Power & Market
Politicians from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Dick Cheney are united in their agreement that deficits don't matter. Of course, that's exactly what a politician would say. Politicians score points by spending other people's money, so naturally, they don't want to hear anything about how prudence suggests it might be a good idea to not spend that extra 800 billion dollars they don't have.
But there is apparently little concern in Washington, DC as the annual deficit — for a single year, mind you — approaches one trillion dollars for the first time since the hit-the-panic-button days of the Great Recession. Except that now huge deficits are coming during "good" economic times.
Moreover, as the Congressional Budget Office has forecast, the debt load is expected to rise to 125 percent of GDP over the 20 years. That's higher than the US debt-to-GDP ratio during World War II.
This, of course, assumes no major geopolitical or economic disruptions, whicih would make things far worse.
For those who believe huge debts are no big deal, however, there's still no need to worry. After all, they say, actual debt payments are still only a minor issue. In fact, they're still lower than where they were during the early 1990s.
Consider the first graph, for example. If we take the federal government's interest payments, and calculate them as a percentage of federal tax revenue, we find 12 percent of what the feds take in has to paid out as interest. Back during the early nineties, on the other hand, the feds were paying more than twenty percent of their tax revenue toward debt service.
Source Office of Management and Budget and US Bureau of Economic Analysis.1
Of course, that's not all due to debt load. A lot of it depends on the interest rate. Back in late 1990, for example, the target federal funds rate was over 7 percent. The 10-year note rate was around seven percent also — compared to around two percent today. Not surprisingly, the feds were paying more on the debt they owed than under current conditions with a note rate of two percent.
But, the CBO estimates the 10-year note rate to double between now and 2020. I'm skeptical it will rise that fast from its current low levels, but when it does go up, so will the amount of money the federal government has to devote to servicing the debt. And that means cuts to things like defense, social security, and medicare.
Moreover, as the debt gets bigger and bigger, the need to keep the interest rate low via central bank "quantitative easing" will become more important, meaning middle class savers will take more of a hit to savings accounts and pension plans.
But perhaps the most striking aspect of the growing debt is the fact there really is no end in sight, and the US has no chance of ever paying off the debt.
We can see this when we compare the total size of the debt with government revenue.
Comparing Debt to Tax Revenue
Part of the reason people have a hard time comprehending the sheer size of the debt is because it is often compared to total GDP size. For example, it's easy to find online that the US debt-to-GDP ratio right now is around 105 percent. But what does that mean? One problem we encounter here is the fact when it comes to personal debt, people don't think of making debt payments as a percentage of their household "GDP." That wouldn't make much sense since the ability to pay off debt usually depends on income.
So what is the national debt as a percentage of the federal governments income? Income, in this case is the federal government's tax revenue. And it turns out by this measure, we're in uncharted waters.
In fact, the national debt is now eleven times annual federal revenue. And as far as I can tell, that's the highest it's ever been. (In 1945, the national debt was $251 billion, and tax receipts were $45 billion, meaning the national debt was 5.6 times tax revenue that year.)
Specifically, in 2018, the national debt ($21.4 trillion) was 10.9 times the size of annual tax receipts ($1.9 trillion). That's even higher than what it was during the dark days of the "stimulus" following the great recession. In 1981, on the other hand, the total debt load was only two-and-a-half times annual tax receipts.
From the perspective of household management, this is easier to comprehend. For example, if a household has an income-to-debt ratio like the federal government, that would mean an annual income of $100,000 and a debt load of a million dollars.
Now, at ultra low interest rates, if payments are interest-only, and non-debt-related daily expenses are fairly low, one could certainly manage this. But there are risks here. Interest rates could go up. Other expenses could rise. And in the end, the great-grandchildren are still paying off the debt for vacations and fancy trinkets their ancestors bought decades earlier. Even worse, if interest rates go up significantly, one's great grandchildren have a lower standard of living because they have to devote more and more of their possible savings and consumption to unproductive debt service.
None, of this, however, is likely to convince those who think debt doesn't matter. Some may still cling to the idea that the government can just print more money and purchase bonds to drive down interest and make payments.There are at least two problems that emerge here. The constant forcing down of interest rates is a problem for those who rely on pension funds and other investments that need relatively lower-risk yield to grow. Meanwhile, households that are on fixed incomes will be harmed by growing inflation, if it takes the form of consumer price inflation. If, on the other hand, the money-supply growth leads to asset -price inflation (which is what we have now) then this will make housing more unaffordable, while locking out lower-income and lower-net-worth people from a variety of assets, such as homes.
Now, none of this is an apocalyptic scenario, but it is a scenario in which people with low and moderate incomes must pay more, and are able to save less and invest less. It's a scenario of a standard of living that in decline. It's a scenario in which much of the population faces more roadblocks to wealth accumulation and must devote increasing levels of income and resources to paying off the debts of past generations. Government amenities such as welfare payments and transportation facilities must also shrink as more tax revenue must be spent on debt service. And, of course, the tax burden on ordinary people certainly won't be going down.
- 1. For interest payment information, see Table 3.2 from OMB's historical tables. https://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/historical-tables/
In today’s political discussion, one of the fundamental principles our society is built on has been on the defense: private property rights and the protection of such rights. Just take the current debate about the housing shortage in Germany as a prime example. A very prominent policy proposal is flat-out expropriation of housing. Another one is the limitation of ownership of residential apartments.
Ideas such as these are not only supported by extremists. An activist group in Berlin collected over 77,000 signatures for the expropriation of private real estate corporations in Berlin. No worries, the appropriate vehicle for something like this already exists by the way: the German capital city already has an expropriation authority (Enteignungsbehörde).
Some proposals are less obvious, though they have the same basis. Rent control or the prohibition of “luxury renovations” seem harmless – but they are still major intrusions in one’s property. After all, these policies would result in the owner, in the legal sense, without real power or control over his own property.
Opponents of those policies correctly emphasize that housing in public ownership will lead to a state of disrepair, as it happened back in East Germany and as it still does to this day in socialist countries. The reason is that if the government has its hands in the housing sector to such a large extent, an imbalance of supply and demand will occur. And, as Mises and Hayek have shown, if too much tinkering with market prices fails, the price system will ultimately fail as well, leading to chaos, or that state of despair. At this point, socialists will point to a central planning board as a solution, but that would be no more than a “pretense of knowledge.”
However, the fundamental problem, of course, is the attack on private property itself. Property rights have not been created – they are a result of human action. Property rights developed over time through the interaction of people. Through a bottom-up process, this institution came into being organically, as Carl Menger, the founder of the Austrian School of Economcis, put it. It was not someone deciding top-down that we shall have property rights now. It came into being because people who accepted and protected property rights had an advantage over others, and so those others adopted the same approach.
The reason property rights have to be in place is scarcity. If the world was a utopia without any scarcity, private property would not be necessary. In such a world there would be no conflict between people over goods and services. There would be no necessity of an economy at all, as there would be no reason to trade. You could just have whatever you want. But the real world is characterized by scarcity. In the real world, not all dreams come true and human wishes stay unfulfilled. Some people have certain desirable goods, while others don’t.
At this point, there are two options: a Hobbesian anarchy, where everyone fights it out with hands and fists (or worse) who “owns” what – owning it only until someone else, someone stronger, comes along again. Or, you safeguard ownership, so that property is protected and the owner can be assured that he or she will own whatever he or she owns for longer, ultimately having the option to cultivate, to further develop the property – or to trade it for something else. Thus, property rights are at the basis of a genuine rule of law.
Without property rights, distrust and violence gain the upper hand. But with property rights, a peaceful order can emerge. It is this that Berlin’s expropriators seemingly have not realized yet.
This summer's budget deal, negotiated by Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump made few headlines. And that's exactly how these power brokers wanted it.
The new law suspends the debt ceiling through July 2021, removing the threat of a default during the 2020 elections, and raises domestic and military spending by more than $320 billion compared to existing law over the next two fiscal years.
Anxious to avoid a budget debate which Trump obviously thought he couldn't win, the President quickly signed a new agreement to keep federal spending growing quickly into the future.
Importantly, Democrats have achieved an agreement that permanently ends the threat of the sequester ... With this agreement, we strive to avoid another government shutdown, which is so harmful to meeting the needs of the American people and honoring the work of our public employees.
Trump, in his usual unwarranted hyperbole, called the deal "phenomenal."
In nominal terms, spending has gone up relentlessly since Republicans gained control of both the White House in Congress in 2016. The Democratic takeover of the House has, not surprisingly, done nothing to stop the spending juggernaut.1
The budget deal ensures defense spending will go up for the sixth year in a row.2 Spending will hit a new all-time high in 2019, and will surpass a trillion dollars in 2020.
Growth is less impressive when adjusted ot the CPI. In 2018 dollars, defense spending will be just about back to the previous all-time high reached in 2011, hitting 989 billion in 2020. Welfare programs such as Medicare and Social Security all continue to reach new all-time highs nearly every year, with the exception of non-Medicaid poverty programs, such as TANF. Those programs have seen cuts in recent years.
From 2017 to 2020, the OMB estimates (in 2018 dollars) growth rates in each area as:
- Defense: 16 percent
- Soc Sec: 10.4 percent
- Medicare: 8.1 percent
- Healthcare such as Medicaid: 8.9 percent
- Other Poverty-Related Programs: -3.7 percent
Not surprisingly, the Trump administration has shown little inclination toward cutting or even moderating federal spending. Republicans had total control of Congress and White House during 2017 through early 2019, but total federal spending increased at sizable rates.
In fact, the sort of spending we saw in the 2019 fiscal year (which ends this month) and which is expected in 2020, is the type of spending we haven't seen since the wake of the 2008 financial crisis when the federal government greatly expanded spending in the name of "stimulus."
But, as I noted here, the Trump administration's budgets are huge — with growing deficits — during a period of economic expansion. That is, even orthodox Keynesians might counsel slowing spending growth under current conditions, because stimulus is expected when recession hits. But the federal government is now going full bore into recession-type spending, even though there's no recession (yet.)
So, expect spending growth and deficits to become even more astronomical when the economy shows greater signs of slowing.
- 1. See table 3.2 covering federal functions and subfunctions from the Office of Management and Budget. Functions included in this article include 050, 550, 570, 600, 650, 700, and 750. https://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/historical-tables/.
- 2. Defense spending here includes all "national defense" spending, plus veterans benefits, plus "Administration of Justice" funds, such as those going to the FBI which now describes itself as a national security organization. See Table 3.2 in OMB estimates.
The US Constitution never granted the federal government authority to create a central bank. The Founders, having lived through hyperinflation themselves, understood that government should never have a printing press at its disposal. But from the very beginning of America’s founding, the desire for a crony central bank was strong.
But, unfortunately, a third attempt was successful and the Federal Reserve was unconstitutionally created by Congress in 1913. Americans have been living under a corrupt and immoral monetary system ever since. The Federal Reserve is the printing press that has financed the creation of the largest government to ever exist. Endless welfare and endless military spending are both made possible by the Federal Reserve. The Fed can just print the money for whatever the US establishment wants, so those of us who long for a Constitutional and limited government have few tools at our disposal.
Despite all the propaganda claiming “independence,” the Fed has always been a deeply political institution. Because the Fed is a government-created monopoly with key government-appointed employees, its so-called “independence” is a mere fiction. However, the US Congress created the Fed with legislation; it can also abolish the Fed with legislation.
Last week, the facade of Federal Reserve “independence” was dealt a severe blow. Ironically, the person who broadcast to the world that the Fed is anything but “independent” was ex-New York Fed President Bill Dudley. Dudley wrote that, “Trump’s re-election arguably presents a threat to the United States’ and global economy, and if the goal of monetary policy is to achieve the best long-term economic outcome, the Fed’s officials should consider how their decisions would affect the political outcome of 2020.”
The timing of Dudley’s threats to use Fed monetary policy to affect the outcome of a US election couldn’t come at a more striking time. After all, for more than two solid years Americans have been bombarded with fabricated stories about Russians rigging our elections. And yet here is a Federal Reserve official threatening to do the same exact thing - but this time for real!
Whether it’s the mainstream media, the CIA, the FBI, or now the Federal Reserve, more and more Americans are waking up to the fact that there is a Deep State in America and its interests have nothing to do with American liberty. In fact, our liberty is what the Deep State wants to abolish.
When it comes to the Federal Reserve, I stand firmly by my conviction that it needs to be audited and then ended as soon as possible.
While Americans contemplated Jeffrey Epstein’s demise, Chinese authorities had more pressing matters as the country’s third bank was bailed out late last week. HengFeng Bank with $200 billion in assets fell into the hands of “Central Huijin Investment, a subsidiary of the China Investment Corporation that acts as the Chinese government’s shareholder in the country’s four biggest banks,” according to a brief report overnight by Shanghai Securities News, published by state news agency Xinhua and cited by Zero Hedge.
Prior to HengFeng, Bank of Jinzhou was propped up using “state-owned strategic investors,” according to Dai Zhifeng, analyst with Zhongtai Securities Co.
In plainer terms, Zero Hedge reports ,
“The latter approach is more market-oriented and showcased the determination of regulators to resolve problematic banks, while injecting confidence into the market,” Dai said, although when stripped of all the pig lipstick, what just happened in China is that another major bank, one with $100 billion in assets, just collapsed and received a government-backed rescue.
China’s banks hold $30 trillion in deposits according to Alexander Campbell, more or less double the amount of aggregated U.S. bank deposits. Campbell was pitching Alex Rosenberg on Real Vision on his thesis of buying gold in Yuan terms with the idea that bank bailouts take a flood of central bank created fiat money to paper over. So while the Chinese may want to keep the Yuan near the 7 to the dollar range, bank busts are just beginning in China and 7 may become a distant memory.
Campbell’s view is,
Bank of Jinzhou just went under, Baoshang went under. They're providing liquidity while trying to take out the small guys.
There's some big guys coming up. Industrial Bank looks fine. But by all of our metrics, it's the sketchiest big bank. Minsheng is not that far behind them. If you start to get those banks under question, the liquidity that they have to provide to offset the deleveraging, the negative liquidity from bank runs will be so big that I think the question of do you want to keep seven is obvious. And you say, no, who cares? Like, let's have it go down. And let's stimulate the economy. I think the cruxy thing, and the thing for the trade then is will do we print money as well?
China’s rural banks have classified loans totaling 4.1% which may not sound bad, but is the equivalent of circling the drain in the fractionalized banking world. ZH cited a JP Morgan report downgrading Chinese banks.
The J.P. Morgan economics team revised down its GDP growth forecast for 2020 by 0.1ppt due to the recent sharp turn in Sino-U.S. trade negotiations. But even prior to that, declining PPI and industrial profits growth, suggesting declining debt-servicing ability and weakening cash flow for Corporate China, increase the risks that banks will be asked to support macro growth at the potential expense of profitability. Recent official PBOC comments on an accelerating interest rate liberalization process are illustrative of such rising risks.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump is thrashing China with tariffs. In a piece for Bloomberg, Stephen Mihm compared Trump’s tariffs with the bad old days of Smoot-Hawley and the failure of Austrian bank, Credit-Anstalt, and the European liquidity crisis which followed.
While FDR finally backed off, Mihm, doesn’t believe Trump will. “Donald Trump is no FDR,” he writes. “Trump isn’t going to get religion and suddenly work for international cooperation on trade and currency before things go off the rails. He’s going to stay the course.”
China will have no choice but to let the Yuan sink versus the dollar as “Beijing has found itself paralyzed and with zero credibly options how to kickstart the economy,” writes ZH.
“The only thing that's left is for China to admit that this is indeed the case, so sit back, relax and watch as bank after bank on the list above fails and China's financial cancer spreads across the country with the $40 trillion in assets (which is certainly not bad news for either gold or Bitcoin).”
When Trump talked about winning, he must have been talking about holders of the yellow metal and its crypto cousin.
The Macro Problem of Microtransactions: The Self-regulatory Challenges of Video Game Loot Boxes by Matthew McCaffrey has been published as a case study for Harvard Business Review.
The video game industry has ignited a global controversy surrounding microtransactions in gaming, especially the use of loot boxes: randomized rewards with potential real-world value. Consumers and legislators are calling for the regulation of these revenue models on the grounds that they are unfair, predatory, or could be considered gambling. This article examines the controversy from a management perspective. First, I introduce current regulatory responses to the controversy and what they mean for business practices. Then, I explain ongoing industry-level and firm-level attempts to self-regulate as a way to placate consumers and governments. These tactics highlight a wide range of broader strategies that game developers and other stakeholders can pursue in order to improve customer relations and, more publicly, signal their commitment to self-regulation and avoiding consumer harm. These practices can be applied more broadly to firms that offer controversial products or services that do not yet fit within current regulatory frameworks.
Available for purchase here.
For more from McCaffrey on the topic on the Mises Wire:
Today is Hans Hoppe's birthday. He is an outstanding libertarian theorist, in the tradition of Murray Rothbard, and his strikingly original work ranges widely over philosophy, history, and economics. Among his many contributions are a defense of self-ownership and property rights through argumentation ethics and a trenchant criticism of democracy. He is a scholar of the highest integrity and courage, and all lovers of liberty are in his debt.
The U.S. government is infamously in debt. Since about 2012, the official national debt has equaled or exceeded the GDP. Shockingly, the real fiscal gap is much higher: with our $21.5T GDP and $22.5T official debt, we also have about $200T in unfunded liabilities over the next few decades. Most of that last number is due to programs such as Medicare and Social Security, but our regular debt comes from accumulated deficits: the U.S. government spends more each year than it steals in taxes. Since theft is its primary source of income, this situation is not sustainable.
The single largest item in the 2019 federal budget (contributing heavily to the aforementioned deficits and unfunded liabilities) is Social Security. The second-largest item is defense. The U.S. government spends more on defense than any other country in the world – by far. In fact, it spends about as much as the next eight countries combined. That is to say, the U.S. defense budget is approximately equal to the combined defense budgets of China, Saudi Arabia, India, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Japan.
Is spending of that magnitude necessary, or even remotely justifiable? Probably not. We’ve all heard infamous examples of gross waste and financial incompetence in the DoD – from $21T over a couple of decades that wasn’t correctly accounted for , to $1,280 cups , $999 pliers, and $640 toilet seats.
One of the biggest boondoggles in the U.S. DoD budget – and the focus of this article – is the F-35, AKA the most expensive weapons system in history. And of course, the costs continue to go up, according to a recent DoD report. The Pentagon first put out the project for bids in 1996 , and the first F-35s were manufactured and flown in 2006. However, it wasn’t until 2018 that they saw combat for the first time when Israel deployed them. Since then, the USMC , USAF , and RAF have used them in combat only rarely. For a plane that is supposed to be sufficiently versatile and modular to replace virtually all other combat aircraft , the F-35 has been used very little.
Perhaps you’re wondering if this is a typical timeframe for a high-tech military project. Well, in 2001, the DoD expected to have its first combat-capable F-35s in 2010. That did not happen, not by a long shot. At least as late as 2013, these 5th Generation fighter jets could not fly in bad weather or at night. Despite all this, the F-35 program will cost about $1.5T, or approximately what the U.S. government spent on the entire Iraq war.
Last year, Defense News identified thirteen significant deficiencies in one or more F-35 models: from the possibility of a blown tire destroying the entire aircraft, to inadequate vision and sensor systems , to not being to fly too high, too fast, or in certain maneuvers without either apparent or actual major problems. Other issues included logistical and security concerns. Many of these have solutions in progress, although several additional issues with the weapons systems have been identified since then.
How does a project like this happen, and continue, despite perpetual problems? There are 1,400 subcontractors for the F-35 program, spread out over 307 congressional districts in 45 States. For those of you unfamiliar with the U.S. political system, that means there are 307 Congressmen (out of 435) and 90 Senators (out of 100) who have constituents whose livelihoods depend in whole or in part on the F-35 program.
Even the extraordinarily liberal (and openly socialist) Senator Bernie Sanders claims to oppose the program but supports having it partly based in Vermont, so his constituents can benefit from the subcontracting jobs.
It’s not just U.S. politicians who are financially committed to this disaster: there are eight other countries involved in the development of the F-35.
I don’t have a solution to the issues presented here. Really, since I oppose U.S. involvement in all the wars I’m aware of, I don’t really want to see the F-35 used more than it has been. Probably the myriad problems will be solved eventually, and perhaps most of the money to be wasted in this program has already been spent.
Last week, the Business Roundtable launched a major attack on property rights, the bedrock of capitalism.
In a stunning new mission statement, the Roundtable, which represents nearly 200 of America’s blue-chip companies, downgraded shareholders. According to the Roundtable, the purpose of a corporation will no longer be to conduct business with the sole objective of generating profits for shareholders. Owners of corporations (read: shareholders) will now just be one of five “stakeholders”— alongside customers, workers, suppliers and communities — that will call the tune for corporations.
The Roundtable’s new anti-capitalist mission statement promises to dilute and muffle shareholders’ voices and further politicize corporate governance.
Read the full article at USA Today
Joakim Book has recently published an essay at AIER arguing that Rothbard was wrong to change his mind about free banking in Scotland. Rothbard had originally praised the episode of Scottish free banking in his 1983 book The Mystery of Banking, but then changed his mind in a 1988 essay on The Myth of Free Banking in Scotland. While the topic has been debated extensively throughout the 90s and 00s between free bankers and full-reserve advocates, it is worth responding to this latest argument against the Rothbardian position.
Setting the stage
Before moving on to answering Mr. Book’s specific charges against Rothbard, it is perhaps useful to briefly recount the background to the dispute over free banking. Is it possible to have stable fractional reserve banking in a free market, so-called free banking, where banks issue more bank notes and demand deposits than they have cash on hand to redeem? Or is such a system based on special privileges granted to banks, and will it inevitably result in bank panics and business cycles? Rothbard’s position was the second, while Lawrence White in the early 1980s, first in articles and then in his 1984 book Free Banking in Britain, advanced arguments for the feasibility of free banking on theoretical grounds while using the example of the Scottish experience with free banking 1716-1844 to show that it had also worked in practice. Rothbard’s initial praise for the Scottish experience was based on White’s first paper detailing the episode of free banking, but reading White’s 1984 book and reviewing the histories of Scottish banking himself made Rothbard change his mind and criticize the Scottish system, and White’s portrayal of it, harshly.
The present argument
The charges against Rothbard are three in number:
- Rothbard interprets the low failure-rate of Scottish banks as proof of government protection, whereas White and others see it as proof of the stability of the system.
- The Bank Restriction during the Napoleonic Wars apparently also applied to Scotland, meaning that the Scottish banks were rendered immune from the legal claims of their clients. This is “completely false” according to Mr. Book, as the only reason the Scottish bank customers did not demand specie was that they preferred bills of exchange and bank notes.
- Rothbard claims that the Bank of England was a lender of last resort to the Scottish banking system – which according to Book is a wrong-headed interpretation of the evidence.
As argument number 2 appears to me to get at the heart of the issue, I will deal with arguments 1 and 3 summarily before moving on.
Ad 1): Here I think we must return a Scots verdict – while it is true that we would regularly see firms go out of business in a free market, as more successful entrepreneurs displace the less competent, it seems to me that the banking sector is a special case. Presumably, the clients of the bank would not hold bank notes if they feared there was a risk of the bank going out of business, so people would only patronize very sound banks, meaning that the banking sector would be more stable than the surrounding economy. That’s just speculation, however. Since we don’t have any similar systems to compare the Scottish experience to (the English banks that White compares the Scottish to were artificially weakened due to government regulations meant to protect the Bank of England), we can’t say one way or the other what the low number of bankruptcies indicates.
Ad 3): It is hard to understand how Mr. Book can sustain this charge, let alone describe Rothbard’s position as a “strange historical twist”. It is true, as Mr. Book relates, that in the crisis of 1793 the British government, not the Bank of England, was the source of help for the Scottish banks (a fact that does little to sustain the notion of “free” banking in Scotland), but this is not news to Rothbard, who relates the exact same incident. Nor does it disprove Rothbard’s point about the importance of London for the Scottish banks, for while he does not say that the Bank of England was the lender of last resort to Scottish banks, he does cite the historians Frank W. Fetter and Sydney Checkland to the effect that “(r)edemption in London drafts was the usual form of paying note holders” and “the principal and ultimate source of liquidity [of the Scottish banks] lay in London, and, in particular, in the Bank of England.” That expert historians say something is obviously no guarantee that it’s true, but I think it behooves Mr. Book to realize that his argument is with these gentlemen, instead of making it seem like Rothbard invented the central role of the Bank of England to the Scottish system.
Getting gold in Scotland
Did Scottish banks at any point suspend convertibility, contrary to their legal obligations and the act of 1765 that governed Scottish banking? It is true, as Mr. Book alleges, that the Bank Restriction Act of 1797 only referred to the Bank of England and the Bank of Ireland – but that does not mean that Scottish bankers redeemed their bank notes in gold. As a leading authority on Scottish free banking notes, as soon as the leading bankers in Edinburgh got news of the suspension from the Bank of England, they met together and decided to follow suit.1 In clear violation of the law, the Scottish bankers en masse suspended redemption of their notes for the duration of the suspension in England. The result, as hard money advocates would predict, was a massive inflation in Scotland and erosion of the reserves of the Scottish banks. They went from having reserves of gold covering 10-20% of their outstanding issue of bank notes to only 0.5-3.2%.
While this development hardly speaks to the purported stability of so-called free banking, it does not contradict Mr. Book’s charge that specie redemption was still possible in Scotland. After all, since the action of the Scottish banks in refusing to redeem their notes was clearly illegal, presumably a disgruntled client desirous of gold could take his bank to court. Why didn’t anybody do this? Surprisingly, we need only read the article on the bank restriction by George Selgin that Mr. Book himself links to in support of his claims to realize why. For the Bank Restriction Act did affect Scottish banks: while it did not make Bank of England notes legal tender, if anyone insisted on using such notes in payment of debts, “he was to be protected from arrest for debt” (Selgin quoting Frank W. Fetter). In other words, the legal remedies available to persons insisting on payment in gold were severely curtailed – in Scotland particularly so, as the Act deprived bank creditors of the right to summary diligence, a special procedure under Scots law for the enforcement of debts.
As is to be expected, the suspension of convertibility in Scotland lead to the complete disappearance of silver and gold coins from circulation2, per the working of Gresham’s Law, and bank notes proliferated, leading to the above-mentioned outcome that bank reserves dwindled to a fraction of what they were before the suspension.
All this leads us back to Rothbard. Rothbard claimed both less and more than Mr. Book attributes to him. He didn’t claim that the Act of 1797 applied to Scottish banks, merely that they used the opportunity to suspend convertibility – and this not on his own authority, but on that of Professors White and Checkland. However, Rothbard also claimed much more than simply a temporary suspension in Scotland during the early 1800s. It is worth quoting him at length since this claim seems to have escaped Mr. Book’s attention:
Now I come to the nub: that, as a general rule, and not just during the official suspension period, the Scottish banks redeemed in specie in name only; that, in substance, depositors and note holders generally could not redeem the banks' liabilities in specie. The reason that the Scottish banks could afford to be outrageously inflationary, i.e. keep their specie reserves at a minimum, is that, in practice, they did not really have to pay.
[Quoting Professor Checkland] The Scottish system was one of continuous partial suspension of specie payments. No one really expected to be able to enter a Scots bank … with a large holding of notes and receive the equivalent immediately in gold or silver. They expected, rather, an argument, or even a rebuff. At best they would get a little specie and perhaps bills on London. If they made serious trouble, the matter would be noted and they would find the obtaining of credit more difficult in future.
Rothbard goes on to describe a legal battle in the 1750s over the redemption of bank notes that ended up with a nominal victory for the cause of redemption, but in reality the courts refused to force the banks to pay up. The clear conclusion must be that convertibility of Scottish bank notes were only sporadically enforced throughout the existence of the much-vaunted system of free banking in Scotland.
This result should not surprise us, as the system was inherently unstable. While Mr. Book focuses on the issue of bankruptcy rates, this is not Rothbard’s main reason to deem the system unstable. Instead, he focuses on the fact (again using Checkland as his source) that throughout the existence of an independent Scottish banking system, the Scottish banks expanded and contracted credit in a long series of business cycles, as also Huerta de Soto has pointed out. What the Scottish bankers did was secure legal privileges in order to be able to engage in fraudulent credit expansion, and it is only after reading deeper in the history of Scottish banking that Rothbard realized this and subsequently changed his mind on the issue. Far from criticizing Rothbard, Mr. Book, who himself writes often and persuasively about the role of financial history, should recognize him as a kindred spirit – and accept the Rothbardian strictures on free banking in Scotland, based as they are on sound theory and historical inquiry.
The goal of this essay has been to show that, contrary to Mr. Book’s criticism, Rothbard’s change of mind on the issue of free banking in Scotland was based on a better understanding of the episode and was not, as Mr. Book alleges, “the imposition of perfectionist normative judgments” on the historical record. More generally, we have again shown that the claim that Scottish experience validates free banking theory is not supported by the evidence. On the contrary, the attempts by Mr. Book and other free bankers to explain away or ignore the myriad examples of government privilege and intervention in the Scottish case is starting to sound like a no true Scotsman fallacy – they are either ignored, or explained away as not really affecting the financial system.
Free banking has not passed the free market test, at least not in any of the cases that have been brought forward by the free bankers to support their claims. True free banking would indeed be a very stable system – but one with very high reserves. As Mises said:
Suspension of the bank-notes’ convertibility and legal-tender provisions had transformed the ‘hard’ currencies of many countries into questionable paper money. The logical conclusion to be drawn from these facts would have been to do away with privileged banks altogether and to subject all banks to the rule of common law and the commercial codes that oblige everybody to perform contracts in full faithfulness to the pledged word. Free banking would have spared the world many crises and catastrophes.
It is a mistake to associate with the notion of free banking the image of a state of affairs under which everybody is free to issue bank notes and to cheat the public ad libitum. People often refer to the dictum of an anonymous American quoted by Tooke: "Free trade in banking is free trade in swindling." However, freedom in the issuance of bank notes would have narrowed down the use of bank notes considerably if it had not entirely suppressed it. It was this idea which Cernuschi advanced in the hearings of the French Banking Inquiry of October 24, 1865: "I believe that what is called freedom of banking would result in a total suppression of bank notes in France. I want to give everybody the right to issue bank notes so that nobody should take any bank notes any longer."