Paper Money Collapse, 2nd ed. (Copyrights John Wiley & Sons)
Contra the Mainstream Consensus—What This Book Is About
This book presents an economic argument. It attempts to demonstrate that the present consensus on money and monetary policy is wrong, and that monetary policies that broadly reflect this consensus must, contrary to the intentions of policy makers and the expectations of large parts of the public, further destabilize the economy.
After the financial crisis in 2007 and 2008, unprecedented monetary policies were implemented globally, and a public debate about these policies has ensued. The reader may therefore wonder if a true monetary policy consensus still exists. Yet almost all discussions in the media, in financial markets, in policy circles, and, as far as I can tell, in academia, still consider certain fundamental aspects of our monetary system unchallengeable and beyond serious criticism. A clearly delineated intellectual common ground exists beyond which accepted, enlightened, and sophisticated debate is believed to cease. That is what I call the mainstream consensus. I will try and give a short and fair representation of this consensus first, then outline briefly why this consensus is wrong, and how I will demonstrate this.
The Ruling Mainstream Consensus on Money
Today’s mainstream view on money holds that the abandonment of a system of hard money, of money with a fairly inflexible supply, such as a gold standard, and the implementation in its place of a system of essentially elastic money, that is, a paper money system under political supervision that can inject new money into the economy more easily, has constituted progress. It is almost universally believed that the elastic monetary system avoids certain rigidities of the gold standard, that it allows for active monetary policy and better crisis management in economic emergencies, and that it thus can, if handled correctly, help avoid depressions and guarantee a higher degree of stability.
At this point I should clarify a few terms that will appear throughout the book. I will use synonymously the terms hard money system, commodity money system, and inelastic money system. In the context of this analysis, they broadly mean the same thing. The gold standard is the prime example of such a system, even if historically the commodity of choice was often silver, and even if we should really distinguish between different possible commodity money arrangements. But in order to have a meaningful discussion about fairly complex phenomena, we need to deal in prototypes. I will contrast two prototypes of monetary systems in this book, and one of these prototypes is the hard money/commodity money/inelastic money system. This is the “old” system, the historic norm. The characteristic feature here is that the supply of money, at least at its core, is fairly inflexible, as it is tied to some commodity (or other entity), the supply of which is fixed, at least in the short run, and in any case outside the control of banks and of monetary authorities. Since the advent of banking more than 300 years ago, no monetary system has been entirely inelastic, as banks have always been in the business of issuing certain forms of money on top of the supply of the core monetary asset, even when that core asset was gold or silver. We will later see how banks do this. But even then, the money supply was still fairly inelastic, as it was ultimately constrained via a link to a commodity that no authority—no central bank and no private bank—could create at will.
We may also call such a system an apolitical monetary system, because the scope for any form of monetary policy, for any use of money as a tool to other, political, ends is severely restricted.
I will juxtapose this “old” system against the modern monetary system for which I will use the following terms synonymously: soft money system/paper money system/elastic money system. This is now the dominant monetary arrangement globally, and the present consensus claims it is the better of the two. Just as any inelastic money system does not have to be based on gold, so an elastic money system does not have to be based on paper. In fact, most of today’s money exists only as electronic book entries on computers at banks and central banks and is not even printed on paper. But the defining feature here is that the supply of money is flexible. In such a system, designated money producers exist that can produce new money at practically no cost and without limit, and then inject this new money into the economy. Banks play again an important role in this process and their ability to create money is greatly enhanced compared to the older, more inflexible commodity money system. But, crucially, their ability to create money still is not unlimited. That privilege is reserved for the state central banks, which, at least conceptually, control the entire money creation process, and which can, in extremis, inject new money in unlimited quantities. As we will see in the course of our investigation, full paper money systems are always state-run or state-backed monetary systems. They are thus always political systems or fiat money systems.
Fiat here means “by decree of the state.”
Back to the mainstream consensus. That a paper money system comes with at least one strong health warning is certainly acknowledged by the consensus. In a system in which some entity can produce money at no cost and without limit is always at risk of producing too much money and thus creating inflation, which means a persistent loss of money’s purchasing power, or, what is the same thing, a general trend of rising money-prices for goods and services.1 Inflations as major economic problems, and certainly devastating hyperinflations that cause economic chaos, are conceptually impossible in hard money systems. It is no surprise that all recorded currency collapses occurred exclusively in complete paper money systems. In fact, as we will see in a short historical overview, paper money systems have been tried periodically since the Chinese introduced the first such systems 900 years ago, and they have—until recently—either ended in inflation, economic chaos, and currency disaster, or, before that could happen, the authorities managed a voluntary return to hard commodity money.
If the purpose of this book were to simply point to the risk of inflation, as a naïve interpretation of the title could suggest, it would end right here, and it would not constitute much of an attack on the consensus. The fact that in paper money systems too much money can be created and often has been created is hardly controversial. The consensus fully accepts this. While high inflation is a risk, the consensus maintains it is one worth taking, as there are other benefits to be had from elastic money, among them moderate inflation.
While high inflation and certainly hyperinflation are to be avoided, some moderate inflation is today widely considered to be good for the economy. An economy, so the consensus, functions more smoothly if prices on average continue to appreciate at a moderate pace. The opposite phenomenon of falling prices on trend, deflation, is now considered an economic evil, and even a moderate or very moderate deflation is to be avoided.
But here the consensus faces a problem. One of the key features of the capitalist economy happens to be that it makes things cheaper over time. The free market leads to rising productivity, meaning a better, more efficient use of presently available resources and thus a greater supply of future resources. (How the “market” does this we will see later, but we can already mention the fundamental origins of rising productivity: increased division of labor and the accumulation of productive capital. Technological innovation plays a role, too, but without capital investment most new technologies would remain in the realm of the inventor’s imagination.) Under capitalism, things become more affordable over time. People become wealthier. We can see this in all capitalist economies when we measure the affordability of things not in terms of paper money outlays but in terms of something like hours worked at the average pay. Today, in most societies, the “average” worker will work fewer hours to afford a new refrigerator or new TV than 20 or 30 years ago (and he or she will get a much better version of the product, too). Admittedly, this process may be slow and the fall in prices—the rise in affordability—moderate, but it is still a powerful trend. So if the consensus maintains that moderately rising prices are a good thing (a notion we will put to the test as well), it has to face up to the fact that, if left on its own, the free market will produce the opposite over time. Moderate deflation is the norm in capitalist economies, not the moderate inflation that the consensus claims to be superior.
It follows, and I think the consensus economist agrees with this, that persistent moderate inflation can only be had if sufficient quantities of new money are constantly being created and brought into circulation, and sufficient here means that the supply of money must be expanded fast enough so that the price-rising effects of the new money offset the price-lowering effects of improving productivity. For prices to rise, money has to lose its purchasing power faster than the competitive economy can become more productive and make things cheaper.
And here, the consensus finds itself in opposition to market forces in another way: in a free market there is simply no process by which this could be accomplished. I have already mentioned that private banks have always managed to issue new forms of money and bring them into circulation, even when money proper was gold or silver. In an elastic monetary system, the ability of banks to do this is greatly enhanced. But, still, there are no market mechanisms by which the banks could be encouraged and directed to create precisely the quantities of money that deliver the desired overall moderate price rises.2 A political authority will have to guide them in order to achieve this. From this follows that the belief in the benefit of constant moderate inflation requires a belief in the desirability of monetary policy, of a systematic influencing and directing of key monetary processes by a central authority. The present money consensus is thus characterized by a belief in the desirability—or even inevitability—of central banking. (Please note that this is not yet a critique of the consensus, just a logical deduction from its key premises. I expect most mainstream economists would have to agree with this description.)
While one advantage of the paper money economy is thus the ability of a central authority to implement ongoing moderate inflation, and thus beneficial inflation, another advantage, so the consensus is that in the case of emergencies, such as severe recessions or depressions, or bank runs and financial panics, the central bank can stabilize the system by keeping interest rates low or lowering them further, by accelerating the production of money and by producing—in theory—unlimited amounts of new money. This can sustain “aggregate demand,” and keep the banks liquid and the economy from correcting. Furthermore, the mere knowledge that the central bank has these powers and is willing to use them may sustain public confidence in the system, which by itself should further enhance financial stability.
We conclude that it is today widely believed that the appropriate monetary arrangement for a modern economy is one that allows for the constant expansion of the money supply at adjustable speeds and under the supervision and control of a state institution, the central bank, to target ongoing but moderate monetary debasement at normal times, and more aggressive money injections and a depression of interest rates at times of economic difficulties. This is a system in which central banks play the role of lender of last resort to the private banks, which means that central banks have a mandate to keep banks liquid (at least under certain conditions, which are defined politically and thus often purely nominal in practice), even when the private market would no longer do this. These are advantages of an elastic monetary system under government control that an inelastic monetary system does not offer, and these advantages are believed to be worth the price of living with the theoretical possibility of high inflation and currency collapse, although this risk may in practice, with appropriate institutional arrangements, and under prudent central bankers, be remote.
I believe this description of the consensus to be correct and fair. Of course, many who participate in policy debates in financial markets, in the media, or in policy circles may never articulate it in those terms, or, in fact, never articulate their belief system at all. It is precisely the hallmark of an established consensus that it is the basis of debate and hardly ever the topic of debate. This belief system is thus an intellectual tool with which analysts analyze monetary phenomena. The belief system itself is beyond reproach. In my 19 years as a professional trader and portfolio manager in the financial industry, this consensus informed almost all macroeconomic research and all discussion on what policy makers can, should, and will do.
The Growth-versus-inflation Trade-Off
It is maybe not surprising that most people now assume that a simple trade-off exists between the growth-stimulating effects of money injections, which are considered to be generally good, and the inflation boosting effects of money injections, which are usually bad, although at times they are considered good as well. They are deemed “good” when inflation is too low (remember the mainstream’s belief that moderate inflation is a good thing and even moderate deflation an evil), but they are bad when inflation is too high. Therefore, the idea seems to have taken hold that injections of new money are, as a general rule, a good thing, as they help avoid deflation, encourage banks to lend, and thus aid economic growth in general, and that the only constraining factor to this positive prospect is the risk of inflation. As long as the provision of new money by the central bank does not lead to uncomfortably high inflation, money creation is believed to be at least harmless and at best beneficial to economic performance. This has become an important part of today’s mainstream consensus on money and monetary policy.
The recent debates about the more aggressive interventions by central banks after the 2007–2008 financial crisis, and in particular the increased speed of “base money” production by central banks (“quantitative easing”), are a case in point. The criticism that carries most weight in the public discussion and is often considered the only really substantive and admissible criticism is that this policy carries the risk of imminent inflation, and the strongest argument against this criticism seems to be that there is no inflation or very little inflation at present, so why not enjoy the growth-boosting effects of “easy” monetary policy?
On the margin, this has begun to change a bit recently. Other criticisms of quantitative easing are now being articulated, such as that it creates moral hazard, that it furthers income inequality, or that it is liable to blow new asset price “bubbles” and thus sets the stage for another financial crisis. It is noteworthy, however, that these adverse effects of money creation enter the debate only now that policy has reached extreme levels. As I will show with the following analysis, these effects are necessarily at work at any rate of central bank money creation, even when a more conventional policy is being conducted. As we will see, any form of ongoing monetary expansion must lead to a range of distortions, and as these distortions accumulate over time, they will destabilize the economy more broadly. Inflation is not the only and probably not the most sinister effect of ongoing money production. A complete and accurate theory of money is needed to fully illustrate these effects, and such a theory will reveal today’s consensus on money to be flawed, incoherent, and inconsistent.
It is important to stress that this book is not predominantly a critique of recent policy initiatives, such as “quantitative easing. The recent crisis as a specific historic event is not the main topic of this book, although it will feature prominently in the final chapters. In the course of the argument, I will try to show that crises such as the one that occurred in 2007–2008 are inevitable in a system of elastic money, and we will also see that recent policy initiatives, including quantitative easing, are counterproductive, as they must lead to more deformations and more instability. But in the context of this book, these events and policy initiatives function mainly as illustrations of my more general case against the mainstream consensus.
What This Book Will Show
This book aims to show that the consensus is wrong. Today’s mainstream view on money is logically incoherent because it is in fundamental conflict with essential aspects of money and money’s role in a market economy. Even a carefully controlled elastic money system, that is, one that operates according to the best intentions and the best designs of today’s mainstream economists and that avoids any obvious policy errors, will not enhance economic stability. Instead, the ongoing injections of new money must systematically distort market signals and cause misuse of resources, mispricing of assets, and misallocation of capital. In fact, such a system is unsustainable in the long run. It is bound to generate larger and larger crises and is likely to end in total collapse.
We will see that, contrary to widely accepted beliefs today, a growing supply of money is not a necessary condition for a growing economy. Money is the medium of exchange, and no society is richer in goods and services or can produce more goods and service or more easily exchange goods and services, if it has a larger quantity of the medium of exchange. As long as we allow prices to be reasonably flexible, there can never be a shortage of money. If we had a smaller stock of money, prices would be lower—that is all. As surprising as this may at first appear to many readers, it is indeed in the very nature of a medium of exchange that any quantity of it—within reasonable limits—is sufficient, that is, can facilitate any number of economic transactions and is indeed optimal.
We will also see that injecting new money into the economy can never mean just “greasing” the economic machinery. It can never enhance all economic activity evenly or “stimulate” the economy in some all-encompassing, general way. Every injection of new money must lead to changes in relative prices, to changes in resource use, to a redirection of economic activity from some areas to others, and change income and wealth distribution. Inflows of new money inevitably change the economy and must create winners and losers. This may, of course, be said of many other economic phenomena as well. Sudden changes in consumer tastes or technological inventions will also change the composition and the direction of economic activity, and they may create winners and losers, too, but—and this is important—only in the very short term. As the economy adapts to these changes and digests them, the overall level of want-satisfaction in the economy rises. As more needs are satisfied (the new tastes) or satisfied more easily (through new technologies), society overall becomes more prosperous. We will see that this is decidedly not the case with the changes that result from money expansion. They do not enhance wealth in aggregate, and they redistribute wealth arbitrarily.
But it gets worse. In a modern economy, new money will be injected via the banking system and the wider financial system in a process that must distort interest rates, in particular depress them relative to where they would otherwise be. Interest rates, however, are crucial relative prices (to be precise, they are the relationship between similar goods at different points in time) that coordinate savings with investment. We will see that ongoing money injections must systematically disrupt this coordination process. Rather than leading to some benign moderate inflation and a smoothly expanding economy, as the consensus believes, ongoing money injections must lead to the misallocation of capital, even though these misallocations may not be detectable as such for some time. Eventually, however, they will force the economy into a correction. A recession is then necessary to cleanse the economy of the various dislocations accumulated in the previous money-driven expansion. A liquidation of misallocations of capital will sooner or later be inevitable. We conclude that monetary expansion must lead to a boom-bust cycle.
And it gets worse still. In our modern fiat money system, the central banks are now freed from the shackles of the old hard money system (gold standard) and can always print more money and cut policy rates. Thus, they will usually attempt to short-circuit the recession—the market’s liquidation process—with accelerated money injections and lower interest rates. (Remember the consensus view that new money is damaging only if it instantly leads to higher inflation. As there is often some downward pressure on prices in a cyclical downturn, the central bank usually considers monetary stimulus harmless. Why not stimulate the economy with easy money when inflation is not a problem?) As a result of this new intervention, misallocations of capital may not get liquidated or not liquidated completely. These imbalances will be carried forward into the next cyclical and again money-induced upswing when new imbalances will be added to the old ones. Over time, the economy will necessarily become ever more distorted as a result of
the accumulated misallocations of capital and misdirection of economic activity, and ever more money injections from the central bank and ever lower policy rates will be required to contain the market forces that would normally work toward the liquidation of these imbalances.
Ongoing moderate monetary expansion does not stabilize the economy but, slowly and surely, destabilizes it. Elastic money is not a remedy for recessions but the prime cause of recessions. Accelerated money printing and artificially low interest rates at times of recession are counterproductive because if they are effective at all, they must be so to the extent that they abort the necessary cleansing process and move the economy further away from balance. At this point, it should become clear that the mainstream consensus lies in tatters.
I will also criticize the now widespread notion that the relative stability of some price level (usually a consumer price index) is a reliable indicator of underlying economic stability, and that, as long as this type of inflation is not uncomfortably high, the central bank has made no mistakes, and the economy is in some sort of monetary equilibrium.
While on the topic of price-level stability, I will further show that fears of deflation are usually unwarranted. This applies in particular to the type of deflation we should expect over time in less elastic monetary systems. Such moderate, secular deflation has many advantages and is the normal corollary of a capitalist economy. The deflationary recession that is so feared today, however, is the inevitable consequence of a preceding credit boom. Such recessions can be avoided only if we abstain from easy monetary policy and from stimulating the economy with artificially low rates in the first place. Fighting the deflationary corrections through which the market liquidates misallocations of capital with even easier monetary policy is not a rational policy. Such a policy not only sabotages the required—if often painful—rebalancing of the economy; it must add new imbalances to the old ones.
My point is not that a system of inelastic money would guarantee perfect stability. I believe that any economy that uses money will be subject to certain instabilities, but elastic money can be shown to be much less stable and indeed disruptive of the market economy. It is important to remember that today’s elastic monetary system is not the result of market forces but of political design. Paper money systems are creations of politics. The notion that such a system can—even theoretically and under the assumption that no major policy blunders occur— lead to a more stable economy is unsound. The opposite is the case.
To show this is the main purpose of this book.
Understanding Our Fiat Money System
This is not a debate of purely academic relevance. If the analysis presented here is correct and the reigning mainstream consensus wrong, then this has enormous consequences for our own financial system. This system is truly unique in that, for the first time in history, the entire world is on a paper standard. Nowhere is the production of money any longer restricted by a firm, institutional link to a commodity. Money production is everywhere a discretionary policy tool of the state or groups of states (monetary union in Europe). Money has become completely elastic. In its present form, the system came into being only as recently as August 15, 1971, when President Richard Nixon unilaterally closed the “gold window,” which meant the United States de facto defaulted on the promise to exchange physical gold for paper dollars at a fixed price.
Reinhard and Rogoff 3 demonstrated that, since 1971, the number and intensity of banking crises around the world has increased. The dollar and the pound are the two oldest currencies in use today, and they have lost more purchasing power since 1971 than over any other similar period in their long history. There is a belief today that after the inflationary 1970s, inflation has ceased to be a problem, and that central bankers—now allegedly politically independent and keenly aware of inflation risks—have learned to safely manage a paper money system. Monetary expansion has, however, continued at a fairly brisk pace, and since the 1980s seems to have fed asset price inflations more than consumer price inflations. Spectacular real estate lending booms occurred in Japan in the 1980s, in Scandinavia and various Southeast Asian economies in the 1990s, and more recently in Ireland, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States in the 2000s, and in each and every case the bursting of these bubbles led to sharp economic contractions and financial crises. The paper money system unsurprisingly has fed the powerful trend of “financialization” of the economy, making banks and the entire financial sector disproportionately big and also disturbingly unstable. Elastic money and central banks that stand ready as lenders of last resort were supposed to make bank runs a thing of the past; however, not only have bank runs made a noticeable comeback in the recent crisis, but we now seem to face the increasing risk of a run on the entire system courtesy of a banking industry that under the privilege of central bank protection has become bloated, overstretched, and dangerously interconnected. Last but not least, indebtedness has exploded everywhere, in absolute terms and relative to economic productivity, and the financial system and indeed the economy at large now seem to have become addicted to easy money. Global central banks have finally painted themselves into a corner where they must keep interest rates at practically zero and repeatedly use their printing presses to prop up selected asset prices directly to sustain even a minimal appearance of stability. This, however, the consensus tells us, is just a cyclical phenomenon. There will be an exit and a return to normality and probably soon. Well, we shall see, but there are reasons to remain doubtful.
This leads us from diagnosis to outlook, by definition the most speculative part of the book. If I am right, then we can say more about the long-run prospect of our current monetary arrangements than simply that volatility will persist and crises occasionally recur. An inherently unstable system that produces growing imbalances is unlikely to last forever. It is likely to sooner or later approach some form of endgame, some form of cathartic event. And I believe the choice is the following: either policy makers accept the inevitable and allow the market to liquidate the accumulated dislocations, maybe as part of a deliberate return to some form of hard and inelastic monetary arrangement, or at least a voluntary end to central bank money printing and active monetary policy, or, ever faster money printing will ultimately lead to inflation, undermine confidence in the system, and bring about the hyperinflationary disaster that has terminated most paper money systems in the past.
In either case, some form of liquidation of the accumulated imbalances will be unavoidable. What Ludwig von Mises wrote about the individual credit boom applies to the modern fiat money system as a whole:
“There is no means of avoiding the final collapse of a boom brought about by credit expansion. The alternative is only whether the crisis should come sooner as the result of a voluntary abandonment of further credit expansion, or later as a final and total catastrophe of the currency system involved.”4
Although both outcomes are still possible, and both constitute some form of “paper money collapse,” the reader may suspect that the title of this book is more appropriate for the hyperinflationary endgame. And, indeed, it is my view that this remains the more likely of be preferable because it is less damaging to society overall. How the present system will end must, however, remain a question of subjective judgment. Reasonable people may disagree on this point, although I do not believe that they can disagree on the validity of the theoretical argument presented here. I will make my case for what I consider the likely future of our monetary system toward the end of the book.
What Is Different from the First Edition?
A second edition allows the author to respond to criticisms of his initial effort, to incorporate new ideas and to reflect further on the topic, to comment on related works by other authors that have come out in the meantime or have been brought to his attention, and to also comment on and incorporate into his analysis any developments in the “real world” that have occurred since the book was first published.
I am delighted at the opportunity to revisit Paper Money Collapse, and I have made use in some form of every one of the opportunities listed above. Over the two years since the publication of the first edition, I have given numerous speeches and lectures and also launched a web site for which I wrote more than 100 blog posts, often in the form of small essays. These in turn received more than 2,300 comments from readers, many of which were extremely insightful and thought provoking. Additionally, I benefited from the many questions, challenges, criticisms, and suggestions from those who attended my presentations, and from the comments made by reviewers of the book. Thus, the reader of the second edition will find additional material at various points of the investigation, and will (hopefully) also find some points better articulated and various errors corrected and some criticism addressed. All of this is woven into the text rather than concentrated in separate chapters, as I did not want to disrupt the flow of the argument.
More specifically, the treatment of fractional-reserve banking (money creation by private banks) is now clearer and more accurate, I believe. I have also addressed at two points in the text the so-called “free-banking” school, represented in particular by George Selgin and Lawrence White, with whom I agree in some respects and strongly disagree in others, in more detail than I did in the first edition. I will also address Gordon Tullock’s critique of Austrian Business Cycle Theory. Additionally, I will provide a (short) critical treatment of some new proposals to curb money creation by the private sector but to enlarge and strengthen the money-creation powers of the state, such as the recent International Monetary Fund working paper by Benes and Kumhof5 or by the British advocacy group Positive Money. These authors often include a critical treatment of fractional-reserve banking in their argument, and as fractional-reserve banking has been an important reason for the growth of the money supply (mainly due to its being systematically and generously subsidized by the state), a casual observer might think their ideas are similar to mine. That is not the case. Their economic arguments are deficient and their policy proposals dangerous, and I hope I have made my differences with them clear.
There has been one major new—and positive—development in the sphere of money that is potentially revolutionary, that did come as a surprise to me, and that has profound implications for what is discussed in this book: it is the rise of cryptocurrencies, and in particular of the Bitcoin. I was not even aware of Bitcoin’s existence when I handed in the final draft of the first edition. (Bitcoin was launched in 2008; my final draft of the first edition dates from February 2011.) But it is, of course, of profound importance to the topics discussed in this book, and I include my assessment of it in this second edition. The more I learn about it, the more I consider it one of the greatest developments in the sphere of money in a very long time. Maybe it will still fail, but conceptually—viewed from the perspective of the monetary economist—its potential is staggering. Bitcoin is a virtual currency based on a complex cryptographic algorithm that allows monetary transactions between any two parties anywhere in the world through a process that promises to be cheap, fast, and secure. It combines the benefits of modern payment technology with the advantages of the commodity money of old: Bitcoin is a form of money that has no issuing authority (Bitcoins can be “mined” in a complicated and self-limiting process by Bitcoin users), is not tied to any country or political jurisdiction, and because it has no issuer, it cannot be used for any political ends. Most important, its algorithm isdesigned in such a way that the supply of Bitcoins will expand only very slowly for some time but finally end up being entirely fixed. Bitcoin is inelastic, hard, apolitical, and completely global money. It thus ticks all of the boxes that this book suggests are the true characteristics of good money, and I am glad I can now incorporate it into my treatment.
As the themes of Paper Money Collapse have continued to preoccupy me since the first edition came out, my thinking on this topic has naturally evolved further. In that sense, a book like Paper Money Collapse may never be truly finished. However, I have had no reason so far to change, in any fundamental and meaningful way, the overall argument presented in the first edition. The key message of the book remains the same, and so do its conclusions.
What about real-life events? Have the developments of the past two years—with the possible exception of Bitcoin—made a reassessment of the originally bleak outlook necessary? When revisiting the original forecasts, I think the reader will find that some of them have been borne out by events and some not. As far as policy is concerned, and in particular monetary policy, recent developments have for the most part confirmed my expectations. None of the major central banks have been able to exit the extreme policy programs adopted years earlier and originally advertised as short-lived emergency measures, or even been able to reduce policy accommodation on the margin. To the contrary, in most countries, additional “stimulus” has been implemented. Here is a snapshot of what has happened since the first edition was published:
The U.S. Federal Reserve (Fed) is now on its third round of quantitative easing (QE), started in September 2012, and this time the program is officially open-ended. Under current arrangements, the Fed is on target to produce more than $1 trillion of new base money per calendar year. A policy tool that was deemed highly unconventional when introduced in 2008 to stabilize the banks in the wake of the Lehman collapse has now, five years after the recession officially ended, become a tool for boosting overall economic activity and in particular the rate of employment in the United States. Recently (this introduction was written in January 2014), the Fed has begun to slowly reduce its bond-buying program, a process that is now labeled tapering. We should remember, however, that the Fed had already ended QE twice since the crisis, only to resume the policy later. Whether the process of tapering can be continued and if it is really the start of a normalization of policy and the removal of ultra-easy money remains to be seen.
For its part, the European Central Bank (ECB) even attempted to hike rates in the spring of 2011, but then felt compelled to reverse course again. Just recently, the ECB cut rates to a new record low. In contrast to the Fed, the ECB does not have a much larger “balance sheet” now compared to two years ago. (An official balance sheet does not exist at the ECB, but what is known as the “consolidated financial statement of the Eurosystem” comes pretty close.) The European debt crisis has abated somewhat at the time of this writing, but only because the ECB announced that it was prepared to buy the sovereign bonds of struggling nations in potentially unlimited quantities, a promise on which the markets may still decide to call the central bank.
The Bank of England has conducted an additional three QE programs in the course of which it has almost doubled its holdings of U.K. government debt (gilts). Its policy rate has been nailed to the floor (0.5 percent) since 2009, and the bank promises it will stay there for a long time.
And Japan confirmed my expectation that policy makers will not be content for long to produce just enough monetary accommodation to keep things from deteriorating further, but will at some point go “all in” to create a new upswing at almost any cost. Under a new prime minister and a new central bank chief, this is precisely what the Bank of Japan promised to do in early 2013 with a new policy of aggressive debt monetization and renewed quantitative easing.
There were a few policy-driven events that pointed in the other direction, that is, not toward reliquefying everything but toward allowing the market to liquidate some things. Greece experienced a partial default that wiped out a lot of its privately held debt but—bizarrely but not unsurprisingly—shielded the debt held by various public sector institutions, and in Cyprus a major bank was wound down, resulting in losses for shareholders, bondholders, and depositors. Fiscal reform is a hot political topic in many countries, but progress has at best been modest. “Living within your means” is now called austerity and has predominantly a negative connotation. The main thrust of policy around the world continues to be in the direction of reflation and “stimulus.” The Eurozone has been a partial exception to this global trend, but the question is: will it remain one?
As I expected in the first edition, aggressive reflation did lead to rising prices but delivered so far disappointingly little in terms of self-sustaining growth. Frustration about the strength of the “recovery” is still widespread. However, and this was indeed a big surprise for me, it was again mainly asset prices that rose sharply, while consumer prices continued to remain remarkably subdued. The biggest surprises over recent years were asset markets, not policy or the “real economy.” I had expected a somewhat different mix between consumer and asset price inflations, mainly as a consequence of the changed transmission channels of policy and because I thought the public would remain more skeptical toward new asset price booms and would not embrace them so readily. Yet at the time of this writing (January 2014), in the United States all the major stock indices are at or near all-time highs, yield spreads on corporate debt are at or near all-time lows, issuance in the corporate bond market is at record levels, and farmland is appreciating at double-digit rates in many parts of the country. At the same time, the preferred measures of consumer price inflation are barely positive and remain below their official target. The extent of asset price appreciation and of consumer price stagnation is certainly at odds with my earlier forecast.
Most surprising of all, however, was the sharp correction in the gold price that started in 2013, in particular in light of the persistently reflationary policies of central banks and continuing rallies in almost all other asset markets. If the gold market anticipates an end to reflation and a coming deflationary correction, then should certain other asset markets not behave differently, too?
Paper Money Collapse was never intended to be an investment book, never a book that provides near-term forecasts and investment ideas. Its outlook was never aimed at a two-year forecasting window. Nevertheless, I will try and provide some thoughts about markets as part of an updated outlook at the end of the book. Here, it may suffice to say that my main views have not changed. Central banks have no exit strategy. A return to “normal” policy will be impossible, meaning politically unacceptable. Heavy-handed interventions in the economy are pretty much a certainty, and inflation remains the most likely endgame. This will end badly.
Support from Eminent Economists
This book is an attack on modern mainstream economics’ view on money, but it is not an attack on economics. To the contrary, I believe my position stands in a long tradition of analysis of monetary phenomena, and in the course of my argument I will draw on the work of some of the greatest minds in the history of economics in support of my case. Indeed, the idea that monetary expansion is a source of broader economic instability, which is central to my argument, is as old as economics itself, and it has remained a recurring feature of economic theorizing for almost 300 years, from Cantillon’s essays, published in 1755, through the Currency School of British Classical Economics in the nineteenth century, and to the Austrian Business Cycle Theory, developed by Ludwig von Mises and F. A. von Hayek between 1912 and 1933. It appears that since the 1930s modern macroeconomics has neglected or even forgotten some crucial insights that had once been well-established and that are still important today.
To develop my argument from the ground up I will start with some basic notions about money that every user of money, and that means practically everybody, should be able to confirm from their own everyday experience. This process has two advantages: It allows the layperson to follow my argument throughout; no previous knowledge of economics is required. But, importantly, it also forces the economically trained reader to critically examine some of the notions that he or she may have adopted without much reflection through long exposure to mainstream economics and that he or she never really put to the test. I believe it will become clear that many of these do not stand up to rigorous analysis.
Building on the work of the giants of economics is a plus and a minus. The plus is that it lends some respectability to my case and that hopefully more readers will be willing to engage with my argument and not be put off by its bold conclusions. The downside is that some may suspect there is nothing new here and that they know it already. The Austrian School of Economics and in particular the work of Ludwig von Mises, the school’s greatest exponent in the twentieth century, provide the main theoretical underpinning of this book. The Austrian School appears to be in the midst of a revival, not least in the blogosphere. However, this book is not a mere regurgitation of canonical Austrian texts. There is a critical treatment of some of von Hayek’s conclusions in Denationalisation of Money. I reject Murray Rothbard’s claims that fractional-reserve banking is fraudulent but equally repudiate the assertion of the (semi-Austrian) “free bankers” that fractional-reserve banking can smoothly adjust the quantity of money to changes in demand.
There is, of course, a great intellectual debt to Ludwig von Mises. Without studying von Mises, I would not have been able to write this book. But it was my personal experience as an investment professional for almost two decades that made me appreciate how relevant von Mises is to understanding today’s environment, and how misguided the explanations and solutions of today’s mainstream are. Von Mises died in 1973 and never saw the global unconstrained fiat money experiment in full bloom. In applying Misesian perspective to modern monetary infrastructures and policies I hope to have added something to the “Austrian” theoretical edifice, if only at the margin. But if I failed to do so and if I only managed to get my readers better acquainted with von Mises’s thoughts and aroused his or her interest in the Austrian School, I would still consider my project a success.
1. Some friendly reviewers from the Austrian School of Economics suggested that I use the traditional definition of inflation of an ongoing expansion of the money supply, rather than a rise in prices. However, the way the term inflation is used today is usually in reference to price changes, and any growth in monetary aggregates that does not, for whatever reason, lead to, or not lead instantly to, higher prices, is usually now not called inflation. I see no harm in using the new definition and probably many problems in insisting on the traditional one.
2. In the course of our investigation we will meet economists who maintain that “free banks” could automatically deliver a stable price level. Although I will also arrive at the conclusion that banks should be entirely free enterprises, I do not maintain that they can deliver such stability in macrovariables, including the price level, nor do I deem it necessary for a well-functioning economy that they do so.
3. Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth S. Rogoff, This Time Is Different: Eight
Centuries of Financial Folly (Princeton/Oxford, UK: Princeton University
Press, 2009): 204–207.
4. Ludwig von Mises, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics , 4th rev. ed. (Irvingtonon-
Hudson, NY: Foundation for Economic Education, 1998): 572.
5. Jaromir Benes and Michael Kumhof, The Chicago Plan Revisited . IMF WorkingPaper Money Collapse – The Folly of Elastic Money