Borrowing money is a tricky thing to talk about, even trickier than talking about money itself. We all seem to have a love-hate relationship with the stuff. Well, maybe ‘stuff’ is not the right word. People disagree about what money actually is. Some, who I’ll call “money realists,” believe that the essence of money is that it is a physical thing that has intrinsic value. For the money realist, only a fixed commodity – usually gold – is “real” money. So called “fiat money,” valued because a government declares it as “legal tender,” is not seen as “real.” Some others, the “money representationalists,” believe that money is an object that has value because it represents something else that is valued, also usually gold. That is what the “gold standard” was about, but money also represents the value of anything we value. Borrowing is a major reason money is so troubling.
Money represents the value of a credit or debt, enabling the exchange of anything of measurable value (in monetary units of quantity) for that thing. Finally, for most people money is an abstract symbol of value based on some metric or quantity that measures the value of anything. That is why money can be transferred, borrowed, and lent electronically – it is a symbol, whether represented in paper or binary code, of a measurable value. Despite that abstraction, we usually treat money as a real object to be exchanged for other real objects, or for real services, or even for promises to provide such things later. Most money today is “fiat” money, because it is declared by a sovereign government to have a relatively stable measurable value for any exchange. But what is value? Is value real or do we just imagine it so?
You can read Wikipedia’s entries on money to get an overview of the conventional definitions of money, currency, credit, and debt. But something is missing. What is increasingly important today is how money is being transformed. Critics complain that the government is “printing too much money.” However, most money today is brought into being by electronically “posting” it to a computerized accounting system in a bank. An electronic bookkeeping entry creates money as a debt to a bank, not as printed currency.
A bank that is a member of the Federal Reserve, lends money into existence electronically when a customer borrows it. That’s right; it didn’t exist before it was lent, but it creates debt for the borrower and an “asset” (credit) for the lending bank in the form of a note or bond. The note or bond held by the bank obligates the borrower to pay back the amount borrowed plus interest. That means that more money is always owed (to the banks) than is ever borrowed, which is a peculiar problem in itself with deep implications for the entire economy. Think Greece; same basic deal.
The Federal Reserve oversees this process, called the fractional reserve banking system. “Fractional reserve” means that the bank gets to loan out a certain percentage more than it holds “in reserve” as deposits. This whole process must be carefully regulated or things can get way out of hand. Just before the financial crisis of 2008, banks were allowed to loan many more multiples of their reserves than ever. Leverage always entails risk.
Banks may lend some of the money they create to mortgage lenders and “payday” lenders, as well as to corporations and individuals. Mortgage lenders – savings and loan institutions, regional banks, etc. – will borrow from the national bank, make a home loan, and then sell the mortgage to another bank. Without vigilant regulation of the conditions of loans, things can get quite messy. If enough bad loans are written and if enough loans default, the whole system becomes unstable. This is especially true when loans are bundled into “derivatives” and sold to unsuspecting investors looking for a steady income stream.
Making Phantom Money
The gradual deregulation of banking and finance, starting with Bill Clinton, Alan Greenspan, and Larry Summers, has released the most powerful financial elites from societal controls. The 2008 financial crisis resulted from several factors, including the lowering of reserve requirements for the Big Banks. Mortgage brokers and other primary retail lenders loosened the lending requirements for borrowers. Regulators looked the other way. The resulting risky mortgages were then purchase and packaging into “derivative” financial instruments by the Big Banks on Wall Street. They were then resold to pension funds and other institutional investors, putting many people at risk. Lots of money was “made” in the form of fees and profits. In the process the entire world economy was endangered. After all, the banking system of the U.S. and other major industrial nations had already been integrated and these financial manipulations had spread world-wide.
The advent of high-speed electronic data processing and communications has allowed the creation of new forms of financial manipulation of the money system. High-speed computers can skim “value” from stock markets by engaging in electronic “trading” so fast that tiny differences in bid-ask pricing can be exploited in the interim between offers by ordinary traders. So-called “derivatives,” financial instruments comprised of abstracted fragments of mortgages or other debts, can be marketed to the point of risking collapse of markets. The largest financial institutions have transformed money from a public medium of economic exchange into a method of economic plunder and political control of society. But these financial absurdities only exist because of the greatest absurdity of all. We are all forced to borrow nothing from nowhere and it is costing (almost) everyone dearly.
Phantom Federal Debt: Who Needs It?
It has been generally taken for granted that “fiat” money is issued by sovereign governments for the benefit of their national economies. Not exactly. Most currencies are valued on the basis of the solvency of the government, its international balance of payments, and the stability of its economy. International exchange rates are based on such factors. But since the early 20th century, for the most part such assumptions have been a fiction. In the U.S., despite the Constitution, which authorizes the Congress “To coin money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin,” the government does not create money. Yes, it still stamps out pennies and quarters, but the private banks, which own the Federal reserve, create most money. In 1910, the major private banking interests conspired at their infamous meeting on Jekyll Island to control the national monetary system. In 1913, Congress passed the Federal Reserve Act, empowering the cartel of private investment banks to control the money and banking system and “loan” money created out of nothing and from nowhere to the U.S. Treasure. Hence, the national debt. What a windfall for the banks – and a permanent indebtedness for the nation – unless we reassert our national sovereignty.
It has worked out much better – for the mega-banks – having the government borrow money from the private banking cartel called The Fed so that the banks can control everything and the rest of us can take on all the resulting debt! If our government were actually sovereign (instead of subservient to the mega-banks), it could ISSUE money rather than borrow fake money from corrupt banks. What a different economy that would produce.