Oral Question: Money Creation and Society

- Thursday, 20th November 2014

 

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Mr Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): It is a pleasure, as always, to follow the right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher), who gave us a characteristically thoughtful and radical speech. I do not necessarily start from the same premises as him, but what he says is an important contribution to the debate, on the securing of which I credit my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker). He has done the House and the country a service by forcing us to focus on the issue of where money comes from and what banks do. He did so in an insightful way. Above all, he showed that he sees, as our old universities used to see, economics as a branch of moral sciences. It is not just a narrow, analytical, economic issue, but a moral, philosophical and ultimately a theological issue, which he illuminated well for the House.

 

A lot has been made of the ignorance of Members of Parliament of how money is created. I suspect that that ignorance, not just in Members of Parliament but in the intellectual elite in this country, explains many things, not least why we entered the financial crisis with a regulatory system that was so unprepared for a banking crisis. I suspect that it is because people have not reflected on why banks are so different from all other capitalist companies. They are different in three crucial respects, which is why they need a very different regulatory system from normal companies.

 

First, all bankers-not just rogue bankers but even the best, the most honourable and the most honest-do things that would land the rest of us in jail. Near my house in France is a large grain silo. After the harvest, farmers deposit grain in it. The silo gives them a certificate for every tonne of grain that they deposit. They can withdraw that amount of grain whenever they want by presenting that certificate. If the silo owner issued more certificates than there was grain kept in his silo, he would go to jail, but that is effectively what bankers do. They keep as reserves only a fraction of the money deposited with them, which is why we call the system the fractional reserve banking system. Murray Rothbard, a much neglected Austrian economist in this country, said very flatly that banking is therefore fraud: fractional reserve banking is fraud; it should be outlawed; banks should be required to keep 100% reserves against the money they lend out. I reject that conclusion, because there is a value in what banks do in transforming short-term savings into long-term investments. That is socially valuable and that is the function banks serve.

 

We should recognise the second distinctive feature of banks that arises directly from the fact that they have only a fraction of the reserves against the loans they make: banks, individually and collectively, are intrinsically unstable. They are unstable because they borrow short and lend long. I have been constantly amazed throughout the financial crisis to hear intelligent people say that the problem with Northern Rock, RBS or HBOS, or with the German, French, Greek and other banks that ran into problems, was the result of their borrowing short and lending long, and they should not have been doing it, as if it was a deviation from their normal role. Of course banks borrow short and lend long. That is what banks do. That is what they are there for. If they had not done that they would not be banks. Banking works so long as too many depositors do not try to withdraw their funds simultaneously. However, if depositors, retail or wholesale, withdraw or refuse to renew their short-term deposits, a bank will fail.

 

If normal companies fail, there is no need for the Government to intervene. Their assets will be redeployed in a more profitable use or taken over by a better-managed company. But if one bank fails, depositors are likely to withdraw deposits from other banks, about which there may also be doubts. A bank facing a run, whether or not initially justified, would be forced to call in loans or sell collateral, causing asset prices to fall, thereby undermining the solvency of other banks. So the failure of one bank may lead to the collapse of the whole banking system.

 

The third distinctive feature of banks was highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe: banks create money. The vast majority of money consists of bank deposits. If a bank lends a company £10 million, it does not need to go and borrow that money from a saver; it simply creates an extra £10 million by electronically crediting the company’s bank account with that sum. It creates £10 million out of thin air. By contrast, when a bank loan is repaid, that extinguishes money; it disappears into thin air. The total money supply increases when banks create new loans faster than old loans are repaid. That is where growth in the money supply usually comes from, and it is the normal situation in a growing economy. Ideally, credit should expand so that the supply of money grows sufficiently rapidly to finance growth in economic activity. When a bank or banks collapse, they will call in loans, which will reduce the money supply, which in turn will cause a contraction of activity throughout the economy.

 

In that respect, banks are totally different from other companies-even companies that also lend things. If a car rental company collapses, it does not lead to a reduction in the number of cars available in the economy. Its stock of cars can be sold off to other rental companies or to individuals. Nor does the collapse of one rental company weaken the position of other car rental companies; on the contrary, they then face less competition, which should strengthen their margins.

 

The collapse of a car rental company has no systemic implications, whereas the collapse of a bank can pull down the whole banking system and plunge the economy into recession. That is why we need a special regulatory regime for banks and, above all, a lender of last resort to pump in money if there is a run on the banks or a credit crunch, yet this was barely discussed when the new regulatory structure of our financial and banking system was set up in 1998. The focus then was on consumer protection issues. Systemic stability and the lender-of-last-resort function were scarcely mentioned. That is why the UK was so unprepared when the credit crunch struck in 2007. Nor were these aspects properly considered when the euro was set up. As a result, a currency and a banking system were established without the new central bank being given the power to act as lender of last resort. It has had to usurp that power, more or less illegally, but that is its own problem.

 

This analysis is not one of those insights that come from hindsight. Some while ago, Michael Howard, now the noble Lord Howard, reminded Parliament-and indeed me; I had completely forgotten-that I was shadow Chancellor when the Bill that became the Bank of England Act 1998 was introduced. He pointed out that I then warned the House that

 

"With the removal of banking control to the Financial Services Authority…it is difficult to see how…the Bank remains, as it surely must, responsible for ensuring the liquidity of the banking system and preventing systemic collapse."

 

And so it turned out. I added:

 

"setting up the FSA may cause regulators to take their eye off the ball, while spivs and crooks have a field day."-[Official Report, 11 November 1997; Vol. 300, c. 731-32.]

 

So that turned out, too. I could foresee that, because the problem was not deregulation, but the regulatory confusion and the proliferation of regulation introduced by the former Chancellor, which resulted from a failure to focus on the banking system’s inherent instability, and to provide for its stability.

 

This failure to focus on the fundamentals was not a peculiarly British thing. The EU made the same mistakes in spades when setting up the euro, and at the very apogee of the world financial system, they deluded themselves that instability was a thing of the past. In its "Global Financial Stability Report" of April 2006, less than 18 months before the crisis erupted, the International Monetary Fund, no less, said:

 

"There is growing recognition that the dispersion of credit risk by banks to a broader and more diverse group of investors, rather than warehousing such risk on their balance sheets, has helped to make the banking and overall financial system more resilient…The improved resilience may be seen in fewer bank failures and more consistent credit provision. Consequently, the commercial banks…may be less vulnerable today to credit or economic shocks."

 

The supreme irony is that those at the pinnacle of the world regulatory system believed that the very complex derivatives that contributed to the collapse of the financial system would render it immune to such instability. We need constantly to be aware that banks are unstable, and are the source of money. If instability leads to a crash, that leads to a contraction in the money supply, and that can exacerbate and intensify a recession.

 

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): I am listening carefully to my right hon. Friend. Does that mean that the banks are uncontrollable, as things stand?

 

Mr Lilley: No; they can and should be controlled. They are controlled both by being required to have assets, and ultimately by the measures that Government should take to ensure that they do not expand lending too rapidly. That is the point that I want to come on to, because a failure to focus on the nature of banking and money creation causes confusion about the causes of inflation and the role of quantitative easing.

 

As too many people do not understand where money comes from, there is confusion about quantitative easing. To some extent, the monetarists, of whom I am one, are responsible for that confusion. For most of our lifetime, the basic economic problem has been inflation. There have been great debates about its causes. Ultimately, those debates were won by the monetarists. They said, "Inflation is caused by too much money-by money growing more rapidly than output. If that happens, inevitably and inexorably, prices will rise." The trouble was that all too often, monetarists used the shorthand phrase, "Inflation is caused by Government printing too much money." In fact, it is caused not by Government printing the money, but by banks lending money and then creating new money at too great a rate for the needs of the economy. We should have said, "Inflation follows when Governments allow or encourage banks to create money too rapidly." The inflationary problem was not who created the money, but the fact that too much money was created.

 

The banks are now not lending enough to create enough money to finance the growth and expansion of the economy that we need. That is why the central bank steps in with quantitative easing, which is often described as the bank printing money. Those who have been brought up to believe that printing money was what caused inflation think that quantitative easing must, by definition, cause inflation. It only causes inflation if there is too much of it-if we create too much money at a faster rate than the growth of output, and therefore drive up prices-but that is not the situation at present.

 

Mr MacNeil: The right hon. Gentleman is giving a very good explanation of the different circumstances in which money is created. He has spoken about the morality, and about quantitative easing. When there is demand, what is his view of the theory of helicopter money, and where that money gets spread to?

 

Mr Lilley: As a disciple of Milton Friedman, I am rather attracted to the idea of helicopter money; I think it was he who introduced the metaphor, and said that it would be just as effective if money were sprayed by a helicopter as if it were created by banks. Hopefully, as I live quite near the helicopter route to Battersea, I would be a principal recipient. I do not think that there is a mechanism available that would allow us to do that, but I am not averse to that in principle, if someone could do it. My point is that the banks, either spontaneously or encouraged by the central bank through quantitative easing, must generate enough money to ensure that the economy can grow steadily and stably.

 

Mr MacNeil: Could it not be argued that increasing welfare payments would be a form of helicopter money, because the people most likely to spend money are those with very little money? If we put money in the pockets of those who have little money, it would be very positive, because of the economic multiplier; the money would be spent, and would circulate, very quickly.

 

Mr Lilley: There are far better reasons for giving money to poor people than because their money will circulate more rapidly-and there is no evidence for that; I invite the hon. Gentleman to read Milton Friedman’s "A Theory of the Consumption Function", which showed that that is all nonsense. There are good reasons for giving money to poor people, namely that they are poor and need money. Whether the money should be injected by the Government spending more than they are raising, rather than by the central bank expanding its balance sheet, is a moot point.

 

All I want to argue today is that we should recognise that the economy is as much threatened by a shortage of money as it is by an excess of money. For most of our lifetimes the problem has been an excess, but now it is a shortage. We therefore need to balance in either occasion the rate of growth of money with the rate of growth of output if we are to have stability of prices and stable economic activity. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe on bringing these important matters to the House’s attention.

 

 

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