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Herman Daly: The Credit Crisis, Financial Assets, and Real Wealth

“Can the economy grow fast enough in real terms to redeem the massive increase in debt? In a word, no.”

You can keep piling on interest and creating debt, but you’re fighting a losing battle against a natural force of the universe: entropy. To put it another way, lenders can’t just create wealth out of thin air, pulling financial abstractions out of their assets whenever it suits them. Theoretical, invisible wealth must be matched by real goods.

Imagine if we were to transition from a society of debt-based wealth—buy now, pay later—to one of real goods-based wealth—save now, spend later. The world as we know it would fundamentally change.

Economist Herman Daly explains the economics of debt in this article from, with the aid of a colorful metaphor.

As Frederick Soddy (1926 Nobel Laureate chemist and underground economist) pointed out long ago, “you cannot permanently pit an absurd human convention, such as the spontaneous increment of debt [compound interest] against the natural law of the spontaneous decrement of wealth [entropy]”. The population of “negative pigs” (debt) can grow without limit since it is merely a number; the population of “positive pigs” (real wealth) faces severe physical constraints. The dawning realization that Soddy’s common sense was right, even though no one publicly admits it, is what underlies the crisis. The problem is not too little liquidity, but too many negative pigs growing too fast relative to the limited number of positive pigs whose growth is constrained by their digestive tracts, their gestation period, and places to put pigpens….

What allowed symbolic financial assets to become so disconnected from underlying real assets? First, there is the fact that we have fiat money, not commodity money. For all its disadvantages, commodity money (gold) was at least tethered to reality by a real cost of production. Second, our fractional reserve banking system allows pyramiding of bank money (demand deposits) on top of the fiat government‐issued currency. Third, buying stocks and “derivatives” on margin allows a further pyramiding of financial assets on top the already multiplied money supply. In addition, credit card debt expands the supply of quasi‐money as do other financial “innovations” that were designed to circumvent the public‐interest regulation of commercial banks and the money supply. I would not advocate a return to commodity money, but would certainly advocate 100% reserve requirements for banks (approached gradually), as well as an end to the practice of buying stocks on the margin. All banks should be financial intermediaries that lend depositors’ money, not engines for creating money out of nothing and lending it at interest. If every dollar invested represented a dollar previously saved we would restore the classical economists’ balance between investment and abstinence. Fewer stupid or crooked investments would be tolerated if abstinence had to precede investment. Of course the growth economists will howl that this would slow the growth of GDP. So be it—growth has become uneconomic at the present margin as we currently measure it.

The agglomerating of mortgages of differing quality into opaque and shuffled bundles should be outlawed. One of the basic assumptions of an efficient market with a meaningful price is a homogeneous product. For example, we have the market and corresponding price for number 2 corn—not a market and price for miscellaneous randomly aggregated grains. Only people who have no understanding of markets, or who are consciously perpetrating fraud, could have either sold or bought these negative pigs‐in‐a‐poke. Yet the aggregating mathematical wizards of Wall Street did it, and now seem surprised at their inability to correctly price these idiotic “assets”.

And very important in all this is our balance of trade deficit that has allowed us to consume as if we were really growing instead of accumulating debt. So far our surplus trading partners have been willing to lend the dollars they earned back to us by buying treasury bills—more debt “guaranteed” by liens on yet‐to‐exist wealth. Of course they also buy real assets and their future earning capacity. Our brilliant economic gurus meanwhile continue to preach deregulation of both the financial sector and of international commerce (i.e. “free trade”). Some of us have for a long time been saying that this behavior was unwise, unsustainable, unpatriotic, and probably criminal. Maybe we were right. The next shoe to drop will be repudiation of unredeemable debt either directly by bankruptcy and confiscation, or indirectly by inflation.

Read the whole article here.

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