All posts by Ellen Brown

Is the Run on the Dollar Due to Panic or Greed?

What’s going on in the repo market? Rates on repurchase agreements (“repo”) should be around 2%, in line with the fed funds rate. But they shot up to over 5% on September 16 and got as high as 10% on September 17. Yet banks were refusing to lend to each other, evidently passing up big profits to hold onto their cash – just as they did in the housing market crash and Great Recession of 2008-09.

Since banks weren’t lending, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York jumped in, increasing its overnight repo operations to $75 billion; and on October 23 it upped the ante to $120 billion in overnight operations and $45 billion in longer-term operations.

Why are banks no longer lending to each other? Are they afraid that collapse is imminent somewhere in the system, as with the Lehman collapse in 2008?

Perhaps, and if so the likely suspect is Deutsche Bank. But it looks to be just another case of Wall Street fattening itself at the public trough, using the funds of mom and pop depositors to maximize bank profits and line the pockets of bank executives while depriving small businesses of affordable loans.

Why the Repo Market Is a Big Deal

The repo market allows banks and other financial institutions to borrow and lend to each another, usually overnight. More than $1 trillion in overnight repo transactions collateralized with U.S. government debt occur every day. Banks lacking available deposits frequently go to these markets to fund their loans and finance their trades.

Legally, repos are sales and repurchases; but they function like secured overnight or short-term loans. They work like a pawn shop: the lender takes an asset (usually a federal security) in exchange for cash, with an agreement to return the asset for the cash plus interest the next day unless the loan is rolled over.  The New York Fed currently engages in two types of repo operations: overnight repurchase agreements that unwind the next business day, and 14 day repurchase agreements that unwind after 14 days.

The Fed re-started its large-scale repo operations in September, when borrowing rates shot up due to an unexpectedly high demand for dollars. The Fed said the unusual demand was due largely to quarterly tax payments and Treasury debt settlements. Other factors proposed as contributing to the cash strains include regulatory change and a decline in bank reserves due to “quantitative tightening” (in which the Fed shrunk its balance sheet by selling some of its QE acquisitions back into the market), as well as unusually high government debt issuance over the last four years and a flight into U.S. currency and securities to avoid the negative interest rate policies of central banks abroad.

Panic or Calculated Self-interest?

The Fed’s stated objective in boosting the liquidity available to financial markets was simply to maintain its “target rate” for the interest charged by banks to each other in the fed funds market. But critics were not convinced. Why were private capital markets once again in need of public support if there was no financial crisis in sight? Was the Fed engaged in a stealth “QE4,” restarting its quantitative easing program?

The Fed insisted that it wasn’t, and financial analyst Wolf Richter agreed. Writing on Wolfstreet.com on October 10, he said the banks and particularly the primary dealers were hoarding their long-term securities in anticipation of higher profits. The primary dealers are the 24 U.S. and foreign broker-dealers and banks authorized to deal directly with the U.S. Treasury and the New York Fed. They were funding their horde of long-term securities in the repo market, putting pressure on that market, as the Fed said in the minutes for its July meeting even before repo rates blew out in mid-September. Richter contended:

They’d expected a massive bout of QE, and perhaps some of the players had gleefully contributed to, or even instigated the turmoil in the repo market to make sure they would get that massive bout of QE as the Fed would be forced to calm the waters with QE, the theory went. This QE would include big purchases of long-term securities to push down long-term yields, and drive up the prices of those bonds ….

Prices were high and yields were low, a sign that there was heavy demand. But the dealers were holding out for even higher prices and even lower yields. … Massive QE, where the Fed buys these types of Treasury securities, would accomplish that.

But that’s exactly what the Fed said it wouldn’t do.

What the Fed was doing instead, it said, was to revive its “standing repo facility” – the facility it had used before September 2008, when it abandoned that device in favor of QE and zero interest rate policy. But it insisted that this was not QE, expanding the money supply. Overnight repos are just an advance of credit, which must be repaid the next day. While $165 billion per month sounds like a lot, repo loans don’t accumulate; the Fed is just making short-term advances, available as needed up to a limit of $165 billion.

In Wall Street on Parade on October 28, Pam and Russ Martens pointed to another greed-driven trigger to the recent run on repo. The perpetrator was JPMorgan Chase, the largest bank in the U.S., with $1.6 trillion in deposits. Quoting David Henry on Reuters:

Publicly-filed data shows JPMorgan reduced the cash it has on deposit at the Federal Reserve, from which it might have lent, by $158 billion in the year through June, a 57% decline. … [T]he data shows its switch accounted for about a third of the drop in all banking reserves at the Fed during the period.

This $158 billion drawdown in JPMorgan’s reserve account is evidently what necessitated the Fed’s $165 billion in new repo offerings. But why the large drawdown?

Henry attributed it to regulatory changes that increased the bank’s required reserves, but according to the Martens, something more was involved. “The shocking news,” they write, is that “according to its SEC filings, JPMorgan Chase is partly using Federally insured deposits made by moms and pops across the country in its more than 5,000 branches to prop up its share price with buybacks.” Small businesses are being deprived of affordable loans because the liquidity necessary to back the loans is being used to prop up bank stock prices. Bank shares constitute a substantial portion of the pay of bank executives.

According to Thomas Hoenig, then Vice Chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), in a July 2017 letter to the U.S. Senate Banking Committee:

[If] the 10 largest U.S. Bank Holding Companies [BHCs] were to retain a greater share of their earnings earmarked for dividends and share buybacks in 2017 they would be able to increase loans by more than $1 trillion, which is greater than 5 percent of annual U.S. GDP.

Four of the 10 BHCs will distribute more than 100 percent of their current year’s earnings, which alone could support approximately $537 billion in new loans to Main Street.

If share buybacks of $83 billion, representing 72 percent of total payouts for these 10 BHCs in 2017, were instead retained, they could, under current capital rules, increase small business loans by three quarters of a trillion dollars or mortgage loans by almost one and a half trillion dollars.

Hoenig was referring to the banks’ own capital rather than to their deposits, but the damage to local credit markets is even worse if deposits are also being diverted to fund share buybacks. Banks are not serving the real economy. They are using public credit backed by public funds to feed their own private bottom lines.

The whole repo rigmarole underscores the sleight of hand on which our money and banking systems are built, and why it is time to change them. Banks do not really have the money they lend. To back their loans, they rely on their ability to borrow from the reserves of other banks, generated from their customers’ deposits; and if those banks withhold their deposits in the insatiable pursuit of higher profits, the borrowing banks must turn to the public purse for liquidity. The banks could not function without public support. They should be turned into public utilities, mandated to serve the interests of the people and the productive economy on which the public depends.

This article was first posted on Truthdig.com

The Disaster of Negative of Interest Rates

President Trump wants negative interest rates, but they would be disastrous for the U.S. economy, and his objectives can be better achieved by other means.

The dollar strengthened against the euro in August, merely in anticipation of the European Central Bank slashing its key interest rate further into negative territory. Investors were fleeing into the dollar, prompting President Trump to tweet on August 30:

The Euro is dropping against the Dollar “like crazy,” giving them a big export and manufacturing advantage… And the Fed does NOTHING!

When the ECB cut its key rate as anticipated, from a negative 0.4% to a negative 0.5%, the president tweeted on September 11:

The Federal Reserve should get our interest rates down to ZERO, or less, and we should then start to refinance our debt. INTEREST COST COULD BE BROUGHT WAY DOWN, while at the same time substantially lengthening the term.

And on September 12 he tweeted:

European Central Bank, acting quickly, Cuts Rates 10 Basis Points. They are trying, and succeeding, in depreciating the Euro against the VERY strong Dollar, hurting U.S. exports…. And the Fed sits, and sits, and sits. They get paid to borrow money, while we are paying interest!

However, negative interest rates have not been shown to stimulate the economies that have tried them, and they would wreak havoc on the U.S. economy, for reasons unique to the U.S. dollar. The ECB has not gone to negative interest rates to gain an export advantage. It is to keep the European Union from falling apart, something that could happen if the United Kingdom does indeed pull out and Italy follows suit, as it has threatened to do. If what Trump wants is cheap borrowing rates for the U.S. federal government, there is a safer and easier way to get them.

The Real Reason the ECB Has Gone to Negative Interest Rates

Why the ECB has gone negative was nailed by Wolf Richter in a September 18 article on WolfStreet.com. After noting that negative interest rates have not proved to be beneficial for any economy in which they are currently in operation and have had seriously destructive side effects for the people and the banks, he said:

However, negative interest rates as follow-up and addition to massive QE were effective in keeping the Eurozone glued together because they allowed countries to stay afloat that cannot, but would need to, print their own money to stay afloat. They did so by making funding plentiful and nearly free, or free, or more than free.

This includes Italian government debt, which has a negative yield through three-year maturities. … The ECB’s latest rate cut, minuscule and controversial as it was, was designed to help out Italy further so it wouldn’t have to abandon the euro and break out of the Eurozone.

The U.S. doesn’t need negative interest rates to stay glued together. It can print its own money.

EU member governments have lost the sovereign power to issue their own money or borrow money issued by their own central banks. The failed EU experiment was a monetarist attempt to maintain a fixed money supply, as if the euro were a commodity in limited supply like gold. The central banks of member countries do not have the power to bail out their governments or their failing local banks as the Fed did for U.S. banks with massive quantitative easing after the 2008 financial crisis. Before the Eurozone debt crisis of 2011-12, even the European Central Bank was forbidden to buy sovereign debt.

The rules changed after Greece and other southern European countries got into serious trouble, sending bond yields (nominal interest rates) through the roof.  But default or debt restructuring was not considered an option; and in 2016, new EU rules required a “bail in” before a government could bail out its failing banks. When a bank ran into trouble, existing stakeholders–including shareholders, junior creditors and sometimes even senior creditors and depositors with deposits in excess of the guaranteed amount of €100,000–were required to take a loss before public funds could be used. The Italian government got a taste of the potential backlash when it forced losses onto the bondholders of four small banks. One victim made headlines when he hung himself and left a note blaming his bank, which had taken his entire €100,000 savings.

Meanwhile, the bail-in scheme that was supposed to shift bank losses from governments to bank creditors and depositors served instead to scare off depositors and investors, making shaky banks even shakier. Worse, heightened capital requirements made it practically impossible for Italian banks to raise capital. Rather than flirt with another bail-in disaster, Italy was ready either to flaunt EU rules or leave the Union.

The ECB finally got on the quantitative easing bandwagon and started buying government debt along with other financial assets. By buying debt at negative interest, it is not only relieving EU governments of their interest burden, it is slowly extinguishing the debt itself.

That explains the ECB, but why are investors buying these bonds? According to John Ainger in Bloomberg:

Investors are willing to pay a premium–and ultimately take a loss–because they need the reliability and liquidity that the government and high-quality corporate bonds provide. Large investors such as pension funds, insurers, and financial institutions may have few other safe places to store their wealth.

In short, they are captive buyers. Banks are required to hold government securities or other “high-quality liquid assets” under capital rules imposed by the Financial Stability Board in Switzerland. Since EU banks now must pay the ECB to hold their bank reserves, they may as well hold negative-yielding sovereign debt, which they may be able to sell at a profit if rates drop even further.

Wolf Richter comments:

Investors who buy these bonds hope that central banks will take them off their hands at even lower yields (and higher prices). No one is buying a negative yielding long-term bond to hold it to maturity.

Well, I say that, but these are professional money managers who buy such instruments, or who have to buy them due to their asset allocation and fiduciary requirements, and they don’t really care. It’s other people’s money, and they’re going to change jobs or get promoted or start a restaurant or something, and they’re out of there in a couple of years. Après moi le déluge.

Why the U.S. Can’t Go Negative, and What It Can Do Instead

The U.S. doesn’t need negative interest rates, because it doesn’t have the EU’s problems but it does have other problems unique to the U.S. dollar that could spell disaster if negative rates were enforced.

First is the massive market for money market funds, which are more important to daily market functioning in the U.S. than in Europe and Japan. If interest rates go negative, the funds could see large-scale outflows, which could disrupt short-term funding for businesses, banks and perhaps even the Treasury. Consumers could also face new charges to make up for bank losses.

Second, the U.S. dollar is inextricably tied up with the market for interest rate derivatives, which is currently valued at over $500 trillion. As proprietary analyst Rob Kirby explains, the economy would crash if interest rates went negative, because the banks holding the fixed-rate side of the swaps would have to pay the floating-rate side as well. The derivatives market would go down like a stack of dominoes and take the U.S. economy with it.

Perhaps in tacit acknowledgment of those problems, Fed Chairman Jay Powell responded to a question about negative interest rates on September 18:

Negative interest rates [are] something that we looked at during the financial crisis and chose not to do. After we got to the effective lower bound [near-zero effective federal funds rate], we chose to do a lot of aggressive forward guidance and also large-scale asset purchases. …

And if we were to find ourselves at some future date again at the effective lower bound–not something we are expecting–then I think we would look at using large-scale asset purchases and forward guidance.

I do not think we’d be looking at using negative rates.

Assuming the large-scale asset purchases made at some future date were of federal securities, the federal government would be financing its debt virtually interest-free, since the Fed returns its profits to the Treasury after deducting its costs. And if the bonds were rolled over when due and held by the Fed indefinitely, the money could be had not only interest-free but debt-free. That is not radical theory but is what is actually happening with the Fed’s bond purchases in its earlier QE. When it tried to unwind those purchases last fall, the result was a stock market crisis. The Fed is learning that QE is a one-way street.

The problem under existing law is that neither the president nor Congress has control over whether the “independent” Fed buys federal securities. But if Trump can’t get Powell to agree over lunch to these arrangements, Congress could amend the Federal Reserve Act to require the Fed to work with Congress to coordinate fiscal and monetary policy. This is what Japan’s banking law requires, and it has been very successful under Prime Minister Shinzō Abe and “Abenomics.” It is also what a team of former central bankers led by Philipp Hildebrand proposed in conjunction with last month’s Jackson Hole meeting of central bankers, after acknowledging the central bankers’ usual tools weren’t working. Under their proposal, central bank technocrats would be in charge of allocating the funds, but better would be the Japanese model, which leaves the federal government in control of allocating fiscal policy funds.

The Bank of Japan now holds nearly half of Japan’s federal debt, a radical move that has not triggered hyperinflation as monetarist economists direly predicted. In fact, the Bank of Japan can’t get the country’s inflation rate even to its modest 2 percent target. As of August, the rate was an extremely low 0.3%. If the Fed were to follow suit and buy 50% of the U.S. government’s debt, the Treasury could swell its coffers by $11 trillion in interest-free money. And if the Fed kept rolling over the debt, Congress and the president could get this $11 trillion not only interest-free but debt-free. President Trump can’t get a better deal than that.

This article was first posted on Truthdig.com.

Desperate Central Bankers Grab for More Power

Conceding that their grip on the economy is slipping, central bankers are proposing a radical economic reset that would shift yet more power from government to themselves.

Central bankers are acknowledging that they are out of ammunition. Mark Carney, the soon-to-be-retiring head of the Bank of England, said in a speech at the annual meeting of central bankers in August in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, “In the longer-term, we need to change the game.” The same point was made by Philipp Hildebrand, former head of the Swiss National Bank, in an August 2019 interview with Bloomberg. “Really there is little if any ammunition left,” he said. “More of the same in terms of monetary policy is unlikely to be an appropriate response if we get into a recession or sharp downturn.”

“More of the same” meant further lowering interest rates, the central bankers’ stock tool for maintaining their targeted inflation rate in a downturn. Bargain-basement interest rates are supposed to stimulate the economy by encouraging borrowers to borrow (since rates are so low) and savers to spend (since they aren’t making any interest on their deposits and may have to pay to store them). But over $15 trillion in bonds are now trading globally at negative interest rates, yet this radical maneuver has not been shown to measurably improve economic performance. In fact  new research shows that negative interest rates from central banks, rather than increasing spending, stopping deflation, and stimulating the economy as they were expected to do, may be having the opposite effects. They are being blamed for squeezing banks, punishing savers, keeping dying companies on life support, and fueling a potentially unsustainable surge in asset prices.

So what is a central banker to do? Hildebrand’s proposed solution was presented in a paper he wrote with three of his colleagues at BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, where he is now vice chairman. Released in August to coincide with the annual Jackson Hole meeting of central bankers, the paper was co-authored by Stanley Fischer, former governor of the Bank of Israel and former vice chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve; Jean Boivin, former deputy governor of the Bank of Canada; and BlackRock economist Elga Bartsch. Their proposal calls for “more explicit coordination between central banks and governments when economies are in a recession so that monetary and fiscal policy can better work in synergy.” The goal, according to Hildebrand, is to go “direct with money to consumers and companies in order to enliven consumption,” putting spending money directly into consumers’ pockets.

It sounds a lot like “helicopter money,” but he was not actually talking about raining money down on the people. The central bank would maintain a “Standing Emergency Fiscal Facility” that would be activated when interest rate manipulation was no longer working and deflation had set in. The central bank would determine the size of the Facility based on its estimates of what was needed to get the price level back on target. It sounds good until you get to who would disburse the funds: “Independent experts would decide how best to deploy the funds to both maximize impact and meet strategic investment objectives set by the government.”

“Independent experts” is another term for “technocrats” – bureaucrats chosen for their technical skill rather than by popular vote. They might be using sophisticated data, algorithms and economic formulae to determine “how best to deploy the funds,” but the question is, “best for whom?” It was central bank technocrats who plunged the economies of Greece and Italy into austerity after 2011, and unelected technocrats who put Detroit into bankruptcy in 2013.

In short, Hildebrand and co-authors are not talking about central banks giving up their ivory tower independence to work with legislators in coordinating fiscal and monetary policy. Rather, central bankers would be acquiring even more power, by giving themselves a new pot of free money that they could deploy as they saw fit in the service of “government objectives.”

Carney’s New Game

The tendency to overreach was also evident in the Jackson Hole speech of BOE head Mark Carney, in which he said “we need to change the game.” The game changer he proposed was to break the power of the US dollar as global reserve currency. This would be done through the issuance of an international digital currency backed by multiple national currencies, on the model of Facebook’s “Libra.”

Multiple reserve currencies are not a bad idea, but if we’re following the Libra model, we’re talking about a new, single reserve currency that is merely “backed” by a basket of other currencies. The question then is who would issue this global currency, and who would set the rules for obtaining the reserves.

Carney suggested that the new currency might be “best provided by the public sector, perhaps through a network of central bank digital currencies.” This raises further questions. Are central banks really “public”? And who would be the issuer – the banker-controlled Bank for International Settlements, the bank of central banks in Switzerland? Or perhaps the International Monetary Fund, which Carney is in line to head?

The IMF already issues Special Drawing Rights to supplement global currency reserves, but they are merely “units of account” which must be exchanged for national currencies. Allowing the IMF to issue the global reserve currency outright would give unelected technocrats unprecedented power over nations and their money. The effect would be similar to the surrender by EU governments of control over their own currencies, making their central banks dependent on the European Central Bank for liquidity, with its disastrous consequences.

Time to End the “Independent” Fed?

A media event that provoked even more outrage against central bankers last month, however, was an August 27th op-ed in Bloomberg by William Dudley, former president of the New York Fed and a former partner at Goldman Sachs. Titled “The Fed Shouldn’t Enable Donald Trump,” it concluded:

There’s even an argument that the [presidential] election itself falls within the Fed’s purview. After all, Trump’s reelection arguably presents a threat to the U.S. and global economy, to the Fed’s independence and its ability to achieve its employment and inflation objectives. If the goal of monetary policy is to achieve the best long-term economic outcome, then Fed officials should consider how their decisions will affect the political outcome in 2020.

The Fed is so independent that, according to former Fed chair Alan Greenspan, it is answerable to no one. A chief argument for retaining the Fed’s independence is that it needs to remain a neutral arbiter, beyond politics and political influence; and Dudley’s op-ed clearly breached that rule. Critics called it an attempt to overthrow a sitting president, a treasonous would-be coup that justified ending the Fed altogether.

Perhaps, but central banks actually serve some useful functions. Better would be to nationalize the Fed, turning it into a true public utility, mandated to serve the interests of the economy and the voting public. Having the central bank and the federal government work together to coordinate fiscal and monetary policy is actually a good idea, so long as the process is transparent and public representatives have control over where the money is deployed. It’s our money, and we should be able to decide where it goes.

This article was first posted on Truthdig.org.

The Key to a Sustainable Economy Is 5,000 Years Old

We are again reaching the point in the business cycle known as “peak debt,” when debts have compounded to the point that their cumulative total cannot be paid. Student debt, credit card debt, auto loans, business debt and sovereign debt are all higher than they have ever been. As economist Michael Hudson writes in his provocative 2018 book, “…and forgive them their debts,” debts that can’t be paid won’t be paid. The question, he says, is how they won’t be paid.

Mainstream economic models leave this problem to “the invisible hand of the market,” assuming trends will self-correct over time. But while the market may indeed correct, it does so at the expense of the debtors, who become progressively poorer as the rich become richer. Borrowers go bankrupt and banks foreclose on the collateral, dispossessing the debtors of their homes and their livelihoods. The houses are bought by the rich at distress prices and are rented back at inflated prices to the debtors, who are then forced into wage peonage to survive. When the banks themselves go bankrupt, the government bails them out. Thus the market corrects, but not without government intervention. That intervention just comes at the end of the cycle to rescue the creditors, whose ability to buy politicians gives them the upper hand. According to free-market apologists, this is a natural cycle akin to the weather, which dates all the way back to the birth of modern economics in ancient Greece and Rome.

Hudson counters that those classical societies are not actually where our financial system began, and that capitalism did not evolve from bartering, as its ideologues assert. Rather, it devolved from a more functional, sophisticated, egalitarian credit system that was sustained for two millennia in ancient Mesopotamia (now parts of Iraq, Turkey, Kuwait and Iran). Money, banking, accounting and modern business enterprise originated not with gold and private trade, but in the public sector of Sumer’s palaces and temples in the third century B.C. Because it involved credit issued by the local government rather than private loans of gold, bad debts could be periodically forgiven rather than compounding until they took the whole system down, a critical feature that allowed for its remarkable longevity.

The True Roots of Money and Banking

Sumer was the first civilization for which we have written records. Its notable achievements included the wheel, the lunar calendar, our numerical system, law codes, an organized hierarchy of priest-kings, copper tools and weapons, irrigation, accounting and money. It also produced the first written language, which took the form of cuneiform figures impressed on clay. These tablets were largely just accounting tools, recording the flow of food and raw materials in the temple and palace workshops, as well as IOUs (mainly to these large public institutions) that had to be preserved in writing to be enforced. This temple accounting system allowed for the coordinated flow of credit to peasant farmers from planting to harvesting, and for advances to merchants to engage in foreign trade.

In fact, it was the need to manage accounts for a large labor force under bureaucratic control that is thought to have led to the development of writing. The people willingly accepted this bureaucratic control because they viewed the gods as having decreed it. According to their cuneiform writings, humans were created to work in the fields and the mines after certain lower gods tasked with that hard labor rebelled.

Usury, or the charging of interest on loans, was an accepted part of the Mesopotamian credit system. Interest rates were high and remained unchanged for two millennia. But Mesopotamian scholars were well aware of the problem of “debts that can’t be paid.” Unlike in today’s academic economic curriculum, Hudson writes:

Babylonian scribal students were trained already c. 2000 BC in the mathematics of compound interest. Their school exercises asked them to calculate how long it took a debt at interest of 1/60th per month to double. The answer is 60 months: five years. How long to quadruple? 10 years. How long to multiply 64 times? 30 years. It must’ve been obvious that no economy can grow in keeping with this rate of increase.

Sumerian kings solved the problem of “peak debt” by periodically declaring “clean slates,” in which agrarian debts were forgiven and debtors were released from servitude to work as tenants on their own plots of land. The land belonged to the gods under the stewardship of the temple and the palace and could not be sold, but farmers and their families maintained leaseholds to it in perpetuity by providing a share of their crops, service in the military and labor in building communal infrastructure. In this way, their homes and livelihoods were preserved, an arrangement that was mutually beneficial, since the kings needed their service.

Jewish scribes, who spent time in captivity in Babylon in the sixth century B.C, adapted these laws in the year or jubilee, which Hudson argues was added to Leviticus after the Babylonian captivity. According to Leviticus 25:8-13, a Jubilee Year was to be declared every 49 years, during which debts would be forgiven, slaves and prisoners freed and their property leaseholds restored. As in ancient Mesopotamia, property ownership remained with Yahweh and his earthly proxies. The Jubilee law effectively banned the outright sale of land, which could only be leased for up to 50 years (Leviticus 25:14-17). The Levitican Jubilee represented an advance over the Mesopotamian “clean slates,” Hudson says, in that it was codified into law rather than relying on the whim of the king. But its proclaimers lacked political power, and whether the law was ever enforced is unclear. It served as a moral rather than a legal prescription.

Ancient Greece and Rome adopted the Mesopotamian system of lending at interest, but without the safety valve of periodic “clean slates,” since the creditors were no longer the king or the temple, but private lenders. Unfettered usury resulted in debt bondage and forfeiture of properties, consolidation into large landholdings, a growing wedge between rich and poor, and the ultimate destruction of the Roman Empire.

As for the celebrated development of property rights and democracy in ancient Greece and Rome, Hudson argues that they did not actually serve the poor. They served the rich, who controlled elections, just as rich donors do today. Taking power away from local governments by privatizing once-communal lands allowed private creditors to pass laws by which they could legally confiscate property when their debtors could not pay. “Free markets” meant the freedom to accumulate massive wealth at the expense of the poor and the state.

Hudson maintains that when Jesus Christ preached “forgiveness of debts,” he was also talking about economic debt, not just moral transgressions. When he overturned the tables of the money changers, it was because they had turned a house of prayer into “a den of thieves.” But creditors’ rights had by then gained legal dominance, and Christian theologians lacked the power to override them. Rather than being a promise of economic redemption in this life, forgiveness of debts thus became a promise of spiritual redemption in the next.

How to Pull Off a Modern Debt Jubilee

Such has been the fate of debtors in modern Western economies. But in some modern non-Western economies, vestiges of the debt write-off solution remain. In China, for instance, nonperforming loans are often carried on the books of state-owned banks or canceled rather than putting insolvent debtors and banks into bankruptcy. As Dinny McMahon wrote in June in an article titled “China’s Bad Data Can Be a Good Thing”:

In China, the state stands behind the country’s banks. As long as authorities ensure those banks have sufficient liquidity to meet their obligations, they can trundle along with higher delinquency levels than would be regarded safe in a market economy.

China’s banking system, like that of ancient Mesopotamia, is largely in the public sector, so the state can back its banks with liquidity as needed. Interestingly, the Chinese state also preserves the ancient Near Eastern practice of retaining ownership of the land, which citizens can only lease for a period of time.

In Western economies, most banks are privately owned and heavily regulated, with high reserve and capital requirements. Bad loans mean debtors are put into foreclosure, jobs and capital infrastructure are lost, and austerity prevails. The Trump administration is now aggressively pursuing a trade war with China in an effort to level the playing field by forcing it into the same austerity regime, but a more productive and sustainable approach might be for the U.S. to engage in periodic debt jubilees itself.

The problem with that solution today is that most debts in Western economies are owed not to the government but to private creditors, who will insist on their contractual rights to payment. We need to find a way to pay the creditors while relieving the borrowers of their debt burden.

One possibility is to nationalize insolvent banks and sell their bad loans to the central bank, which can buy them with money created on its books. The loans can then be written down or voided out. Precedent for this policy was established with “QE1,” the Fed’s first round of quantitative easing, in which it bought unmarketable mortgage-backed securities from banks with liquidity problems.

Another possibility would be to use money generated by the central bank to bail out debtors directly. This could be done selectively, by buying up student debt or credit card debt or car loans bundled as “asset-backed securities,” then writing the debts down or off, for example. Alternatively, debts could be relieved collectively with a periodic national dividend or universal basic income paid to everyone, again drawn from the deep pocket of the central bank.

Critics will object that this would dangerously inflate the money supply and consumer prices, but that need not be the case. Today, virtually all money is created as bank debt, and it is extinguished when the debt is repaid. That means dividends used to pay this debt down would be extinguished, along with the debt itself, without adding to the money supply. For the 80% of the U.S. population now carrying debt, loan repayments from their national dividends could be made mandatory and automatic. The remaining 20% would be likely to save or invest the funds, so this money too would contribute little to consumer price inflation; and to the extent that it did go into the consumer market, it could help generate the demand needed to stimulate productivity and employment. (For a fuller explanation, see Ellen Brown, “Banking on the People,” 2019).

In ancient Mesopotamia, writing off debts worked brilliantly well for two millennia. As Hudson concludes:

To insist that all debts must be paid ignores the contrast between the thousands of years of successful Near Eastern clean slates and the debt bondage into which [Greco-Roman] antiquity sank. … If this policy in many cases was more successful than today’s, it is because they recognized that insisting that all debts must be paid meant foreclosures, economic polarization and impoverishment of the economy at large.

• This article was first posted on Truthdig.com

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.