Friday, January 09, 2009


This is the first in a series of articles that seeks to provide the intelligent layman with sufficient knowledge of sound economic theory to enable him to understand what must be done to overcome the present financial crisis and return to the path of economic progress and prosperity.

A disastrous economic confusion, one that is shared almost universally, both by laymen and by professional economists alike, is the belief that falling prices constitute deflation and thus must be feared and, if possible, prevented.

The front-page, lead article of The New York Times of last November 1 provides a typical example of this confusion. It declares:

As dozens of countries slip deeper into financial distress, a new threat may be gathering force within the American economy—the prospect that goods will pile up waiting for buyers and prices will fall, suffocating fresh investment and worsening joblessness for months or even years.

The word for this is deflation, or declining prices, a term that gives economists chills.

Deflation accompanied the Depression of the 1930s. Persistently falling prices also were at the heart of Japan’s so-called lost decade after the catastrophic collapse of its real estate bubble at the end of the 1980s—a period in which some experts now find parallels to the American predicament.
Contrary to The Times and so many others, deflation is not falling prices but a decrease in the quantity of money and/or volume of spending in the economic system. To say the same thing in different words, deflation is a general fall in demand. Falling prices are a consequence of deflation, not the phenomenon itself.

Totally apart from deflation, falling prices are also a consequence of increases in the production and supply of goods, which are an essential feature of economic progress and a rising standard of living. In such circumstances, falling prices are not accompanied by any plunge in business sales revenues or profits, by any increase in the difficulty of repaying debt, or by any surge in bankruptcies. All of these phenomena are the result purely and simply of deflation, not falling prices.

Indeed, under a full-bodied, 100-percent-reserve gold standard, falling prices, caused by increased production, are likely to be accompanied by a modest elevation of the rate of profit and a somewhat greater ease of repaying debt, both owing to the increase in the production and supply of gold and thus in the spending of gold. Under such a gold standard, prices fall to the extent that the increase in the production and supply of ordinary goods and services outstrips the increase in the production and supply of gold and the consequent increase in spending in terms of gold.

While this must certainly come as a surprise to The Times, and to everyone else who does not understand the nature of deflation, falling prices are in fact so far removed from being deflation that they are the antidote to deflation. They are what enables an economic system that has experienced deflation to recover from it and thereafter to enjoy the fruits of economic progress.

This conclusion can be demonstrated Socratically, by means of a simple question that could be used on an economics exam for sixth graders.

Thus, imagine that prior to the present financial downturn, Bill used to go shopping once a week in his local supermarket. When he went there, he could afford to spend $10 for bottled water. At the prevailing price of $1 per bottle, he was able to buy 10 bottles. Now, in the midst of the downturn, when Bill visits the supermarket, he can afford to spend only $5 for bottled water.

Here’s the question: At what price per bottle of water would Bill be able to buy for $5 the 10 bottles of water he used to buy for $10? Answer: 50¢.

As this question and its answer make clear, a fall in prices enables reduced funds available for expenditure to buy as much as previously larger funds could buy.

This point applies even when lower prices do not result in greater purchases of the particular item whose price has fallen. Thus, suppose that the price of a gallon of milk is $8 and now falls to $4. Yet Bill and his family do not need more than one gallon in any given week, and so won’t buy any larger quantity of milk at its now lower price. The fall in its price still helps economic recovery. It does so by freeing up $4 of Bill’s funds to make possible the purchase of other things, that he wants but otherwise couldn’t afford because of the lack of available funds.

Another, similar example is that of a fall in the price of gasoline or heating oil, which helps to increase the ability of people to spend in buying products throughout the economic system.

As indicated, in sharpest contrast to falling prices, deflation is a process of financial contraction. In our present crisis, it is a contraction of credit and of the spending that depends on credit. A fall in prices and, of course, in wage rates too, is the essential means of adapting to this deflation and overcoming it.

Nevertheless, the prevailing bizarre confusion of falling prices with deflation, stands in the way of economic recovery. In regarding falling prices, which are the effect of deflation and at the same time the remedy for deflation, as somehow themselves being deflation, people are led to confuse the solution for the problem with the problem that needs to be solved.

On the basis of this confusion, they advocate government intervention to prevent prices from falling. The prices they want to prevent from falling are, variously, house prices, farm and other commodity prices, and, above all, wage rates. To the extent that such efforts are successful, and prices are prevented from falling, the effect is to prevent economic recovery. It prevents economic recovery by preventing the reduced level of spending that deflation represents, from buying the larger quantity of goods and services that it would be able to buy at lower prices and wage rates.

Just as falling prices are so far from being deflation that they are the remedy for deflation, so too preventing prices from falling is so far from preventing deflation that it actually worsens the deflation. This is because it leads people to postpone buying even in instances in which they have the ability to buy. They put off buying in the expectation of being able to buy on better terms later on, when prices and wage rates have fallen to the extent necessary to permit economic recovery.

By the same token, when prices and wage rates finally do fall sufficiently to permit economic recovery, an increase in spending in the economic system will almost certainly occur. This is because the funds that people had been withholding from spending, awaiting the fall in prices and wages rates, will now, in the face of the necessary fall, be spent. Thus the necessary fall in prices and wage rates achieves economic recovery by means of creating greater buying power for a reduced amount of spending. It also brings about a partial restoration of spending and thereby definitively ends the deflation.

Just how far it is necessary for prices and wage rates to fall in order to achieve economic recovery depends on the change that has taken place in what Mises calls “the money relation.” This is the relationship between the supply of money and the demand for money for holding.

During the boom, inflation and credit expansion increase the supply of money and at the same time reduce the demand for money for holding. Then, in the subsequent bust phase of the business cycle, the demand for money for holding rises and the supply of money can actually fall. Both of these factors make for a decline in total spending in the economic system and thus the need for a correspondingly lower level of wage rates and prices to achieve economic recovery.

How far these processes might go in our present circumstances and what might be done, consistent with the principle of economic freedom, to mitigate them, is too large a subject to explain in this one article.[1] However, I must state here that a decrease in the quantity of money can be altogether prevented and that this would dramatically limit the extent of the decline in overall spending in the economic system.

Whatever the reduced levels of spending that the changed money relation will support, the freedom of wage rates and prices to fall can achieve not only economic recovery but more than economic recovery. It can achieve the employment of everyone able and willing to work, i.e., full employment. And it could do so with no decline in the real wages of the average worker in the economic system, indeed, with a significant rise in his real wages. Unfortunately, this too is a subject too large to discuss further in the present article.[2]


Before closing, I must say a few words about the present efforts of the government to overcome the crisis by means of “bailouts” and their associated financing by budget deficits. Ultimately, these efforts are an attempt to overcome the effects of a rise in the demand for money for holding by means of a sufficiently large increase in the supply of money. In its campaign, the government appears to care for nothing but overcoming the crisis of the moment, without regard to the fuel it is providing for the next crisis.

The government today has unlimited powers of money creation. And so it is highly likely, given its evident willingness to use those powers, and the overwhelming public support that exists for using them, that the increase in the supply of money it brings about will ultimately outweigh the present increase in the public’s demand for money for holding. When and to the extent that that happens, and business sales revenues and profits begin to rise and employment and wage rates begin to rise, the public’s demand for money for holding will once again begin to fall.

At that point the massive increase in the quantity of money the government is currently bringing about will fuel sharply rising prices and give birth to a new crisis. This time, a crisis of inflation. Then, the government will either have to be content with a US economy that resembles the economic system of a Latin American country or it will have to rein in its inflation. If it chooses the latter quickly, we’ll be back to the situation that prevailed in the early 1980s and have to undergo a fresh economic contraction, though probably one of much greater size than then, because of the unfinished business left over from the present crisis.

If the government delays too long in reining in its inflation, then when it finally does decide to do so, it may be confronted not only with prices rising as rapidly as they did in Latin America decades ago, but also with the massive unemployment rates that accompanied the efforts to rein in such major inflation. At that time, prices rising at a rate of 20, 30, or 50 percent or more were accompanied by comparably high unemployment rates. (To understand how such a thing can happen, imagine total spending and prices both rising at the rate of, say, 50 percent per year. Now the government, in an effort rein in inflation, succeeds in reducing the increase in spending to 15 percent. If the rise in wage rates and prices has any kind of significant inertia, such as continuing at 40 percent, the effect will be a drop in production and employment to a level equal to 1.15/1.4, which represents a drop of about 18 percent. In the nearer-term future, unemployment will be promoted by any additional powers the government may give to labor unions, who will use them to raise wage rates even in the midst of mass unemployment, as they did from 1932 on in the Great Depression.)

Of course, given the prevailing readiness massively to expand the powers of government in order to deal with short-term crises, it is also possible that the government will enact wage and price controls in its efforts to fight the consequences of its inflation. If and when the controls are subsequently removed, there will again be a crisis of rising prices that, if not accompanied by still more inflation, will be followed by a major financial contraction. If the price controls are not removed, the economic system will be paralyzed and ultimately destroyed.

The upshot is that there is no good way out of the present crisis other than by meeting it through the free-market’s means of a fall in wage rates and prices, mitigated to the maximum extent possible in ways consistent with the principle of economic freedom. What is required is a way out that once and for all ends the boom-bust cycle of inflation and credit expansion followed by deflation and contraction. The free market, a freer market than we have had up to now, is the only such solution.

Economic freedom and economic recovery both require that prices and wage rates be free to fall and that all legal obstacles in the way of their falling be immediately removed. In order for that to happen, as many people as possible must understand that falling prices are not deflation but the antidote to deflation.


Postscript: Two points need to be briefly addressed that I could not deal with in the body of my article. One concerns the effect of the prospect of falling prices on the postponement of expenditures. This postponement applies only to the case in which the fall in prices is in response to a fall in demand, not an increase in production and supply. In this case, if prices do not fall, demand falls further, as I showed.

However, the prospect of falling prices resulting from increased production and supply does not imply a postponement of purchases. This is because in this case the prospective fall in prices is not the result of any decrease either in spending or in any other major monetary aggregate. On the contrary, here the prospective fall in prices means an increase in the prospective buying power of all accumulated savings as well as of the income that will be earned in the future. In this way, the process of economic progress portends being financially better off in the future than in the present. The effect of this in turn is to enable people to afford to consume more in the present. This counterbalances the benefit to be derived by waiting to take advantage of lower prices in the future. In other words, falling prices due to increased production and supply are essentially neutral in their overall effect on the relationship between spending for present consumption versus saving for future consumption.

The second point that needs to be addressed concerns housing prices. It is often asserted that falling house prices are responsible for bank failures and that the continuation of falling prices for housing must result in more such failures and therefore must be stopped.

Falling home prices are not in fact responsible for bank failures, any more than falling prices of aging automobiles are responsible for bank failures. The fact that homeowners may owe more on their homes than their homes are worth has no more fundamental connection with defaults on mortgage loans than the fact that many or most automobiles purchased with installment loans are worth less than the outstanding loan balances owed on them. Indeed, the mere act of driving a new car off the dealer’s lot is often sufficient to put its resale value below the value of the outstanding loan balance on the car.

What leads to defaults, whether on home loans or on automobile loans, is the inability or unwillingness of borrowers to honor their financial obligations, not the market value of the homes or cars.

Only decades of inflation and credit expansion could make it possible for people to think of the houses they occupy as an investment. In reality, a house is a consumers’ good, just like an automobile or a refrigerator. The only difference is that it depreciates more slowly than they do. Only a long string of years in which inflation took place more rapidly than houses depreciated enabled their prices to rise every year and people to come to regard them as a source of financial gain. If not for inflation and the rise in prices that it produces, it would be very clear that housing is a wasting asset, a slowly wasting asset to be sure, but a wasting asset nonetheless.

If not for inflation, the price of new houses would not rise. They would probably even fall from year to year. In addition, the price of a house that was 5, 10, or 20 years old would be significantly less than the price of a new house. Thus even constant prices of new houses, let alone falling prices of new houses, implies that the price of a house declines as it ages. That is the normal situation. That is the situation in the absence of inflation.

The accelerated credit expansion of recent years and the rapid rise in house prices that it caused made it appear for a while that it was profitable to buy houses for no other reason than quickly to resell them. It also made it appear that people could live off the rise in equity in their homes, by borrowing against it. The frenzy of the housing bubble was such that at its peak the price of the median house could be afforded only by people earning the top 15 percent of incomes.

There is no reason to attempt to maintain artificially high house prices and to rescue the borrowers and lenders who were responsible for them. Furthermore, the attempt to do so must perpetuate the suspicion that the lenders are still basically unsound and cannot be counted on to be able to meet their own financial obligations. Such bad loans must be owned up to and cleared off the books of the banks and the other financial institutions that made them, before confidence can be restored in the financial system.

The fall in housing prices that is taking place needs to go further. The median home price is still considerably higher than the median income level. Calls for stabilizing house prices are a demand for government intervention on behalf of reckless borrowers and lenders, paid for by taxpayers.

The lower home prices that will result from the freedom of the housing market from government interference will reduce the size of the mortgages that are necessary to buy homes. If a house sells for half a million dollars instead of a million dollars or for one-hundred thousand dollars instead of two-hundred thousand dollars, then the amount of mortgage financing required to buy it is correspondingly reduced and the housing market comes into alignment with the reduced overall supply of credit that is available.

[1] For a discussion of the subject, see the author’s Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics, pp. 959-962.

[2] I have discussed it at length in Capitalism; see pp. 580-587.

*Copyright © 2009, by George Reisman. George Reisman, Ph.D. is the author of Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics (Ottawa, Illinois: Jameson Books, 1996) and is Pepperdine University Professor Emeritus of Economics. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Goldwater Institute. His web site is and his blog is A pdf replica of his book can be downloaded to the reader’s hard drive simply by clicking on the book’s title Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics and then saving the file when it appears on the screen. The book provides an in-depth, comprehensive treatment of the material discussed in this and subsequent articles in this series and of practically all related aspects of economics.

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Saturday, March 22, 2008

Our Financial House of Cards and How to Start Replacing It With Solid Gold

A credit crisis has been spreading through the economic system.[1] It began with the collapse of the housing bubble, which was the result of years of Federal-Reserve-sponsored credit expansion. This credit expansion poured hundreds of billions of dollars into the purchase of homes largely by sub-prime borrowers who never had a realistic capability of repaying their mortgage debts in the first place. And, not surprisingly, large numbers of them in fact stopped making the payments required by their mortgages.

At first apparently confined to the market for sub-prime mortgages, the credit crisis has spread to other portions of the mortgage market, to the usually staid municipal bond market, and within the last week or so has led to a run against a major investment bank (Bear Stearns). Along the way, triple-A rated securities have overnight turned into junk bonds, multi-billion dollar hedge funds have collapsed, and major commercial banks have lost tens of billions of dollars of capital. All this, despite massive infusions of funds into the market by the Federal Reserve System and other central banks and a reduction in the Federal Funds rate from 5.25 percent in September of 2007 to 2.25 percent currently.

In the process, the triple-A rated securities that turned out to be junk served to confirm the old truth that lead cannot be turned into gold: the alleged triple-A securities were backed by collections of mortgages that in the last analysis consisted largely or even entirely of sub-primes. An important new truth also appears to have emerged: namely, that Ph.Ds. in finance, the likely authors of the schemes for creating such securities, can turn out to be far more costly than anyone had ever dreamed possible.

Currently, untold billions more of banks’ capital now hinge on the survival of bond insurers striving to insure more than two trillion dollars of outstanding bonds on the basis of capital of their own of roughly ten billion dollars. Collapse of the bond insurers would mean that credit-rating firms, such as Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s, would reduce the ratings of all the bond issues that would consequently be deprived of insurance coverage. This in turn would serve to reduce the prices of those bonds, because lower credit ratings would make them ineligible for purchase by numerous investors, such as many pension funds. To the extent that the bonds were owned by banks, the value of the banks’ assets would be correspondingly reduced and with it the magnitude of the banks’ capital.

The decline in the assets and capital of banks that has already taken place has served to reduce the ability of banks to lend money to borrowers to whom they would otherwise normally lend. To the extent, for example, that sub-prime mortgage borrowers have stopped paying interest and principal on their loans, the banks do not have those funds available to make loans to other borrowers.

The effects of such credit contraction can already be seen in business bankruptcies precipitated by an inability of firms to obtain refinancing of debts coming due. It can also be seen in the growing difficulty even of sound firms to obtain financing required for expansion.

The Role of Leverage

Our present circumstances follow decades, indeed, generations of almost continuous inflation and credit expansion, in which almost everyone has become accustomed to assume that asset values will always rise or at least will quickly resume their rise after any pause or decline. This assumption not only played an important role in the eagerness with which people lent and borrowed in the mortgage market, but also in bringing about the very high degree of financial leverage that has come to characterize practically all areas of our financial system. (Leverage is the use of borrowed funds to increase the returns that can be earned with a given sized capital. It equivalently increases the losses that can be incurred on that capital.)

Unduly high leverage explains the failure of major lenders in the prime portion of the real estate market. As the result of losses sustained in sub-prime mortgages, banks and other lenders could no longer provide funds as readily for the purchase of prime mortgages. The resulting few percent drop in the value of prime mortgages has served to wipe out the entire capital of prime mortgage lenders whose capital was so highly leveraged that it constituted an even smaller percentage of the value of their assets than the few percent drop in the price of those assets. For example, if a mortgage lender initially had assets worth $103 and debts of his own of $100 incurred in order to finance the purchase of those assets, a mere 4 percent decline in the value of his assets would wipe out his entire capital and then some. Multiply these numbers by many billions, and the example corresponds exactly to the real-world cases of Thornburg Mortgage and Carlyle Capital reported on the front page of The New York Times of March 8, and to that of Bear Stearns reported on the front page of The New York Times just one week later.

The liquidation of the assets of such lenders, which consisted mainly of prime mortgages, has meant a further fall in the price of prime mortgages, to the point where the credit even of the government-sponsored mortgage lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac has come into question. These two lenders have outstanding mortgage-backed obligations of more than $4 trillion, which sum until recently was assumed also to be an obligation of the US government. Now it has become uncertain whether the actual obligation of the US government extends beyond the less than $5 billion in lines of credit these lenders have with the US Treasury.

The Federal Reserve’s rescue of Bear Stearns can be understood in part in the light of its desire to avoid further declines in the assets and capital of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which would have resulted if Bear had had to sell off its holdings of mortgages. The likelihood that the failure of Bear would have triggered the failure other major Wall Street firms and thereby have resulted in even more massive sell offs of mortgages, along with other assets, was a related important consideration.

Remarkably, at the very same time that the Federal Reserve has been striving to cope with the consequences of excessive leverage and possibly thereby help to prevent the collapse of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government regulator of these institutions—the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight—is not content with the fact that they are already skating on dangerously thin ice. Thus, The New York Times of March 20 reports that the regulator has just decided to reduce their capital requirements, for the purpose of enabling them to take on still more leverage. The effect of this will be that an even more modest decline in home prices and mortgage values will be sufficient to drive Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac into bankruptcy than is now the case.

As these examples illustrate, the failure of debtors can serve to wipe out the capital of highly leveraged creditors, who then become unable to pay their debts, perhaps causing the failure of their creditors, and so on. In other words, one failure can set off a domino effect of a chain of failures. What serves to end the process is when someone in the chain finally accumulates enough salvageable assets from those earlier in the chain to be able to satisfy his creditors.

Leverage and Bank Capital

Operating alongside the process of chains of failures is another, even more important aspect of the leverage present in today’s financial system. This is the fact that reductions in the capital of banks can result in multiple contractions of credit. As a rough average, banks are normally required to possess capital equal to five percent of their outstanding loans and investments. (Investments are purchases of securities.) The implication of this is that reductions in banks’ capital below the five percent level have the potential to result in contractions of credit twenty times as large, in efforts to reestablish the five percent ratio.

For example, a bank with an initial capital of $5 billion, could support $100 billion in outstanding loans and investments, based on the requirement that its capital be at least 5 percent of the credit it has granted. But if its capital falls to $4 billion, it must reduce its outstanding loans and investments to $80 billion to be in compliance with that requirement. In other words, a $1 billion reduction in bank capital can cause a $20 billion reduction in outstanding bank credit.

Such announcements as that recently made by Citibank, that it would reduce its holdings of home loans by 20 percent, are entirely consistent with this phenomenon, as are the recent failures of banks and brokers to make bids in markets for so-called auction-rate notes. (These are credit instruments whose interest rates are set periodically on the basis of auctions and that until recently were billed as the equivalent of cash. Bidding for them would have placed banks at risk of acquiring additional assets and indebtedness when they urgently needed to reduce their assets and indebtedness.)

Credit Contraction and Deflation

Of the greatest importance is the further fact that credit contraction by banks has the effect of reducing the outstanding volume of checking deposits in the economic system and to that extent the quantity of money in the economic system. This result follows from the fact that when debtors repay their loans, they do so by means of writing checks, the proceeds of which are subtracted not only from their accounts but also from the balance sheets of the banks on which the checks are drawn. If those banks do not then make equivalent new loans, accompanied by the creation of equivalent fresh checking deposits for new borrowers, the amount of the checking deposits used to repay the loans simply disappears. (The same result occurs when banks sell portions of their securities holdings to members of the public. The buyers of the securities pay for them by means of writing checks, and the proceeds of those checks then disappear not only from the checking accounts of the purchasers but also from the balance sheets of the banks on which the checks are drawn.)

Such contraction of credit and money operates to reduce the amount of spending in the economic system. The money that is no longer present in the economic system, because the credit that would have provided it has disappeared, is money that can no longer be spent. Money no longer spent is business sales revenues no longer earned. A drop in business sales revenues, in turn, causes a drop in spending by the firms that would have earned those sales revenues.

This further drop in spending reduces both the sales revenues of other firms, namely, those that would have supplied the firms in question, and wage payments to workers, as employees are laid off in the face of declining sales. And, of course, as wage payments fall, so too does the spending of wage earners for consumers’ goods. The decline in spending, sales revenues, and wage payments is repeated again and again throughout the economic system, as many times in a year as the vanished sum of money would have been spent and respent in that year.

Of no less importance is the fact that a decline in the quantity of money and volume of spending can itself cause further declines in the assets and capital of banks. This is because as the sales revenues of business firms decline, so too do their profits and their ability to repay debts, including debts to banks. The resulting further declines in the value of bank assets further reduce the capitals of banks, causing more credit contraction, further reductions in the quantity of money and volume of spending, and still more reductions in the asset values and capitals of banks, on and on in a self-reinforcing vicious circle.

Bank Failures and Bank Runs

Historically, processes such as those just described have not taken place smoothly and gradually, in a manner akin to the air slowly leaking from some kind of giant inflated balloon. To the contrary, they have been characterized by sudden massive ruptures in the fabric of the system, namely, by bank failures, often precipitated by bank runs.

Sooner or later, the erosion of its capital makes a bank actually fail. What is meant in saying that bank failures were often precipitated by bank runs is merely that at some point depositors woke up to the fact that a bank’s assets were no longer sufficient to guarantee the repayment of its deposits, and so raced to withdraw their funds while it was still possible to do so.

Bank failures, and even bank runs, are by no means a phenomenon confined to history. Intermittent bank failures continued to occur through the entire 20th century. And the present Chairman of the Federal Reserve System has said that some bank failures are to be expected in our present crisis. Only late last summer there was not only a failure but also an actual run on a major British bank, Northern Rock. If our own credit crisis continues and deepens further, it should not be surprising to start seeing bank runs here in the United States as well. Indeed, what happened to Bear Stearns—which is an investment bank—on March 13 and made it seek the help of the Federal Reserve System was precisely a run, as large numbers of its clients sought to withdraw their funds all at once. It is very possible that what has just happened at Bear Stearns will also happen at one or more major commercial banks, whose customers hold checking or savings accounts. (In this connection, it should be kept in mind that federal deposit insurance is limited to a maximum of $100,000 per account. The run would be on the part of those whose accounts are larger than $100,000.)

When a bank fails, unless it is immediately taken over by another, still solvent bank, its outstanding checking deposits lose the character of money and assume that of a security in default. That is, instead of being able to be spent, as the virtual equivalent of currency, they are reduced to the status of a claim to an uncertain sum of money to be paid at an unspecified time in the future, i.e., after the assets of the bank have been liquidated and the proceeds distributed to the various parties judged to have legitimate claims to them. Thus, what had been spendable as the equivalent of currency suddenly becomes no more spendable than any other security in default.

This change in the status of a bank’s checking deposits constitutes a fully equivalent reduction in the quantity of money in the economic system. Thus, for example, if a bank were to fail with outstanding checking deposits of $100 billion, say, and not be taken over immediately by another, still-solvent bank, the quantity of money in the economic system would also immediately fall by $100 billion.

As a result of this fact, bank failures have the potential greatly to accelerate and deepen the descent into deflation and economic depression. For they represent much larger, more sudden reductions in the quantity of money and volume of spending in the economic system. And, just like lesser reductions, their effect, unless somehow checked or counteracted, is to launch a vicious circle of contraction and deflation. The period 1929-1933 provides the leading historical example.

In 1929, the quantity of money in the United States was approximately $26 billion and the gross national product (GNP/GDP) of the country, which provides an approximate measure of consumer spending, was $103 billion. By 1933, following wave after wave of bank failures, the quantity of money had fallen to approximately $19 billion and the GNP to less than $56 billion. The failure of wage rates and prices to fall to anywhere near the same extent resulted in mass unemployment.

The Potential for Deflation Today

In order to understand the potential for deflation today, in 1929, or at any other time, it is necessary to understand the concepts “standard money” and “fiduciary media.” Standard money is money that is not a claim to anything beyond itself. It is money the receipt of which constitutes final payment. Under a gold standard, standard money is gold coin or bullion. Paper currency under a gold standard is not standard money. It is merely a claim to standard money, i.e., gold.

Since 1933, paper currency in the United States has been irredeemable. It has ceased to be a claim to anything beyond itself. Its receipt constitutes final payment. Thus, since 1933, the standard money of the United States has been irredeemable paper currency.

Most of the money supply of the United States, today as in 1929, is not standard money of any kind, but rather fiduciary media. Fiduciary media are transferable claims to standard money, payable on demand by their issuers, accepted in commerce as the equivalent of standard money, but for which no standard money actually exists.

What precisely fits the description of fiduciary media are checking deposits insofar as they exceed the reserves of standard money held by the banks that issue them. Checking deposits are, first of all, transferable claims to standard money, payable on demand by the banks that issue them, and accepted in commerce as the equivalent of standard money. To the extent that they exceed the currency reserves owned by the banks that issue them, they are fiduciary media.

At the present time, there are approximately $2.5 trillion of checking deposits in one form or another. These checking deposits are those reported as part of the M1 money supply ($625 billion), plus those reported as so-called sweep accounts by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis ($765 billion),
[2] and those reported as retail money fund accounts ($1078 billion).[3]

In addition to these checking deposits, our present money supply consists of approximately $800 billion in currency outside the banking system. Our total money supply is thus currently $3.3 trillion. Of these $3.3 trillion, the quantity of standard money is approximately $840 billion: the currency outside the banks plus $40 billion of currency reserves of the banking system.

There are no reserve requirements on either sweep accounts or retail money fund accounts. Supposedly there is a basic 10 percent reserve requirement against the checking deposits counted under M1. Nevertheless, the actual reserves held against these checking deposits are not $62 or $63 billion, but merely on the order of $40 billion, which implies an overall effective reserve requirement of less than 7 percent against these checking deposits. When compared to the total checking deposits of the economic system, the roughly $40 billion of reserves constitute a reserve on the order of less than 2 percent. This is the measure of the leverage of today’s banking system with respect to reserves.

In an ongoing process of a vicious circle of bank failures, a falling quantity of money and volume of spending, and thus falling business sales revenues, mounting business losses and business failures, resulting in still more bank failures, the volume of checking deposits might ultimately be reduced all the way down to the system’s $40 billion of standard money reserves. This last is the actual currency either in the possession of the banks or belonging to them while held by the Federal Reserve System. This currency is the only asset of the banks whose value cannot be reduced by the failure of debtors.

The potential deflation of checking deposits, if nothing were done to stop it, is the difference between their present amount of $2.5 trillion and the $40 billion of reserves that stand behind them. The potential deflation of the money supply as a whole, if nothing were done to stop it, is the difference between $3.3 trillion and $840 billion, i.e., approximately 75 percent.

Why Massive Deflation Must Be Prevented

Massive deflation is always something that should be avoided if it is humanly possible to do so. The surest and best way to avoid it is to avoid the prolonged credit expansions that set the stage for it.

The only way that the economic system can adjust to deflation once it has occurred is by means of corresponding reductions in wage rates and prices. These serve to increase the buying power of the reduced quantity of money and the reduced volume of spending that it supports. If they were sufficient, they would enable the reduced quantity of money and volume of spending to buy all that the previously larger quantity of money and volume of spending had bought.

Yet there are powerful obstacles in the way of wage rates and prices falling. Not the least of these is the prevailing belief that rather than it being the reduction in the quantity of money and volume of spending that is deflation, it is the fall in wages rates and prices that is deflation. This incredible confusion leads to misguided attempts to combat deflation by means of preventing the only thing that would make possible a recovery from deflation, namely, a fall in wage rates and prices.

This confusion is joined by the even more influential errors of the Marxian exploitation theory, which claims that employers would arbitrarily set wage rates at the level of minimum subsistence if not prevented from doing so by government intervention. The result of this stew of ignorance is the existence of laws such as pro-union and minimum-wage legislation, which make it extraordinarily difficult or plain impossible for wage rates to fall. These laws are tantamount to simply making it illegal for the process of recovery to proceed.

To these laws must be added the virtual paralysis of our present-day judicial system. Not only do convicted murderers often sit on death row for years or even decades before their sentences are carried out or finally set aside, but ordinary law suits now normally take years to wind their way through our court system. A leading consequence of a massive deflation would be millions upon millions of business and personal bankruptcies, which our court system is simply not equipped to handle. The functioning of an economic system depends on clear knowledge of who owns what and who has the legal right to do what with what property. It cannot wait years for judges to make clear and final decisions about such matters, which is the likely period of time it would take them if the present typical performance of our judicial system is any guide.

Given these legal obstacles, the effect of massive deflation would be long-term mass unemployment and economic paralysis. Literally tens of millions would be unemployed, with no way to find new employment. Such conditions, in combination with the massive economic illiteracy that prevails in our culture, would likely result in the adoption of many new and additional acts of destructive government interference. It would not by any means be out of the question that the likes of a native-born Hugo Chavez could be elected president of the United States.

True and False Remedies

It should be obvious from much of what has been said in this article that what is driving our impending deflation is the lack of capital on the part of the banks, resulting from the losses they have thus far sustained on their assets. This is what has been impelling them to contract credit, and which, if unchecked will serve to reduce their assets and capital further and further, until much or all of the banking system and the checking deposit money it has created collapses under its own weight for a sheer lack of monetary reserves.

In the light of this knowledge, such solutions as the recently enacted “stimulus package” designed to promote consumer spending should be dismissed as laughably naive. The economic system is not going to be rescued by consumers, let alone by consumers so incapable of producing that they require government handouts in order to consume. No one benefits by giving people the money with which to buy his products. Yet this is the position such programs force taxpayers to assume.

Likewise, when one keeps in mind that the problem is a lack of capital, such alleged solutions as the Federal Reserve’s current policy of reducing interest rates must appear as clearly counterproductive. Reductions in interest rates in the United States relative to those in Europe and elsewhere serve to keep badly needed capital out of our country by making investment there more profitable than investment here. In keeping down the overall supply of capital in the United States, they contribute to the lack of credit and to making it more difficult for banks to obtain the additional capital they need. The Federal Reserve has carried this policy a large step further, with its most recent reduction in the Federal Funds rate from 3 percent to 2.25 percent.

Similarly, the rescue measure proposed for homeowners faced with foreclosure, namely, forcibly reducing interest rates on sub prime mortgages in violation of the contractual terms of the mortgages and against the will of the mortgage holders, would serve further to reduce the earnings, assets, and capital of the banks. Decisions of judges to place obstacles in the way of the foreclosure process, such as insisting on the presentation of the original mortgage documents, even though it is undisputed that the borrower is in default, also serve to weaken the financial position of banks. It can do so not only directly but also indirectly, by contributing to the bankruptcy of non-bank mortgage lenders with debts to banks.

The sympathy expressed for the families threatened with foreclosure is very largely misplaced. It is forgotten how many of them purchased their homes without making any down payment of any kind, and often without being obliged to make any payments of principal on their mortgages. Many of the homes now being foreclosed were purchased by such buyers not for the purpose of having a place to live, but for the purpose of profiting from a speculative investment.

Of course, there are also some homeowners who did make substantial down payments in purchasing their homes, even during the housing bubble. But there are many more who purchased their homes before the bubble began but who in recent years foolishly chose to consume their equity, by incurring additional debt to finance consumption in excess of their incomes. At the time, these people were lauded as pillars of the economy’s strength, on the basis of the same ridiculous beliefs that underlie the proposals to rescue the economy now by still more consumption on the part of people who can’t afford it.

The effect of the years of Federal-Reserve-sponsored credit expansion and the resulting spending binge on housing that people could not afford was to make housing unaffordable by millions of other people. It was to raise median house prices in many places to the point where only the top 15 or 20 percent of income earners in the area could afford the median priced home. To make housing affordable once again by the mass of people who normally could afford to buy a home, housing prices need to fall to whatever extent their rise in recent years has exceeded the rise in median family incomes. The foreclosure process is an essential step in bringing that about. It should not be prevented in any way from taking place.

How to Increase the Capital and Reserves of the Banking System

Since the problem behind our impending deflation is the lack of capital on the part of the banks, and beyond that the lack of monetary reserves to maintain the supply of checkbook money when banks fail, it should be obvious that what is needed to avoid the threat of deflation is an increase in the capital and reserves of the banks.

When the problem is stated this way, a thought that is likely to occur to many people is that the banks should simply go out and raise additional capital. They should sell stocks and bonds, for example. And, in fact, that has actually happened in some cases, for example, that of Citibank, which raised $14.5 billion in new capital from foreign investors this last February.

One problem with such a procedure is how much of the bank’s ownership has to be given to the new investors to make their investment worthwhile for them. And, as indicated, raising the necessary capital is made more difficult by Fed’s policy of low interest rates, which keeps down the supply of capital by discouraging foreign investment in the United States. Another, deeper problem for many banks is that in the minds of potential investors the bank’s actual capital may be negative, requiring investors to put up not only new and additional capital but also capital required to overcome the bank’s negative capital. (Negative capital can easily result when on the left-hand side of a bank’s balance sheet there are tens or hundreds of billions of dollars of assets whose value can decline, while on the right-hand side there are tens or hundreds of billions of dollars of deposits whose value is fixed. As we saw earlier, when capital is only a very few percent of assets to begin with, even a modest decline in the value of assets can turn it negative.)

The existence of negative capital entails requiring first an investment sufficient to reach the point of zero capital. And only then the investment of the capital that will enable the bank to maintain and increase its operations. Moreover, the extent of the capital deficiency may not even actually be knowable. Such considerations make the raising of additional capital by conventional means extremely difficult or altogether impossible. It’s a case simply of having to invest too much in order to receive too little.

In these circumstances the only party willing to provide the needed capital funds is the government, i.e., the Federal Reserve System, which has the power simply to print them if necessary.

At present, the Federal Reserve is already supplying the banking system (and the major investment banks as well) with capital. But it is doing so only to the extent of overcoming negative capital, and perhaps doing that less than fully. This is the essential meaning of the Fed’s acceptance of billions of dollars of assets of dubious value in exchange for its own assets of relatively secure value, i.e., US government bonds and Treasury bills. (The Fed now even accepts assets for which there is no market because finding a market would require a radical reduction in the price of the assets compared to what was originally paid for them, and correspondingly wipe out capital on the books of the banks.)

The Fed has committed almost half of its own principal assets to this project: $400 billion out of its most recently reported total holdings of government securities of $828 billion. It will not be able to commit much more of those securities. Indeed, however ironic it may be, the Federal Reserve—the “lender of last resort,” the alleged bailer-outer of the banking system and of the whole economy—is or may fairly soon be itself technically bankrupt as the result of this operation. (This would be clear if the assets it receives had to be valued at their actual market value. The result would be that the assets of the Fed would be less than the face value of its outstanding US currency and other liabilities.)

Unless the Fed’s actions up to now prove sufficient to end the financial crisis, its next step will be the printing of money to prop up the banking system. Indeed, even if the crisis were to end as of now, there would still be the problem that the Fed’s infusion of capital has thus far been only on a temporary basis. The banks are supposed to take back their low-grade and non-performing assets within a month or so and return the Fed’s securities. Clearly, a solution to the problem of a lack of bank capital needs to be long-term, not something that must be renewed month by month.

Moreover, a proper solution to our present crisis should do more than merely overcome the difficulties of the moment. It should, in addition, provide a guarantee against the recurrence of such crises in the future. Above all, a proper solution to this or any other economic or political crisis should also meet the criterion of serving to advance the cause of economic freedom and should be designed with that objective in mind.

There is a means of accomplishing all three of these objectives.

That means is the use of gold as a major asset of the banking system.

Despite the certainty that a proposal of this kind will be almost completely ignored and has virtually no chance of being enacted in the foreseeable future, it still must be made. This is because the most fundamental and important consideration is not what people are willing to accept or reject at the moment but what would in fact accomplish the objectives that need to be accomplished. Using gold as a major asset of the banking system, in the way set forth below, would in fact safeguard the banking system from possible deflationary collapse, prevent the recurrence of any such threat, and do so in a way that substantially advanced the cause of economic freedom. Making the proposal is necessary in order to uphold the philosophy of economic freedom, by providing a demonstration that that philosophy offers the solution to the growing monetary problems we face and is not their cause.

Gold as the Source of New Bank Capital and Reserves

The Federal Reserve System holds approximately 260 million ounces of gold. The market price of gold recently reached $1,000 per ounce. This means that the Fed’s gold can easily be thought of as an asset with a market value of roughly $260 billion.

As an initial approach to understanding the solution to our problem, let us assume that the Federal Reserve declared its gold holding as being held in trust for the benefit of the American banking system, and proceeded to allow every bank to enter on the asset side of its balance sheet a portion of this gold corresponding to its share of the total of the $2.5 trillion of checking accounts presently in the economic system. The banks would not physically possess the gold but only book entries corresponding to it.

The gold entered on banks’ balance sheets could also count as equivalent new and additional bank reserves. Thus the measure would simultaneously add $260 billion of new and additional bank reserves in the form of gold as well as $260 billion of new and additional bank capital. The reserves and the capital would both be essentially permanent.

In order to prevent the monetization of the gold reserves, the Fed could mandate a permanent required gold reserve against all checking deposits—those counted in M1, those counted as “sweeps,” and those counted as retail money funds—in the ratio of $260 billion to $2.5 trillion, i.e., a little over 10 percent.

A major shortcoming of this very simple solution is that the addition of $260 billion in gold to bank assets would probably be insufficient. It almost certainly would be if the Fed decided, as it should, to take back its government securities from the investment banks and give them back their securities of far less value. That would probably bankrupt most or all of the investment banks. Furthermore, because the commercial banks are their main creditors, the assets of the investment banks would move into the possession of the commercial banks and do so, of course, at a far lower value than the loans that had been made to the investment banks. Thus, the present capital of the commercial banks and much more would be wiped out.

Accordingly, the book value placed on the Fed’s gold holding needs to be substantially higher than $1,000 per ounce, if it is to result in the creation of sufficient bank capital and reserves. The question is, how much higher?

The most logical answer to this question was supplied as far back as the 1950s by the late Murray Rothbard, who argued for the establishment of a 100-percent-reserve gold standard by means of pricing the Fed’s gold stock at whatever price was necessary to make it equal the outstanding supply of money.

Taking the outstanding supply of money today as being $3.3 trillion, Rothbard’s proposal implies a gold price of approximately $12,700 per ounce. At such a price, the Fed’s gold stock would be sufficient to provide a 100 percent reserve against both all US checking deposits and all US currency.

The provision of a 100 percent reserve would be an immediate guarantee against any reduction in the supply of checkbook money. This would obviously be the case if the banks simply paid out gold in response to customers’ demands for the redemption of their checking deposits. At $12,700 per ounce, the banks and the Fed would have enough gold to redeem every single dollar of checking deposits and currency in the economic system. (That’s the meaning of a 100 percent reserve.)

Of course, in the circumstances envisioned here, the banks would not pay out physical gold. But they would have the ability to pay out paper currency to the full extent of outstanding checking deposits, and that currency would have an undiminished gold backing at the price of gold of $12,700 per ounce. Thus whatever the recession that might develop in the months ahead, it would be contained, insofar as the money supply of the country would not be reduced. That would guarantee a major reduction in the possible severity of what might otherwise develop.

This 100-percent-reserve gold standard as thus far described would obviously be a long way from the full-bodied 100-percent-reserve gold standard that Rothbard envisioned, and which I myself have elaborated upon and advocated. It would be a standard that for some time was largely just nominal, in that the actual gold of the of monetary system would still be in the possession of the Federal Reserve System. Nor would there yet be any obligation of the Fed to buy or sell gold at the price of $12,700 per ounce or at any other price. The purpose of the system I have described would simply be the twofold one of providing reserves sufficient to prevent any possible reduction in the supply of checkbook money and also of providing capital to banks sufficient to substantially more than offset the losses otherwise resulting from a decline in the value of banks’ assets.

Indeed, given that what would be present is an addition to the assets of the banking system in an amount equal to the full magnitude of outstanding fiduciary media, i.e., of $2.5 trillion of checking deposits minus $40 billion of presently existing standard money reserves, the overwhelming likelihood is that the banks would be handed far too much capital. Even with losses of $1 trillion on their existing assets, they would still stand to gain practically $1.5 trillion in new and additional capital. Such a bonanza would not be justifiable. The solution would be to pass most of it on to the banks’ depositors in the form of bank stock or bonds paid as a dividend on their accounts.

It is not possible in the space of one article to explore, beyond the very limited extent to which I’ve done so,
[6] the problems and the solutions entailed in moving on to the full-bodied 100-percent-reserve gold standard that is the ultimate objective of my proposal. Under such a gold standard, paper currency and checking deposits will, of course, be fully convertible into gold, physical gold coin will enjoy wide circulation, and the supply of gold in the country will be free to increase or decrease simply in response to market forces.

All I have tried to show here is how the twin problems of a lack of bank capital and of bank reserves, which are the core of the threat of deflation, could be solved by means of establishing the framework of a 100-percent-reserve gold monetary system.

Needless to say, such a system would not only end the threat of deflation, but, equally important, it could end the threat of inflation as well. For if it were actually followed, the increase in the quantity of money would be limited to the increase in the supply of gold, which is extremely modest compared with increases in the supply of irredeemable paper money. This is because gold is rare in nature and costly to extract. Irredeemable paper money in contrast is virtually costless to produce and is potentially as abundant as the supply of currency-sized sheets of paper, indeed, as abundant as the size of the largest number that can be printed on all such sheets of paper.

Above all, the solution I have proposed would constitute a major step toward the establishment of a full-bodied precious metal monetary system and thus toward ultimately eliminating the government’s physical control over the money supply and all of the violations of individual freedom that that control represents and makes possible.

And what is more, it could be accomplished at a cost to the Federal Reserve not of hundreds of billions of dollars—the sums the Fed is risking in exchanging its government securities for bank assets of vastly lower value—not for the $30 billion it has risked to bail out just Bear Stearns, but for a little more than $11 billion! Just $11 billion is the value at which the Fed carries its gold stock on its balance sheet, at a price of gold of approximately $42 per ounce.

Thus, to say it all in one sentence, the threat of massive deflation can be eliminated, the threat of inflation ended, and the actual and potential domain of economic freedom greatly expanded, for $11 billion—an $11 billion that would not even be an out-of-pocket expense to anyone but merely a balance-sheet charge on the books of the Federal Reserve System when it deducted its gold holding from its balance sheet and added it to the balance sheets of the banks.


[1] I am indebted to Prof. William Barnett, II, of Loyola University, New Orleans. His recent internet postings on the mises@yahoogroups list made me aware of the fact that the capital requirements of banks under the Basel II Capital Accord, rather than official reserve requirements imposed by the Federal Reserve System, is all that has served to constrain the increase in the quantity of money in the United States in recent years. His comments also served to provide important insight into understanding the role of banks’ capital requirements in explaining essential aspects of their recent behavior as well as their likely behavior in the weeks and months ahead.

[2] Sweep accounts are checking deposits that banks transfer into savings deposit accounts overnight, on weekends, and on holidays, in order to reduce their required reserves and thus be able to use any given amount of reserves to support a larger volume of checking deposits.

[3] Inasmuch as the accounts subsumed under this last head generally allow the writing only of a limited number of checks per month, and sometimes impose limits on the minimum dollar amount of the checks that may be written, they probably should not be counted as part of the money supply to their full extent. To precisely what extent they should be counted is an open question. Nevertheless, it may be that counting them to their full extent represents a lesser error than attempting to adjust them downward. This is because doing so makes allowance for the extent to which roughly $2.1 trillion of institutional money funds may also actually serve as money.

[4] The $800 billion of currency outside the banks is counted as part of the M1 money supply along with the checking deposit component of $625 billion previously referred to. Thus, at present, M1 is approximately $1.4 trillion.

[5] It should be realized that in the absence of any commitment of the Fed to buy gold at $12,700 per ounce, the market price of gold would almost certainly be radically lower. To the extent that additional gold could be purchased at lower prices, the possibility would exist of increasing gold reserves relative to outstanding checking deposits and currency and thus of ultimately having a 100-percent reserve at a price of gold less than $12,700 per ounce. Furthermore, it should be kept in mind that the Fed would need to proceed with great caution in purchasing additional gold. The danger to be avoided is that of initially drawing a disproportionate share of the world’s gold to the United States, when it alone was in process of remonetizing gold. If the US economy became accustomed to such a large gold supply, and then, later on, if and when the rest of the world remonetized gold and drew much of that gold back out, the US would be in the position of experiencing first a virtual inflation in terms of gold and then a virtual deflation in terms of gold, the very kind of sequence of phenomena that a properly established 100-percent-reserve gold standard would permanently prevent.

[6] See above, the preceding note.

Copyright © 2008, by George Reisman. George Reisman, Ph.D. is the author of Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics (Ottawa, Illinois: Jameson Books, 1996) and is Pepperdine University Professor Emeritus of Economics. His web site is and his blog is

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Sunday, February 03, 2008

Re: A Creditors' Protection Bill: The Legitimacy of Inserting a Gold Clause in Existing Contracts

My recent article "A Creditors' Protection Bill" has been criticized because of its call for the insertion of a partial gold clause into existing contracts, with or without the consent of debtors. The criticism is that this would be an interference with the freedom of contract.

This claim is made on the grounds that the parties may have contracted precisely on the basis of the government's having arbitrary power over the purchasing power of the monetary unit and one of them (the debtor) may want it to continue. In the words of one critic, "Lots of people contracted with the intention of taking advantage of inflation, and the counter parties are responsible for evaluating their own risk. Changing the rules of the game is cheating someone."

This criticism, which appears to be the assertion of some sort of divine right to the continuation of inflation, is based on a failure to understand what the actual rules of the game are today. Superficially, the rule is that contracts are payable in fixed sums of dollars, the purchasing power of which the government steadily depreciates through the use of its power to increase the money supply.

More fundamentally, however, the actual rule of the game today is that the purchasing power of what is paid and received in the fulfillment of contracts is determined by the government. This wider, more fundamental and abstract rule of the game remains unchanged when the government inserts a gold clause into existing contracts. And it was this rule which the parties implicitly accepted when they signed contracts in a world in which the government determines the purchasing power of money.

What the insertion of gold clauses into existing contracts signifies is the use of government power to determine the purchasing power of what is paid and received in the fulfillment of contracts in a way that diminishes the further such use of its power. Henceforth its power of money creation will not serve to enrich debtors at the expense of creditors, or at least not to the same extent. Creditors will have a measure of protection from the exercise of the government's power. The case is analogous to the government using its power to enact and maintain a Bill of Rights.

Furthermore, the fact is that no creditor has ever entered into a contract payable in a fixed sum of paper money in anticipation of the purchasing power of that money so radically declining that what he will receive is likely to be of substantially less purchasing power than what he lent. If that were the anticipation, credit markets would soon cease to exist in that money.

The existence of credit presupposes a monetary unit whose future purchasing power can be more or less be reliably estimated. When the government accelerates inflation even to the level seen in the United States in the 1970s, credit markets break down, as witness the virtual disappearance of long-term fixed rate mortgages in 1979, after a few rounds or prices rising more rapidly than could be compensated for by inflation premiums in interest rates. The market was beginning to form the idea that no inflation premium would be sufficient, because, however high, inflation could soon be even more rapid.

The implication of this is that once inflation becomes more than modest, it necessarily violates creditors' rational understanding of the terms of the contracts into which they entered. It thus represents a defrauding of creditors and therefore a violation of their freedom of contract. Stopping that process is not a violation of the freedom of contract but an attempt to uphold it.

I find it the very height of gall for anyone to believe that his freedom is any way violated because he is deprived of such opportunities as being able to pay the proceeds of a life insurance policy with less purchasing power than is required to pay for the postage stamp needed to mail said proceeds. (This is an example out of the German inflation of 1923.) If he borrowed money in this kind of expectation, then he deserves to be disappointed. His freedom is certainly not violated because he his prevented from fulfilling it. To the contrary, the freedom of those whose wealth an unrestrained policy of inflation would have brought him is given a measure of protection.

Postscript: It may be objected that the insertion of any kind of gold clause into existing contracts would serve to protect the rights of creditors only by means of shifting the violation of rights to debtors, who, in some cases at least, might be obliged to suffer unanticipated real and substantial additional burdens of debt. This objection falls if it is held in mind that the proposal I made was for the introduction only of a partial gold clause. The example I used, purely for the sake of illustration, was a 25 percent gold clause that at a price of gold of $1,000 per ounce would impose a contingent gold debt of 250 ounces on the borrower of $1,000,000. Such a gold clause would not increase the number of dollars actually owed unless and until the price of gold reached $4,000 per ounce. Twenty-five percent may be too high a percentage. Ten percent might be a better number. In that case, starting at $1,000 per ounce, the price of gold would have to reach $10,000 per ounce before the number of dollars owed by any debtor actually increased.

Such an arrangement would give debtors ample time to join with creditors in opposing increases in the quantity of paper money of such magnitude as to drive the price of gold beyond $10,000 within the life of existing contracts. It would serve simply to remove debtors from the category of a vulture-like pressure group seeking to feast on every last scrap of meat left on the financial bones of creditors. Hopefully, it would gradually serve to make debtors join with creditors in demanding an end to inflation, which would then be perceived as harmful to both groups instead of to just one.

This article is copyright © 2007, by George Reisman. George Reisman is the author of Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics (Ottawa, Illinois: Jameson Books, 1996) and is Pepperdine University Professor Emeritus of Economics. His web site is

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Sunday, January 27, 2008

A Creditor’s Protection Bill

Today, in the world of financial celebrity, anyone who is anyone is a billionaire. By the same token, millions upon millions of people are or soon will be mere, everyday millionaires in the United States. Millionaires are on the way to becoming a dime a dozen.

Similarly, new cars cost what new homes did only a few decades ago. Men’s neckties often sell nowadays for as much as men’s suits did not so very long ago. To have a pair of soles and heels put on a pair of shoes today costs as much as a new pair of shoes did not too many years ago.

All of this is the result of continuous inflation of the money supply by the Federal Reserve System. As a result of the “Fed’s” actions, tens and hundreds of billions of new and additional dollars have poured into the economic system, correspondingly increasing spending and driving up prices. There are more and more billionaires and millionaires and shockingly high-priced goods simply because of the flood of new and additional money coming from the Fed.

It’s not such things as “oil shocks” or diverting food crops to fuel production that’s responsible. Without the flood of new and additional money, increases in the price of oil and farm products would be accompanied by decreases in the price of practically everything else. This is because practically all of whatever additional money was spent in buying oil et al. would have to be taken away from spending elsewhere, since the overall total ability to spend in the economic system would be limited by a limited quantity of money. And the rise in the price of oil and farm products would also not be nearly as great as it has been.

To confirm the fact that the source of today’s high and rising prices lies in the rapid increase in the supply of paper currency and checkbook money, it’s helpful to calculate prices in terms of the currency sanctified by the U.S. Constitution, namely, the gold dollar. A gold dollar contains approximately one-twentieth of an ounce of gold. Today an ounce of gold sells for more than $800 (it’s actually more than $900 at the present moment). That means that one gold dollar has the value of more than $40 paper dollars, because one-twentieth of $800 is $40. The result is that the price of everything stated in gold dollars is currently one-fortieth, or less, of its price in paper dollars.

Thus, a $1million home is $25,000 in gold dollars. A $50,000 automobile is $1,250 in gold dollars, and so on. The rise in prices is the result of the fact that we express prices in paper money, whose supply can be increased virtually without limit and without cost. Prices can never rise to anywhere near the same extent when stated in gold. That’s because gold is rare in nature and costly to extract.

Today, we have a credit crisis emanating from the collapse of the real estate bubble that the Fed launched in order to cope with the effects of the collapse of the stock market bubble that it had launched only a few years earlier. Now, in order to cope with the effects of the collapse of the real estate bubble, the government and the Fed are looking for yet another program of monetary “stimulus.” This time it’s to be in the form of cutting taxes while financing an undiminished, indeed, an increased amount of government spending by means of the creation of still more new and additional money.

The Fed and the rest of the government seem to think that their job is always to be sure that the stock market averages and the price of homes is never to be allowed to fall too far below their most recent peaks, and to flood the economy with as much new and additional money as may be required to accomplish this. Keeping up housing prices is an especially remarkable goal, inasmuch as only a year or two ago, all of the complaining was about how far housing prices had climbed relative to the ability of people to afford them. One would think that a sharp reduction in home prices is the very thing needed to solve that problem and that the process needs to go a good deal further than it has, in order to do so.

For the present and the foreseeable future, there is probably nothing that will stop the Fed from continuing with its inflation. Leading pressure groups are ardently in favor of it: tens of millions of share owners want it; the great majority of businessmen large and small want it; bankers and brokers want it; homeowners want it; labor unions want it; the political establishment wants it. If there is another terrorist attack, let alone another war, inflation will be used to pay much of the cost. To the extent that the environmentalist agenda of declining energy production is imposed, inflation will be used to finance subsidies to the growing numbers of Americans who will be impoverished by it. Their expenditure of those subsidies will drive up prices for everyone else and cause further impoverishment and the need for more subsidization and for still more inflation to pay for it.

In the face of such prospects, people around the world who have been willing to hold dollars because dollars were superior to their own, more rapidly inflating currencies, will lose their desire to hold dollars. They’re already losing that desire. The world’s supply of dollars will sooner or later reside exclusively in the United States. Indeed, the reflux of dollars appears to have already begun.

The dollar has begun the kind of slide taken in the past by such currencies as the Italian lira. In the 1930s, one lira was worth 20 cents. Twenty cents in that era had a buying power equal to several of today’s dollars. Before the lira was replaced by the euro, its value was less one-twentieth of one U.S. cent. A few days food and lodging at an undistinguished hotel cost more than a million lira. The fall of the lira took place in essentially the same way that the dollar is falling today—through the reckless increase in its quantity in response to widely held beliefs in the necessity of such increase.

Is there anything that can be done to stop the potential destruction of the real value of all dollar-denominated savings and long-term contracts by a flood of inflation? Is there anything that can protect people from a possible tsunami of inflation in the United States?

There is something that could be done. There is a financial life raft, as it were, that could be made available to everyone, that would enable people to salvage at least some significant portion of the real value of their savings and contracts denominated in fixed sums of dollars. It is something much more urgently needed, aimed at a much more realistic danger, and much more feasible than efforts to control global warming, say.

What is it? It is the enactment of a creditors’ protection bill, whose essential provisions would be the insertion into all outstanding contracts of a limited, contingent gold clause, and the removal of all legal obstacles to the inclusion of such clauses in all future contracts.

Here’s an example of how it would work. Imagine someone who owns $1 million of corporate bonds that he bought several years earlier and that are scheduled to be redeemed in another 25 years. Perhaps 25 percent of this sum, i.e., $250,000, would be designated as representing the quantity of gold that the owner of the bonds could choose to receive when the bonds came due, instead of the $1 million he is presently entitled to receive at that time. The actual quantity of gold he would be entitled to receive would be the amount that $250,000 could buy at the price of gold prevailing on some specified date within 12 months prior to the enactment of the law.

If that price of gold were $1,000 per ounce, say, then the $1 million dollar contract would contain a contingent liability calling for the payment of 250 ounces of gold. This payment would be at the creditor’s option. The creditor would have the right to choose to be paid 250 ounces of gold rather than $1 million dollars.

Obviously, no creditor would exercise this option if the price of gold remained at $1,000 per ounce, let alone if it fell below $1,000 per ounce. He would not exercise it if the price of gold rose to $2,000 per ounce. Nor would he do so if it rose to $3,000 per ounce. But when and if the price of gold exceeded $4,000 per ounce, then it would be to the advantage of the creditor to choose to be paid 250 ounces of gold, or the sum of dollars then necessary to buy 250 ounces of gold, for at that point 250 ounces of gold would represent more than $1 million.

If when gold reached, say, $5,000 per ounce, the 250 ounces of gold that the creditor was entitled to would be worth $1,250,000, i.e., $250,000 more than the million he had lent. This would not represent any real gain to the creditor, however, if over the same period of time, prices in general had also increased by a factor of 5. In that case, the actual buying power of the 250 ounces of gold would be no greater than it had been when the price of gold was $1,000 per ounce and prices in general were where they were at that time.

But even in this case, the creditor would not be quite as badly off as he would have been without the protection afforded by the 25 percent gold clause. For in its absence, he would have been repaid merely his original $1 million, that now had a buying power only one-fifth as great as it was originally. With this gold clause and his consequent receipt of $1,250,000, the buying power he receives is one-fourth as great as the sum he lent.

The difference between a fourth and a fifth is, of course, not very great. It would amount to our creditor incurring a loss in buying power of 75 percent rather than 80 percent, which is not an outcome to be particularly happy about.

But the odds are great that the protection afforded by such a gold clause would be equal to more than 25 percent of the real value of the sum originally due the creditor. This is because if prices were to start rising rapidly, the price of gold would almost certainly rise even more rapidly. Thus, for example, if prices in general were to rise on the order of 5 times over the course of a decade or two, say, the price of gold might very well rise by 10 or even 20 times. In that case, the 250 ounces of gold that the creditor would have the option of choosing, would be worth $2.5 million or even $5 million. In the face of a fivefold rise in prices, these sums would have the buying power of 50 percent or even 100 percent of the real value of the sum originally due the creditor.

What would serve to make the price of gold rise faster than prices in general is that in periods of rapid inflation, and in the absence of any reliable alternative paper currency, such as the dollar once appeared to be, gold is the ideal inflation hedge for most people. Even though its ownership entails some costs of storage and safekeeping, those costs are very modest. At the same time incurring them represents a far lesser loss than does practically all the usual forms of investment in a period of rapid inflation, including ownership of common stocks and family businesses. In these cases, capital gains taxes and income taxes consume funds needed for replacement at higher prices. As a result, a growing demand for gold as an inflation hedge appears, which operates on the price of gold alongside of and in addition to the forces operating to raise prices in general. In addition, the price of gold could be increased by the desire for accumulations of gold on the part of those who had agreed to accept contingent liabilities in gold.

A potential consequence of a system of such partial gold clauses could well be the development of substantial opposition to rapid inflation on the part of debtors, however paradoxical that may sound. This is because once the number of dollars payable under gold clauses started to exceed the number of dollars originally owed, debtors would be in a position in which further inflation served to increase their burden of debt rather than decrease it. Gold prices rising more rapidly than prices in general would mean that debtors would be in a position in which the additional inflated money they took in could not keep pace with the additional money they owed. They would do better to take in less additional inflated money and not be confronted with debt obligations rising even more rapidly. (This seemingly paradoxical effect of inflation under a system of gold clauses is a matter I discuss more fully in Capitalism.)

Enactment of a creditors’ protection bill along the lines I have described should be an essential part of the near-term political agenda of all defenders of economic freedom. It would offer a potentially valuable two-fold protection against the ravages of inflation. First, it could provide substantial protection to the real value of the assets of individuals. Second, it also might also ultimately turn debtors, who typically have a vested interest in inflation, into opponents of inflation, once they came to be faced with debts payable in gold, which would become harder to repay as inflation reduced the ability of paper money to serve as the means of repayment.

The insertion of a gold clause into existing contracts should by no means be regarded as any kind of new and additional government interference with the freedom of contract. To the contrary, it would be a major step in undoing such interference. Prior to their abrogation by the New Deal in 1933, full, 100 percent gold clauses were the norm in the United States in long-term term debt contracts, and had been since the Civil War. They are something that comes about on the foundation of the rational self-interest of individuals when it is allowed to operate free of government interference.

Obviously, the degree of gold clause protection would not by any means necessarily have to be the 25 percentage points that I have chosen for purposes of illustration. If a mere 5 or 10 percent protection could be enacted into law, it would be a major first step, simply by introducing the concept of gold clauses to the present generation. And, of course, it would still afford some actual measure of protection against the possible ravages of inflation.

The parties entering into new contracts should be free to include whatever degree of gold clause protection that was mutually agreeable. What presently stops such contracts from being made are considerations both of their enforceability in the courts and their likely treatment for purposes of taxation. As just mentioned, such contracts were abrogated on a mass scale in 1933 and the Supreme Court did nothing to uphold them. To be accepted with any degree of confidence, the enforceability of new, partial gold-clause contracts would have to have the benefit at the very least of a joint resolution of Congress directing the courts to uphold them.

The gold-clause contracts would have to be exempt from any possible application of usury statutes. Such statutes might come into play when creditors ended up being repaid sums of depreciated paper dollars that were greatly in excess of the sums originally lent—e.g., being repaid $2.5 million paper dollars when one had originally lent $1 million paper dollars. The contracts would have to be interpreted in terms simply of being repaid a fixed amount of gold principal—e.g., the 250 ounces of gold in the example above—irrespective of any increase in the price of gold.

Treatment of the gold-clause contracts in this way, would preclude the payment of taxes on any paper money gains reflecting merely the repayment of larger sums of paper to maintain parity with the same physical amount of gold. Thus, for example, the $1.5 million paper gain in the repayment of $2.5 million on a $1 million loan would not be subject to any kind of income or capital-gains taxation. The applicable principle would be that the lender has merely received the same physical quantity of gold that he was always entitled to. He has no gain whatever in terms of gold. In effect, he has lent a sum of gold and has been repaid that sum, nothing more. Thus, he has no gold income or gold capital gain.

Gold-clause contracts would almost certainly become very widespread if the market could take for granted their enforceability and exemption from taxation based merely on the rise in the price of gold.

As a matter of principle, the parties entering into new contracts should be legally free to agree to whatever degree of gold-clause protection they wished, all the way to 100 percent. Nevertheless, little actual harm would likely be done, if for a short time legal limits were imposed on the percentage of the value of new contracts that could enjoy gold-clause protection. Such a limitation would probably make the enactment of gold-clause protection politically more acceptable in the beginning, since it would be an incremental change and thus not appear too radical. Even with such a restriction, the gain simply from enacting the principle of gold-clause protection would be profound, not to mention the substantive protection likely afforded to creditors.

However, even in the absence of any legal limitation, for some period of time it would almost certainly be highly advisable in most cases for the contacting parties to agree to fairly modest partial gold clauses rather than full, 100 percent gold clauses. This is because partial gold-clause protection is what will be necessary in order not only to give creditors an important measure of the protection they need, but also to avoid the development of widespread bankruptcies on the part of debtors.

The threat of debtors going bankrupt arises because continuing inflation is likely to drive the real value of gold far higher than it is today and at the same time greatly reduce the ability of earnings in paper money to pay debts stated in gold. As a result, entering into 100 or even 50 percent gold-clause contracts today, at today’s price and real buying power of gold, would be an extremely risky proposition for debtors, one likely to result in their owing amounts of gold they simply could not pay.

Avoiding near-term widespread bankruptcies in gold is essential to gaining public support for gold’s once again serving to protect the real value of contracts on a large scale. Hopefully, education about the risks of owing too much gold would serve to prevent bankruptcies in gold from being too frequent. Partial gold-clause protection is what would follow from such education and accomplish its objective.

The implication here is that the degree of gold-clause protection in contracts should increase only as the risk of further increases in the real value of gold in the economic system relative to that of paper money declines.

Gold-clauses, of course, would protect not only lenders, but also people dependent on pensions or annuities or who would be the beneficiaries of such retirement vehicles in the future. They would also protect the grantors of long-term leases of all kinds.

The widespread establishment of partial gold clauses is an essential step in the protection of the buying power of creditors. It would also be a major step on the path toward the establishment of sound money.

Of course, it is possible that the Fed will pull back from its increasingly inflationary course and reverse field as it did in the early 1980s. In that case, gold-clause contracts will simply have a status comparable to fire insurance for people whose homes do not suffer fire damage greater than their deductible. They will serve simply as a form of insurance policy. One that, unfortunately, looks like it is increasingly needed.

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Saturday, January 12, 2008

Credit Expansion, Economic Inequality, and Stagnant Wages

Capital in the form of credit is normally and, certainly, properly, extended out of previously accumulated savings. In sharpest contrast, credit expansion is the creation of new and additional money out of thin air, which money is then lent to business firms and individuals as though it were a supply of new and additional saved up capital funds. Its existence serves to reduce interest rates and to enable loans to be made and debts to be incurred which otherwise would not have been made or incurred. Always and everywhere, to the extent that private banks participate in the process of credit expansion, they do so with the sanction and generally with the active encouragement of the government.

Economists, above all Ludwig von Mises, have shown how credit expansion is responsible for the boom-bust business cycle and how its existence depends on deliberate government policy. Nevertheless, public opinion believes that the business cycle is an inherent feature of capitalism and that the role of government is not that of causing the phenomenon but of combating it. Indeed, as Mises observed, “Nothing harmed the cause of liberalism [capitalism] more than the almost regular return of feverish booms and of the dramatic breakdown of bull markets followed by lingering slumps. Public opinion has become convinced that such happenings are inevitable in the unhampered market economy.”

The truth is that credit expansion is responsible not only for the boom-bust cycle but also for another major negative phenomenon for which public opinion mistakenly blames capitalism. Namely, sharply increased economic inequality, in which the wealthier strata of the population appear to increase their wealth dramatically relative to the rest of the population and for no good reason.

It is not accidental that the two leading periods of credit expansion in history—the 1920s and the period since the mid 1990s—have been characterized by a major increase in economic inequality. Both in the 1920s and in the more recent period, a major cause of the increased economic inequality is that the new and additional funds created in credit expansion show up very soon in the financial markets, where they drive up the prices of securities, above all, common stocks. The owners of common stock are preponderantly wealthy individuals, who now find themselves the beneficiaries of substantial capital gains. These gains are the greater the larger and more prolonged the credit expansion is and the higher it drives the prices of shares. In the process of new and additional money pouring into the financial markets, investment bankers and stock speculators are in a position to reap especially great gains.

Since it’s so important, the main point just made needs to be repeated: credit expansion creates an artificial economic inequality by showing up in the stock market and driving up stock prices. Since the stocks are owned mainly by wealthy people, they are the main beneficiaries of the process. The more substantial and the more prolonged the credit expansion is, the larger are the gains enjoyed by wealthy people more than anyone else.

The new and additional funds injected into the economic system also soon show up in an additional demand for capital goods, such as business inventories and plant and equipment, and in an additional demand for consumers’ durable goods, such as houses and automobiles. The purchase of these latter goods, like the capital goods purchased by business firms, depends largely on credit and is encouraged by lower interest rates. It is also fed by the capital gains being reaped by wealthy individuals, which results in an especially pronounced increase in the demand for luxury housing and for luxury goods in general.

The additional demand for capital goods and consumers’ durable goods serves to increase business sales revenues and thus business profits across a wide spectrum of the economic system. Credit expansion increases profits in the economic system because the expenditure of the new and additional money in buying capital goods and labor increases the sales revenues of business firms immediately, while it increases the costs they must deduct from those sales revenues only with a time lag. This is also true to an extent of inflation that enters the economic system by means of its creators simply spending the new and additional money rather than lending it out—“simple inflation,” as Mises calls it. What is present in both kinds of inflation—credit expansion and simple inflation—is the fact that sales revenues rise as soon as new and additional money is spent, but the costs deducted from the sales revenues of any given year largely reflect outlays of money made in previous years. In those previous years the quantity of money and volume of spending of virtually all types was smaller, including the spending that shows up in the present year as costs in business income statements.

Credit expansion boosts profits more than does simple inflation because the reduction in interest rates it brings about serves to increase the time lag between the making of expenditures for capital goods and labor and their subsequent appearance as costs in business income statements. The low interest rates encourage the purchase of such things as durable machinery and the undertaking of construction projects. The kind of increase that this must bring about in economy-wide profits can be seen in the following examples.

Thus in one case, imagine that a business firm uses newly created money that has come into its hands to increase its newspaper advertising, say. Its additional expenditure will be equivalent additional sales revenue to the newspaper. It will also most likely be an equivalent immediate additional cost to it—a cost that it must deduct from its sales revenues in its very next income statement. Thus, in the same accounting period that the newspaper records additional sales revenues equal to the firm’s additional expenditure, the firm itself must record an equal additional cost of production to deduct from its own sales revenues. Obviously, in this case there is no increase in the economy-wide aggregate amount of profit. This is because economy-wide, aggregate sales revenues and economy-wide aggregate costs have both increased to the same extent.

But now imagine that the firm spends the same amount of money in buying durable machinery that will be depreciated over a ten-year period. Once again, a seller, this time the seller of the machinery, will immediately have additional sales revenues equal to our firm’s additional expenditure. But in this case, our firm will certainly not have an equally large additional cost of production to report in its next income statement. If its expenditure for the machinery was $1 million, say, then while the seller has $1 million of additional sales revenues in his next annual income statement, our firm will probably have merely $100 thousand of additional costs to report in its next annual income statement. This is because the purchase price of the machine is not charged off all at once, but only gradually, over its depreciable life. The implication of this example is that in the current year there will be an addition of $900,000 to economy-wide, aggregate profits. If our firm’s $1 million were part of an investment in the construction of a building with a forty-year depreciable life, the implied addition to economy-wide, aggregate profits would be even greater.

Such boosts to profits go hand in glove with the rise in common-stock prices and greatly reinforce them. Of course, once credit expansion comes to an end, the stimulus it gave to profits and to the stock market both disappear and at that point profits plunge and capital gains turn into capital losses. And at that point, the enemies of capitalism turn to attacking capitalism for causing depressions.

Now as the new and additional money created in credit expansion works its way through the economic system, one would expect the demand for labor and thus wage rates also to rise. This certainly does tend to happen and in the 1920s wages increased substantially in terms both of money and real buying power. They simply did not increase to nearly the same extent as the incomes of the wealthier strata of the population, nor, of course, to the extent that business profits increased.

In addition to the special stimulus given to profits, a second reason for the failure of wages to keep pace with the rise in profits, is that the encouragement given by credit expansion to the purchase of durable capital goods, particularly plant and equipment, tends to take place at the expense of funds that otherwise would be devoted to the purchase of labor services. As a result, the rise in wages is retarded at the same time that profits sharply advance. For this reason too it does not keep pace with the rise in profits.

Despite any appearances to the contrary, the rise in real wages in the 1920s was not the result of credit expansion but of rising production. Credit expansion actually operated to retard the rise in production insofar as it caused the wasteful investment of capital, i.e., what Mises calls malinvestment.

The rise in production is what prevented the prices of goods and services from rising as rapidly as credit expansion raised wage rates in terms of money. The rise in production, in turn, was based on a high degree of availability of capital funds provided by actual savings, as opposed to credit expansion, together with rapid scientific and technological progress. It was this that increased real wages, i.e., the goods and services that wage earners could actually buy with their wages.

In contrast to the experience of the 1920s, in the two great recent credit expansions, i.e., the bubble of 1995-2001 and its successor the presently collapsing housing bubble that began not long thereafter, there has been very little, if any, rise in real wages. Most commentators appear to attribute this to nothing more than the unrestrained greed of businessmen and capitalists. They apparently go on the theory that if there is anything in the economic system that breathes or moves other than at the command of the government, or other than with the active supervision and control of the government, it is proof that we live in an era of “laissez-faire.” For example, in The New York Times of December 30, 2007, in an article titled “The Free Market: A False Idol After All?,” Times columnist Peter Goodman writes:

For more than a quarter-century, the dominant idea guiding economic policy in the United States and much of the globe has been that the market is unfailingly wise. So wise that the proper role for government is to steer clear and not mess with the gusher of wealth that will flow, trickling down to the [sic] every level of society, if only the market is left to do its magic.

That notion has carried the day as industries have been unshackled from regulation, and as taxes have been rolled back, along with the oversight powers of government.
This alleged laissez-faire environment, such writers pretend, has enabled businessmen and capitalists shamelessly to enrich themselves at the expense of increasingly impoverished wage earners, to whom nothing any longer even “trickles down.” Increased free trade and “globalization,” of course, are attacked as part of the process and as greatly contributing to the stagnation or outright decline in real wages.

In sharpest contrast to such blather, in the real world there are innumerable rules and regulations enacted by the Federal Government to control virtually every aspect of economic activity. They are contained in the more than 70,000 pages of The Federal Register. The overwhelming mass of government interference described therein, and in its counterparts at the state and local level, is a glaring refutation of claims about the existence of any kind of laissez faire in the present-day world. The very description of such interference, in tens of thousands of pages of official text, is a refutation of such size and literal weight as to render any claims about laissez faire or insufficient government controls or regulations utterly nonsensical.

This truly massive body of material also suggests that the actual explanation of the stagnation in real wages is precisely an ever growing burden of government intervention in the economic system. The intervention is in the form of policies that undermine genuine saving and in numerous other ways undermine capital accumulation and the rise in the productivity of labor. Personal and corporate income taxes, the inheritance tax, the capital gains tax, and government budget deficits—all entail the taking away of funds that if left in the hands of their owners would have been heavily spent, indeed, overwhelmingly spent, in the purchase of capital goods and labor services. Instead, those funds are diverted into financing the consumption of the government and those to whom the government gives money.

Inflation and credit expansion greatly exacerbate this diversion of funds, because their effect is artificially to increase the incomes subject to these taxes and to thus to deprive business firms of the funds required to replace assets at prices made higher by the same process that increases their taxable incomes. The progressive aspect of income and inheritance taxes also worsens their effects, because incomes tend to be saved and invested the more heavily the larger they are; at the same time, substantial inheritances are more likely to be retained in the form of accumulated savings and capital than are modest inheritances.

Because of the reduced demand for labor that results from the taxation of funds that would otherwise have been used in employing labor and in buying capital goods, wages are substantially less than they otherwise would have been. At the same time, the buying power of those reduced wages is also sharply reduced in comparison with what it would otherwise have been.

It is worth pointing out that totally apart from the effect of social security in undermining the incentive to save, the sheer rise in tax rates since 1965 to pay for the system has taken away fully eight additional percentage points of the income of every wage earner whose earnings are equal to or less than the amount subject to such taxation. In 1965 the combined social security tax on wage earners and their employers was 7.25 percent, which applied to a maximum annual income of $4800. Today, the combined rate is 15.3 percent, which includes 2.9 percent for Medicare. The 15.3 percent rate currently, i.e., in 2008, applies to all wages and salaries up to a maximum of $102,000 per year. The effect of these major increases both in social security tax rates and in the amount of income
subject to them has been to reduce the take-home wages of many workers by considerably more than 8 percent.

The social security contribution of employers is a loss to wage earners, because it is a cost of employment no different than the payment of take-home wages. Financially, it is a matter of indifference to employers whether they pay this sum to the government or to their employees. The cost to them is the same. It is money that the employees could and would have had, if the government had not taken it from the employers.

The same is true of all other costs borne by employers on behalf of their workers, whether it is health insurance, day care, family leave, or whatever. The costs in question are all costs of employment, which, in the absence of such government interference, the wage earners could and would have had in their own pockets. Compelling employers to pay the costs of such things is at the expense of the workers’ take-home wages. The more such costs are imposed, the lower are take-home wages in comparison with what they otherwise would have been. The increase in such costs over time has correspondingly held down any rise in take-home wages.

Government intervention, as I’ve said, not only holds down the demand for labor and thus wages, particularly take-home wages, but it also reduces the buying power of wages. This is because the supply of capital goods is less, thanks to the diversion of funds from their purchase. The absence of these capital goods prevents the productivity of labor from being increased as much as it otherwise would have been. This in turn holds down the production both of consumers’ goods and of further capital goods. The consequence of a lesser supply of consumers’ goods is prices of consumers’ goods that are higher than they otherwise would have been and thus a buying power of wages that is correspondingly lower than it otherwise would have been.

The consequent absence of further capital goods compounds the negative effect on production, in a process that can be repeated over and over again, with each passing year. What this means is that because fewer capital goods in the form of factories and machines are available this year, the ability to produce capital goods in the form of factories and machines for the following year is reduced, because capital goods in the form of factories and machines are the means of producing further capital goods in the form of factories and machines no less than they are of producing consumers’ goods.

The buying power of wages is also reduced by all of the other laws and regulations that hold down the production and supply of goods in general and thus keep up prices. And again, there is a compounding effect. Environmental legislation deserves an especially prominent place in any list of such laws and regulations. Already, because of the restrictions it has imposed on the production of oil, coal, natural gas, and atomic power, it has served to raise the price of energy to unprecedented levels and to deprive many wage earners of the ability to buy gasoline for their cars or trucks and heating oil for their homes. To the extent that wage earners are able to pay energy prices reflecting a $100- per-barrel price of oil, their ability to buy other goods is correspondingly reduced. If the environmental movement’s agenda of radical reductions (up to 90 percent) in carbon dioxide emissions is imposed, meeting it will require absolutely crippling cutbacks in the production and use of oil, coal, and natural gas which must result in corresponding reductions in production, increases in prices, and absolute devastation for real wages.

The negative effect on production here is again a cumulative one, inasmuch as lack of energy supplies hampers the ability to find and exploit further supplies of energy. The more abundant and cheaper energy is, the greater is man’s ability to move masses of earth and to process them, thereby developing further energy supplies. Thus, government intervention that reduces energy supplies reduces the ability to find and exploit further energy supplies.

Other examples of laws and regulations holding down production are minimum-wage, prounion, and licensing legislation. These cause higher costs, higher prices, the diversion of labor from more productive pursuits to less productive pursuits, and, finally, unemployment. Subsidies of all kinds, tariffs, and consumer-product safety legislation also serve to hold down the production and supply of things and to keep up or add to their costs and prices. Again, to whatever extent production in general is curtailed, so too is the production of capital goods, with a consequent cumulative negative effect on subsequent production.

It should be clear that the resumption of an era of high and progressively rising real wages requires a radical reduction of government intervention into the economic system and the reestablishment of economic freedom.

What we have seen is that credit expansion is responsible not only for the boom-bust business cycle, as Mises showed, but also that it is a major source of artificial economic inequality and sharply increases profits relative to wages. These are processes that come to an end and are actually thrown into reverse as soon as credit expansion stops and the recession/depression that is its ultimate consequence begins. In wasting capital through malinvestment, it undermines the rise in production and accompanying rise in real wages. Despite credit expansion, real wages could still rise through most of American history, because of the substantial economic freedom enjoyed in the United States and did so even in the midst of credit expansion, as in the 1920s. In the last two episodes of major credit expansion, however, and over the last several decades as a whole, real wages have largely stagnated. This stagnation is the result of massive government intervention into the economic system that undermines capital accumulation and both the demand for labor and the productivity of labor. It is not the result of economic inequality, the profit motive, or any other aspect of the capitalist system.

I have explained all of the essential matters discussed in this article in full detail, with all of their presuppositions and implications, in my book Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics.

Copyright © 2007, by George Reisman. George Reisman is the author of Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics (Ottawa, Illinois: Jameson Books, 1996) and is Pepperdine University Professor Emeritus of Economics. His web site is

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