? “The fairs were effectively a settling of accounts, in which debts met and cancelled each other out, melting like snow in the sun.”

At an even deeper level, money is debt in the form of an implicit contract between the individual and society. The individual provides something of value in return for a token she trusts to be able to use in the future to obtain something else of value. She has a credit vis-à-vis everyone and no one in particular (society owes a debt to her).

In the classroom, one of the ways I suggest students think about money is as a kind of social scorecard. You did something good — made something somebody wanted, let somebody else use something you own, went to work and did everything the boss told you? Good for you, you get a cookie. Or more precisely, you get a credit, in both senses, in the personal record kept for you at a bank. Now you want something for yourself? OK, but that is going to be subtracted from the running total of how much you’ve done for the rest for us.

People get very excited about China’s social credit system, a sort of generalization of the “permanent record” we use to intimidate schoolchildren. And ok, it does sound kind of dystopian. If your rating is too low, you aren’t allowed to fly on a plane. Think about that — a number assigned to every person, adjusted based on somebody’s judgement of your pro-social or anti-social behavior. If your number is too low, you can’t on a plane. If it’s really low, you can’t even get on a bus. Could you imagine a system like that in the US?

Except, of course, that we have exactly this system already. The number is called a bank account. The difference is simply that we have so naturalized the system that “how much money you have” seems like simply a fact about you, rather than a judgement imposed by society.

Back to Borio:

All this also suggests that the role of the state is critical. The state issues laws and is ultimately responsible for formalising society’s implicit contract. All well functioning currencies have ultimately been underpinned by a state … [and] it is surely not by chance that dominant international currencies have represented an extension of powerful states… 

Yes. Though I do have to note that it’s at this point that Borio’s fealty to policy orthodoxy — as opposed to academic orthodoxy — comes into view. He follows up the Graeberian point about the link between state authority and money with a very un-Graeberian warning about the state’s “temptation to abuse its power, undermining the monetary system and endangering both price and financial stability.”

Turning now to the policy role of the central bank, Borio  starts from by arguing that “the concepts of price and financial stability are joined at the hip. They are simply two ways of ensuring trust in the monetary system…. It is no coincidence that securing both price and financial stability have been two core central bank functions.” He then makes the essential point that what the central bank manages is at heart the elasticity of the credit system. 

The process underpinning financial instability hinges on how “elastic” the monetary system is over longer horizons… The challenge is to ensure that the system is not excessively elastic drawing on two monetary system anchors. One operates on prices – the interest rate and the central bank’s reaction function. … The other operates on quantities: bank regulatory requirements, such as those on capital or liquidity, and the supervisory apparatus that enforces them.

This is critical, not just for thinking about monetary policy, but as signpost toward the heart of the Keynesian vision. (Not the bastard — but useful  — postwar Keynesianism of IS-LM, but the real thing.) Capitalism is not a system of real exchange — it shouldn’t be imagined as a system in which people exchange pre-existing stuff for other stuff they like better. Rather, it is a system of monetary production — a system in which payments and claims of money, meaningless themselves, are the coordinating mechanism for human being’s collective, productive activity. 

This is the broadest sense of the statement that money has to be elastic, but not too elastic. If it is too elastic, money will lose its scarcity value, and hence its power to organize human activity. Money is only an effective coordinating mechanism when its possession allows someone to compel the obedience of others. But it has to be flexible enough to adapt to the concrete needs of production, and of the reproduction of society in general. (This is the big point people take form Polanyi.) “You can’t have the stuff until you give me the money” is the fundamental principle that has allowed capitalism to reorganize vast swathes of our collective existence, for better or worse. But applied literally, it stops too much stuff from getting where it needs to go to to be compatible with the requirements of capitalist production itself. There’s a reason why business transactions are almost always on the basis of trade credit, not cash on the barrelhead. As Borio puts it, “today’s economies are credit hungry.” 

The talk next turns to criticism of conventional macroeconomics that will sound familiar to Post Keynesians. The problem of getting the right elasticity in the payments system — neither too much nor too little — is “downplayed in the current vintage of macroeconomic models. One reason is that the models conflate saving and financing.“ In reality,

Saving is just a component of national income – as it were, just a hole in overall expenditures, without a concrete physical representation. Financing is a cash flow and is needed to fund expenditures. In the mainstream models, even when banks are present, they imply endowments or “saving”; they do not create bank deposits and hence purchasing power through the extension of loans or purchase of assets. There is no meaningful monetary system, so that any elasticity is seriously curtailed. Financial factors serve mainly to enhance the persistence of “shocks” rather than resulting in endogenous booms and busts.

This seems right to me. The point that there is no sense in which savings finance or precede or investment is a key one for Keynes, in the General Theory and even more clearly in his subsequent writing.3 I can’t help noting, also, that passages like this are a reminder that criticism of today’s consensus macro does not come only from the professionally marginalized.

The flipside of not seeing money as social coordinating mechanism, a social ledger kept by banks, is that you do  see it as a arbitrary token that exists in a particular quantity. This latter vision leads to an idea of inflation as a simple imbalance between the quantity of money and the quantity of stuff. Borio:

The process was described in very simple terms in the old days. An exogenous increase in the money supply would boost inflation. The view that “the price level is the inverse of the price of money” has probably given this purely monetary interpretation of inflation considerable intuitive appeal. Nowadays, the prevailing view is not fundamentally different, except that it is couched in terms of the impact of the interest rate the central bank sets.

This view of the inflation process has gone hand in hand with a stronger proposition: in the long run, money (monetary policy) is neutral, ie it affects only prices and no real variables. Again, in the classical tradition this was couched in terms of the money supply; today, it is in terms of interest rates. … Views about how long it takes for this process to play itself out in calendar time differ. But proponents argue that the length is short enough to be of practical policy relevance.

The idea that inflation can be thought of as a decline in the value of money is effectively criticized by Merijn Knibbe and others. It is a natural idea, almost definitionally true, if you vision starts from a world of exchange of goods and then adds money as facilitator or numeraire. But if you start, as Borio does, and as the heterodox money tradition from Graeber to Minsky to Keynes to Marx and back to Tooke and Thornton does, from the idea of money as entries in a social ledger, then it makes about as much sense as saying that a game was a blowout because the quantity of points was too high.  

once we recognise that money is fundamentally endogenous, analytical thought experiments that assume an exogenous change and trace its impact are not that helpful, if not meaningless. They obscure, rather than illuminate, the mechanisms at work. … [And] once we recognise that the price of money in terms of the unit of account is unity, it makes little sense to think of the price level as the inverse of the price of money. … any financial asset fixed in nominal terms has the same property. As a result, thinking of inflation as a purely monetary phenomenon is less compelling.

“Not that helpful”, “makes little sense,” “is less compelling”: Borio is nothing if not diplomatic. But the point gets across.

Once we recognise that the interest rate is the monetary anchor, it becomes harder to argue that monetary policy is neutral… the interest rate is bound to affect different sectors differently, resulting in different rates of capital accumulation and various forms of hysteresis. … it is arguably not that helpful to make a sharp distinction between what affects relative prices and the aggregate price level…., not least because prices move at different speeds and differ in their flexibility… at low inflation rates, the “pure” inflation component, pertaining to a generalised increase in prices, [is] smaller, so that the distinction between relative and general price changes becomes rather porous.

In part, this is a restatement of Minsky’s “two-price” formulation of Keynes. Given that money or liquidity is usefulat all, it is presumably more useful for some things more than for others; and in particular, it is most useful when you have to make long-lived commitments that expose you to vagaries of an unknown future; that is, for investment. Throttling down the supply of liquidity will not just reduce prices and spending across the board, it will reduce them particularly for long-lived capital goods.

The second point, that inflation loses its defintion as a distinct phenomenon at low levels, and fades into the general mix of price changes, is something I’ve thought myself for a while but have never seen someone spell out this way. (I’m sure people have.) It follows directly from the fact that changes in the prices of particualr goods don’t scale proportionately with inflation, so as inflation gets low, the shared component of price changes over time gets smaller and harder to identify. Because the shared component is smaller at low inflation, it is going to be more sensitive to the choice of basket and other measurement issues. 20 percent inflation clearly (it seems to me) represents a genuine phenomenon. But it’s not clear that 2 percent inflation really does – an impression reinforced by the proliferation of alternative measures.

The Minskyan two-price argument also means that credit conditions and monetary policy necessarily affect the directiona s well as the level of economic activity.

financial booms tend to misallocate resources, not least because too many resources go into sectors such as construction… It is hard to imagine that interest rates are simply innocent bystanders. At least for any policy relevant horizon, if not beyond, these observations suggest that monetary policy neutrality is questionable.

This was one of the main points in Mike Konczal’s and my monetary toolkit paper.

In the next section, which deserves a much fuller unpacking, Borio critiques the fashionable idea that central banks cannot control the real rate of interest. 

 Recent research going back to the 1870s has found a pretty robust link between monetary regimes and the real interest rate over long horizons. By contrast, the “usual suspects” seen as driving saving and investment – all real variables – do not appear to have played any consistent role. 

This conflation of the “real”  (inflation-adjusted) interest rate with a rate determined by “real” (nonmonetary) factors, and therefore beyond the central bank’s influence, is one of the key fissure-points in economic ideology.4 The vision of economics, espcially its normative claims, depend on an idea of ecnomic life as the mutually beneficial exchange of goods. There is an obvious mismatch between this vision and the language we use to talk about banks and market interest rates and central banks — it’s not that they contradict or in conflict as that they don’t make contact at all. The preferred solution, going from today’s New Keynesian consensus back through Friedman to Wicksell, is to argue that the “interest rate” set by the central bank must in some way be the same as the “interest rate” arrived at by agents exchanging goods today for goods later. Since the  terms of these trades depend only on the non-monetary fundamentals of preferences and technology, the same must in the long run be true of the interest rate set by the financial system and/or the central bank. The money interest rate cannot persistently diverge from the interest rate that would obtain in a nonmonetary exchange economy that in some sense corresponds to the actual one.

But you can’t square the circle this way. A fundamental Keynesian insight is that economic relations between the past and the future don’t take the form of trades of goods now for goods later, but of promises to make money payments at some future date or state of the world. Your ability to make money promises, and your willingness to accept them from others, depends not on any physical scarcity, but on your confidence in your counterparties doing what they promised, and in your ability to meet your own commitments if some expected payment doesn’t come through. In short, as Borio says, it depends on trust. In other words, the fundamental problem for which interest is a signal is not allocation but coordination. When interest rates are high, that reflects not a scarcity of goods in the present relative to the future, but a relative lack of trust within the financial system. Corporate bond rates did not spike in 2008 because decisionmakers suddenly wished to spend more in the present relative to the future, but because the promises embodied in the bonds were no longer trusted.

Here’s another way of looking at it: Money is valuable. The precursor of today’s “real interest rate” talk was the idea of money as neutral in the long run, in the sense that a change in the supply of money would eventually lead only to a proportionate change in the price level.5  This story somehow assumes on the one hand that money is useful, in the sense that it makes transactions possible that wouldn’t be otherwise. Or as Kocherlakota puts it: “At its heart, economic thinking about fiat money is paradoxical. On the one hand, such money is viewed as being inherently useless… But at the same time, these barren tokens… allow society to implement allocations that would not otherwise be achievable.” If money is both useful and neutral, evidently it must be equally useful for all transactions, and its usefulness must drop suddenly to zero once a fixed set of transactions have been made. Either there is money or there isn’t. But if additional money does not allow any desirable transaction to be carried out that right now cannot be, then shouldn’t the price of money already be zero? 

Similarly: The services provided by private banks, and by the central bank, are valuable. This is the central point of Borio’s talk. The central bank’s explicit guarantee of certain money commitments, and its open ended readiness to ensure that others are fulfilled in a crisis, makes a great many promises acceptable that otherwise wouldn’t be. And like the provider of anything of value, the central bank — and financial system more broadly — can affect its price by supplying more or less of it. It makes about as much sense to say that central banks can influence the interest rate only in the short run as to say that public utilities can only influence the price of electricity in the short run, or that transit systems can only influence the price of transportation in the short run. The activities of the central bank allow a greater degree of trust in the financial system, and therefore a lesser required payment to its professional promise-accepters.6 Or less trust and higher payments, as the case may be. This is true in the short run, in the medium run, in the long run. And because of the role money payments play in organizing productive activity, this also means a greater or lesser increase in our collective powers over nature and ability to satisfy our material wants.


The Capitalist Wants an Exit, Short Fiction Edition

    “All these people have a sort of parlay mentality, and they need to get on the playing field before they can start running it up. I’m a trader. It all happens for me in the transition. The moment of liquidation is the essence of capitalism.”
    “What about the man in Rigby?”
    “He’s an end user. He wants to keep it.”
    I reflected on the pathos of ownership, and the ways it could bog you down.

– from Tom McGuane, “Gallatin Canyon”.

The guy may just be selling a car dealership, but he gets it: You’re not a capitalist until you get to M’. Getting attached to C-C’ for its own sake will just bog you down. But of course, organizing life around the moment of liquidation has its drawbacks as well.

UPDATE: Variation on a theme. From today’s fascinating post by Felix Salmon on a lawsuit over some disputed Jackson Pollock paintings:

In this lawsuit, Mirvish has taken the idea of art-as-an-investment to a particularly bonkers extreme. In Mirvish’s world, it seems, artworks have no inherent value, just by dint of being beautiful or genuine or unique. Instead, an artwork is only an investment if it’s being shopped around — if someone’s trying to make a profit on it, by selling it. 

Similarly, in Mirvish’s world, if a gallery has a claim to 50% of the value of a painting, but again isn’t actively shopping that painting around, then the gallery’s claim is worthless. 

Value doesn’t inhere in a thing, only in the process by which that thing is eventually converted to money. Bonkers, sure, yes, but also the organizing principle of the world we live in.

In Defense of Debt

I have a new post up at the Jacobin, responding to Mike Beggs’ critical review of David Graeber’s Debt. It’s a much longer, and hopefully more convincing, version of some arguments I was having with Mike and others over at Crooked Timber last month. Mike things there is no useful economics in Debt; I think that on the contrary, the book fits well with important strands of heterodox economics going back to Marx and Keynes (not to mention Schumpeter and Wicksell).

In particular, I think the historical and anthropological material in Debt helps put concrete social flesh on two key analytic points. First, that we need to think of capitalism primarily organized around the accumulation of money, with economic decision taken in terms of money flows and money commitments; not as a system for the mutually beneficial exchange of goods. And second, within capitalism, we can distinguish between economies where the medium of exchange is primarily commodity or fiat money, and economies where it is primarily bank-created credit money. Textbook economic analysis tends to work strictly in terms of the former, but both kinds of economies have existed historically and they behave quite differently.

(There’s a lot more in the book than this, of course, but what I am trying to do — I don’t know how successfully — is clarify the points where Debt contributes most directly to economics debates about money and credit.)

If this sounds at all interesting, you should first read Mike’s review, if you haven’t, and then read my very long response.

… and then, you should read all the other great stuff at The Jacobin. For my money, it’s the most exciting new political journal to come along in a while.

Graeber Cycles and the Wicksellian Judgment Day

So it’s halfway through the semester, and I’m looking over the midterms. Good news: Learning has taken place.

One of the things you hope students learn in a course like this is that money consists of three things: demand deposits (checking accounts and the like), currency and bank reserves. The first is a liability of private banks, the latter two are liabilities of the central bank. That money is always someone’s liability — a debt — is often a hard thing for students to get their heads around, so one can end up teaching it a bit catechistically. Balance sheets, with their absolute (except for the exceptions) and seemingly arbitrary rules, can feel a bit like religious formula. On this test, the question about the definition of money was one of the few that didn’t require students to think.

But when you do think about it, it’s a very strange thing. What we teach as just a fact about the world, is really the product of — or rather, a moment in — a very specific historical evolution. We are lumping together two very different kinds of “money.” Currency looks like classical money, like gold; but demand deposits do not. The most obvious difference, at least in the context of macroeconomics, is that one is exogenous (or set by policy) and the other endogenous. We paper this over by talking about reserve requirements, which allow the central bank to set “the” money supply to determine “the” interest rate. But everyone knows that reserve requirements are a dead letter and have been for decades, probably. While monetarists like Nick Rowe insist that there’s something special about currency — they have to, given the logic of their theories — in the real world the link between the “money” issued by central banks and the “money” that matters for the economy has attenuated to imperceptible gossamer, if it hasn’t been severed entirely. The best explanation for how conventional monetary policy works today is pure convention: With the supply of money entirely in the hands of private banks, policy is effective only because market participants expect it to be effective.

In other words, central banks today are like the Chinese emperor Wang Wei-Shao in the mid-1960s film Genghis Khan:

One of the film’s early scenes shows the exquisitely attired emperor, calligraphy brush in hand, elegantly composing a poem. With an ethereal self-assurace born of unquestioning confidence in the divinely ordained course of worldly affairs, he explains that the poem’s purpose is to express his displeasure at the Mongol barbarians who have lately been creating a disturbance on the empire’s western frontier, and, by so doing, cause them to desist.  

Today expressions of intentions by leaders of the world’s major central banks typically have immediate repercussions in financial markets… Central bankers’ public utterances … regularly move prices and yields in the financial markets, and these financial variables in turn affect non-financial economic activity… Indeed, a widely shared opinion today is that central bank need not actually do anything. … 

In truth the ability of central banks to affect the evolution of prices and output … [is] something of a mystery. … Each [explanation of their influence] … turns out to depend on one or another of a series of by now familiar fictions: households and firms need currency to purchase goods and services; banks can issue only reserve-bearing liabilities; no non-bank financial institutions create credit; and so on. 

… at a practical level, there is today [1999] little doubt that a country’s monetary policy not only can but does largely determine the evolution of its price level…, and almost as little doubt that monetary policy exerts significant influence over … employment and output… Circumstances change over time, however, and when they do the fictions that once described matters adequately may no longer do so. … There may well have been a time when the might of the Chinese empire was such that the mere suggestion of willingness to use it was sufficient to make potential invaders withdraw.

What looked potential a dozen years ago is now actual, if it wasn’t already then. It’s impossible to tell any sensible macroeconomic story that hinges on the quantity of outside money. The shift in our language from  money, which can be measured — that one could formulate a “quantity theory” of  — to discussions of liquidity, still a noun but now not a tangible thing but a property that adheres in different assets to different degrees, is a key diagnostic. And liquidity is a result of the operations of the financial system, not a feature of the natural world or a dial that can be set by the central bank. In 1820 or 1960 or arguably even in 1990 you could tell a kind of monetarist story that had some purchase on reality. Not today. But, and this is my point! it’s not a simple before and after story. Because, not in 1890 either.

David Graeber, in his magisterial Debt: The First 5,000 Years [1], describes a very long alternation between world economies based on commodity money and world economies based on credit money. (Graeber’s idiolect is money and debt; let’s use here the standard terms.) The former is anonymous, universal and disembedded, corresponds to centralized states and extensive warfare, and develops alongside those other great institutions for separating people from their social contexts, slavery and bureaucracy. [2] Credit, by contrast, is personal, particular, and unavoidably connected with specific relationships and obligations; it corresponds to decentralized, heterogeneous forms of authority. The alternations between commodity-money systems,with their transcendental, monotheistic religious-philosophical superstructures; and credit systems, with their eclectic, immanent, pantheistic superstructures, is, in my opinion, the heart of Debt. (The contrast between medieval Christianity, with its endless mediations by saints and relics and the letters of Christ’s name, and modern Christianity, with just you and the unknowable Divine, is paradigmatic.) Alternations not cycles, since there is no theory of the transition; probably just as well.

For Graeber, the whole half-millenium from the 16th through the 20th centuries is a period of the dominion of money, a dominion only now — maybe — coming to an end. But closer to ground level, there are shorter cycles. This comes through clearly in Axel Leijonhufvud’s brilliant short essay on Wicksell’s monetary theory, which is really the reason this post exists. (h/t David Glasner, I think Ashwin at Macroeconomic Resilience.) Among a whole series of sharp observations, Leijonhufvud makes the point that the past two centuries have seen several swings between commodity (or quasi-commodity) money and credit money. In the early modern period, the age of Adam Smith, there really was a (commodity) money economy, you could talk about a quantity of money. But even by the time of Ricardo, who first properly formalized the corresponding theory, this was ceasing to be true (as Wicksell also recognized), and by the later 19th century it wasn’t true at all. The high gold standard era (1870-1914, roughly) really used gold only for settling international balances between central banks; for private transactions, it was an age not of gold but of bank-issued paper money. [3]

If I somehow found myself teaching this course in the 18th century, I’d explain that money means gold, or gold and silver. But by the mid 19th century, if you asked people about the money in their pocket, they would have pulled out paper bills, not so unlike bills of today — except they very likely would have been bills issued by private banks.

The new world of bank-created money worried classical economists like Wicksell, who, like later monetarists, were strongly committed to the idea that the overall price level depends on the amount of money in circulation. The problem is that in a world of pure credit money, it’s impossible to base a theory of the price level on the relationship between the quantity of money and the level of output, since the former is determined by the latter. Today we’ve resolved this problem by just giving up on a theory of the price level, and focusing on inflation instead. But this didn’t look like an acceptable solution before World War II. For economists then — for any reasonable person — a trajectory of the price level toward infinity was an obvious absurdity that would inevitably come to a halt, disastrously if followed too far. Whereas today, that trajectory is the precise definition of price stability, that is, stable inflation. [4] Wicksell was part of an economics profession that saw explaining the price level as a, maybe the, key task; but he had no doubt that the trend was toward an ever-diminishing role for gold, at least domestically, leaving the money supply in the hands of the banks and the price level frighteningly unmoored.

Wicksell was right. Or at least, he was right when he wrote, a bit before 1900. But a funny thing happened on the way to the world of pure credit money. Thanks to new government controls on the banking system, the trend stopped and even reversed. Leijonhufvud:

Wicksell’s “Day of Judgment” when the real demand for the reserve medium would shrink to epsilon was greatly postponed by regime changes already introduced before or shortly after his death [in 1926]. In particular, governments moved to monopolize the note issue and to impose reserve requirements on banks. The control over the banking system’s total liabilities that the monetary authorities gained in this way greatly reduced the potential for the kind of instability that preoccupied Wicksell. It also gave the Quantity Theory a new lease of life, particularly in the United States.

But although Judgment Day was postponed it was not cancelled. … The monetary anchors on which 20th century central bank operating doctrines have relied are giving way. Technical developments are driving the process on two fronts. First, “smart cards” are circumventing the governmental note monopoly; the private sector is reentering the business of supplying currency. Second, banks are under increasing competitive pressure from nonbank financial institutions providing innovative payment or liquidity services; reserve requirements have become a discriminatory tax on banks that handicap them in this competition. The pressure to eliminate reserve requirements is consequently mounting. “Reserve requirements already are becoming a dead issue.”

The second bolded sentence makes a nice point. Milton Friedman and his followers are regarded as opponents of regulation, supporters of laissez-faire, etc. But to the extent that the theory behind monetarism ever had any validity (or still has any validity in its present guises) it is precisely because of strict government control over credit creation. It’s an irony that textbooks gloss over when they treat binding reserve requirements and the money multiplier as if they were facts of nature.

(That’s more traditional textbooks. Newer textbooks replace the obsolete story that the central bank controls interest rates by setting the money supply with a new story that the central bank sets the interest rate by … look, it just does, ok? Formally this is represented by replacing the old upward sloping LM curve with a horizontal MP (for monetary policy) line at the interest rate chosen by the central bank. The old story was artificial and, with respect to recent decades, basically wrong, but it did have the virtue of recognizing that the interest rate is determined in financial markets, and that monetary policy has to operate by changing the supply of liquidity. In the up-to-date modern version, policy might just as well operate by calligraphy.)

So, in the two centuries since Heinrich van Storch lectured the young Grand Dukes of Russia on the economic importance of “precious metals and fine jewels,” capitalism has gone through two full Graeber cycles, from commodity money to credit money, back to (pseudo-)commodity money and now to credit money again. It’s a process that proceeds unevenly; both the reality and the theory of money are uncomfortable hybrids of the two. But reality has advanced further toward the pure credit pole than theory has.

This time, will it make it all the way? Is Leijonhufvud right to suggest that Wicksell’s Day of Judgment was deferred but not canceled, and now is at hand?

Certainly the impotence of conventional monetary policy even before the crisis is a serious omen. And it’s hard to imagine a breakdown of the credit system that would force a return to commodity money, as in, say, medieval China. But on the other hand, it is not hard to imagine a reassertion of the public monopoly on means of payment. Indeed, when you think about it, it’s hard to understand why this monopoly was ever abandoned. The practical advantages of smart cards over paper tokens are undeniable, but there’s no reason that the cards shouldn’t have been public goods just like the tokens were. (For Graeber’s spiritual forefather Karl Polanyi, money, along with land and labor, was one of the core social institutions that could not be treated as commodities without destroying the social fabric.) The evolution of electronic money from credit cards looks contingent, not foreordained. Credit cards are only one of several widely-used electronic means of payment, and there’s no obvious reason why they and not one of the ones issued by public entities should have been adopted universally. This is, after all, an area with extremely strong network externalities, where lock-in is likely. Indeed, in the Benjamin Friedman article quoted above, he explicitly suggests that subway cards issued by the MTA could just as easily have developed into the universal means of payment. After all, the “pay community” of subway riders in New York is even more extensive than the pay community of taxpayers, and there was probably a period in the 1990s when more people had subway cards in their wallets than had credit or debit cards. What’s more, the MTA actually experimented with distributing subway card-reading machines to retailers to allow the cards to be used like, well, money. The experiment was eventually abandoned, but there doesn’t seem to be any reason why it couldn’t have succeeded; even today, with debit/credit cards much more widespread than two decades ago, many campuses find it advantageous to use college-issued smart cards as a kind of local currency.

These issues were touched on in the debate around interchange fees that rocked the econosphere a while back. (Why do checks settle at par — what I pay is exactly what you get — but debit and credit card transactions do not? Should we care?) But that discussion, while useful, could hardly resolve the deeper question: Why have we allowed means of payment to move from being a public good to a private oligopoly? In the not too distant past, if I wanted to give you some money and you wanted to give me a good or service, we didn’t have to pay any third party for permission to make the trade. Now, most of the time, we do. And the payments are not small; monetarists used to (still do?) go on about the “shoe leather costs” of holding more cash as a serious reason to worry about inflation, but no sane person could imagine those costs could come close to five percent of retail spending. And that’s not counting the inefficiencies. This is a private sales tax that we allow to be levied on almost every transaction,  just as distortionary and just as regressive as other sales taxes but without the benefit of, you know, funding public services. The more one thinks about it, the stranger it seems. Why, of all the expansions of public goods and collective provision won over the past 100 or 200 years, is this the one big one that has been rolled back? Why has this act of enclosure apparently not even been noticed, let alone debated? Why has the modern equivalent of minting coinage — the prerogative of sovereigns for as long as there’ve been any — been allowed to pass into the hands of Visa and MasterCard, with neoliberal regimes not just allowing but actively encouraging it?

The view of the mainstream — which in this case stretches well to the left of Krugman and DeLong, and on the right to everyone this side of Ron Paul — is that, whatever the causes of the crisis and however the authorities should or do respond, eventually we will return to the status quo ante. Conventional monetary policy may not be effective now, but there’s no reason to doubt that it will one day get back to so being. I’m not so sure. I think people underestimate the extent to which modern central banking depended on a public monopoly on means of payment, a monopoly that arose — was established — historically, and has now been allowed to lapse. Christina Romer’s Berkeley speech on the glorious counterrevolution in macroeconomic policy may not have been anti-perfectly timed just because it was given months before the beginning of the worst recession in 70 years, but because it marked the end of the period in which the body of theory and policy that she was extolling applied.

[1] Information wants to be free. If there’s a free downloadable version of a book out there, that’s what I’m going to link to. But assuming some bank has demand deposits payable to you on the liability side of its balance sheet (i.e. you’ve got the money), this is a book you ought to buy.

[2] In pre-modern societies a slave is simply someone all of whose kinship ties have been extinguished, and is therefore attached only to the household of his/her master. They were not necessarily low in status or living standards, and they weren’t distinguished by being personally subordinated to somebody, since everyone was. And slavery certainly cannot be defined as a person being property, since, as Graeber shows, private property as we know it is simply a generalization of the law of slavery.

[3] A point also emphasized by Robert Triffin in his essential paper Myths and Realities of the So-Called Gold Standard.

[4] Which is a cautionary tale for anyone who thinks the fact that an economic process that involves some ratio diverging to infinity is by defintion unsustainable. Physiocrats thought a trajectory of the farming share of the population toward zeo was an absolute absurdity and that in practice it could certaily not fall below half. They were wrong; and more generally, capitalism is not an equilibrium process. There may be seven unsustainable processes out there, or even more, but you cannot show it simply by noting that the trend of some ratio will take it outside its historic range.

UPDATE: Nick Rowe has a kind of response which, while I don’t agree with it, lays out the case against regarding money as a liability very clearly. I have a long comment there, of which the tl;dr is that we should be thinking — both logically and chronologically — of central bank money evolving from private debt contracts, not from gold currency. I don’t know if Nick read the Leijonhufvud piece I quote here, but the point that it makes is that writing 100-odd years ago, Wicksell started from exactly the position Nick takes now, and then observed how it breaks down with modern (even 1900-era modern) financial systems.

Also, the comments below are exceptionally good; anyone who read this post should definitely read the comments as well.

The Capitalist Wants an Exit

Like a gratifyingly large proportion of posts here, Disgorge the Cash! got a bunch of great comments. In one of the last ones, Glenn makes a number of interesting points, some of which I agree with, some which I don’t. Among other things, he asks why, if businesses really have good investment projects available, rational investors would demand that they pay out their cashflow instead. Isn’t it more logical to suppose that payouts are rising because investment opportunities are scarcer, rather than, as the posts suggests, that firms are investing less because they are being compelled to pay out more?

One standard answer would be information asymmetries. If firms have private information about the quality of their investment opportunities, it may be more efficient to have capital-allocation decisions made within firms rather than by outside lenders. The cost of being unable to shift capital between firms may be less than the cost of the adverse selection that comes with information asymmetries. That’s one answer. But here I want to talk about a different one.

Capital in general, and finance in particular, places a very high value on liquidity. But if wealth owners insist on the freedom to reallocate their holdings at a moment’s notice, and need the promise of very high returns to let them be bound up in something illiquid, then investment in the aggregate will be inefficiently low. As Keynes famously wrote,

Of all the maxims of orthodox finance none, surely, is more anti-social than the fetish of liquidity, the doctrine that it is a positive virtue on the part of investment institutions to concentrate their resources upon the holding of “liquid” securities. It forgets there is no such thing as liquidity of investment for the community as a whole.

Or as Tom Geoghegan recalls, from the last days of the old regime in the late 1970s,

Once a friend of mine from Harvard Business School came to visit, and I took him to South Works, just to see it.

“Wow,” he said. “I’ve never seen so much capital just lying on the ground. At B School we used to laugh at how conservative these big steel companies are, but then you could come out and see all this capital, just lying on the ground…”

Capitalists, in general, do not like to see their capital just lying on the ground. They prefer it to be abstract, intangible, liquid.

There’s no question that the shareholder revolution of the 1980s had a strong distributional component. Rentiers thought that workers were getting to much of “their” money. But if we’re looking specifically at the conflict between shareholders and management — as much a conflict between worldviews as between distinct groups of people — then I think “the fetish of liquidity” is central.

As Keynes understood, liquidity is what stock markets are for. What they’re not for, is raising funds for investment. That wasn’t why they were invented (the publicly traded corporation is a relatively recent innovation), and it’s not what they’ve been used for. Apart from a few years in the 1920s and a few more in the late 1990s, stock issues have never been an important source of investment finance for firms.

Let’s talk about Groupon. Huge IPO, raised $700 million, the biggest offering in years. So, those people who bought shares, they’re getting ownership of the company in return for providing it much needed funds for expansion, right?

Except that “Groupon has been shouting until it’s blue in the face that it doesn’t need the IPO cash, that it’s fine on the cash front, that the IPO is just a way of going public, and is not really about the money-raising at all.” Cashflow is more than enough to finance all their foreseeable expansion plans. So why go public at all, then?

Because their existing investors want cash, that’s why. Pre-IPO, Groupon was already notorious for using venture capitalist funds to cash out earlier investors.

Groupon is a very innovative company, and this is one of its most important innovations — the idea that the founder can and even should be able to cash out to the tune of millions of dollars very early on in the company’s lifecycle, while it is still raising new VC funds…. Historically, VC rounds have been about providing capital to companies which need it; in Groupon’s case, they’re more about finding a way to cash out early investors

But the venture capitalists need to be cashed out in their turn. After CEO Andrew Mason turned down offers from Yahoo and then Google to purchase the company, his VC bankers became increasingly antsy about being stuck owning a business, even a business selling something intangible as internet coupons, rather than safe pure money. Thus the IPO:

The board — and Groupon’s investors — had a message for Mason, though. Someday, he was going to have to either accept an offer like that one he had just turned down, or take this company public.

One investor recounts the conversation: “We said, okay Andrew, you took venture capital, and remember venture capitalists want an exit.  It doesn’t have to be tomorrow but you always have to be thoughtful when a company comes to buy your company, because it’s not just you, it’s your employees, options, investors and alike.”

That’s what Wall Street is for: to give capitalists their exit.

The problem finance solves is not how to allocate society’s scarce savings between competing investment opportunities. In modern conditions, it’s the opportunities that are scarce, not the savings. (Savings glut, anyone?) The problem is how to separate the rents that come from control of a strategic social coordination problem from the social ties and obligations that go with it. The true capitalist doesn’t want to make steel or restaurant deals or jumbo jets or search engines. He wants to make money. That’s been true right from the beginning. It’s why we have stock markets in the first place.

Historically the publicly-owned corporation came into being to allow owners (or more typically, their heirs) to delink their fortunes from particular firms or industries, and not as a way of raising capital.

In her definitive history of the wave of mergers that first established publicly-traded corporations (outside of railroads), Naomis Lamoreaux is emphatic that raising funds for investment was not an important motivation for adopting the new ownership form. In contemporary accounts of the merger wave, she says, “Access to capital is not mentioned.” And in the hearings by the U.S. Industrial Commission on the mergers,  “None of the manufacturers mentioned access to capital markets as a reason for consolidation.” Rather, the motivation for the new ownership form was a desire by the new capitalist elite to separate their wealth and status from the fortunes of any particular firm or industry:

after the founder’s death or retirement, ownership dispersed among heirs “who often were interested only in receiving income” from the company rather than running it. Where the founder was able to consolidate family control, as in Ford or Rockefeller,

the shift to public ownership was substantially delayed.

The same point is developed by historians Thomas Navin and Marian Sears:

A pattern of ownership somewhat like that in the cotton textile industry of New England might eventually have come to prevail: ownership might have spread, but to a limited degree; shares might have become available to outsiders, but to a restricted extent. It was the merger movement that accelerated the process and intensified it – to a smaller extent in the earlier period, 1890-1893, to a major degree in the later period, 1898-1902. As a result of the merger movement, far more people parted with their ownership in family businesses than would otherwise have done so; and doubtless far more men of substance (nonindustrialists with investable capital) put their funds into industry than would otherwise have chosen that type of investment. …

[As to] why individual stockholders saw an advantage in surrendering their ownership in a single enterprise in favor of participation in a combined venture …, one of the strong motivations apparently was an opportunity to liquidate part of their investment, coupled with the opportunity to remain part owners. At least this was a theme that was played on when stockholders were asked to join in a merger. The argument may have been used that mergers brought an easing of competition and an opportunity for enhanced earnings in the future. But the trump card was immediate liquidity.

The comparison with New England is interesting. Indeed, in the first half of the 19th century a very different kind of capitalism developed there, dynastic not anonymous, based on acknowledging the social ties embodied in a productive enterprise rather, than trying to minimize them. But historically the preference for money has more often won out. This was even more true in the early days of capitalism, in the 17th century. Braudel:

it was in the sphere of circulation, trade and marketing that capitalism was most at home; even if it sometimes made more than fleeting incursions on to the territory of production.

Production, he continues, was “foreign territory” for capitalists, which they only entered reluctantly, always taking the first chance to return to the familiar ground of finance and long-distance trade. Of course this changed dramatically with the Industrial Revolution. But there’s an important sense in which it’s still, or once again, true.