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Capitalism is the best system, but has it been undermined by QE

28 September 2017

  • Mrs. May is right – capitalism boosts growth and economic progress but she fails to recognise central banks have distorted capital markets with dangerous political consequences
  •  Government bond markets are rigged in favour of the strong at expense of the weak as QE redistributes wealth away from the young and enriches the wealthiest groups
  •  Central Bank policies have operated as disguised fiscal policy without democratic accountability
  •  Socialism is not the answer – that would make everyone poorer – but we need better policy responses to problems of debt and inequality

The Prime Minister is today speaking at the Bank of England to celebrate its 20 years of independence. But she has failed to recognise the irony of trumpeting the virtues of capitalism in the seat of monetary policymaking which has, for the past ten years, undermined many of the principles on which capitalism is based.

In theory, the central bank operates independently of Government, but in practice, its unconventional monetary policies have acted as a democratically unaccountable arm of the Treasury.

It is understandable that, in the face of the 2008 financial crisis, policymakers were looking for new ideas to save the banking system. They used monetary policy as the weapon of choice, on the pretext that there was no alternative and Japanese-style economic conditions must be avoided at all costs. This view prevailed and the side-effects or long-term consequences of so-called ‘Quantitative Easing’ were not really considered.

As an emergency response, one can understand that this policy had appeal. It could be introduced quickly, would boost capital markets and allow Governments to borrow more cheaply. But the transmission mechanisms for economic revival were not carefully monitored, nor were the damaging side-effects considered seriously.

The fact that QE has turned out to be just a fancy name for ‘printing money’ to finance government borrowing has still not been recognised. Instead of the politicians printing the money, as would be the case in many banana republics, this time is was the ‘independent’ central banks. This gave the exercise an air of respectability and the benefits to Government and financial markets were so enormous that it has been adopted around the world.

Normally, markets would punish countries which just created new money to finance their borrowing, but when all major countries are doing this and the policy enriches financial market players and the wealthiest groups, the capital markets have turned a blind eye to the underlying reality and keep pretending that central banks can just ‘unwind’ QE once it wishes to tighten policy again.

Of course, this is simply not credible. But far from worrying about how to deal with the stock of debt on central bank balance sheets, for the past years they have just kept on creating more huge sums to increase their purchases. Even after the economic emergency has passed, the monetary drug continues to be administered. Talk of ‘tapering’ has already caused market dislocations, but don’t forget that this ‘tapering is only creating less new money’, it’s not stopping the policy, let alone reversing it. The Fed has begun to make noises in this direction, but the scale of the task is so enormous, it’s hard to see how anything meaningful could be achieved without causing market mayhem.

And politicians have bought into the QE story completely. Of course they have, because it helps them so much. Without QE, the cost of borrowing to finance current Government spending would be far higher and politicians would have to make difficult decisions (much harder than the ‘austerity’ that has been so vilified here). They would have to cut spending further, or raise taxes or keep borrowing ever more until the markets lose confidence.

But the truth is that central banks have become an arm of fiscal policy. Buy buying so much sovereign debt, they have allowed policymakers to believe they can afford more spending and lower taxes. The longer QE persists, the deeper the hole is being dug in public finances and the harder it will be to climb out.

But the difficult decisions cannot be ducked for ever. I believe the fallout from the unconventional monetary policies is having political consequences which are now causing a loss of confidence in our entire capitalist system.

Ordinary people have not perceived much benefit from QE. Yet they have seen how it has enriched wealthy groups, boosted asset markets and helped the financial sector. Meanwhile, they have felt the pain of rising rents and house prices, students have been saddled with mounting debts that don’t reflect current low rates, younger workers have been shut out of final salary-type pensions as QE has made them increasingly unaffordable.

Recent political events demonstrate disaffection with conventional politics. The votes for Brexit, Trump, Macron and far-right nationalists in Germany and other EU countries have been a shock to the established order. I think one could argue that the sudden surge in populism represents a loss of confidence in capitalism, economic policy and democracy.

Britain is suddenly engaged in a battle between the hard left and the hard right. It is also facing a hard Brexit. There are no easy choices, but leaving the EU when there is the real threat of Marxist expropriation of private assets and punitive taxes on wealth creation would further damage future generations.

I suggest that unconventional monetary policies may have played a role in the rise of populism and voters’ desire for change. So far, such potential impacts have been ignored. Yet, the side effects of Quantitative Easing (QE), especially after so long, may be feeding popular disaffection with the entire capitalist system. Mrs. May has not recognised this yet, but it would be advisable to consider it.

Capitalism assumes free flows of capital and market forces, to allocate resources and determine outcomes. But global monetary policy has interfered with capitalism as central banks have artificially distorted capital markets, possibly undermining the basis on which the system depends.

QE was introduced as a supposedly temporary emergency experiment to revive growth by lowering long-term interest rates once short rates were approaching zero. Buying sovereign debt with newly-created money pushed up bond prices thus lowering yields. Initially, savers were told they should be grateful for a return ‘of’ their capital, rather than expecting a return ‘on’ their capital. I believe there were alternatives to QE – for example if the Government had decided to take RBS (and possibly Lloyds) into national ownership on a temporary basis, it would have ensured shareholders lost out in the way capitalism intended, rather than being paid by the Government for shares that were effectively worthless. I know this may sound heretical, but it is a sounder capitalist solution than QE has turned out to be. It would also have helped shore up the prudence of the banking sector, when shareholders realise they can lose everything if they allow companies to operate so irresponsibly.

Once in public ownership, these huge commercial banks could have used their nationwide networks and branches to ensure lending reached small businesses across the country and could have been managed by keeping bank staff on, rather than by civil servants. The aim would be to sell the banks back into the market once the economic emergency was over (as it has been for several years) and better protections had been put in place to avoid a repeat of the reckless lending that caused the crisis.

That is of course with the benefit of hindsight, but I was saying this at the time. However the attractions of QE were much greater and Labour was frightened of nationalisation, having spent so many years trying to overcome their leftist image. It is ironic that the fallout from fears of nationalisation has been partially to boost the rise of extreme left Labour. These policies have been roundly discredited in the past and Venezuela is a more recent example of the economic failure of extreme left economics. But with so much anger and disaffection at the status quo, more radical ideas are required.

The Tories really need to confront the problems facing our nation with a better understanding of what has gone wrong. And when will they admit that a ‘no deal’ Brexit would compound the economic catastrophe that seems to be looming.

With or without Brexit, the perils of monetary policy should be recognised. It seems that the drug is so powerful for strong groups that they cannot bear to give it up. But the short-term ‘fixes’ are storing up more problems as time goes on.

The problem for capitalism is that Government bonds are supposed to be ‘risk-free’ assets. As the lowest risk asset class, other capital markets – and models of capital market pricing – use this benchmark. QE has distorted this ‘risk-free’ rate. With a buyer determined to boost the price of these assets, it is no longer a free market. And when bond yields fall sharply, investors need to find other sources of return, which pushes up all other asset prices. Asset prices across most markets have soared.

And the policy has been maintained well beyond the economic emergency. Despite rising growth and employment, global central banks have continued creating more money to buy more and more bonds, thereby artificially distorting capital markets even further for almost ten years. This has benefitted powerful interest groups, which may explain why the policy has been prolonged, but it has also disadvantaged others. With 90% of ordinary people’s savings being in cash or cash-like instruments, most people felt the pain or QE as saving rates plunged, while the wealthiest 10% have benefited enormously from rising asset markets in which they hold much of their wealth.

Artificially boosted asset price increases have negative effects on society, because assets are unevenly distributed. The top 5% of households own nearly half of UK assets and 80% of all assets are owned by the over-45s. So, the wealthiest and older households have become even wealthier, while QE-induced house price rises lead to higher rents, which have further disadvantaged non-homeowners and the young. Such social and distributional side-effects of unconventional monetary policies are under-recognised, perhaps because the policy is so beneficial to Governments, but politicians would do well to consider the potentially damaging political consequences.

In effect, monetary policy has acted like regressive fiscal policy. If politicians announced tax changes to enrich the wealthiest groups and redistribute money away from younger and less wealthy people, there would be a voter backlash. But disguising such fiscal measures as monetary policy has achieved similar impacts without democratic accountability.

The powerful groups who benefit most from QE – governments, financial market participants and the wealthiest – have so far held sway, but it is important to consider the democratic dangers to capitalism which prolonged QE may pose.

Such ongoing redistribution may at least partly explain disaffection with the ‘establishment’ and rise of populism. Many voters have started to realise that something is not quite right, that the economy is not really working well for them, but are not sure why. So they vote for change, anyone that promises different ideas.

Politicians may have started to feel the consequences of such disaffection. But what can they do about it? Asset bubbles have been inflated in many areas, debt levels have risen and consumers are over-extended. Perhaps a dose of ‘people’s QE’ or debt write-off will be needed in years to come.

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