(Week 19 - Wednesday, Dec. 17)
With the current "debt" crisis we are witnessing the economy move beyond the partnership of wealth creation and money creation (i.e. beyond "capitalism"). Let us trace out how this has come about.
The premise of the "debt-money" system is that if participants in the economy need money, they can borrow it by putting up some form of "collateral" (already acquired tangible wealth) that the banker can hold as "security" (saleable item from which he can recover the monetary value) in case the borrower fails to pay back the loan. The banker obtains the funds to "lend" out of his privilege to create money "out of thin air" granted by the Federal government to the Federal Reserve System via a legislated corporate charter.
This has resulted in a peculiar situation in that the money to repay the principal proceeds of a loan is thereby issued, but the money required to "pay back" the "interest" is not. The proponents of the system do not deem this to be a problem because they assume that the "economic growth" financed by new loans will be the basis out of which interest payments can be made. Supposedly, the necessity of having to cover interest payments of itself spurs the economy on to greater heights of activity, and also serves as a needed discipline to insure that such money is borrowed only for enterprise that is truly productive.
This method has worked for the almost-a-century since the passage of the Federal Reserve Act, but, according to critics, not without terrible human and environmental cost. Whatever the merits of the current system, it is clear that a physical economy cannot forever keep up with the demands of exponentially expanding "debt" paper. A limit will eventually be reached, and it appears that that may be what is happening now.
To be sure, it has not been experienced as the crossing of a bright white line, but rather as a stretching out of the substantive quality of collateral. This has manifest in many ways, including the increasing issuance of money based on revolving consumer "debt" taken on to obtain the necessities of life (e.g. groceries, gas, etc.), the proliferation of loans against inflated housing values, and the effective reliance on war (hot and cold, overt and covert) as engines of "debt-money" creation. Currency issued for such purposes becomes less of a seed for further enterprise out of which "interest" payments can be made, and more of a net drain on the already existent productive capacity of the economy.
The relentless imperative for new money creation within a "debt-money" system makes it inevitable that a resort to ever-less-substantive forms of "collateral" will take place. This unfolds in a natural progression that could be described as follows:
Commensurate collateralization - The principal amount of a loan is within the bounds of a realistic valuation of the property put up as collateral considering the cost to create or replace it. An example is a home mortgage for which the amount of money borrowed is reasonably affordable within the parameters of prevailing wages.
Inflated collateralization - The principal amount of a loan is beyond the bounds of a realistic valuation of the property put up as collateral considering the cost to create or replace it. An example is a "sub-prime" home mortgage for which the amount of money borrowed is not affordable within the parameters of prevailing wages.
Paper collateralization - The loan is not secured by already acquired tangible wealth, but by the liens or "debt" paper written against such. An example is money issued to finance the widespread practice of bundling home mortgages as "investment packages" or "structured investment vehicles" in the international financial markets. Borrowing "on margin" to finance stock market speculation is a similar sort of activity.
Phantasmic collateralization - The loan is no longer secured by even the pretense of existent wealth or wealth creation, but rather by the illusions of the socio/political/financial culture that invariably emerges to obscure the speculative nature and stubborn anomalies of a "debt"-based monetary system. Examples of this are supported by mindsets that can see as justified monies raised or issued to finance hostile corporate takeovers, default credit swaps, commodity speculation, currency manipulation, all manner of derivatives, social contracts that can't be met (e.g. unrealistically structured pensions), and the promises of politicians (albeit well-meaning) who assure us that they will make certain that the $700 billion in "bailout" money will be paid back.
As an illustration of how disconnected from substantive wealth the monetary system has become, Bernard Lietaer (former Belgian central banker, and widely regarded authority on money) reports in his book "The Future of Money" that the world trading order has become a "…global casino where 98% of the transactions are based on speculation." This means that of the money that crosses international boundaries, only 2% of it can be accounted for as financing trade in goods and services (food, pharmaceuticals, cars, electronics, media, tourism, oil, weapons, and anything else tangible). The rest is essentially non-productive gambling in speculative financial instruments.
As extreme as the situation has gotten, the degrading of collateralization has gone a critical step further. I will describe that in the next column.
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The complete set of columns from this series is posted at the following websites.