Category Archives: Banks/Banking

Why Is the Fed Paying So Much Interest to Banks?

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

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

— Mary Poppins, 1964

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The European Approach: Negative Interest Rates

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

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

A Public Option for the Rest of Us

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

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

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

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

This article was first published on Truthdig.com.

Monetary Policy Takes Center Stage: MMT, QE, or Public Banks?

As alarm bells sound over the advancing destruction of the environment, a variety of Green New Deal proposals have appeared in the US and Europe, along with some interesting academic debates about how to fund them. Monetary policy, normally relegated to obscure academic tomes and bureaucratic meetings behind closed doors, has suddenly taken center stage.

The 14 page proposal for a Green New Deal submitted to the US House of Representatives by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez does not actually mention Modern Monetary Theory, but that is th it’s e approach currently capturing the attention of the media – and taking most of the heat. The concept is good: abundance can be ours without worrying about taxes or debt, at least until we hit full productive capacity. But the devil is in the details….

MMT advocates say the government does not need to collect taxes before it spends. It actually creates new money in the process of spending it; and there is plenty of room in the economy for public spending before demand outstrips supply, driving up prices.

Critics, however, say this is not true. The government is not allowed to spend before it has the money in its account, and the money must come from tax revenues or bond sales.

In a 2013 treatise called “Modern Monetary Theory 101: A Reply to Critics,” MMT academics actually concede this point. But they write that “these constraints do not change the end result,” and here the argument gets a bit technical. Their reasoning is that “The Fed is the monopoly supplier of CB currency [central bank reserves], Treasury spends by using CB currency, and since the Treasury obtained CB currency by taxing and issuing treasuries, CB currency must be injected before taxes and bond offerings can occur.”

The counterargument, made by American Monetary Institute researchers among others, is that the central bank is not the monopoly supplier of dollars. The vast majority of the dollars circulating in the United States are created, not by the government, but by private banks when they make loans. The Fed accommodates this process by supplying central bank currency (bank reserves) as needed; and this bank-created money can be taxed or borrowed by the Treasury before a single dollar is spent by Congress. The AMI researchers contend, “All bank reserves are originally created by the Fed for banks. Government expenditure merely transfers (previous) bank reserves back to banks.” As the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis puts it, “federal deficits do not require that the Federal Reserve purchase more government securities; therefore, federal deficits, per se, need not lead to increases in bank reserves or the money supply.”

What federal deficits do increase is the federal debt;  and while the debt itself can be rolled over from year to year (as it virtually always is), the exponentially growing interest tab is one of those mandatory budget items that taxpayers must pay. Predictions are that in the next decade, interest alone could add $1 trillion to the annual bill, an unsustainable tax burden.

To fund a project as massive as the Green New Deal, we need a mechanism that involves neither raising taxes nor adding to the federal debt; and such a mechanism is actually proposed in the US Green New Deal – a network of public banks. While little discussed in the US media, that alternative is being debated in Europe, where Green New Deal proposals have been on the table since 2008. European economists have had more time to think these initiatives through, and they are less hampered by labels like “socialist” and “capitalist,” which have long been integrated into their multiparty systems.

A Decade of Gestation in Europe

The first Green New Deal proposal was published in 2008 by the New Economics Foundation on behalf of the Green New Deal Group in the UK. The latest debate is between proponents of the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25), led by former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, and French economist Thomas Piketty, author of the best-selling Capital in the 21st Century. Piketty recommends funding a European Green New Deal by raising taxes, while Varoufakis favors a system of public green banks.

Varoufakis explains that Europe needs a new source of investment money that does not involve higher taxes or government deficits. DiEM25 proposes for this purpose “an investment-led recovery, or New Deal, program … to be financed via public bonds issued by Europe’s public investment banks (e.g. the new investment vehicle foreshadowed in countries like Britain, the European Investment Bank and the European Investment Fund in the European Union, etc.).” To ensure that these bonds do not lose their value, the central banks would stand ready to buy them above a certain yield. “In summary, DiEM25 is proposing a re-calibrated real-green investment version of Quantitative Easing that utilises the central bank.

Public development banks already have a successful track record in Europe, and their debts are not considered debts of the government. They are financed not through taxes but by the borrowers when they repay the loans. Like other banks, development banks are moneymaking institutions that not only don’t cost the government money but actually generate a profit for it. DiEM25 collaborator Stuart Holland observes:

While Piketty is concerned to highlight differences between his proposals and those for a Green New Deal, the real difference between them is that his—however well-intentioned—are a wish list for a new treaty, a new institution and taxation of wealth and income. A Green New Deal needs neither treaty revisions nor new institutions and would generate both income and direct and indirect taxation from a recovery of employment. It is grounded in the precedent of the success of the bond-funded, Roosevelt New Deal which, from 1933 to 1941, reduced unemployment from over a fifth to less than a tenth, with an average annual fiscal deficit of only 3 per cent.

Roosevelt’s New Deal was largely funded through the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), a public financial institution set up earlier by President Hoover. Its funding source was the sale of bonds, but proceeds from the loans repaid the bonds, leaving the RFC with a net profit. The RFC financed roads, bridges, dams, post offices, universities, electrical power, mortgages, farms, and much more; and it funded all this while generating income for the government.

A System of Public Banks and “Green QE”

The US Green New Deal envisions funding with “a combination of the Federal Reserve [and] a new public bank or system of regional and specialized public banks,” which could include banks owned locally by cities and states. As Sylvia Chi, chair of the legislative committee of the California Public Banking Alliance, explains on Medium.com:

The Green New Deal relies on a network of public banks — like a decentralized version of the RFC — as part of the plan to help finance the contemplated public investments. This approach has worked in Germany, where public banks have been integral in financing renewable energy installations and energy efficiency retrofits.

Local or regional public banks, says Chi, could help pay for the Green New Deal by making “low-interest loans for building and upgrading infrastructure, deploying clean energy resources, transforming our food and transportation systems to be more sustainable and accessible, and other projects. The federal government can help by, for example, capitalizing public banks, setting environmental or social responsibility standards for loan programs, or tying tax incentives to participating in public bank loans.”

UK professor Richard Murphy adds another role for the central bank – as the issuer of new money in the form of  “Green Infrastructure Quantitative Easing.” Murphy, who was a member of the original 2008 UK Green New Deal Group, explains:

All QE works by the [central bank] buying debt issued by the government or other bodies using money that it, quite literally, creates out of thin air. … [T]his money creation process is … what happens every time a bank makes a loan. All that is unusual is that we are suggesting that the funds created by the [central bank] using this process be used to buy back debt that is due by the government in one of its many forms, meaning that it is effectively canceled.

The invariable objection to that solution is that it would act as an inflationary force driving up prices, but as argued in my earlier article here, this need not be the case. There is a chronic gap between debt and the money available to repay it that actually needs to be filled with new money every year to avoid a “balance sheet recession.” As UK Prof. Mary Mellor formulates the problem in Debt or Democracy (2016), page 42:

A major contradiction of tying money supply to debt is that the creators of the money always want more money back than they have issued. Debt-based money must be continually repaid with interest. As money is continually being repaid, new debt must be being generated if the money supply is to be maintained.… This builds a growth dynamic into the money supply that would frustrate the aims of those who seek to achieve a more socially and ecologically sustainable economy.

In addition to interest, says Mellor, there is the problem that bankers and other rich people generally do not return their profits to local economies. Unlike public banks, which must use their profits for local needs, the wealthy hoard their money, invest it in the speculative markets, hide it in offshore tax havens, or send it abroad.

To avoid the cyclical booms and busts that have routinely devastated the US economy, this missing money needs to be replaced; and if the new money is used to pay down debt, it will be extinguished along with the debt, leaving the overall money supply and the inflation rate unchanged. If too much money is added to the economy, it can always be taxed back; but as MMTers note, we are a long way from the full productive capacity that would “overheat” the economy today.

Murphy writes of his Green QE proposal:

The QE program that was put in place between 2009 and 2012 had just one central purpose, which was to refinance the City of London and its banks.… What we are suggesting is a smaller programme … to kickstart the UK economy by investing in all those things that we would wish our children to inherit whilst creating the opportunities for everyone in every city, town, village and hamlet in the UK to undertake meaningful and appropriately paid work.

A network of public banks including a central bank operated as a public utility could similarly fund a US Green New Deal – without raising taxes, driving up the federal debt, or inflating prices.

­­­­­­­­­­• This article was first published under a different title on Truthdig.com.

QE Forever: The Fed’s Dramatic About-face

“Quantitative easing” was supposed to be an emergency measure. The Federal Reserve “eased” shrinkage in the money supply due to the 2008-09 credit crisis by pumping out trillions of dollars in new bank reserves. After the crisis, the presumption was that the Fed would “normalize” conditions by sopping up the excess reserves through “quantitative tightening” (QT) – raising interest rates and selling the securities it had bought with new reserves back into the market.

The Fed relentlessly pushed on with quantitative tightening through 2018, despite a severe market correction in the fall. In December, Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said that QT would be on “autopilot,” meaning the Fed would continue to raise interest rates and to sell $50 billion monthly in securities until it hit its target. But the market protested loudly to this move, with the Nasdaq Composite Index dropping 22% from its late-summer high.

Worse, defaults on consumer loans were rising. December 2018 was the first time in two years that all loan types and all major metropolitan statistical areas showed a higher default rate month-over-month. Consumer debt – including auto, student and credit card debt – is typically bundled and sold as asset-backed securities similar to the risky mortgage-backed securities that brought down the market in 2008 after the Fed had progressively raised interest rates.

Chairman Powell evidently got the memo. In January, he abruptly changed course and announced that QT would be halted if needed. On February 4th, Mary Daly, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, said they were considering going much further. “You could imagine executing policy with your interest rate as your primary tool and the balance sheet as a secondary tool, one that you would use more readily,” she said. QE and QT would no longer be emergency measures but would be routine tools for managing the money supply. In a February 13th article on Seeking Alpha titled “Quantitative Easing on Demand,” Mark Grant wrote:

If the Fed does decide to pursue this strategy it will be a wholesale change in the way the financial system in the United States operates and I think that very few institutions or people appreciate what is taking place or what it will mean to the markets, all of the markets.

The Problem of Debt Deflation

The Fed is realizing that it cannot bring its balance sheet back to “normal.” It must keep pumping new money into the banking system to avoid a recession. This naturally alarms Fed watchers worried about hyperinflation. But QE need not create unwanted inflation if directed properly. The money spigots just need to be aimed at the debtors rather than the creditor banks. In fact, regular injections of new money directly into the economy may be just what the economy needs to escape the boom and bust cycle that has characterized it for two centuries. Mark Grant concluded his article by quoting Abraham Lincoln:

The Government should create, issue, and circulate all the currency and credits needed to satisfy the spending power of the Government and the buying power of consumers. By the adoption of these principles, the taxpayers will be saved immense sums of interest. Money will cease to be master and become the servant of humanity.

The quote is apparently apocryphal, but the principle still holds: new money needs to be regularly added to the money supply to avoid an overwhelming debt burden and allow the economy to reach its true productive potential. Regular injections of new money are necessary to avoid something economists fear even more than inflation – the sort of “debt deflation” that took down the economy in the 1930s.

Most money today is created by banks when they make loans. When overextended borrowers pay down old loans without taking out new ones, the money supply “deflates” or shrinks. Demand shrinks with it, and businesses lacking customers close their doors, in the sort of self-feeding death spiral seen in the Great Depression.

As Australian economist Steve Keen observes, today the level of private debt is way too high, and that is why so little lending is occurring. But mainstream economists consider the rate of growth of debt to be irrelevant to macroeconomic policy, because lending is thought to simply redistribute spending power from savers to investors. Conventional economic theory says that banks are merely intermediaries, recirculating existing money rather than creating spending power in their own right. But this is not true, says Prof. Keen. Banks actually create new money when they make loans. He cites the Bank of England, which said in its 2014 quarterly report:

[B]anks do not act simply as intermediaries, lending out deposits that savers place with them, and nor do they ‘multiply up’ central bank money to create new loans and deposits. . . .

In the modern economy, most money takes the form of bank deposits. But how those bank deposits are created is often misunderstood: the principal way is through commercial banks making loans. Whenever a bank makes a loan, it simultaneously creates a matching deposit in the borrower’s bank account, thereby creating new money.

Loans create deposits, and deposits make up the bulk of the money supply. Money today is created by banks as a debt on their balance sheets, and more is always owed back than was created, since the interest claimed by the banks is not created in the original loan. Debt thus grows faster than the money supply. When overextended borrowers quit taking out the new loans needed to repay old loans, the gap widens even further. The result is debt deflation – a debt-induced reduction in the new money needed to stimulate economic activity and growth. Thus the need for injections of new money to fill the gap between debt and the money available to repay it.

However, the money created through QE to date has not gone to the consuming public, where it must go to fill this gap. Rather, it has gone to the banks, which have funneled it into the speculative financialized markets. Nomi Prins calls this “dark money” – the trillions of dollars flowing yearly in and around global stock, bond and derivatives markets generated by central banks when they electronically fabricate money by buying bonds and stocks. She writes, “These dark money flows stretch around the world according to a pattern of power, influence and, of course, wealth for select groups.” She shows graphically that the rise in dark money is directly correlated with the rise in financial markets.

QE has worked to reverse the debts of the banks and to prop up the stock market, but it has not relieved the debts of consumers, businesses or governments; and it is these debts that will trigger the sort of debt deflation that can take the economy down. Keen concludes that “no amount of exhorting banks to ‘Intermediate’ will end the drought in credit growth that is the real cause of The Great Malaise.” The only way to reduce the private debt burden without causing a depression, he says, is a Modern Debt Jubilee or People’s Quantitative Easing.

QE-funded Debt Relief

In antiquity, as Prof. Michael Hudson observes, debts were routinely forgiven when a new ruler took the throne. The rulers and their advisors knew that debt at interest grew faster than the money supply and that debt relief was necessary to avoid economic collapse from an overwhelming debt overhang. Economic growth is arithmetic and can’t keep up with the exponential growth of debt growing at compound interest.

Consumers need that sort of debt relief today, but simply voiding out their debts as was done in antiquity will not work because the debts are not owed to the government. They are owed to banks and private investors who would have to bear the loss. The alternative suggested by Keen and others is to fill the debt gap with a form of QE dropped not into bank reserve accounts but digitally into the bank accounts of the general public. Debtors could then use the money to pay down their debts. In fact, Keen says it should go first to pay down debts. Non-debtors would receive a cash injection.

Properly managed, these injections need not create inflation. (See my earlier article here.) Money is created as loans and extinguished when they are paid off, so the money used to pay down debt would be extinguished along with the debt. And the cash injections not used to pay down debt would just help fill the gap between real and potential productivity, allowing demand and supply to rise together, keeping prices stable.

A regular injection of money into personal bank accounts has been called a “universal basic income,” but better would be to call it a “national dividend” – something all citizens are entitled to equally, without regard to economic status or ability to work. It would serve as a safety net for people living paycheck to paycheck, but the larger purpose would be as economic policy to stimulate demand and productivity, keeping the wheels of industry turning.

Money might then indeed become a servant of humanity, transformed from a tool of oppression into a means of securing common prosperity. But first the central bank needs to become a public servant. It needs to be made a public utility, responsive to the needs of the people and the economy.

• This article was first published on Truthdig.com.

The Venezuela Myth Keeping Us From Transforming Our Economy

Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is getting significant media attention these days, after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said in an interview that it should “be a larger part of our conversation” when it comes to funding the Green New Deal. According to MMT, the government can spend what it needs without worrying about deficits. MMT expert and Bernie Sanders advisor Prof. Stephanie Kelton says the government actually creates money when it spends. The real limit on spending is not an artificially imposed debt ceiling but a lack of labor and materials to do the work, leading to generalized price inflation. Only when that real ceiling is hit does the money need to be taxed back, and then not to fund government spending but to shrink the money supply in an economy that has run out of resources to put the extra money to work.

Predictably, critics have been quick to rebut, calling the trend to endorse MMT “disturbing” and “a joke that’s not funny.” In a February 1st post on The Daily Reckoning, Brian Maher darkly envisioned Bernie Sanders getting elected in 2020 and implementing “Quantitative Easing for the People” based on MMT theories. To debunk the notion that governments can just “print the money” to solve their economic problems, he raise the specter of Venezuela, where “money” is everywhere but bare essentials are out of reach for many, the storefronts are empty, unemployment is at 33%, and inflation is predicted to hit 1,000,000% by the end of the year.

Blogger Arnold Kling also pointed to the Venezuelan hyperinflation. He described MMT as “the doctrine that because the government prints money, it can spend whatever it wants . . . until it can’t.” He said:

To me, the hyperinflation in Venezuela exemplifies what happens when a country reaches the “it can’t” point. The country is not at full employment. But the government can’t seem to spend its way out of difficulty. Somebody should ask these MMT rock stars about the Venezuela example.

I’m not an MMT rock star and won’t try to expound on its subtleties. (I would submit that under existing regulations, the government cannot actually create money when it spends, but that it should be able to. In fact, MMTers have acknowledged that problem; but it’s a subject for another article.) What I want to address here is the hyperinflation issue, and why Venezuelan hyperinflation and “QE for the People” are completely different animals.

What Is Different About Venezuela

Venezuela’s problems are not the result of the government issuing money and using it to hire people to build infrastructure, provide essential services and expand economic development. If it were, unemployment would not be at 33 percent and climbing. Venezuela has a problem that the US does not have and will never have: it owes massive debts in a currency it cannot print itself, namely US dollars. When oil (its principal resource) was booming, Venezuela was able to meet its repayment schedule. But when oil plummeted, the government was reduced to printing Venezuelan Bolivars and selling them for US dollars on international currency exchanges. As speculators drove up the price of dollars, more and more printing was required by the government, massively deflating the national currency.

It was the same problem suffered by Weimar Germany and Zimbabwe, the two classic examples of hyperinflation typically raised to silence proponents of government expansion of the money supply before Venezuela suffered the same fate. Prof. Michael Hudson, an economic rock star who supports MMT principles, has studied the hyperinflation question extensively. He confirms that those disasters were not due to governments issuing money to stimulate the economy. Rather, he writes, “Every hyperinflation in history has been caused by foreign debt service collapsing the exchange rate. The problem almost always has resulted from wartime foreign currency strains, not domestic spending.”

Venezuela and other countries that are carrying massive debts in currencies that are not their own are not sovereign. Governments that are sovereign can and have engaged in issuing their own currencies for infrastructure and development quite successfully. A number of contemporary and historical examples were discussed in my earlier articles, including in Japan, China, Australia, and Canada.

Although Venezuela is not technically at war, it is suffering from foreign currency strains triggered by aggressive attacks by a foreign power. US economic sanctions have been going on for years, causing at least $20 billion in losses to the country. About $7 billion of its assets are now being held hostage by the US, which has waged an undeclared war against Venezuela ever since George W. Bush’s failed military coup against President Hugo Chavez in 2002. Chavez boldly announced the “Bolivarian Revolution,” a series of economic and social reforms that dramatically reduced poverty and illiteracy and improved health and living conditions for millions of Venezuelans. The reforms, which included nationalizing key components of the nation’s economy, made Chavez a hero to millions of people and the enemy of Venezuela’s oligarchs.

Nicolas Maduro was elected president following Chavez’s death in 2013 and vowed to continue the Bolivarian Revolution. Like Saddam Hussein and Omar Gaddafi before him, he defiantly announced that Venezuela would not be trading oil in US dollars, following sanctions imposed by President Trump.

The notorious Elliott Abrams has now been appointed as special envoy to Venezuela. Considered a criminal by many for covering up massacres committed by US-backed death squads in Central America, Abrams was among the prominent neocons closely linked to Bush’s failed Venezuelan coup in 2002. National Security Advisor John Bolton is another key neocon architect advocating regime change in Venezuela. At a January 28 press conference, he held a yellow legal pad prominently displaying the words “5,000 troops to Colombia,” a country that shares a border with Venezuela. Apparently the neocon contingent feels they have unfinished business there.

Bolton does not even pretend that it’s all about restoring “democracy.” He said on Fox News, “It will make a big difference to the United States economically if we could have American oil companies invest in and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela.” As President Nixon said of US tactics against Allende’s government in Chile, the point of sanctions and military threats is to squeeze the country economically.

Killing the Public Banking Revolution in Venezuela

It may be about more than oil, which recently hit record lows in the market. The US hardly needs to invade a country to replenish its supplies. As with Libya and Iraq, another motive may be to suppress the banking revolution initiated by Venezuela’s upstart leaders.

The banking crisis of 2009-10 exposed the corruption and systemic weakness of Venezuelan banks. Some banks were engaged in questionable business practices.  Others were seriously undercapitalized.  Others were apparently lending top executives large sums of money.  At least one financier could not prove where he got the money to buy the banks he owned.

Rather than bailing out the culprits, as was done in the US, in 2009 the government nationalized seven Venezuelan banks, accounting for around 12% of the nation’s bank deposits.  In 2010, more were taken over.  The government arrested at least 16 bankers and issued more than 40 corruption-related arrest warrants for others who had fled the country. By the end of March 2011, only 37 banks were left, down from 59 at the end of November 2009.  State-owned institutions took a larger role, holding 35% of assets as of March 2011, while foreign institutions held just 13.2% of assets.

Over the howls of the media, in 2010 Chavez took the bold step of passing legislation defining the banking industry as one of “public service.”  The legislation specified that 5% of the banks’ net profits must go towards funding community council projects, designed and implemented by communities for the benefit of communities. The Venezuelan government directed the allocation of bank credit to preferred sectors of the economy, and it increasingly became involved in the operations of private financial institutions.  By law, nearly half the lending portfolios of Venezuelan banks had to be directed to particular mandated sectors of the economy, including small business and agriculture.

In an April 2012 article called “Venezuela Increases Banks’ Obligatory Social Contributions, U.S. and Europe Do Not,” Rachael Boothroyd said that the Venezuelan government was requiring the banks to give back. Housing was declared a constitutional right, and Venezuelan banks were obliged to contribute 15% of their yearly earnings to securing it. The government’s Great Housing Mission aimed to build 2.7 million free houses for low-income families before 2019. The goal was to create a social banking system that contributed to the development of society rather than simply siphoning off its wealth.  Boothroyd wrote:

. . . Venezuelans are in the fortunate position of having a national government which prioritizes their life quality, wellbeing and development over the health of bankers’ and lobbyists’ pay checks.  If the 2009 financial crisis demonstrated anything, it was that capitalism is quite simply incapable of regulating itself, and that is precisely where progressive governments and progressive government legislation needs to step in.

That is also where the progressive wing of the Democratic Party is stepping in in the US – and why AOC’s proposals evoke howls in the media of the sort seen in Venezuela.

Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution gives Congress the power to create the nation’s money supply. Congress needs to exercise that power. Key to restoring our economic sovereignty is to reclaim the power to issue money from a commercial banking system that acknowledges no public responsibility beyond maximizing profits for its shareholders. Bank-created money is backed by the full faith and credit of the United States, including federal deposit insurance, access to the Fed’s lending window, and government bailouts when things go wrong. If we the people are backing the currency, it should be issued by the people through their representative government. Today, however, our government does not adequately represent the people. We first need to take our government back, and that is what AOC and her congressional allies are attempting to do.

• First published on Truthdig.com.

Corporate Canada Behind Slow Motion Coup Attempt in Venezuela

It’s convenient but incorrect to simply blame the USA for Ottawa’s nefarious role in the slow motion attempted coup currently underway in Venezuela.

Critics of the Liberal government’s push for regime change in Venezuela generally focus on their deference to Washington. But, Ottawa’s hostility to Caracas is also motivated by important segments of corporate Canada, which have long been at odds with its Bolivarian government

In a bid for a greater share of oil revenue, Venezuela forced private oil companies to become minority partners with the state oil company in 2007. This prompted Calgary-based PetroCanada to sell its portion of an oil project and for Canadian officials to privately complain about feeling “burned” by the Venezuelan government.

Venezuela has the largest recognized oil reserves in the world. The country also has enormous gold deposits.

A number of Canadian companies clashed with Hugo Chavez’ government over its bid to gain greater control over gold extraction. Crystallex, Vanessa Ventures, Gold Reserve Inc. and Rusoro Mining all had prolonged legal battles with the Venezuelan government. In 2016 Rusoro Mining won a $1 billion claim under the Canada-Venezuela investment treaty. That same year Crystallex was awarded $1.2 billion under the Canada-Venezuela investment treaty. Both companies continue to pursue payments and have pursued the money from Citgo, the Venezuelan government owned gasoline retailer in the US.

In 2011 the Financial Post reported, “years after pushing foreign investment away from his gold mining sector, Venezuelan President Chavez is moving on to the next stage: outright nationalization.” Highlighting its importance to Canadian capital, the Globe and Mail editorial board criticized the move in a piece titled “Chavez nationalizes all gold mines in Venezuela.”

In a further sign of the Canadian mining sector’s hostility to the Venezuelan government, Barrick Gold founder Peter Munk wrote a 2007 letter to the Financial Times headlined “Stop Chavez’ Demagoguery Before it is Too Late”: “Your editorial ‘Chavez in Control’ was way too benign a characterization of a dangerous dictator — the latest of a type who takes over a nation through the democratic process, and then perverts or abolishes it to perpetuate his own power … aren’t we ignoring the lessons of history and forgetting that the dictators Hitler, Mugabe, Pol Pot and so on became heads of state by a democratic process? … autocratic demagogues in the Chavez mode get away with [it] until their countries become totalitarian regimes like Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, or Slobadan Milosevic’s Serbia … Let us not give President Chavez a chance to do the same step- by-step transformation of Venezuela.”

A year earlier, the leading Canadian capitalist told Barrick’s shareholders he’d prefer to invest in the (Taliban controlled) western part of Pakistan than in Venezuela or Bolivia. “If I had the choice to put my money in one of the Latin American countries run by (Bolivian President) Evo Morales or Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez — I know where I’d put my buck,” said Munk, referring to moves to increase the public stake in resource extraction to the detriment of foreign investors.

Benefiting from the privatization of state-run mining companies and loosened restrictions on foreign investment, Canadian mining investment in Latin America has exploded since the 1990s. No Canadian mining firm operated in Peru or Mexico at the start of the 1990s yet by 2010 there were nearly 600 Canadian mining firms in those two countries. Canadian mining companies have tens of billions of dollars invested in the Americas. Any government in the region that reverses the neoliberal reforms that enabled this growth is a threat to Canadian mining profits.

Corporate Canada’s most powerful sector was none too pleased with Chavez’ socialistic and nationalistic policies. Alongside Canadian mining growth, Canadian banks expanded their operations in a number of Latin American countries to do more business with Canadian mining clients. More generally, Canadian banks have benefited from the liberalization of foreign investment rules and banking regulations in the region. A few days after Chavez’s 2013 death the Globe and Mail Report on Business published a front-page story about Scotiabank’s interests in Venezuela, which were acquired just before his rise to power. It noted: “Bank of Nova Scotia [Scotiabank] is often lauded for its bold expansion into Latin America, having completed major acquisitions in Colombia and Peru. But when it comes to Venezuela, the bank has done little for the past 15 years – primarily because the government of President Hugo Chavez has been hostile to large-scale foreign investment.” While Scotiabank is a powerhouse in Latin America, Canada’s other big banks also do significant business in the region.

At the height of the left-right ideological competition in the region the Stephen Harper government devoted significant effort to strengthening the region’s right-wing governments. Ottawa increased aid to Latin America largely to stunt growing rejection of neoliberal capitalism and in 2010 trade minister Peter Van Loan admitted that the “secondary” goal of Canada’s free trade agreement with Colombia was to bolster that country’s right-wing government against its Venezuelan neighbour. The Globe and Mail explained:  “The Canadian government’s desire to bolster fledgling free-market democracies in Latin America in an ideological competition with left-leaning, authoritarian nationalists like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez is rarely expressed with force, even though it is at the heart of an Ottawa initiative.” An unnamed Conservative told the paper: “For countries like Peru and Colombia that are trying be helpful in the region, I think everybody’s trying to keep them attached to the free-market side of the debate in Latin America, rather than sloshing them over into the Bolivarian [Venezuelan] side.”

Ottawa wants to crush the independent/socialistic developments in Venezuela. More generally, the growth of Canadian mining, banking and other sectors in Latin America has pushed Ottawa towards a more aggressive posture in the region. So, while it is true that Canada often does the bidding of its US puppet master, capitalists in the Great White North are also independent actors seeking to fill their own pockets and thwart the will of the Venezuelan people.