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Why We Need a Free Market in Money

What is fiat money and what does it do?

This is essential to understand since today’s worldwide unbacked paper, or “fiat,” money regime is an economically and socially destructive scheme—with far-reaching and seriously harmful consequences. There is an answer, though, and this lies in ending the money production monopoly of states.

The Problem of Fiat Money

The US dollar, the Chinese renminbi, the euro, the Japanese yen, the British pound, and the Swiss franc represent fiat money.

Fiat money has three characteristics:

  1. Fiat money is money monopolized by the state’s central bank. It is created by central banks and commercial banks licensed by the state.
  2. Fiat money is mostly produced through bank credit expansion; it is created out of thin air.
  3. Fiat money is dematerialized money, consisting of colorful paper tickets and bits and bytes on computer hard drives.

Fiat money is by no means “harmless.”

Fiat money is inflationary. Its buying power dwindles over time, and history has shown that this entropy is almost as irreversible as gravity. Fiat money makes a select few rich at the expense of many others. The first to get new money benefit to the detriment of those on the bottom rung.

What’s more, fiat money fosters speculative bubbles and capital misallocation, which culminate in crises. This is why economies go through boom and bust cycles. Fiat money lures states, banks, consumers, and firms into the trap of excessive debt. Sooner or later, borrowers find themselves in a deep hole with no way out.

Fiat money is easy to come by, so the government can finance its adventures and misadventures. Easy money; easy come, easy go. And the government keeps growing as it keeps spending…

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Inflation as a Tool of the Radical Left

Inflation as a Tool of the Radical Left

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“Lenin is said to have declared that the best way to destroy the Capitalist System was to debauch its currency….Lenin was certainly right. There is no subtler, no surer way of overturning the existing basis of society than to debauch the currency. The process engages all the hidden forces of economic law on the side of destruction, and does it in a manner which not one man in a million is able to diagnose.”1

Keynes does not provide a concrete source backing his words but deliberately used the phrase “is said to have declared.” For a good reason. As Frank W. Fetter (1899–1991) pointed out, there is no evidence at hand that Lenin actually said or wrote these words, and anyone quoting Lenin on inflation would be indeed be referring to Keynes’s opinion.2

Be that as it may, it is pretty obvious that Lenin had a good understanding of the evils of inflation caused by the issuance of large amounts of unbacked paper money. He writes:

There is another side to the problem of raising the fixed grain prices. This raising of prices involves a new chaotic increase in the issuing of paper money, a further increase in the cost of living, increased financial disorganisation and the approach of financial collapse. Everybody admits that the issuing of paper money constitutes the worst form of compulsory loan, that it most of all affects the conditions of the workers, of the poorest section of the population, and that it is the chief evil engendered by financial disorder.3

Indeed price inflation caused by the increase in the quantity of money does not only cause serious economic problems. It also brings severe sociopolitical problems. Inflation makes most people poorer, degrades their social status, destroys their dreams of a better life. People become desperate and open to radical political programs.

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The Era of Boom and Bust Isn’t Over

The Era of Boom and Bust Isn’t Over

At the 2020 World Economic Forum in Davos, Bob Prince, co-chief investment officer at Bridgewater Associates, attracted attention when he suggested in a news interview that the boom and bust cycle as we have come to know it in the last decades may have ended. This viewpoint may well have been encouraged by the fact that the latest economic upswing (“boom”) has been going for around a decade and that an end is not in sight as suggested by incoming macro- and microeconomic data.

But would that not reject the key insight of the Austrian business cycle theory (ABCT), which says that a boom, brought about by artificially lowered market interest rates and injections of new credit and money produced “out of thin air,” must eventually end in a bust? In what follows, I will remind us of the key message of the ABCT and outline the “special conditions” which must be taken into account if the ABCT is applied to real-world developments. Against this backdrop, we can then form a view about how the next crisis might look.

What the ABCT Says

The ABCT is actually a “theory of crisis,” and it explains the broader consequences if and when central banks, in close cooperation with commercial banks, increase the amount of money in the economy through credit expansion—that is, an increase in bank lending that is not backed by real savings. The increase in the circulation of credit supply initially lowers the market interest rate below its “natural level,” or, “the originary interest rate level,” to use the Austrian school’s term.

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The Wealth Redistribution Scam that Is “Inflation”

The Wealth Redistribution Scam that Is “Inflation”

The world over people are told that central banks pursue “price stability” by making sure that consumer goods prices do not rise by more than 2 percent per annum. This is, of course, a big sham. If the prices of goods rise over time, it does not take that much to understand that prices do not remain stable. And if the prices of goods increase over time, it necessarily means that the purchasing power of the money unit declines.

As money loses its purchasing power, income and wealth are stealthily redistributed. Some individuals and groups of people are enriched at the expense of others. Savers and workers are swindled out of their deserved income and retirement benefits, while those who own goods that rise in value or who borrow money typically reap a windfall profit. Clearly, the banking industry is a major beneficiary of monetary debasement.

“Inflation” Is a Rise in the Quantity of Money 

Central banks are the very source of the phenomenon that all prices of goods tend to rise over time. They hold the money production monopoly and increase — in close cooperation with commercial banks — the outstanding quantity of money through credit expansion, an increase in the supply of credit that is not backed by real savings. It goes without saying that it is rather profitable to be active in the money-production business.

The increase in the quantity of money results, and necessarily so, in higher prices compared to a situation in which the quantity of money has not been increased. This is no arbitrary assertion but stems from logical reasoning: a rise in people’s money holding lowers the marginal utility of the additional money unit, meaning that the marginal utility of other goods that can be exchanged against money rises.

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All Is Not Well In Financial Markets

All Is Not Well In Financial Markets

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It seems to be a hard time for those expressing concern about the build-up of risks in the economic and financial system: the major economies in the world are expanding at a decent clip, credit default concerns are very low, and stock and housing prices keep going up, driven by investor optimism and supported by an ongoing low interest rate environment.

Moreover, cyclical indicators do currently not suggest that something terrible is just around the corner. But of course, there is good reason not to get carried away by the “all is well” mentality that has gripped financial market action. For central banks have, by way of their monetary policies of exceptionally low interest rates, set into motion an artificial upswing (“boom”).

While the boom leads to higher output and employment levels, it also causes — beneath the surface, so to speak — malinvestment on a grand scale: the development of the economies’ production and employment structure is getting diverted from the path it would have taken had there not been a downward manipulation of interest rates on the part of central banks.

Some Theory

This becomes obvious once a sound theory of the interest rate is taken into account, as put forward by the Austrian School of Economics, in particular by Ludwig von Mises. To explain this in some detail, we have to make a distinction between the “pure,” or “originary,” interest rate and the “nominal market” interest rate.

The originary interest rate is inseparably tied to human action: each and one of us value an early satisfaction of a want more highly than a later satisfaction of the same want. In other words: we as human beings value a good that is presently available more highly than the same good available at a future point in time. This is the direct outcome of our time preference.

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Deutsche Bank’s Troubles Raise Worries About the Future of the Euro Zone

The euro banking sector is huge: In April 2018, its total balance sheet amounted to 30.9 trillion euro, accounting for 268 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) in the euro area. Unfortunately, however, many euro banks are in lousy shape. They suffer from low profitability and carry an estimated total bad loan exposure of around 759 billion euro, which accounts for roughly 30 per cent of their equity capital.

Share price developments suggest that investors have lost quite some confidence in the viability of euro banks’ businesses: While US bank stocks are up 24 per cent since the beginning of 2006, the index for euro-area bank stocks is still down by around 70 per cent. Perhaps most notably, ’Germany’s two largest banks, Deutsche Bank and Commerzbank, have lost 85 and 94 per cent, respectively, of their market capitalization.

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With a balance sheet of close to 1.5 trillion euro in March 2018, Deutsche Bank accounted for around 45 per cent of German GDP. In international comparison, this an enormous, downright frightening dimension. It is mostly the result of the bank still having an extensive (though not profitable) footprint in the international investment banking business. The bank has already started reducing its balance sheet, though.

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Beware of big banks — this is what we could learn from the latest financial and economic crises 2008/2009. Big banks have the potential to take an entire economy hostage: When they get into trouble, they can drag everything down with them, especially the innocent bystanders – taxpayers and, if and when the central banks decide to bail them out, those holding fiat money and fixed income securities denominated in fiat money.

Banking Risks

For this reason, it makes sense to remind ourselves of the fundamental risks of banking – namely liquidity riskand solvency risk –, for if and when these risks materialise, monetary policy-makers can be expected to resort to inflationary actions.

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Gold Should be Viewed as Money — Not as an Investment Instrument

Gold Should be Viewed as Money — Not as an Investment Instrument

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On May 4 and 5, 2018, Warren E. Buffett (born 1930) and Charles T. Munger (born 1924), both already legends during their lifetime, held the annual shareholders’ meeting of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Approximately 42,000 visitors gathered in Omaha, Nebraska, to attend the star investors’ Q&A session.

Peoples’ enthusiasm is understandable: From 1965 to 2017, Buffett’s Berkshire share achieved an annual average return of 20.9 percent (after tax), while the S&P 500 returned only 9.9 percent (before taxes). Had you invested in Berkshire in 1965, today you would be pleased to see a total return of 2,404,784 percent: an investment of USD 1,000 turned into more than USD 24 million (USD 24,048,480, to be exact).

In his introductory words, Buffett pointed out how important the long-term view is to achieving investment success. For example, had you invested USD 10,000 in 1942 (the year Buffett bought his first share) in a broad basket of US equities and had patiently stood by that decision, you would now own stocks with a market value of USD 51 million.

With this example, Buffett also reminded the audience that investments in productive assets such as stocks can considerably gain in value over time; because in a market economy, companies typically generate a positive return on the capital employed. The profits go to the shareholders either as dividends or are reinvested by the company, in which case the shareholder benefits from the compound interest effect.

Buffett compared the investment performance of corporate stocks (productive assets) with that of gold (representing unproductive assets). USD 10,000 invested in gold in 1942 would have appreciated to a mere USD 400,000, Buffett said – considerably less than a stock investment. What do you make of this comparison?

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How High Is The Risk of a Currency Crisis?

How High Is The Risk of a Currency Crisis?

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“The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated”, quipped Mark Twain in response to a newspaper report that said he was on his deathbed. The same could be said about many fiat currencies. Whether we are looking at the US dollar, the euro, the Japanese yen or the British Pound: In the wake of the financial and economic crisis of 2008/2009, quite a few commentators painted a rather bleak future for them: high inflation, even hyperinflation, some even forecast their collapse. That did not happen. Instead, fiat money seems to be still in great demand. In the United States of America, for instance, peoples’ fiat money balances relative to incomes are at a record high.

How come? Central banks’ market manipulations have succeeded in fending off credit defaults on a grand scale: Policymakers have cut interest rates dramatically and injected new cash into the banking system. In retrospect, it is clear why these operations have prevented the debt pyramid from crashing down: 2008/2009 was a “credit crisis.” Investors were afraid that states, banks, consumers, and companies might no longer be able to afford their debt service — meanwhile, investors did not fear that inflation could erode the purchasing power of their currencies as evidenced by dropping inflation expectations in the crisis period.

Central banks can no doubt cope with a credit default scenario: As the monopoly producer of money, central banks can provide financially ailing borrowers with any amount deemed necessary to keep them afloat. In fact, the mere assurance on the part of central banks to bail out the financial system if needed suffices to calm down financial markets and encourages banks to refinance maturing debt and even extend new credit. Cheap and easy central bank funding prompted lenders and borrowers to jump right back into the credit market. The debt binge could go on.

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How Central Banks Stoke Stock Prices

Reading through Security Analysis, the roadmap for investing first published in 1934 by Benjamin Graham and David L. Dodd, I learned something quite interesting: The basis of stock valuation had changed quite drastically in the period between 1927 and 1929. The stock buying public “departed more and more from the factual approach and technique of security analysis and concerned itself increasingly with the elements of potentiality and prophecy”, write Graham and Dodd.1

What they mean is that in the pre WWI world, stocks were typically valued on the basis of a three-part concept: (i) a decent track record of firms’ dividend returns, (ii) a stable and satisfactory earnings record, and (iii) a strong balance sheet, with sufficient backing by tangible assets. The “New-Era” theory of stock valuation reads, summarized in one sentence, as follows: “The value of a common stock depends entirely upon what it will earn in the future.”

Current dividends should only have a slight impact upon a stock’s valuation, and as firms’ asset values did not have an apparent relationship with their earning power, asset values were said to be devoid of importance when it comes to calculating a stock’s “fair price.” A firm’s earnings record was only relevant to the extent that it might indicate what changes in a firm’s future earnings were likely to be expected. In other words, the New-Era theory of stock valuation was quite a break compared to the valuation technique employed in the past.

A Sea Change in Pricing Stocks

According to Graham and Dodd, there were two significant causes why such a change in the approach to stock valuation occurred. First, accounting data of a firm’s past proved to be increasingly unreliable as a guide for making wise investment decisions.

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Central Banks Put a Safety Net Under Financial Markets

Central Banks Put a Safety Net Under Financial Markets

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Most early business cycle indicators suggest that the global economy is pretty much roaring ahead. Production and employment are rising. Firms keep investing and show decent profits. International trade is expanding. Credit is easy to obtain. Stock prices keep moving up to ever higher levels. All seems to be well. Or does it? Unfortunately, the economic upswing shows the devil’s footprints: central banks have set it in motion with their extremely low, and in some countries even negative, interest rate policy and rampant monetary expansion.

Artificially depressed borrowing costs are fueling a “boom.” Consumer loans are as cheap as ever before, seducing people to spend increasingly beyond their means. Low interest rates push down companies’ cost of capital, encouraging additional, and in particular risky investments – they would not have entered into under “normal” interest rate conditions. Financially strained borrowers – in particular states and banks – can refinance their maturing debt load at extremely low interest rates and even take on new debt easily.

By no means less important is the fact that central banks have effectively spread a “safety net” under financial markets: Investors feel assured that monetary authorities will, in case things turning sour, step in and fend off any crisis. The central banks’ safety net has lowered investors’ risk concern. Investors are willing to lend even to borrowers with relatively poor financial strength. Furthermore, it has suppressed risk premia in credit yields, having lowered firms’ cost of debt, which encourages them to run up their leverage to increase return on equity.

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The Fed’s Great Unwind: Will It Sink Us?

In the eyes of many people, the Federal Reserve (Fed) is an indispensable institution. We are told it supports growth and employment, fends off the negative shocks, and fights inflation. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The Fed’s fiat money regime is economically and socially highly destructive — causing far-reaching societal and political consequences that extend beyond what most people would imagine.

Fiat money is inflationary, it debases the purchasing power of money; it benefits a few at the expense of the many; it causes boom-and-bust cycles that hurt many people economically; it makes people run into too much debt, leading to over-indebtedness; it corrupts society’s morals; it makes government grow at the expense of individual liberty; it encourages the state’s aggressiveness and fuels its war machine.

Tragically, however, people consider falsely the Fed as their “knight in shining armor” coming to their rescue in times of trouble rather than what the institution really is: the very source of economic and societal grievance. People do not blame the Fed for the trouble it causes, but instead welcome Fed action for overcoming the damage it has caused in the first place. That is why many people keep their fingers crossed that the Fed’s latest “exit plan” will succeed.

The Fed’s Exit Plan

In the course of the financial and economic crisis of 2008–2009, the Fed lowered interest rates to basically zero. It also increased its balance sheet from $879.4 billion at the end of 2007 to $4.5 trillion in September 2017. It did this by purchasing US Treasuries and agency mortgage-backed securities (MBS) in the amount of $2.4 trillion and $1.7 trillion, respectively, thereby having injected additional ‘base money’ into the US banking system.

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Are markets Really as Calm as They Seem?

Indicators for financial market “stress” have reached their lowest levels in decades. For instance, stock market volatility has never been this low since the early 1990s. Credit spreads have been shrinking, and prices for credit default swaps have fallen to pre-crisis levels. In fact, investors are no longer haunted by concerns about the stability of the financial system, potential credit defaults, and unfavourable surprises in the economy or financial assets markets. How come?

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Monetary policy plays the significant role. By slashing interest rates and ramping up the quantity of money in the banking system, central banks around the world have kick-started the economies following the 2008/2009 crash. But this is not the full story. The fact that investors expect central banks to stand at the ready to fend off a slowdown of the economy and price declines in stock and housing markets is by no means less important.

The truth is that investors expect central banks to provide a “safety net.” This expectation encourages them to make risky investments again (which they would otherwise have declined). That said, central banks have caused a colossal ‘moral hazard’: Investors feel pretty much assured that the risk-reward profile of their investments has become more favorable — that they can enjoy a considerable upside, while the downside is limited.

As a result, investors drive asset prices upwards. As stock prices rise, firms’ cost of capital falls, encouraging risky investments. Consumers, with their real estate assets appreciating, go into even more debt. Maturing debt is rolled over at low interest rates, and borrowers’ spending capacity increases. In other words: The downward manipulation of interest rates and the decline in risk aversion translates into a cyclical strengthening of the economy.

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Central Banks Are Hiding the True Price of Risk

Central Banks Are Hiding the True Price of Risk

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If you invest your money, you will have to deal with numerous risks. For instance, if you buy a bond, you run the risk of the borrower defaulting or being repaid with debased money. As a stock investor, you face the risk that the company’s business model will not live up to expectations, or that it, at the extreme, will go bankrupt. In an unhampered financial market, prices are formed for these and other risk factors.

For instance, a bond with a high default risk will typically carry a high yield. The same goes for debt denominated in an unsound currency. Stocks of companies that are deemed risky tend to trade at a lower valuation level than those considered low risk. All these risk premiums, if determined in the unhampered market, constitute a portion of an asset’s price, be it a bond or a share. They play a vital role in the way capital is allocated in an economy.

Risk premiums are meant to compensate investors for the risk of losses resulting from adverse developments. If you buy a stock at a depressed price relative to the firm’s earnings power, it tends to reduce your downside (while offering the chance of great gains). At the same time, risk premiums increase investors’ cost of capital. This, in turn, discourages them from engaging in overly risky investments.

Decline in risk premiums:

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In other words, risk premiums determined in an unhampered market align the interests of savers and investors. Of course, one cannot be sure that ex ante risk premiums are always correct. Sometimes it turns out that risks were overestimated, sometimes they were underestimated. However, the unhampered market is still the best and most efficient means to determine the price of risk.

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Cash Banned, Freedom Gone

Cash Banned, Freedom Gone 

Mises Daily

Some politicians want to ban cash, arguing that cash is helping criminals. The first steps in that direction are the withdrawal of big denomination notes and the limits imposed on cash payments.

Proponents of a ban on cash claim that this will help fight criminal transactions — involved in money laundering, terrorism, and tax evasion. These promises of salvation are used to get the general public to agree to a society without cash. But there is no convincing proof for the claim that the world without cash will be a better one. Even if undesirable behavior is indeed financed by cash, you still need to answer the question: will the undesirable behavior disappear without cash? Or will those who commit the undesirable acts take to new ways and means to reach their goal?

Take the example of the 500 euro note. If we do away with it, won’t those who wish to use cash pay with five 100 euro notes instead? Or ten 50 euro notes? And what about the costs imposed on the large majority of respectable people, if you put a ban on their cash? Using the same logic, should we ban alcohol, because some can’t handle it properly?

It’s Really about Central Banks

The plan to restrict the use of cash, or to abolish it step by step, has nothing to do with the fight against crime. The real reason is that states (and their central banks) want to introduce negative interest rates.

Although central banks have long pursued inflationary policies that devalue the debt owed by governments, negative interest rates offer a new and powerful tool to do this. But, to make negative interest rates work well, you have to get rid of physical cash.

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Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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