• Holding Banks to Account

    The dramatic and damaging collapse of the New Zealand finance company sector over the last three or four years has attracted a good deal of attention, largely because of the multi-billion losses that investors have suffered. One of the consequences has been a boost to the confidence felt in banks which have reinforced their reputation as the best place to put one’s money.

    It is certainly true that, while overseas banks are up to their necks in scandal, our largely Australian-owned banks have maintained an enviable stability and reliability. But the tribulations of banks worldwide make it inevitable that the role of banks in the global economy should increasingly come under the spotlight.

    The revelations that many of the world’s leading banks have been guilty of dishonestly rigging markets and misleading investors have already claimed one victim, in Barclay’s Bank, and seem certain to involve many more. And that comes on top of the role – dubious at best, irresponsible and dishonest at worst – that the banks played in bringing about the global financial crisis in 2008.

    Not surprisingly, the British government is establishing a full-scale review of the banking sector, and few would now bet against the pressing of criminal charges. But it could be argued that these scandals are not just a reflection of the criminality of a handful of bank leaders but arise inevitably from the role that banks in general have been allowed to play.

    Most people still see banks as institutions that provide a safe repository for our savings and that from time to time lend us money either on overdraft or on mortgage. But this is seriously to underestimate the power that banks wield in our economy and the extraordinary nature of the concessions that allow them to do so.

    The central feature of banks, which seems only dimly understood even within the banking sector itself, is that they are private commercial enterprises which have been granted a unique and virtual monopoly over the creation of money. By far the largest proportion of the money in our economy (and in the economies of all advanced countries) is not notes and coins but bank-created credit. That credit represents no more than bank entries by bank officials; its status as money rests entirely on the suspension of disbelief – or, to put it another way, on our willingness to accept that it is money because the banks say it is money.

    The failure to understand this fundamental aspect of our economy leads to serious errors in formulating economic policy. The overwhelming role of credit-creation by the banks in inflating the money supply should be our central concern in controlling inflation, particularly when the vast majority of that credit is created and lent for non-productive purposes like house purchase.

    Because we don’t understand this inflation-engendering phenomenon, we grapple with inflation using seriously inadequate and inappropriate instruments like interest rates, which are not only slow-acting and poorly focused but do great damage to the rest of the economy. A more accurate analysis of inflation-producing pressures in our economy would lead to more effective measures to restrain them and at the same time encourage a more productive and competitive economy.

    We can see how privileged and unaccountable banks are from the fact that their unique capacity to create and lend vast quantities of “money” for private profit passes under the radar, whereas a democratically accountable government that occasionally “prints money” in the public interest draws screams of blue murder.

    But it is not only this aspect of the banks’ operations that should cause concern. Over the last two or three decades, the banks have used their ability to create money to invent a whole range of new financial instruments of dubious value which they are then able to sell to gullible investors; so profitable was this trade that it became much more important to banks than their traditional role.

    It was this prospect of unlimited profits created out of nothing (to say nothing of the huge rewards and bonuses paid to individual bankers) that led in due course to the global financial crisis. And when that irresponsibility inevitably ended in collapse, it was that same mentality that led bankers into the realms of fraud and criminality. In a world where anything goes, the rules are made to be broken, and personal fortunes are there for the taking, who can wonder that bankers could not accept that the ordinary rules applied to them? We have reaped what we have sown.

    In case we should assume that none of these problems afflict us, let us not forget that our own banks, pillars of propriety as they may seem by comparison with their overseas counterparts, have made strenuous attempts to avoid their tax liabilities and have only been made to pay up by court action.

    And in our case, the banks have not only made huge profits by exploiting their unique capacity to create money, but have then exported those billions across the Tasman, thereby placing a huge burden on our already beleaguered balance of payments. Isn’t it time to establish a banking system that supports the economy rather than places it at risk?

    Bryan Gould

    8 July 2010

    This article was published in the NZ Herald on 12 July.

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