All posts by Ellen Brown

Neoliberalism Has Met Its Match in China

Ellen Brown chairs the Public Banking Institute and has written thirteen books, including her latest, Banking on the People: Democratizing Money in the Digital Age.  She also co-hosts a radio program on PRN.FM called It’s Our Money.

When the Federal Reserve cut interest rates on July 31 for the first time in more than a decade, commentators were asking why. According to official data, the economy was rebounding, unemployment was below 4%, and GDP growth was above 3%. If anything, by the Fed’s own reasoning, it should have been raising rates.

The explanation of market pundits was that we’re in a trade war and a currency war. Other central banks were cutting their rates and the Fed had to follow suit, in order to prevent the dollar from becoming overvalued relative to other currencies. The theory is that a cheaper dollar will make American products more attractive on foreign markets, helping our manufacturing and labor bases.

Over the weekend, President Trump followed the rate cuts by threatening to impose a new 10% tariff on $300 billion worth of Chinese products effective September 1. China responded by suspending imports of U.S. agricultural products by state-owned companies and letting the value of the yuan drop. On Monday, August 5, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped nearly 770 points, its worst day in 2019. The war was on.

The problem with a currency war is that it is a war without winners. This was demonstrated in the beggar-thy-neighbor policies of the 1930s, which just prolonged the Great Depression. As economist Michael Hudson observed in a June 2019 interview with Bonnie Faulkner, making American products cheaper abroad will do little for the American economy, because we no longer have a competitive manufacturing base or products to sell. Today’s workers are largely in the service industries – cab drivers, hospital workers, insurance agents and the like. A cheaper dollar abroad just makes consumer goods at Walmart and imported raw materials for US businesses more expensive. What is mainly devalued when a currency is devalued, says Hudson, is the price of the country’s labor and the working conditions of its laborers. The reason American workers cannot compete with foreign workers is not that the dollar is overvalued. It is due to their higher costs of housing, education, medical services and transportation. In most competitor countries, these costs are subsidized by the government.

America’s chief competitor in the trade war is obviously China, which subsidizes not just worker costs but the costs of its businesses. The government owns 80% of the banks, which make loans on favorable terms to domestic businesses, especially state-owned businesses. Typically, if the businesses cannot repay the loans, neither the banks nor the businesses are put into bankruptcy, since that would mean losing jobs and factories. The non-performing loans are just carried on the books or written off. No private creditors are hurt, since the creditor is the government, and the loans were created on the banks’ books in the first place (following standard banking practice globally).

As observed by Jeff Spross in a May 2018 Reuters article titled “China’s Banks Are Big. Too Big?”:

[B]ecause the Chinese government owns most of the banks, and it prints the currency, it can technically keep those banks alive and lending forever.…

It may sound weird to say that China’s banks will never collapse, no matter how absurd their lending positions get. But banking systems are just about the flow of money.

Spross quoted former bank CEO Richard Vague, chair of The Governor’s Woods Foundation, who explained, “China has committed itself to a high level of growth. And growth, very simply, is contingent on financing.” Beijing will “come in and fix the profitability, fix the capital, fix the bad debt, of the state-owned banks … by any number of means that you and I would not see happen in the United States.”

To avoid political and labor unrest, Spross wrote, the government keeps everyone happy by keeping economic growth high and spreading the proceeds to the citizenry. About two-thirds of Chinese debt is owed just by the corporations, which are also largely state-owned. Corporate lending is thus a roundabout form of government-financed industrial policy – a policy financed not through taxes but through the unique privilege of banks to create money on their books.

China thinks this is a better banking model than the private Western system focused on short-term profits for private shareholders. But U.S. policymakers consider China’s subsidies to its businesses and workers to be “unfair trade practices.” They want China to forgo state subsidization an it’s d other protectionist policies in order to level the playing field. But Beijing contends that the demanded reforms amount to “economic regime change.” As Michael Hudson puts it:

This is the fight that Trump has against China.  He wants to tell it to let the banks run China and have a free market.  He says that China has grown rich over the last fifty years by unfair means, with government help and public enterprise.  In effect, he wants the Chinese to be as threatened and insecure as American workers.  They should get rid of their public transportation.  They should get rid of their subsidies.  They should let a lot of their companies go bankrupt so that Americans can buy them.  They should have the same kind of free market that has wrecked the US economy. [Emphasis added.]

Kurt Campbell and Jake Sullivan, writing on August 1 in Foreign Affairs (the journal of the Council on Foreign Relations), call it “an emerging contest of models.”

An Economic Cold War

In order to understand what is happening here, it is useful to review some history. The free market model hollowed out America’s manufacturing base beginning in the Thatcher/Reagan era of the 1970s, when neoliberal economic policies took hold. Meanwhile, emerging Asian economies, led by Japan, were exploding on the scene with a new economic model called “state-guided market capitalism.” The state determined the priorities and commissioned the work, then hired private enterprise to carry it out. The model overcame the defects of the communist system, which put ownership and control in the hands of the state.

The Japanese state-guided market system was effective and efficient – so effective that it was regarded as an existential threat to the neoliberal model of debt-based money and “free markets” promoted by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). According to William Engdahl in A Century of War, by the end of the 1980s Japan was considered the leading economic and banking power in the world. Its state-guided model was also proving to be highly successful in South Korea and the other “Asian Tiger” economies. When the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of the Cold War, Japan proposed its model for the former communist countries, and many began looking to it and to South Korea as viable alternatives to the U.S. free-market system. State-guided capitalism provided for the general welfare without destroying capitalist incentive. Engdahl wrote:

The Tiger economies were a major embarrassment to the IMF free-market model.  Their very success in blending private enterprise with a strong state economic role was a threat to the IMF free-market agenda.  So long as the Tigers appeared to succeed with a model based on a strong state role, the former communist states and others could argue against taking the extreme IMF course.  In east Asia during the 1980s, economic growth rates of 7-8 per cent per year, rising social security, universal education and a high worker productivity were all backed by state guidance and planning, albeit in a market economy – an Asian form of benevolent paternalism.

Just as the U.S. had engaged in a Cold War to destroy the Soviet communist model, so Western financial interests set out to destroy this emerging Asian threat. It was defused when Western neoliberal economists persuaded Japan and the Asian Tigers to adopt the free-market system and open their economies and their companies to foreign investors. Western speculators then took down the vulnerable countries one by one in the “Asian crisis” of 1997-98. China alone was left as an economic threat to the Western neoliberal model, and it is this existential threat that is the target of the trade and currency wars today.

If You Can’t Beat Them …

In their August 1 Foreign Affairs article, titled “Competition without Catastrophe,” Campbell and Sullivan write that the temptation is to compare these economic trade wars with the Cold War with Russia; but the analogy, they say, is inapt:

China today is a peer competitor that is more formidable economically, more sophisticated diplomatically, and more flexible ideologically than the Soviet Union ever was. And unlike the Soviet Union, China is deeply integrated into the world and intertwined with the U.S. economy.

Unlike the Soviet Communist system, the Chinese system cannot be expected to “crumble under its own weight.” The US should not expect or want to destroy China, say Campbell and Sullivan. Rather, we should aim for a state of “coexistence on terms favorable to U.S. interests and values.”

The implication is that China, being too strong to be knocked out of the game as the Soviet Union was, needs to be coerced or cajoled into adopting the neoliberal model. It needs to abandon state support of its industries and ownership of its banks. But the Chinese system, while obviously not perfect, has an impressive track record for sustaining long-term growth and development. While the U.S. manufacturing base was being hollowed out under the free-market model, China was systematically building up its own manufacturing base, investing heavily in infrastructure and emerging technologies; and it was doing this with credit generated by its state-owned banks. Rather than trying to destroy China’s economic system, it might be more “favorable to U.S. interests and values” for us to adopt its more effective industrial and banking practices.

We cannot win a currency war by competitive currency devaluations that trigger a “race to the bottom,” and we cannot win a trade war by competitive trade barriers that simply cut us off from the benefits of cooperative trade. More favorable to our interests and values than warring with our trading partners would be to cooperate in sharing solutions, including banking and credit solutions. The Chinese have proven the effectiveness of their public banking system in supporting their industries and their workers. Rather than seeing it as an existential threat, we could thank them for test-driving the model and take a spin in it ourselves.

Neoliberalism Has Met Its Match In China

Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping (Andy Wong/AP)

When the Federal Reserve cut interest rates last week, commentators were asking why. According to official data, the economy was rebounding, unemployment was below 4% and gross domestic product growth was above 3%. If anything, by the Fed’s own reasoning, it should have been raising rates.

Market pundits explained that we’re in a trade war and a currency war. Other central banks were cutting their rates, and the Fed had to follow suit in order to prevent the dollar from becoming overvalued relative to other currencies. The theory is that a cheaper dollar will make American products more attractive in foreign markets, helping our manufacturing and labor bases.

Over the weekend, President Trump followed the rate cuts by threatening to impose, on September 1, a new 10% tariff on $300 billion worth of Chinese products. China responded by suspending imports of U.S. agricultural products by state-owned companies and letting the value of the yuan drop. On Monday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped nearly 770 points, its worst day in 2019. The war was on.

The problem with a currency war is that it is a war without winners. This was demonstrated in the beggar-thy-neighbor policies of the 1930s, which only deepened the Great Depression. As economist Michael Hudson observed in a June interview with journalist Bonnie Faulkner, making American products cheaper abroad will do little for the American economy, because we no longer have a competitive manufacturing base or products to sell. Today’s workers are largely in the service industries—cab drivers, hospital workers, insurance agents and the like. A cheaper dollar abroad just makes consumer goods at Walmart and imported raw materials for U.S. businesses more expensive.

What is mainly devalued when a currency is devalued, Hudson says, is the price of the country’s labor and the working conditions of its laborers. The reason American workers cannot compete with foreign workers is not that the dollar is overvalued. It is due to their higher costs of housing, education, medical services and transportation. In competitor countries, these costs are typically subsidized by the government.

America’s chief competitor in the trade war is obviously China, which subsidizes not just worker costs but the costs of its businesses. The government owns 80% of the banks, which make loans on favorable terms to domestic businesses, especially state-owned businesses. If the businesses cannot repay the loans, neither the banks nor the businesses are typically put into bankruptcy, since that would mean losing jobs and factories. The nonperforming loans are just carried on the books or written off. No private creditors are hurt, since the creditor is the government and the loans were created on the banks’ books in the first place (following standard banking practice globally). As observed by Jeff Spross in a May 2018 Reuters article titled “Chinese Banks Are Big. Too Big?”:

[B]ecause the Chinese government owns most of the banks, and it prints the currency, it can technically keep those banks alive and lending forever. …

It may sound weird to say that China’s banks will never collapse, no matter how absurd their lending positions get. But banking systems are just about the flow of money.

Spross quoted former bank CEO Richard Vague, chair of The Governor’s Woods Foundation, who explained, “China has committed itself to a high level of growth. And growth, very simply, is contingent on financing.” Beijing will “come in and fix the profitability, fix the capital, fix the bad debt, of the state-owned banks … by any number of means that you and I would not see happen in the United States.”

Political and labor unrest is a major problem in China. Spross wrote that the government keeps everyone happy by keeping economic growth high and spreading the proceeds to the citizenry. About two-thirds of Chinese debt is owed just by the corporations, which are also largely state-owned. Corporate lending is thus a roundabout form of government-financed industrial policy—a policy financed not through taxes but through the unique privilege of banks to create money on their books.

China thinks this is a better banking model than the private Western system focused on short-term profits for private shareholders. But U.S. policymakers consider China’s subsidies to its businesses and workers to be “unfair trade practices.” They want China to forgo state subsidization and its other protectionist policies in order to level the playing field. But Beijing contends that the demanded reforms amount to “economic regime change.” As Hudson puts it: “This is the fight that Trump has against China. He wants to tell it to let the banks run China and have a free market. He says that China has grown rich over the last fifty years by unfair means, with government help and public enterprise. In effect, he wants the Chinese to be as threatened and insecure as American workers. They should get rid of their public transportation. They should get rid of their subsidies. They should let a lot of their companies go bankrupt so that Americans can buy them. They should have the same kind of free market that has wrecked the US economy. [Emphasis added.]”

Kurt Campbell and Jake Sullivan, writing on August 1 in Foreign Affairs (the journal of the Council on Foreign Relations), call it “an emerging contest of models.”

An Economic Cold War

To understand what is happening here, it is useful to review some history. The free market model hollowed out America’s manufacturing base beginning in the Thatcher/Reagan era of the 1970s and ’80s, when neoliberal economic policies took hold. Meanwhile, emerging Asian economies, led by Japan, were exploding on the scene with a new economic model called “state-guided market capitalism.” The state determined the priorities and commissioned the work, then hired private enterprise to carry it out. The model overcame the defects of the communist system, which put ownership and control in the hands of the state.

The Japanese state-guided market system was effective and efficient—so effective that it was regarded as an existential threat to the neoliberal model of debt-based money and “free markets” promoted by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). According to author William Engdahl in “A Century of War,” by the end of the 1980s, Japan was considered the leading economic and banking power in the world. Its state-guided model was also proving to be highly successful in South Korea and the other “Asian Tiger” economies. When the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of the Cold War, Japan proposed its model to the former communist countries, and many began looking to it and to South Korea’s example as viable alternatives to the U.S. free-market system. State-guided capitalism provided for the general welfare without destroying capitalist incentive. Engdahl wrote:

The Tiger economies were a major embarrassment to the IMF free-market model. Their very success in blending private enterprise with a strong state economic role was a threat to the IMF free-market agenda. So long as the Tigers appeared to succeed with a model based on a strong state role, the former communist states and others could argue against taking the extreme IMF course. In east Asia during the 1980s, economic growth rates of 7-8 per cent per year, rising social security, universal education and a high worker productivity were all backed by state guidance and planning, albeit in a market economy — an Asian form of benevolent paternalism.

Just as the U.S. had engaged in a Cold War to destroy the Soviet communist model, so Western financial interests set out to destroy this emerging Asian threat. It was defused when Western neoliberal economists persuaded Japan and the Asian Tigers to adopt a free-market system and open their economies and companies to foreign investors. Western speculators then took down the vulnerable countries one by one in the “Asian crisis” of 1997-8. China alone was left as an economic threat to the Western neoliberal model, and it is this existential threat that is the target of the trade and currency wars today.

If You Can’t Beat Them …

In their August 1 Foreign Affairs article titled “Competition without Catastrophe,” Campbell and Sullivan write that the temptation is to compare these economic trade wars with the Cold War with Russia; but the analogy is inapt:

China today is a peer competitor that is more formidable economically, more sophisticated diplomatically, and more flexible ideologically than the Soviet Union ever was. And unlike the Soviet Union, China is deeply integrated into the world and intertwined with the U.S. economy.

Unlike the Soviet communist system, the Chinese system cannot be expected to “crumble under its own weight.” The U.S. cannot expect, and should not even want, to destroy China, Campbell and Sullivan say. Rather, we should aim for a state of “coexistence on terms favorable to U.S. interests and values.”

The implication is that China, being too strong to be knocked out of the game as the Soviet Union was, needs to be coerced or cajoled into adopting the neoliberal model and abandoning state support of its industries and ownership of its banks. But the Chinese system, while obviously not perfect, has an impressive track record for sustaining long-term growth and development. While the U.S. manufacturing base was being hollowed out under the free-market model, China was systematically building up its own manufacturing base and investing heavily in infrastructure and emerging technologies, and it was doing this with credit generated by its state-owned banks. Rather than trying to destroy China’s economic system, it might be more “favorable to U.S. interests and values” for us to adopt its more effective industrial and banking practices.

We cannot win a currency war through the use of competitive currency devaluations that trigger a “race to the bottom,” and we cannot win a trade war by installing competitive trade barriers that simply cut us off from the benefits of cooperative trade. More favorable to our interests and values than warring with our trading partners would be to cooperate in sharing solutions, including banking and credit solutions. The Chinese have proven the effectiveness of their public banking system in supporting their industries and their workers. Rather than seeing it as an existential threat, we could thank them for test-driving the model and take a spin in it ourselves.

• First  published on Truthdig.com

The Cheapest Way to Save the Planet Grows Like a Weed

Planting billions of trees across the world is by far the cheapest and most efficient way to tackle the climate crisis. So states a Guardian article, citing a new analysis published in the journal Science. The author explains:

As trees grow, they absorb and store the carbon dioxide emissions that are driving global heating. New research estimates that a worldwide planting programme could remove two-thirds of all the emissions that have been pumped into the atmosphere by human activities, a figure the scientists describe as “mind-blowing”.

For skeptics who reject the global warming thesis, reforestation also addresses the critical problems of mass species extinction and environmental pollution, which are well-documented. A 2012 study from the University of Michigan found that loss of biodiversity impacts ecosystems as much as does climate change and pollution. Forests shelter plant and animal life in their diverse forms, and trees remove air pollution by the interception of particulate matter on plant surfaces and the absorption of gaseous pollutants through the leaves.

The July analytical review in Science calculated how many additional trees could be planted globally without encroaching on crop land or urban areas. It found that there are 1.7 billion hectares (4.2 billion acres) of treeless land on which 1.2 trillion native tree saplings would naturally grow. Using the most efficient methods, 1 trillion trees could be restored for as little as $300 billion—less than 2% of the lower range of estimates for the Green New Deal introduced by progressive Democrats in February.

The Guardian quoted Professor Tom Crowther at the Swiss university ETH Zürich, who said, “What blows my mind is the scale. I thought restoration would be in the top 10, but it is overwhelmingly more powerful than all of the other climate change solutions proposed.” He said it was also by far the cheapest solution that has ever been proposed. The chief drawback of reforestation as a solution to the climate crisis, as The Guardian piece points out, is that trees grow slowly. The projected restoration could take 50 to 100 years to reach its full carbon sequestering potential.

A Faster, More Efficient Solution

Fortunately, as of December 2018, there is now a cheaper, faster and more efficient alternative—one that was suppressed for nearly a century but was legalized on a national scale when President Trump signed the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018.

This is the widespread cultivation of industrial hemp, the nonintoxicating form of cannabis grown for fiber, cloth, oil, food and other purposes. Hemp grows to 13 feet in 100 days, making it one of the fastest carbon dioxide-to-biomass conversion tools available. Industrial hemp has been proved to absorb more CO2 per hectare than any forest or commercial crop, making it the ideal carbon sink. It can be grown on a wide scale on nutrient-poor soils with very small amounts of water and no fertilizers.

Hemp products can promote biodiversity and reverse environmental pollution by replacing petrochemical-based plastics, which are now being dumped into the ocean at the rate of one garbage truck per minute. One million seabirds die each year from ingesting plastic, and up to 90% have plastic in their guts. Microplastic (resulting from the breakdown of larger pieces by sunlight and waves) and microbeads (used in body washes and facial cleansers) have been called the ocean’s smog. They absorb toxins in the water, enter the food chain and ultimately wind up in humans. To avoid all that, we can use plastic made from hemp, which is biodegradable and nontoxic.

Other environmental toxins come from the textile industry, which is second only to agriculture in the amount of pollution it creates and the voluminous amounts of water it uses. Hemp can be grown with minimal water, and hemp fabrics can be made without the use of toxic chemicals.

Environmental pollution from the burning of fossil fuels can also be reversed with hemp, which is more efficient and environmentally friendly than wheat and corn as a clean-burning biofuel.

Hemp cultivation also encourages biodiversity in the soil, by regenerating farmland that has long been depleted from the use of toxic chemicals. It is a “weed” and grows like one, ubiquitously, beating out other plants without pesticides or herbicides; and its long taproot holds the soil, channeling moisture deeper into it. Unlike most forestry projects, hemp can be grown on existing agricultural land and included as part of a farm’s crop rotation, with positive effects on the yields and the profits from subsequent crops.

A Self-Funding Solution

Hemp cultivation is profitable in many other ways—so profitable that it is effectively a self-funding solution to the environmental crisis. According to a Forbes piece titled “Industrial Hemp Is the Answer to Petrochemical Dependency,” crop yields from hemp can range from $20,000 to $50,000 per acre. Its widespread cultivation can happen without government subsidies. Investment in research, development and incentives would speed the process, but market forces will propel these transformations even if Congress fails to act. All farmers need for incentive is a market for the products, which hemp legalization has provided. Due to the crop’s century-long suppression, the infrastructure to capitalize on its diverse uses still needs to be developed, but the infrastructure should come with the newly opened markets.

Hemp can break our dependency on petrochemicals, not only for fuel but for plastics, textiles, construction materials and much more. It has actually been grown for industrial and medicinal purposes for millennia, and today it is legally grown for industrial use in hundreds of countries outside the U.S.

Just after the nationwide ban established by the Marihuana Tax Act in 1937, an an article in Popular Mechanics claimed it was a billion-dollar crop (the equivalent of about $16 billion today), useful in 25,000 products ranging from dynamite to cellophane. New uses continue to be found, including eliminating smog from fuels, creating a cleaner energy source that can replace nuclear power, removing radioactive water from the soil and providing a very nutritious food source for humans and animals. Cannabidiol (CBD), a nonpsychoactive derivative of hemp, has recently been shown to help curb opioid addiction, now a national epidemic.

Hemp can also help save our shrinking forests by eliminating the need to clear-cut them for paper pulp. One acre planted in hemp produces as much pulp as 4.1 acres of trees, according to the USDA; and unlike trees, hemp can be harvested two or three times a year. Hemp paper is also finer, stronger and lasts longer than wood-based paper. Benjamin Franklin’s paper mill used hemp. Until 1883, it was one of the largest agricultural crops (some say the largest), and 80–90% of all paper in the world was made from it. It was also the material from which most fabric, soap, fuel and fiber were made; and it was an essential resource for any country with a shipping industry, since sails were made from it. In early America, growing hemp was considered so important that it was illegal for farmers not to grow it. Hemp was legal tender from 1631 until the early 1800s, and taxes could even be paid with it.

Banned by the Competition?

The competitive threat to other industries of this supremely useful plant may have been a chief driver of its apparently groundless criminalization in the 1930s. Hemp is not marijuana and is so low in psychoactive components that it cannot produce a marijuana “high.” It was banned for nearly a century simply because it was in the same plant species as marijuana. Cannabis came under attack in the 1930s in all its forms. Why? Hemp competed not only with the lumber industry but with the oil, cotton, petrochemical and pharmaceutical industries. Many have speculated that it was suppressed by these powerful competitors.

William Randolf Hearst, the newspaper mogul, owned vast tracts of forest land, which he intended to use for making wood-pulp paper. Cheap hemp-based paper would make his forest investments a major money loser. Hearst was a master of “yellow journalism,” and a favorite target of his editorials was “reefer madness.” He was allied with the DuPont Corporation, which provided the chemicals to bleach and process the wood pulp used in the paper-making process. DuPont was also ready to introduce petroleum-based fibers such as nylon, and hemp fabrics competed with that new market.

In fact, hemp products threatened the entire petroleum industry. Henry Ford first designed his cars to run on alcohol from biofuels, but the criminalization of both alcohol and hemp forced him to switch to the dirtier, less efficient fossil fuels that dominate the industry today. A biofuel-based infrastructure would create a completely decentralized power grid, eliminating the giant monopolistic power companies. Communities could provide their own energy using easily renewable plants.

None of this is news. Hemp historians have been writing about the crop’s myriad uses and its senseless prohibition for decades. (See “The Emperor Wears No Clothes” by Jack Herer, 1992 and “Hemp for Victory: A Global Warming Solution” by Richard Davis, 2009.)d

What is news is that hemp cultivation is finally legal across the country. The time is short to save the planet and its vanishing diversity of species. Rather than engaging in endless debates over carbon taxes and Silicon Valley style technological fixes, we need to be regenerating our soils, our forests and our oceans with nature’s own plant solutions.

Article first published in Truthdig

How to Pay for It All: An Option the Candidates Missed

The Democratic Party has clearly swung to the progressive left, with candidates in the first round of presidential debates coming up with one program after another to help the poor, the disadvantaged and the struggling middle class. Proposals ranged from a Universal Basic Income to Medicare for All to a Green New Deal to student debt forgiveness and free college tuition. The problem, as Stuart Varney observed on FOX Business, was that no one had a viable way to pay for it all without raising taxes or taking from other programs, a hard sell to voters. If robbing Peter to pay Paul is the only alternative, the proposals will go the way of Trump’s trillion dollar infrastructure bill for lack of funding.

Fortunately there is another alternative, one that no one seems to be talking about – at least no one on the presidential candidates’ stage. In Japan, it is a hot topic; and in China, it is evidently taken for granted: the government can generate the money it needs simply by creating it on the books of its own banks. Leaders in China and Japan recognize that stimulating the economy is not a zero-sum game in which funds are just shuffled from one pot to another. To grow the economy and increase GDP, demand (money) must go up along with supply. New money needs to be added to the system; and that is what China and Japan have been doing, very successfully.

Before the 2008-09 global banking crisis, China’s GDP increased by an average of 10% per year for 30 years. The money supply increased right along with it, created on the books of its state-owned banks. Japan, under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has been following suit, with massive economic stimulus funded by correspondingly massive purchases of the government’s debt by its central bank, using money simply created with computer keystrokes.

All of this has occurred without driving up prices, the dire result predicted by US economists who subscribe to classical monetarist theory. In the 20 years from 1998 to 2018, China’s M2 money supply grew from just over 10 trillion yuan to 180 trillion yuan ($11.6T), an 18-fold increase. Yet it closed 2018 with a consumer inflation rate that was under 2%. Price stability has been maintained because China’s Gross Domestic Product has grown at nearly the same fast clip, by a factor of 13 over 20 years.

In Japan, the massive stimulus programs called “Abenomics” have been funded through its central bank. The Bank of Japan has now “monetized” nearly 50% of the government’s debt, turning it into new money by purchasing it with yen created on the bank’s books. If the US Fed did that, it would own $11 trillion in US government bonds, four times what it holds now. Yet Japan’s M2 money supply has not even doubled in 20 years, while the US money supply has grown by 300%; and Japan’s inflation rate remains stubbornly below the BOJ’s 2% target. Abe’s stimulus programs have not driven up prices. In fact, deflation remains a greater concern than inflation in Japan, despite unprecedented debt monetization by its central bank.     

China’s Economy: A Giant Ponzi Scheme or a New Economic Model? 

Critics have long called China’s economy a Ponzi scheme, doomed to collapse in the end; and for 40 years China has continued to prove the critics wrong. According to a June 2019 report by the Congressional Research Service:

Since opening up to foreign trade and investment and implementing free-market reforms in 1979, China has been among the world’s fastest-growing economies, with real annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth averaging 9.5% through 2018, a pace described by the World Bank as “the fastest sustained expansion by a major economy in history.” Such growth has enabled China, on average, to double its GDP every eight years and helped raise an estimated 800 million people out of poverty. China has become the world’s largest economy (on a purchasing power parity basis), manufacturer, merchandise trader, and holder of foreign exchange reserves.

This massive growth has been funded with credit created on the books of China’s banks, most of which are state-owned. Even in the US, of course, most money today is created on the books of banks. That is what our money supply is – bank credit. What is different about the Chinese model is that the Chinese government can and does intervene to direct where the credit goes. In a July 2018 article titled “China Invents a Different Way to Run an Economy,” Noah Smith suggests that China’s novel approach to macroeconomic stabilization by regulating bank credit represents a new economic model, one that may hold valuable lessons for developed economies. He writes:

Many economists would see this approach as hopelessly ad hoc, haphazard, and interventionist — not the kind of thing any developed country would want to rely on. And yet, it seems to have carried China successfully through several crises, while always averting the catastrophic financial crash that outside observers have been warning about for years.

Abenomics, Helicopter Money and Modern Monetary Theory

Noah Smith has also written about Japan’s unique model. After Prime Minister Abe crushed his opponents in October 2017, Smith wrote on Bloomberg News, “Japan’s long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party has figured out a novel and interesting way to stay in power—govern pragmatically, focus on the economy and give people what they want.” He said everyone who wanted a job had one; small and midsize businesses were doing well; and the BOJ’s unprecedented program of monetary easing had provided easy credit for corporate restructuring without generating inflation. Abe had also vowed to make both preschool and college free.

Like China’s economic model, Abenomics has been called a Ponzi scheme, funded by central bank-created “free” money. But whatever it is called, the strategy has been working for the economy. Even the once-dubious International Monetary Fund has declared Abenomics a success.

The Bank of Japan’s massive bond-buying program has also been called “helicopter money” — a policy in which the central bank directly finances government spending by underwriting bonds – and it has been compared to Modern Monetary Theory, which similarly posits that the government can spend money into existence with central bank funding. As Nathan Lewis wrote in Forbes in February 2019:

In practice, something like “MMT” has reached a new level of sophistication these days, exemplified by Japan. . . . The Bank of Japan now holds government bonds amounting to more than 100% of GDP. In other words, the government has managed to finance itself “with the printing press” to the amount of about 100% of GDP, with no inflationary consequences. [Emphasis added.]

Japanese officials have resisted comparisons with both helicopter money and MMT, arguing that Japanese law does not allow the government to sell its bonds directly to the central bank. As in the US, the government’s bonds must be sold on the open market, a limitation that also prevents the US government from directly monetizing its debt. But as Bank of Japan Deputy Governor Kikuo Iwata observed in a 2013 Reuters article, where the bonds are sold does not matter. What is important is that the central bank has agreed to buy them, and it is here that US banking law diverges from the laws of both Japan and China.

Central Banking Asia-style

When the US Treasury sells bonds on the open market, it can only hope the Fed will buy them. Any attempt by the president or the legislature to influence Fed policy is considered a gross interference with the sacrosanct independence of the central bank.

In theory, the central banks of China and Japan are also independent. Both are members of the Bank for International Settlements, which stresses the importance of maintaining the stability of the currency and the independence of the central bank; and both countries revised their banking laws in the 1990s to better reflect those policies. But their banking laws still differ in significant ways from those of the US.

In Japan, the Bank of Japan is legally free to set interest rates, but it must cooperate closely with the Ministry of Finance in setting policy. Article 4 of the 1997 Bank of Japan Act says:

The Bank of Japan shall, taking into account the fact that currency and monetary control is a component of overall economic policy, always maintain close contact with the government and exchange views sufficiently, so that its currency and monetary control and the basic stance of the government’s economic policy shall be mutually compatible.

Unlike in the US, Prime Minister Abe can negotiate with the head of the central bank to buy the government’s bonds, ensuring that the debt is, in fact, turned into new money that will stimulate domestic economic growth; and he is completely within his legal rights in doing it.

The leverage of China’s central government over its central bank is even stronger than the Japanese prime minister’s. The 1995 Law of the People’s Republic of China on the People’s Bank of China states:

The People’s Bank of China shall, under the leadership of the State Council, formulate and implement monetary policies, guard against and eliminate financial risks, and maintain financial stability.

The State Council has final decision-making power on such things as the annual money supply, interest rates and exchange rates; and it has used this power to stabilize the economy by directing and regulating the issuance of bank credit, the new Chinese macroeconomic model that Noah Smith says holds important lessons for us.

The successful six-year run of Abenomics, along with China’s decades of unprecedented economic growth, have proven that governments can indeed monetize their debts, expanding the money supply and stimulating the economy, without driving up consumer prices. The monetarist theories of US policymakers are obsolete and need to be discarded.

Kyouryoku,” the Japanese word for cooperation, is composed of characters that mean “together strength” – “stronger by working together.” This is a recognized principle in Asian culture and it is an approach we would do well to adopt. What US presidential candidates from both parties should talk about is how to modify the law so that Congress, the Administration and the central bank can work together in setting monetary policy, following the approaches successfully modeled in China and Japan.

First posted under another title at TruthDig.org

How to Pay for It All: An Option the Candidates Missed

The Democratic Party has clearly swung to the progressive left, with candidates in the first round of presidential debates coming up with one program after another to help the poor, the disadvantaged and the struggling middle class. Proposals ranged from a Universal Basic Income to Medicare for All to a Green New Deal to student debt forgiveness and free college tuition. The problem, as Stuart Varney observed on FOX Business, was that no one had a viable way to pay for it all without raising taxes or taking from other programs, a hard sell to voters. If robbing Peter to pay Paul is the only alternative, the proposals will go the way of Trump’s trillion dollar infrastructure bill for lack of funding.

Fortunately there is another alternative, one that no one seems to be talking about – at least no one on the presidential candidates’ stage. In Japan, it is a hot topic; and in China, it is evidently taken for granted: the government can generate the money it needs simply by creating it on the books of its own banks. Leaders in China and Japan recognize that stimulating the economy is not a zero-sum game in which funds are just shuffled from one pot to another. To grow the economy and increase GDP, demand (money) must go up along with supply. New money needs to be added to the system; and that is what China and Japan have been doing, very successfully.

Before the 2008-09 global banking crisis, China’s GDP increased by an average of 10% per year for 30 years. The money supply increased right along with it, created on the books of its state-owned banks. Japan, under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has been following suit, with massive economic stimulus funded by correspondingly massive purchases of the government’s debt by its central bank, using money simply created with computer keystrokes.

All of this has occurred without driving up prices, the dire result predicted by US economists who subscribe to classical monetarist theory. In the 20 years from 1998 to 2018, China’s M2 money supply grew from just over 10 trillion yuan to 180 trillion yuan ($11.6T), an 18-fold increase. Yet it closed 2018 with a consumer inflation rate that was under 2%. Price stability has been maintained because China’s Gross Domestic Product has grown at nearly the same fast clip, by a factor of 13 over 20 years.

In Japan, the massive stimulus programs called “Abenomics” have been funded through its central bank. The Bank of Japan has now “monetized” nearly 50% of the government’s debt, turning it into new money by purchasing it with yen created on the bank’s books. If the US Fed did that, it would own $11 trillion in US government bonds, four times what it holds now. Yet Japan’s M2 money supply has not even doubled in 20 years, while the US money supply has grown by 300%; and Japan’s inflation rate remains stubbornly below the BOJ’s 2% target. Abe’s stimulus programs have not driven up prices. In fact, deflation remains a greater concern than inflation in Japan, despite unprecedented debt monetization by its central bank.     

China’s Economy: A Giant Ponzi Scheme or a New Economic Model? 

Critics have long called China’s economy a Ponzi scheme, doomed to collapse in the end; and for 40 years China has continued to prove the critics wrong. According to a June 2019 report by the Congressional Research Service:

Since opening up to foreign trade and investment and implementing free-market reforms in 1979, China has been among the world’s fastest-growing economies, with real annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth averaging 9.5% through 2018, a pace described by the World Bank as “the fastest sustained expansion by a major economy in history.” Such growth has enabled China, on average, to double its GDP every eight years and helped raise an estimated 800 million people out of poverty. China has become the world’s largest economy (on a purchasing power parity basis), manufacturer, merchandise trader, and holder of foreign exchange reserves.

This massive growth has been funded with credit created on the books of China’s banks, most of which are state-owned. Even in the US, of course, most money today is created on the books of banks. That is what our money supply is – bank credit. What is different about the Chinese model is that the Chinese government can and does intervene to direct where the credit goes. In a July 2018 article titled “China Invents a Different Way to Run an Economy,” Noah Smith suggests that China’s novel approach to macroeconomic stabilization by regulating bank credit represents a new economic model, one that may hold valuable lessons for developed economies. He writes:

Many economists would see this approach as hopelessly ad hoc, haphazard, and interventionist — not the kind of thing any developed country would want to rely on. And yet, it seems to have carried China successfully through several crises, while always averting the catastrophic financial crash that outside observers have been warning about for years.

Abenomics, Helicopter Money and Modern Monetary Theory

Noah Smith has also written about Japan’s unique model. After Prime Minister Abe crushed his opponents in October 2017, Smith wrote on Bloomberg News, “Japan’s long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party has figured out a novel and interesting way to stay in power—govern pragmatically, focus on the economy and give people what they want.” He said everyone who wanted a job had one; small and midsize businesses were doing well; and the BOJ’s unprecedented program of monetary easing had provided easy credit for corporate restructuring without generating inflation. Abe had also vowed to make both preschool and college free.

Like China’s economic model, Abenomics has been called a Ponzi scheme, funded by central bank-created “free” money. But whatever it is called, the strategy has been working for the economy. Even the once-dubious International Monetary Fund has declared Abenomics a success.

The Bank of Japan’s massive bond-buying program has also been called “helicopter money” — a policy in which the central bank directly finances government spending by underwriting bonds – and it has been compared to Modern Monetary Theory, which similarly posits that the government can spend money into existence with central bank funding. As Nathan Lewis wrote in Forbes in February 2019:

In practice, something like “MMT” has reached a new level of sophistication these days, exemplified by Japan. . . . The Bank of Japan now holds government bonds amounting to more than 100% of GDP. In other words, the government has managed to finance itself “with the printing press” to the amount of about 100% of GDP, with no inflationary consequences. [Emphasis added.]

Japanese officials have resisted comparisons with both helicopter money and MMT, arguing that Japanese law does not allow the government to sell its bonds directly to the central bank. As in the US, the government’s bonds must be sold on the open market, a limitation that also prevents the US government from directly monetizing its debt. But as Bank of Japan Deputy Governor Kikuo Iwata observed in a 2013 Reuters article, where the bonds are sold does not matter. What is important is that the central bank has agreed to buy them, and it is here that US banking law diverges from the laws of both Japan and China.

Central Banking Asia-style

When the US Treasury sells bonds on the open market, it can only hope the Fed will buy them. Any attempt by the president or the legislature to influence Fed policy is considered a gross interference with the sacrosanct independence of the central bank.

In theory, the central banks of China and Japan are also independent. Both are members of the Bank for International Settlements, which stresses the importance of maintaining the stability of the currency and the independence of the central bank; and both countries revised their banking laws in the 1990s to better reflect those policies. But their banking laws still differ in significant ways from those of the US.

In Japan, the Bank of Japan is legally free to set interest rates, but it must cooperate closely with the Ministry of Finance in setting policy. Article 4 of the 1997 Bank of Japan Act says:

The Bank of Japan shall, taking into account the fact that currency and monetary control is a component of overall economic policy, always maintain close contact with the government and exchange views sufficiently, so that its currency and monetary control and the basic stance of the government’s economic policy shall be mutually compatible.

Unlike in the US, Prime Minister Abe can negotiate with the head of the central bank to buy the government’s bonds, ensuring that the debt is, in fact, turned into new money that will stimulate domestic economic growth; and he is completely within his legal rights in doing it.

The leverage of China’s central government over its central bank is even stronger than the Japanese prime minister’s. The 1995 Law of the People’s Republic of China on the People’s Bank of China states:

The People’s Bank of China shall, under the leadership of the State Council, formulate and implement monetary policies, guard against and eliminate financial risks, and maintain financial stability.

The State Council has final decision-making power on such things as the annual money supply, interest rates and exchange rates; and it has used this power to stabilize the economy by directing and regulating the issuance of bank credit, the new Chinese macroeconomic model that Noah Smith says holds important lessons for us.

The successful six-year run of Abenomics, along with China’s decades of unprecedented economic growth, have proven that governments can indeed monetize their debts, expanding the money supply and stimulating the economy, without driving up consumer prices. The monetarist theories of US policymakers are obsolete and need to be discarded.

Kyouryoku,” the Japanese word for cooperation, is composed of characters that mean “together strength” – “stronger by working together.” This is a recognized principle in Asian culture and it is an approach we would do well to adopt. What US presidential candidates from both parties should talk about is how to modify the law so that Congress, the Administration and the central bank can work together in setting monetary policy, following the approaches successfully modeled in China and Japan.

First posted under another title at TruthDig.org

Libra: Facebook’s Audacious Bid for Global Monetary Control

Payments can happen cheaply and easily without banks or credit card companies. This has now been demonstrated – not in the United States but in China. Unlike in the US, where numerous firms feast on fees from handling and processing payments, in China most money flows through mobile phones nearly for free. In 2018 these cashless payments totaled a whopping $41.5 trillion; and 90% were through Alipay and WeChat Pay, a pair of digital ecosystems that blend social media, commerce and banking. According to a May 2018 article in Bloomberg titled “Why China’s Payment Apps Give U.S. Bankers Nightmares”:

The nightmare for the U.S. financial industry is that a technology company—whether from China or a homegrown juggernaut such as Amazon.com Inc. or Facebook Inc.—replicates the success of Alipay and WeChat in America. The stakes are enormous, potentially carving away billions of dollars in annual revenue from major banks and other firms.

That threat may now be materializing. On June 18, Facebook unveiled a white paper outlining ambitious plans to create a new global cryptocurrency called Libra, to be launched in 2020. The New York Times says Facebook has high hopes that Libra will become the foundation for a new financial system free of control by Wall Street power brokers and central banks.

But apparently Libra will not be competing with Visa or Mastercard. In fact, the Libra Association lists those two giants among its 28 soon-to-be founding members. Others include Paypal, Stripe, Uber, Lyft and eBay. Facebook has reportedly courted dozens of financial institutions and other tech companies to join the Libra Association, an independent foundation that will contribute capital and help govern the digital currency. Entry barriers are high, with each founding member paying a minimum of $10 million to join. This gives them one vote  (or 1% of the total vote, whichever is larger)  in the Libra Association council. Members are also entitled to a share proportionate to their investment of the dividends earned from  interest on the Libra reserve – the money that users will pay to acquire the Libra currency.

All of which has raised some eyebrows, both among financial analysts and crypto activists. A Zero Hedge commentator calls Libra “Facebook’s Crypto Trojan Rabbit.” An article in FT’s Alphaville calls it “Blockchain, but Without the Blocks or Chain.” Economist Noriel Roubini concurs, tweeting:

It will start as a private, permissioned, not-trustless, centralized oligopolistic members-only club. So much for calling it “blockchain”. … [I]t is blockchain in name only and a monopoly to extract massive seignorage from billions of users. A monopoly scam.

Another Zero Hedge writer calls Libra “The Dollar’s Killer App,” which threatens “not only the power of central banks but also the government’s money monopoly itself.”

From Frying Pan to Fire?

To the crypto-anarchist community, usurping the power of central banks and governments may sound like a good thing. But handing global power to the corporate-controlled Libra Association could be a greater nightmare. So argues Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, who writes in The Financial Times:

This currency would insert a powerful new corporate layer of monetary control between central banks and individuals. Inevitably, these companies will put their private interests — profits and influence — ahead of public ones. . . .

The Libra Association’s goals specifically say that [they] will encourage “decentralised forms of governance”. In other words, Libra will disrupt and weaken nation states by enabling people to move out of unstable local currencies and into a currency denominated in dollars and euros and managed by corporations. . . .

What Libra backers are calling “decentralisation” is in truth a shift of power from developing world central banks toward multinational corporations and the US Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank.

Power will shift to the Fed and ECB because the dollar and the euro will squeeze out weaker currencies in developing countries. As seen recently in Greece, the result will be to cause their governments to lose control of their currencies and their economies.

Pros and Cons

In a June 9 review in Forbes, Caitlin Long, co-founder of the Wyoming Blockchain Coalition, agreed that Libra was a Trojan horse but predicted that it would have some beneficial effects. For one, she thought it would impose discipline on the US banking system by leading to populist calls to repeal their corporate subsidies. The Fed is now paying its member banks 2.35% in risk-free interest on their excess reserves, which this year is projected to total $36 billion of corporate welfare to US banks – about half the sum spent on the US food stamp program. If Facebook parks its entire US dollar balance at the Federal Reserve through one of its bank partners, it could earn the same rate. But Long predicted that Facebook would have to pay interest to Libra users to avoid a chorus of critics, who would loudly publicize how much money Facebook and its partners were pocketing from the interest on the money users traded for their Libra currency.

But that was before the Libra white paper came out. It reveals that the profits will indeed be divvied among Facebook’s Libra partners rather than shared with users. At one time, we earned interest on our deposits in government-insured banks. With Libra, we will get no interest on our money, which will be entrusted to uninsured crypto exchanges, which are coming under increasing regulatory pressure due to lack of transparency and operational irregularities.

UK economics professor Alistair Milne points to another problem with the Libra cryptocurrency: unlike Bitcoin, it will be a “stablecoin,” whose value will be tied to a basket of fiat currencies and short-term government securities. That means it will need the backing of real money to maintain its fixed price. If reserves do not cover withdrawals, who will be responsible for compensating Libra holders? Ideally, Milne writes, reserves would be held with the central bank; but central banks will be reluctant to support a private currency.

Caitlin Long also predicts that Facebook’s cryptocurrency will be a huge honeypot of data for government officials, since every transaction will be traceable. But other reviewers see this as Libra’s most fatal flaw. Facebook has been called Big Brother, the ultimate government surveillance tool. Conspiracy theorists link it to the CIA and the US Department of Defense. Facebook has already demonstrated that it is an untrustworthy manager of personal data. How then can we trust it with our money?

Why Use a Cryptocurrency at All?

A June 20th CoinDesk article asks why Facebook has chosen to use a cryptocurrency rather than following WeChat and AliPay in doing a global payments network in the traditional way. The article quotes Yan Meng, vice president of the Chinese Software Developer Network, who says Facebook’s fragmented user base across the world leaves it with no better choice than to borrow ideas from blockchain and cryptocurrency.

“Facebook just can’t do a global payments network via traditional methods, which require applying for a license and preparing foreign exchange reserves with local banking, one market after another,” said Meng. “The advantage of WeChat and AliPay is they have already gained a significant number of users from just one giant economy that accounts for 20 percent of the world’s population.” They have no need to establish their own digital currencies, which they still regard as too risky.

Meng suspects that Facebook’s long-term ambition is to become a stateless central bank that uses Libra as a base currency. He wrote in a June 16 article, “With sufficient incentives, nodes of Facebook’s Libra network would represent Facebook to push for utility in various countries for its 2.7 billion users in business, investment, trade and financial services,” which “would help complete a full digital economy empire.”

The question is whether regulators will allow that sort of competition with the central banking system. Immediately after Facebook released its Libra cryptocurrency plan, financial regulators in Europe voiced concerns over the potential danger of Facebook running a “shadow bank.” Maxine Waters, who heads the Financial Services Committee for the US House of Representatives, asked Facebook to halt its development of Libra until hearings could be held. She said:

This is like starting a bank without having to go through any steps to do it. . . . We can’t allow Facebook to go to Switzerland and begin to compete with the dollar without having any regulatory regime that’s dealing with them. 

A Stateless Private Central Bank or a Publicly Accountable One?

Facebook may be competing with more than the dollar. Jennifer Grygiel, Assistant Professor of Communications at Syracuse University, writes:

. . . [It] seems that the company is not seeking to compete with Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies. Rather, Facebook is looking to replace the existing global financial system with an all-new setup, with Libra at its center.

At least at the moment, the Libra is being designed as a form of electronic money linked to many national currencies. That has raised fears that Libra might someday be recognized as a sovereign currency, with Facebook acting as a “shadow bank” that could compete with the central banks of countries around the world.

Caitlin Long thinks Bitcoin rather than Libra will come out the winner in all this; but Bitcoin’s blockchain model is too slow, expensive and energy-intensive to replace fiat currency as a medium of exchange on a national scale. As Josh Constine writes on Techcrunch.com:

[E]xisting cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum weren’t properly engineered to scale to be a medium of exchange. Their unanchored price was susceptible to huge and unpredictable swings, making it tough for merchants to accept as payment. And cryptocurrencies miss out on much of their potential beyond speculation unless there are enough places that will take them instead of dollars . . . . But with Facebook’s relationship with 7 million advertisers and 90 million small businesses plus its user experience prowess, it was well-poised to tackle this juggernaut of a problem.

For Libra to scale as a national medium of exchange, its governance had to be centralized rather than “distributed.” But Libra’s governing body is not the sort of global controller we want. Jennifer Grygiel writes:

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg . . . is declaring that he wants Facebook to become a virtual nation, populated by users, powered by a self-contained economy, and headed by a CEO – Zuckerberg himself – who is not even accountable to his shareholders. . . .

In many ways the company that Mark Zuckerberg is building is beginning to look more like a Roman Empire, now with its own central bank and currency, than a corporation. The only problem is that this new nation-like platform is a controlled company and is run more like a dictatorship than a sovereign country with democratically elected leaders.

A currency intended for trade on a national—let alone international—scale needs to be not only centralized but democratized, responding to the will of the people and their elected leaders. Rather than bypassing the existing central banking structure as Facebook plans to do, several groups of economists are proposing a more egalitarian solution: nationalizing and democratizing the central bank by opening its deposit window to everyone. As explored in my latest book, “Banking on the People: Democratizing Money in the Digital Age,” these proposals could allow us all to get 2.35% on our deposits, while eliminating bank runs and banking crises, since the central bank cannot run out of funds. Profits from the public medium of exchange need to return to the public, rather than enriching an unaccountable, corporate-controlled Facebook Trojan horse.

• This article was first posted under a different title on Truthdig.org.

The American Dream Is Alive and Well – in China

Home ownership has been called “the quintessential American dream.” Yet today less than 65% of American homes are owner occupied, and more than 50% of the equity in those homes is owned by the banks. Compare China, where, despite facing one of the most expensive real estate markets in the world, a whopping 90% of families can afford to own their homes.

Over the last decade, American wages have stagnated and U.S. productivity has consistently been outpaced by China’s. The U.S. government has responded by engaging in a trade war and imposing stiff tariffs in order to penalize China for what the White House deems unfair trade practices. China’s industries are said to be propped up by the state and to have significantly lower labor costs, allowing them to dump cheap products on the U.S. market, causing prices to fall and forcing U.S. companies out of business. The message to middle America is that Chinese labor costs are low because their workers are being exploited in slave-like conditions at poverty-level wages.

But if that’s true, how is it that the great majority of Chinese families own homes? According to a March 2016 article in Forbes:

… 90% of families in the country own their home, giving China one of the highest home ownership rates in the world. What’s more is that 80% of these homes are owned outright, without mortgages or any other liens. On top of this, north of 20% of urban households own more than one home.

Due to their communist legacy, what Chinese buyers get for their money is not actually ownership in perpetuity but a long-term leasehold, and the quality of the construction may be poor. But the question posed here is, how can Chinese families afford the price tag for these homes, in a country where the average income is only one-seventh that in the United States?

The Misleading Disparity Between U.S. and Chinese Incomes

Some commentators explain the phenomenon by pointing to cultural differences. The Chinese are inveterate savers, with household savings rates that are more than double those in the U.S.; and they devote as much as 74%of their money to housing. Under China’s earlier one-child policy, many families had only one heir, who tended to be male; and home ownership was a requirement to score a wife. Families would therefore pool their resources to make sure their sole heir was equipped for the competition. Homes would be purchased either with large down payments or without financing at all. Financing through banks at compound interest rates doubles the cost of a typical mortgage, so sidestepping the banks cuts the cost of housing in half.

Those factors alone, however, cannot explain the difference in home ownership rates between the two countries. The average middle-class U.S. family could not afford to buy a home outright for their oldest heir even if they did pool their money. Americans would be savers if they could, but they have other bills to pay. And therein lies a major difference between Chinese and American family wealth: In China, the cost of living is significantly lower. The Chinese government subsidizes not only its industries but its families—with educational, medical and transportation subsidies.

According to a 2017 HSBC fact sheet, 70% of Chinese millennials (ages 19 to 36) already own their own homes. American young people cannot afford to buy homes because they are saddled with student debt, a millstone that now averages $37,000 per student and will be carried an average of 20 years before it is paid off. A recent survey found that 80% of American workers are living paycheck to paycheck. Another found that 60% of U.S. millennials could not come up with $500 to cover their tax bills.

In China, by contrast, student debt is virtually nonexistent. Heavy government subsidies have made higher education cheap enough that students can work their way through college with a part-time job. Health care is also subsidized by the government, with a state-run health insurance program similar to Canada’s. The program doesn’t cover everything, but medical costs are still substantially lower than in the U.S. Public transportation, too, is quite affordable in China, and it is fast, efficient and ubiquitous.

The disparity in incomes between American and Chinese workers is misleading for other reasons. The “average” income includes the very rich along with the poor; in the U.S., the gap between those two classes is greater than in China. The oversize incomes at the top pull the average up.

Even worse, however, is the disparity in debt levels, which pulls disposable income down. A survey after the 2008-09 credit crisis found that household debt in the U.S. was 136% of household income, compared with only 17% for the Chinese.

Another notable difference is that 70% of Chinese family wealth comes not from salaries but from home ownership itself. Under communism, all real property was owned by the state. When Deng Xiaoping opened the market to private ownership, families had an opportunity to get a home on reasonable terms; and as new homes were built they traded up, building the family asset base.

Deng’s market liberalization also gave families an income boost by allowing them to become entrepreneurs. New family-owned businesses sprang up, aided by affordable loans. Cheap credit from state-owned banks subsidized state-affiliated industries as well.

“Quantitative Easing With Chinese Characteristics”

All this was done with the help of China’s federal government, which in recent decades has pumped massive amounts of economic stimulus into the economy. Unlike the U.S. Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing, which went straight into big bank reserve accounts, the Chinese stimulus has generated new money for productive purposes, including local business development and infrastructure. Sometimes called “qualitative easing,” this “quantitative easing with Chinese characteristics” has meant more jobs, more GDP and more money available to spend, which in turn improves quality of life.

The Chinese government has done this without amassing a crippling federal debt or triggering runaway inflation. In the last 20 years, its M2 money supply has grown from just over 10 trillion yuan to 80 trillion yuan ($11.6T), a nearly 800% increase. Yet the inflation rate of its Consumer Price Index (CPI) has remained low. In February of this year, it was just 1.5%. In May it rose to 2.7% due to an outbreak of swine fever, which drove pork prices up; but this was a response to shortages, not to an increase in the money supply. Radically increasing the money supply has not driven consumer prices up because GDP has increased at an even faster rate. Supply and demand have risen together, keeping consumer prices low.

Real estate prices, on the other hand, have skyrocketed 325% in the last two decades, fueled by a Chinese shadow banking system that is largely beyond regulatory control. Pundits warn that China’s housing is in an unsustainable bubble that will pop, but the Chinese housing market is still more stable than the U.S. subprime market before 2008, with its “no-doc no-down” loans. Chinese buyers typically put 40 to 50% down on their homes, and the demand for houses remains high. The central bank is also taking steps to cool the market, by targeting credit so that it is steered away from real estate and other existing assets and toward newly-produced goods and services.

That central bank intervention illustrates another difference between Chinese-style qualitative easing and Western-style QE. The People’s Bank of China is not trying to improve banking sector liquidity so that banks can make more loans. Chinese economists say they don’t need that form of QE. China’s banks are already lending, and the central bank has plenty of room to manipulate interest rates and control the money supply. China’s central bank is directing credit into the local economy because it doesn’t trust the private financial market to allocate credit where local markets need it. True to its name, the People’s Bank of China seems actually to be a people’s bank, geared to serving the economy and the public rather than just the banks themselves.

Time for More QE?

 In early April, President Trump said in one of his many criticisms of the U.S.  central bank that he thought the Fed should be doing more quantitative easing (expanding the money supply) rather than quantitative tightening (shrinking the money supply). Commentators were left scratching their heads, because the official U.S. unemployment rate is considered to be low. But more QE could be a good idea if it were done as Chinese-style qualitative easing. A form of monetary expansion that would allow Congress to relieve medical and educational costs, grant cheap credit to states to upgrade their roads and mass transit, and support local businesses could go a long way toward making American workers competitive with Chinese workers.

Unlike the U.S. government, the Chinese government supports its workers and its industries. Rather than penalizing China for that “unfair” trade practice, perhaps the U.S. government should try doing the same. China’s legacy is socialist, and after opening to international trade it has continued to serve the collective good, particularly of its workers. Meanwhile, the U.S. model has been regressing into feudalism, with workers driven into slave-like conditions through debt. In the 21st century, it is time to upgrade our economic model from one of feudal exploitation to a cooperative democracy that recognizes the needs, contributions and inalienable rights of all participants.

• Article was first published on Truthdig.org.

The Bankers’ “Power Revolution”: How the Government Got Shackled by Debt

This article is excerpted from my new book Banking on the People: Democratizing Money in the Digital Age, available in paperback June 1.

*****

The U.S. federal debt has more than doubled since the 2008 financial crisis, shooting up from $9.4 trillion in mid-2008 to over $22 trillion in April 2019. The debt is never paid off. The government just keeps paying the interest on it, and interest rates are rising.

In 2018, the Fed announced plans to raise rates by 2020 to “normal” levels — a fed funds target of 3.375 percent — and to sell about $1.5 trillion in federal securities at the rate of $50 billion monthly, further growing the mountain of federal debt on the market. When the Fed holds government securities, it returns the interest to the government after deducting its costs; but the private buyers of these securities will be pocketing the interest, adding to the taxpayers’ bill.

In fact, it is the interest, not the debt itself, that is the problem with a burgeoning federal debt. The principal just gets rolled over from year to year. But the interest must be paid to private bondholders annually by the taxpayers and constitutes one of the biggest items in the federal budget. Currently the Fed’s plans for “quantitative tightening” are on hold; but assuming it follows through with them, projections are that by 2027 U.S. taxpayers will owe $1 trillion annually just in interest on the federal debt. That is enough to fund President Donald Trump’s trillion-dollar infrastructure plan every year, and it is a direct transfer of wealth from the middle class to the wealthy investors holding most of the bonds.

Where will this money come from? Crippling taxes, wholesale privatization of public assets, and elimination of social services will not be sufficient to cover the bill.

Bondholder Debt Is Unnecessary

The irony is that the United States does not need to carry a debt to bondholders at all. It has been financially sovereign ever since President Franklin D. Roosevelt took the dollar off the gold standard domestically in 1933. This was recognized by Beardsley Ruml, Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, in a 1945 presentation before the American Bar Association titled “Taxes for Revenue Are Obsolete.”

“The necessity for government to tax in order to maintain both its independence and its solvency is true for state and local governments,” he said, “but it is not true for a national government.” The government was now at liberty to spend as needed to meet its budget, drawing on credit issued by its own central bank. It could do this until price inflation indicated a weakened purchasing power of the currency.

Then, and only then, would the government need to levy taxes — not to fund the budget but to counteract inflation by contracting the money supply. The principal purpose of taxes, said Ruml, was “the maintenance of a dollar which has stable purchasing power over the years. Sometimes this purpose is stated as ‘the avoidance of inflation.’

The government could be funded without taxes by drawing on credit from its own central bank; and since there was no longer a need for gold to cover the loan, the central bank would not have to borrow. It could just create the money on its books. This insight is a basic tenet of Modern Monetary Theory: the government does not need to borrow or tax, at least until prices are driven up. It can just create the money it needs. The government could create money by issuing it directly; or by borrowing it directly from the central bank, which would create the money on its books; or by taking a perpetual overdraft on the Treasury’s account at the central bank, which would have the same effect.

The “Power Revolution” — Transferring the “Money Power” to the Banks

The Treasury could do that in theory, but some laws would need to be changed. Currently the federal government is not allowed to borrow directly from the Fed and is required to have the money in its account before spending it. After the dollar went off the gold standard in 1933, Congress could have had the Fed just print money and lend it to the government, cutting the banks out. But Wall Street lobbied for an amendment to the Federal Reserve Act, forbidding the Fed to buy bonds directly from the Treasury as it had done in the past.

The Treasury can borrow from itself by transferring money from “intragovernmental accounts” — Social Security and other trust funds that are under the auspices of the Treasury and have a surplus – but these funds do not include the Federal Reserve, which can lend to the government only by buying federal securities from bond dealers. The Fed is considered independent of the government. Its website states, “The Federal Reserve’s holdings of Treasury securities are categorized as ‘held by the public,’ because they are not in government accounts.”

According to Marriner Eccles, chairman of the Federal Reserve from 1934 to 1948, the prohibition against allowing the government to borrow directly from its own central bank was written into the Banking Act of 1935 at the behest of those bond dealers that have an exclusive right to purchase directly from the Fed. A historical review on the website of the New York Federal Reserve quotes Eccles as stating, “I think the real reasons for writing the prohibition into the [Banking Act] … can be traced to certain Government bond dealers who quite naturally had their eyes on business that might be lost to them if direct purchasing were permitted.”

The government was required to sell bonds through Wall Street middlemen, which the Fed could buy only through “open market operations” – purchases on the private bond market. Open market operations are conducted by the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC), which meets behind closed doors and is dominated by private banker interests. The FOMC has no obligation to buy the government’s debt and generally does so only when it serves the purposes of the Fed and the banks.

Rep. Wright Patman, Chairman of the House Committee on Banking and Currency from 1963 to 1975, called the official sanctioning of the Federal Open Market Committee in the banking laws of 1933 and 1935 “the power revolution” — the transfer of the “money power” to the banks. Patman said, “The ‘open market’ is in reality a tightly closed market.” Only a selected few bond dealers were entitled to bid on the bonds the Treasury made available for auction each week. The practical effect, he said, was to take money from the taxpayer and give it to these dealers.

Feeding Off the Real Economy

That massive Wall Street subsidy was the subject of testimony by Eccles to the House Committee on Banking and Currency on March 3-5, 1947. Patman asked Eccles, “Now, since 1935, in order for the Federal Reserve banks to buy Government bonds, they had to go through a middleman, is that correct?” Eccles replied in the affirmative. Patman then launched into a prophetic warning, stating, “I am opposed to the United States Government, which possesses the sovereign and exclusive privilege of creating money, paying private bankers for the use of its own money. … I insist it is absolutely wrong for this committee to permit this condition to continue and saddle the taxpayers of this Nation with a burden of debt that they will not be able to liquidate in a hundred years or two hundred years.”

The truth of that statement is painfully evident today, when we have a $22 trillion debt that cannot possibly be repaid. The government just keeps rolling it over and paying the interest to banks and bondholders, feeding the “financialized” economy in which money makes money without producing new goods and services. The financialized economy has become a parasite feeding off the real economy, driving producers and workers further and further into debt.

In the 1960s, Patman attempted to have the Fed nationalized. The effort failed, but his committee did succeed in forcing the central bank to return its profits to the Treasury after deducting its costs. The prohibition against direct lending by the central bank to the government, however, remains in force. The money power is still with the FOMC and the banks.

A Model We Can No Longer Afford

Today, the debt-growth model has reached its limits, as even the Bank for International Settlements, the “central bankers’ bank” in Switzerland, acknowledges. In its June 2016 annual report, the BIS said that debt levels were too high, productivity growth was too low, and the room for policy maneuver was too narrow. “The global economy cannot afford to rely any longer on the debt-fueled growth model that has brought it to the current juncture,” the BIS warned.

But the solutions it proposed would continue the austerity policies long imposed on countries that cannot pay their debts. It prescribed “prudential, fiscal and, above all, structural policies” — “structural readjustment.” That means privatizing public assets, slashing services, and raising taxes, choking off the very productivity needed to pay the nations’ debts. That approach has repeatedly been tried and has failed, as witnessed, for example, in the devastated economy of Greece.

Meanwhile, according to Minneapolis Fed president Neel Kashkari, financial regulation since 2008 has reduced the chances of another government bailout only modestly, from 84 percent to 67 percent. That means there is still a 67 percent chance of another major systemwide crisis, and this one could be worse than the last. The biggest banks are bigger, local banks are fewer, and global debt levels are higher. The economy has farther to fall. The regulators’ models are obsolete, aimed at a form of “old-fashioned banking” that has long since been abandoned.

We need a new model, one designed to serve the needs of the public and the economy rather than to maximize shareholder profits at public expense.

An earlier version of this article was published in Truthout.org.

The Public Banking Revolution Is Upon Us

As public banking gains momentum across the country, policymakers in California and Washington state are vying to form the nation’s second state-owned bank, following in the footsteps of the highly successful Bank of North Dakota, founded in 1919. The race is close, with state bank bills now passing their first round of hearings in both states’ senates.

In California, the story begins in 2011, when then-Assemblyman Ben Hueso filed his first bill to explore the creation of a state bank. The bill, which was for a blue-ribbon committee to do a feasibility study, sailed through both legislative houses and seemed to be a go. That is, until Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed it, not on grounds that he disapproved of the concept, but because he said we did not need another blue-ribbon committee. The state had a banking committee that could review the matter in-house. Needless to say, nothing was heard of the proposal after that.

So when now-Sen. Hueso filed SB 528 earlier this year, he went straight for setting up a state bank. The details could be worked out during the two to three years it would take to get a master account from the Federal Reserve, by a commission drawn from in-house staff that had access to the data and understood the issues.

Sen. Hueso also went for the low hanging fruit—a proposal to turn an existing state institution, the California Infrastructure and Development Bank (or “IBank”), into a depository bank that could leverage its capital into multiple loans. By turning the $400 million IBank currently has for loans into bank capital, it could lend $4 billion, backed by demand deposits from the local governments that are its clients. The IBank has a 15-year record of success; experienced staff and detailed procedures already in place; low-risk customers, consisting solely of government entities; and low-interest loans for infrastructure and development that are in such high demand that requests are 30 times current capacity.

The time is also right for bringing the bill, as a growing public banking movement is picking up momentum across the U.S. Over 25 public bank bills are currently active, and dozens of groups are promoting the idea. Advocates include a highly motivated generation of young millennials, who are only too aware that the old system is not working for them and a new direction is needed.

Banks now create most of our money supply and need to be made public utilities, following the stellar precedent of the Bank of North Dakota, which makes below-market loans for local communities and businesses while turning a profit for the state. The Bank of North Dakota was founded in 1919 in response to a farmers’ revolt against out-of-state banks that were foreclosing unfairly on their farms. Since then it has evolved into a $7.4 billion bank that is reported to be even more profitable than JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs, although its mandate is not actually to make a profit but simply to serve the interests of local North Dakota communities. Along with hundreds of public banks worldwide, it has demonstrated what can be done by cutting out private shareholders and middlemen and mobilizing public revenues to serve the public interest.

The time is right politically to adopt that model. The newly elected California governor, Gavin Newsom, has expressed strong interest both in a state-owned bank and in the IBank approach. In Los Angeles, the City Council brought a measure for a city-owned bank that won 44% of the vote in November, and City Council President Herb Wesson has stated that the measure will be brought again. Where there is the political will, policymakers generally find a way.

Advocates in eight Golden State cities have formed the California Public Banking Alliance, which co-sponsored another public banking bill filed just last month. Introduced by Assembly Members David Chiu and Miguel Santiago, Assembly Bill 857 would enable the chartering of public banks by local California governments. The bill, which has broad grassroots support, would “authorize the lending of public credit to public banks and authorize public ownership of stock in public banks for the purpose of achieving cost savings, strengthening local economies, supporting community economic development, and addressing infrastructure and housing needs for localities.”

The first hearing on Hueso’s Senate Bill 528 was held in Sacramento last week before the Senate Committee on Governance and Finance, where it passed. The bill goes next to the Senate Banking Committee. With momentum growing, California could be the first state in the 21st century to form its own bank; but it is getting heavy competition in that race from Washington State.

Washington’s Public Bank Movement: The Virtues of Persistence

Like Sen. Hueso, Washington State Sen. Bob Hasegawa filed his first bill for a state-owned bank nearly a decade ago. The measure is now in its fifth iteration. Along the way, his Senate State Banking Caucus has acquired 23 members, just three votes short of a senate majority.

As Sen. Patty Kuderer explained at an informational forum held by the Caucus in October, their bills kept getting stalled with the same questions and concerns, and they saw that a different approach was needed; so in 2017, they advised the state to hire professional banking consultants to address the concerns and to draft a business plan that would “move the concept forward from the theoretical to the concrete, so that legislators would have a solid idea of what they would eventually be voting on.” They could bypass the studies and go straight to a business plan that laid out the nuts and bolts.

The maneuver worked. Senate Bill 6375 was the first public banking bill to be advanced out of the Policy Committee with bipartisan support. It got stalled in the Ways and Means Committee, but another bill, SB 5959, was filed this year. In yet another bill, SB 6032-Supplemental Budget, the fiscal Ways and Means committee committed $480,000 to assessing risk and developing a business plan for the effort.

The form of the proposed bank was also modified: a bank that simply would have received the state’s tax funds as deposits evolved into a “co-op” that would be open to membership not just by the state but by all “political subdivisions that have a tax base.” Opening the co-op bank’s membership would allow it to generate substantially more credit than could be made from the state’s revenues alone, since it would have the ability to hold as deposits the combined revenues of cities, counties, ports and utility districts, as well as of the state itself. Those entities would also be able to borrow at below-market rates from the co-op bank and to leverage the tax dollars they collected. The concept was similar to that being advanced in California’s SB 528, which would allow the IBank to expand its lending capacity to local governments by taking the demand deposits of those same governments and affiliated public entities.

The Washington State business plan is due no later than June 30, 2019, and legislators expect to vote on the bill no later than 2020.

Whenever it happens, says Sen. Hasegawa, “I see a public bank as almost inevitable because of the current financial structures we’re required to live under.” State infrastructure needs are huge, and the existing funding options—raising taxes, cutting services and increasing debt levels—have been exhausted. Newly-created credit directed into local communities by publicly-owned banks can provide the additional funding that local governments critically need.

Whichever state wins the race for the next state bank, the implications are huge. A century after the very successful Bank of North Dakota proved the model, the time has finally come to apply it across the country.

• This article was first published on Truthdig.com

Why Is the Fed Paying So Much Interest to Banks?

If you invest your tuppence wisely in the bank, safe and sound,
Soon that tuppence safely invested in the bank will compound,

And you’ll achieve that sense of conquest as your affluence expands
In the hands of the directors who invest as propriety demands.

— Mary Poppins, 1964

When Mary Poppins was made into a movie in 1964, Mr. Banks’ advice to his son was sound. Banks were then paying more than 5% interest on deposits, enough to double young Michael’s investment every 14 years.

Now, however, the average savings account pays only 0.10% annually – that’s 1/10th of 1% – and many of the country’s biggest banks pay less than that. If you were to put $5,000 in a regular Bank of America savings account (paying 0.01%) today, in a year you would have collected only 50 cents in interest.

That’s true for most of us, but banks themselves are earning 2.4% on their deposits at the Federal Reserve. These deposits, called “excess reserves,” include the reserves the banks got from our deposits, on which they are paying almost nothing; and unlike with our deposits, there is no $250,000 cap on the sums banks can stash at the Fed amassing interest. A whopping $1.5 trillion in reserves are now sitting in Fed reserve accounts. The Fed rebates its profits to the government after deducting its costs, and interest paid to banks is one of those costs. That means we the taxpayers are paying $36 billion annually to private banks for the privilege of parking their excess reserves at one of the most secure banks in the world – parking their reserves rather than lending them out.

The banks are getting these outsized returns while taking absolutely no risk, since the Fed as “lender of last resort” cannot go bankrupt. This is not true for other depositors, including large institutions such as the pension funds that hold our retirement money. As Matt Levine notes in a March 8 article on Bloomberg:

[I]f you are a large institutional cash investor—a money-market fund, a foreign central bank, things like that—then in some sense you have no way to keep your money perfectly safe…. The closest that big non-banks normally get is “overnight general collateral repo”: You give your money to a bank, and the bank gives you back a Treasury security as collateral, and you can get your money back the next day.

This arrangement is reasonably safe for the institutional investor, which can withdraw its money on a day’s notice; and it gets interest that is close to 2.4%. But the bank is using the investor’s money to run its business, and the bank is leveraged. The money it gets from repoing Treasuries is used to buy other things and to trade in stocks, bonds, derivatives and the like. This makes the repo business highly risky for the market as a whole, as was seen when a run on the repo market triggered the credit crisis of 2008-09. As Jennifer Taub explained the problem in a 2014 article in the New York Times titled “Time to Reduce Repo Run Risk”:

An overnight repo would be like you having a car loan that is due in full every morning and if the lender does not renew your loan that day, you need to find a new one, each and every day or they take your car away.

When trust is strong and cash plentiful, repos are rolled over. When trust reasonably erodes, or there is a panic, cash is demanded from the repo borrowers who might have to sell the collateral or relinquish it…. Indeed, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York has repeatedly warned of the repo “fire sale” risk.

Taub cited FDIC officials Thomas Hoenig and Sheila Bair, who warned that the banks remain dangerously interconnected and vulnerable to sudden runs due to their dependence on short-term, often overnight borrowing through the multitrillion-dollar repo market.

For large institutional investors, one proposed alternative is something called “The Narrow Bank” (TNB). TNB would take large-depositor money and park it at the Fed, and that’s all the bank would do. The Fed would pay 2.4%, TNB would take a small cut, and the rest would be passed to the depositors. But the Fed has refused to open this sort of pass-through account, and in a recent notice of proposed rulemaking it explained why. As Matt Levine summarized its concerns:

[T]he Fed worries that having too safe a bank would be bad for financial stability: In times of stress, everyone will flee from the regular banks to the super-safe narrow banks, which will have the effect of bringing down the regular banks.

Besides impairing its ability to target interest rates, the Fed is worried that narrow banks will take funding away from regular banks, making it harder for those banks to trade stocks and bonds (a business largely funded by repo) as well as jeopardizing their lending business. All of which shows, says Levine, that the Fed is not a neutral arbiter. It is working for the banks:

The Fed just gets to decide who gets to compete in the banking business, and how that competition will work, and what their business models can be, by virtue of its control of access to reserve accounts…. There is no modern banking that is independent of the sovereign’s power to control money, and the question is just who the sovereign shares that power with.

The European Approach: Negative Interest Rates

While US banks are being paid an unprecedented 2.4% for leaving their reserves at the Fed, the European Central Bank is taking the opposite tack: it is charging banks a negative interest rate of 0.4% for holding their reserves. The goal is to get banks to move the reserves off their books by making new loans. If they lend money on to the real economy, and particularly to companies, this interest payment may be rebated to the banks under a facility called “targeted longer-term refinancing operations” or TLTROs. In 2016 and 2017, the ECB returned a total of 739 billion euros to banks through TLTROs, and it is expected to renew that program, in an effort to avoid an even greater economic downturn than Europe is suffering now.

Negative interest rates were supposed to be a temporary emergency measure, but in comments on March 27, ECB President Mario Draghi hinted that they could be around for a long time if not permanently. The “new normal” is evidently a chronically abnormal state of emergency in which central banks can experiment with the formerly unthinkable and get away with it.

A Public Option for the Rest of Us

Even if large depositors were allowed to participate in the perks of Fed accounts through TNB, small depositors and small businesses would still be left with a meager 1/10th of 1% annually on their deposits. But some interesting proposals are on the table for opening the Fed’s deposit window to everyone, allowing us all to collect 2.4% on our deposits.

One such plan was presented in a June 2018 policy paper titled “Central Banking for All: A Public Option for Bank Accounts” by a trio of law professors and former Treasury advisors headed by Morgan Ricks. They suggested that for the physical infrastructure to handle so many accounts, the Fed could use the post offices peppered across the country. Postal banking has been popular for two centuries in Europe and was offered in US post offices from 1911 to 1967. Postal banks were in their heyday in the 1930s, when private banks were going bankrupt and were vulnerable to crushing bank runs. The postal banks were government-backed, paid 2% interest on deposits, and were very safe. Congress could have expanded that system into a national public utility that safely and efficiently served the banking needs of local communities. But instead it chose to back the private banking system with federal deposit insurance, guaranteeing private bank deposits with taxpayer funds – again showing how the winners and losers are picked by government officials, depending on whose lobbyists have the most clout.

To prevent public banks from competing with private banks, Congress capped the amount of interest postal banks could pay and strictly limited their lending. As a result, in 1967 the postal banking system was shut down as being no longer competitive or necessary. But efforts are now underway to revive it. In April 2018, US Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand introduced legislation that would require every US post office to provide basic banking services.

A movement is also afoot to establish state- and city-owned banks that would have the ability to lend for infrastructure and other local needs. Local governments cannot get a risk-free 2.4% from the Fed for their demand deposits, but city- or state-owned banks could. Combining postal banks with a network of local public banks having affordable access to the Fed’s deep pocket could provide a safe and efficient public banking option for individuals, businesses and local governments.

This article was first published on Truthdig.com.