An End to Alchemy?

Michael Lewis, the author of various illuminating accounts of the events and progressions of the great financial crisis of 2008 – one of which became an Oscar-winning Hollywood movie – this time provides us with an illuminating account of someone else’s book – Mervyn King’s newly published The End of Alchemy. The thesis is a familiar one: the banking system is fundamentally flawed, and this is the cause of most if not all of our economic misery.

As befits a governor of the Bank of England (2003-2013), King is of course a veteran of the various banking vicissitudes of the 21st century. It is on the basis of this tenure that he writes this book, analyzing problems and offering remedies. But he does not wish to come across as someone with all the answers. As he writes in the introduction, “Many accounts and memoirs of the crisis have already been published. Their titles are numerous, but they share the same invisible subtitle: ‘How I saved the world.’” King may not want to save the world, but he certainly wishes to subject the banking system to a thorough reworking.

This is because the situation is that bad. What was behind the Great Crash of 2008? “Bad incentives that are still baked into money and banking – and so quite likely to create another, possibly even greater, crisis.” Still baked into: for, despite the (“arguably”) biggest financial crisis in history, nothing that addresses fundamental problems has changed. Shareholder limited liability encourages risk-taking, as shareholders take advantage of that absence of liability; deposit insurance encourages depositors to lodge money with banks, without regard to the riskiness of said banks’ lending policies; too-big-to-fail remains entrenched, encouraging gigantic risks to be run in the knowledge that if they turn sour, a bailout will be forthcoming.

Furthermore, the steps that have been taken ostensibly to mitigate the problem have only served to conceal it. Or, as Lewis puts it, “it’s being used to disguise how little has actually been done to fix that system.” Lewis quotes King: “Much of the complexity reflects pressure from financial firms. By encouraging a culture in which compliance with detailed regulation is a defense against a charge of wrongdoing, bankers and regulators have colluded in a self-defeating spiral of complexity.”

On this score we have a framework that seems designed for failure. There is the problem of moral hazard, which basically refers to the fact that when something is insured for, it is actually fostered or encouraged. Insurance against risk actually encourages risk. This problem is not restricted to the banking sector; it is endemic to any form of insurance. And then there is the web of ineffective regulation that seems to make a mockery of attempts to improve the situation.

King has an alternative. It is to revamp the banking system so as to eliminate risk-taking with other people’s money. “Deposits and short-term loans to banks simply need to be separated from other bank assets. Against all of these boring assets, banks would be required to hold government bonds or reserves at the central bank in cash. That is, there should be zero risk that there won’t be sufficient cash on hand to repay people wanting to flee any bank at a moment’s notice.”

So these deposits would be kept separate from other bank assets. These latter indeed could be used to finance the risky business of trading. These assets would have to be acceptable to the lender of last resort, the central bank, in case of financial crisis. And this acceptability will have been determined beforehand. “The riskier assets from which banks stand most to gain (and lose) would … be vetted by the central bank, in advance of any crisis, to determine what it would be willing to lend against them in a pinch if posted as collateral. Common stocks, mortgage bonds, Australian gold mines, credit default swaps and whatever else.”

The upshot is what Lewis calls “the King Rule.” As Lewis describes it, a bank must have on its balance sheet enough assets to cover withdrawals of its short-term liabilities (deposits plus short-term loans to the bank (one year or less)). But of course, you say, of course it has assets to cover those liabilities – that’s what double-entry bookkeeping is all about: every liability on the balance sheet has a corresponding asset. But here’s the rub: in the process described above, of the central bank vetting collateral, these assets would be given a “haircut” – assigned a discount at which the central bank would be willing to rediscount (buy) the asset, in case of a liquidity shortage. And it is this “haircut” valuation that banks in future would have to respect before putting funds out in quest for returns.

How exactly would this work? In the example Lewis provides from King’s book, a bank has $100 million in assets. Of these, $10 million are reserves deposited with the central bank, $40 million are “relatively liquid securities” and $50 million are “illiquid loans to businesses.” The central bank values these assets at 100%, 90%, and 50% of full value, respectively – these are their “haircuts.” Thus, in the eyes of the central bank, the bank’s assets “in a pinch” are worth $71 million, not $100 million. And therefore it cannot have more than $71 million in short-term liabilities. What other liabilities are there that could fill the $29 million gap? Lewis answers, “a lot more equity and long-term debt” than currently is the case.

With all due respect to both Mr. Lewis and a former governor of the Bank of England, I don’t think this is how banks really work. The suggestion is that banks receive deposits and short-term loans and turn around and invest them, sometimes in riskier material, sometimes less risky. So that banks don’t do anything except play with “other people’s money.” But banking doesn’t work that way. The very fact that they engage in what is referred to as fractional-reserve banking, in which they are allowed to “create” a multiple of amount of reserves they hold at the central bank, belies the notion that they only act as passive receivers of money.

In the case referred to above, the bank with $50 million in “illiquid loans to businesses” has on its asset side these loans; but on the liability side, it has deposits it created when it made the loans. That $50 million was not already in its coffers, waiting to be lent out. Not all of it, at any rate. Much if not all of it wasn’t there at all.

This is not to say that banks do not receive deposits. Of course they do. But these deposits, in turn, had to come from somewhere. Those funds weren’t always “just there.” It was in fact created, in the very process of credit extension. This is what Joseph Schumpeter clearly saw, and integrated it into his theory of economic development.

Unlike the deposits created by the bank to lend to businesses (“illiquid loans”), these deposits do run the risk of being removed and placed with another bank, and for that eventuality the bank has to have a contingency plan, e.g., only use that money in ways that can be quickly recovered. But for the loans to businesses, that money will always be replenished: the businesses will be depositing future income even as they withdraw for expenses, and this will remain in a rough balance. This is not the danger to the banking system, and it is hard to see why, on the face of it, these loans should require such a “haircut” as 50%. They are long-term investments by the bank. They are the beating heart of the capitalist system. They are not the problem. The problem lies elsewhere.

The argument of King’s book, then, is to put an “end” to “alchemy.” But this “alchemy” is already built into the very nature of the system. It cannot be gotten around by mandating certain levels of “safe” asset holdings. The focus on quality of collateral is good, but it needs to be done properly. Banks certainly need to ensure that the collateral they accept is marketable, is liquid. But that is easier said than done: because this is not a function of banks, but of markets. And market dysfunctionality goes far beyond bank policies.

There has been a glut of liquidity on world markets in recent decades. Lewis himself knows this all too well: he himself chronicled it in his excellent book Boomerang. Another excellent chronicler and serious economist to boot, Michael Pettis, in his book The Volatility Machine, shows just how this liquidity deranges markets. We like to think of markets as being driven by economic fundamentals, but Pettis shows how, rather than this, they are liquidity-driven, tossed about by massive flows of funds in pursuit of shrinking returns. And banks, together with the burgeoning shadow banking system, are at the forefront of trying to place these funds, running ever increasing risks in the process. This is the dysfunctionality, not so much “illiquid loans to businesses.”

The effect of liquidity-driven markets is to make market valuations go awry. We get asset bubbles and collapses, gyrating valuations, and therefore gyrating bank balance sheets. The collateral-based banking system is struck in its heart. But this is not the banking system’s fault per se, but an ever-increasing oversupply of liquidity.

Where did this global liquidity glut come from? A good portion of it has been the result of the collusion of transnational corporate interests with governments (and central banks!) of low-wage countries by which exchange rates are pegged to favor export industries. The method by which this is accomplished is sterilization – the practice of preventing foreign-exchange earnings from being converted into domestic currency. This has resulted in trillions of excess dollars. Japan and China have been at the forefront of this. The accompanying graphs tell that tale.

Figure 19: China's Foreign Exchange Holdings, 1997-2016
China’s Foreign Exchange Holdings, 1997-2016
Figure 14:  Japan's Foreign Exchange Holdings, 1975-2016
Japan’s Foreign Exchange Holdings, 1975-2016

For the rest, the very existence of debt overhang that afflicts the global economy also spells excess liquidity. The so-called law of reflux explains why. In a nutshell, when debt is repaid, liquidity is extinguished in the same amount. This is a function of the way our banking system creates money. So then, when debt is left unrepaid and instead is constantly rolled over, that liquidity is not withdrawn from the system. It lingers. Hence, excess liquidity.

To make a long story short: what we need is not so much an end to alchemy but an end to the range of toxic fiscal and monetary policies intended to rig the system in favor of various interests. Debt rollover is one of those, as it is simply a result of the too-big-to-fail approach. All of these interests are conflicting. But they have now coalesced in a globalist order that enriches the few at the expense of both workers and entrepreneurs, in both the developed and the less-developed worlds. That’s where we need to focus our attention.

Isaac Newton and the Alchemy of Finance

Western Christendom experienced a sea change in the late 17th century. On one side of that divide was theological dogmatics, scholastic philosophy, the divine right of kings and priests, and, seemingly in their train, wars of religion; on the other side, there was theological indifference, mechanical philosophy, government by consent of the governed, latitudinarian and sectarian church polity, and the political balance of power. Not that these things came all at once; but the tendencies were clear. The mood and temper of the peoples had swung; religion lost its position of overriding importance, to be replaced by economic and political considerations, reason of state, and the wealth of nations.

A pantheon of figures has been elevated to apostolic status as trailblazers in the transition from the Darkness of the one side of this great divide to the Enlightenment of the other. Hugo Grotius, Rene Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, John Locke, Pierre Bayle, Montesquieu, Voltaire, all figure in enumerations of enlightened progenitors of the new era. Paired with these names was a new theoretical orientation which determined the mindset, the Zeitgeist, the Weltanschauung of this new dawn: a new science putting the categories “nature” and “natural law” on a new footing, providing the essential authoritative basis for the new order.

Thus “nature” was the determining factor. The “imperative of nature” came to dominate all areas of inquiry and practical philosophy. The “state of nature” became the orientating condition; rights in a state of nature came to be the touchstone of all just legal and political order; natural religion, religion in accordance with the dictates of nature, came to be touchstone to judge revelation, or at least to form a stand-alone, autonomous body of knowledge alongside revelation; and a new school of thought, economics, arose from out of the disarray of “mercantilist” controversy, basing itself upon – you guessed it – nature, with the initial iteration provided by Richard Cantillon and François Quesnay, and which issued forth as “physiocracy”: the rule of nature.

Perhaps one figure above all others represented and personified this trend. That would be Isaac Newton, the progenitor of the paradigm that anchored all these areas of thought in terms of a unified theoretical construct. Newton put science on a new plane, providing an integrated theoretical explanation for phenomena that had stumped scientists for generations; and it was upon this foundation that the orders of religion, law, politics, and economics were shunted. Alexander Pope’s well-known “Epitaph on Sir Isaac Newton” was, if anything, an understatement of the sentiment of the age:

Nature and Nature’s Laws lay hid in Night:

God said, “Let Newton be!” and all was light.

Christian theology became wedded to Newtonian physics, which in particular served as a tool of apologetics.[1] The philosophy of law and politics, already argued in terms of the individual and consent, received a powerful support from the notion of an atomistic universe. And this very same Newtonian construct likewise served to buttress the budding school of classical economics with all of its “natural laws” of wealth and poverty centering on the individual and self-interest.

In all of these areas, Newton’s philosophy, the “settled science” of the day, supplied a powerful sanction. But this is not everything there is to know about Newton. Some areas of his labor, to which he devoted at least as much time as his scientific investigations, have come to light of late, after having languished in the obscurity they were left in by hagiographic biographers determined to highlight the rational character of one of the chief developers of the scientific method, while ignoring what they deemed to be irrational. And Newton exhibited this “irrationalism” in spades.

One of these areas was biblical study. Newton devoted a great deal of time and effort to biblical chronology and to deciphering the Temple of Solomon. The latter in particular he held to be an expression of hidden truth to be unraveled by the initiate. This interest in the Bible and in theology, along with Newton’s clear belief in the biblical version of events regarding, e.g., six-day creation and the Flood, were enough to put a serious dent in Newton’s reputation as the objective enlightened scientist. But the most egregious offense in this regard was provided by the realization that Newton dabbled in alchemy. More than that: he spent a major portion of his investigative life, not in scientific experimentation, but in alchemic explorations, pursuing the transmutation of elements.

It was John Maynard Keynes who first lifted the lid on this aspect of Newton’s legacy. “Newton was not the first of the age of reason,” Keynes wrote in his posthumously published and delivered lecture, “Newton the Man.” Rather, “He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago.”

Keynes discovered the “real” Newton while perusing a box of forgotten documents he obtained at an auction in 1936. This led to a radical reevaluation on his part. “In the eighteenth century and since, Newton came to be thought of as the first and greatest of the modern age of scientists, a rationalist, one who taught us to think on the lines of cold and untinctured reason. I do not see him in this light. I do not think that any one who has pored over the contents of that box which he packed up when he finally left Cambridge in 1696 and which, though partly dispersed, have come down to us, can see him like that.”

That box revealed Newton the alchemist. Alchemy is the pursuit of transmutation, and Newton avidly pursued it. What the alchemists were after was gold. What one needed for that was the philosopher’s stone; with that in one’s possession, one might convert base metal into the precious yellow metal.

It goes without saying that Newton never came into the possession of such a stone, nor did he ever successfully transform base metal into gold. But it cannot be said that he was altogether unsuccessful in his manipulations in favor of the yellow metal. And here comes the part of the story that is never told, because insufficiently understood. It is the story of how Newton participated in one of the great transformations of world history: the shift of England’s currency from silver to gold, which precipitated the change from a coinage- to a banking-based monetary system. He did so as Master of the Mint, a position he occupied from 1699 until his death in 1727.

A little background is in order at this point. The 16th century witnessed the development of a new order of trade, or, in Immanuel Wallerstein’s terminology,[2] a world-system integrating far-flung areas of the world into a trading network. At the center of this trade network was the fledgling Dutch Republic. In the face of the mercantilist imperative – policies to maximize the retention of precious metals in order to maintain a viable domestic circulation – the Dutch Republic instituted a novel arrangement with regard to currency, dictated by this trading network.

This arrangement facilitated trade with the East. This was because the West ran a chronic trade deficit with the East. There was nothing new about this; from the early medieval period on, the West basically had nothing to offer the more advanced East than such things as furs and slaves, the latter until the slave supply from the Western countries dried up. But there was great demand in the West for what the East had to offer: for instance, silks and spices. How to finance the importation of these luxury goods? Silver.

The one thing the West had that the East wanted, especially since Spain’s discoveries in the New World, was silver. Silver in the East carried a premium vis-à-vis the West, making it profitable to export: this was what made it effective as a means to settle up the trade deficit.

Thanks to new mining techniques and Christopher Columbus, silver became abundant in the 16th century, precipitating the so-called Price Revolution of that century. But in the 17th century the supply began drying up, one of the factors behind the so-called General Crisis of the 17th century and one of the spurs to the spate of policy proposals and implementations summed up in the term “mercantilism.” For one thing, the mines of New Spain were not producing as much as they once did. For another, the flow of silver to the East, primarily China – that bottomless pit, “the World’s Silver Sink”[3] – was beginning to have its effect.

The Dutch Republic served as the funneling mechanism for this flow. Its counter-mercantilist policy allowing the free import and export of specie, and the demand for silver for export exerted a magnetic attraction from all over Europe, with the resulting abundance of coin even precipitating the Tulip Mania of the 1630s.[4] Much of it simply went to offset the burgeoning import business.

English merchants watched all of this with proverbial Argus eyes. They looked on as the Dutch East India Company established its trading network, helped by its special advantage of readily available specie. They sought ways to get around the royal prohibition on the export of currency, and chafed under the restriction.

The breakthrough came in 1663, with the passage of legislation establishing a regime of free coinage. Del Mar finds the impetus for this legislation in the intrigues of Barbara Palmer, Duchess of Cleveland, Charles II’s mistress.[5] With this opening, the East India Company worked diligently to build its own trading network. The needed silver it obtained, among other places, from the domestic circulation, precipitating a dearth of coin. Together with the wars against Louis XIV conducted by “King Billy,” the Dutch stadhouder become King of England, this precipitated an economic and budgetary crisis.

This decimated the coinage, which suffered from debasement at minting as well as the techniques of clipping and sweating. As a remedy, the wise men of the age recommended a restoration of the coinage to the condition it enjoyed under Queen Elizabeth a century earlier. According to Whig historiography, the great men who recommended this measure, occupants of the Enlightened Pantheon, men like John Locke, here once again displayed their sagacity. Post-Whig reassessment has been less kind.[6]

The attempt to restore the coinage to the silver content of days when silver was abundant had, as its detractors predicted it would, a strongly deflationary effect. And it had the opposite result than hoped, for it simply provided a prime source of silver for export. Full-weight silver coins were simply too juicy to let pass. On these terms, it was quite simply more profitable to export silver than allow it to continue in circulation.

So the result of the so-called Great Recoinage was virtually to establish gold as the currency standard for England.[7] Here is where Newton comes in. As Master of the Mint, Newton ensured the continuation of this trend, maintaining a ratio of silver to gold (15 ½ to 1) that upheld the continued priority of gold over silver. By pricing gold favorably against silver, this ratio ensured that the export of silver in favor of gold would continue to be profitable. Both Newton and Locke indicated the direction that the natural philosophy was going to take with regard to economics: the commodification of money, with all the consequences that this would entail.

But the establishment of gold at the heart of the English currency system had another consequence of a different order: it established fractional-reserve banking in place of coinage as the “money method.” This system of banking had a magical working. It turned paper into gold, or gold into paper, for it multiplied a bank’s specie holdings and circulated a currency “as good as gold” albeit many times the actual amount of gold. This alchemical process actually worked, contrary to Newton’s experiments with the philosopher’s stone. And so Newton stood at the cradle of a new alchemy with far-reaching consequences.

It is one of those curious coincidences of history that Keynes, considered by many to be the modern progenitor of the alchemy of finance, was the first to discover and publicize Newton’s own alchemical wizardries. Keynes’ alchemy consisted in the magical transformation of fiat currency into productivity, growth, and wealth, simply by wielding “effective demand.” Newton’s consisted in the more mundane magic of the multiplication of gold reserves. “Their works follow after them,” for their alchemy lives on. In our day and age, the paradigm of alchemical transmutation has crossed over even into biology and gender. As such, it is the pulsating heartbeat of the age in which we live, all pretensions of scientific rationality notwithstanding.


 

[1] See in particular Margaret C. Jacob, The Newtonians and the English Revolution 1689-1720 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1976).

[2]  Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-System I: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century, with a New Prologue, vol. 1 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011 [1974]).

[3] Dennis O. Flynn and Arturo Giráldez, “Born with a ‘Silver Spoon’: The Origin of World Trade in 1571,” Journal of World History, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Fall, 1995), p. 206.

[4] Doug French, “The Dutch Monetary Environment During Tulipmania,” in The Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics (Vol. 9, No. 1, Spring 2006), pp. 3-14.

[5] Alexander Del Mar, Barbara Villiers: or, a History of Monetary Crimes (New York: Cambridge Encyclopedia Co, 1899).

[6] For instance: Peter Laslett, “John Locke, the Great Recoinage, and the Origins of the Board of Trade: 1695-1698,” in The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 3 (July 1957), pp. 370-402.

[7] A recent article making this case is Charles James Larkin, “The Great Recoinage of 1696: Charles Davenant’s Developments in Monetary Theory” (2006), available at https://goo.gl/JtcWCH.