Last night on BBC HardTalk Prof Paul Krugman argued that to get out of the current economic depression western countries have to borrow more. "Borrow more to spend their way out of trouble", "solve the problem of excessive debt with more debt" arguments were justified by a classic Keynesian economic approach. They were bolstered by seemingly very convincing examples that the problem is that all the countries are trying to repay their debt at the same time and "my spending is your income, your spending is my income" therefore we devoid each other of income.
Is it convincing? What happens to money that is repaid as debt? If the banking system worked properly debt repaid would end up in the banks' vaults. It would be re-lent as banks do not sit on liquidity. Sitting on liquidity generates no income for them: it is a loss. Repaying public debt does not necessarily reduce overall debt but shifts the debt from the state to private investors who would turn it into viable economic activity. Keynesian approach stimulates the economy largely through consumer spending. Public spending cuts and debt repayment stimulate the economy through private investment. Typically the way out of any recession was through using a combination of both.
However at present banks are famously not lending. The system of money circulation slowed down enormously. This is the key to understand the cause of the current economic depression that politicians, mainstream analysts and policy makers and mainstream media completely fail to grasp. Starting with Keynesian approach, there is a validity in the arguments presented by Prof Krugman. When investors are not confident during downturns, they tend not to borrow and invest. This, in turn, slows down the economy. If the state steps in and spends money it jump starts the economy.
There is an assumption behind this process that Prof Krugman did not mention and it is never mentioned by those who advocate Keynesian approach (e.g. Ed Balls). This assumption is that in the background of the economy there is a healthy banking system that performs money circulation and multiplication function through fractional reserve banking. For example, if the state borrows and spends £10 billion, the money ends up in circulation through the banking system. Normally banks re-lend it and, depending on a loan to deposit ratio, this £10 billion is multiplied up to £60 - 80 or even £100 billion. Then the state has to collect back through taxes this initial £10 billion with some interest, to repay the original debt, but the rest stays in the economy.
Keynesian approach it is not a magic and has its dangers. Ultimately, if the state borrows and spends so much that economy cannot absorb it in a productive way, i.e. above the capacity to collect in taxes that should be at least as much as the costs of borrowed money, this results in inflation growth.
At present the banks are not lending: businesses want to borrow but the banks do not lend. They are not lending not because they do not want to - lending is in banks DNA, this is how normally they make money - but because they cannot. Ever since the banks abandoned the fractional reserve banking and started practicing depleting reserve banking*. at around of the turn of the century, the banks depleted their reserves and replaced them with toxic waste. The scale of this toxic waste phenomenon, which created a liquidity shortage, and the mechanism that keeps generating it through depleting reserve banking is enormous. On conservative estimate around $1 quadrillion figure or around 20 times the world's annual GDP. The problem is not only the scale but that it is self-perpetuating at exponential, run-away pace through depleting reserve banking. Therefore whenever money comes into banks it is kept there as a liquidity reserve and is also used to "redeem" some of this toxic waste into cash. Sometimes central banks are doing this directly by quantitative easing. (Banks need to pay for their rents, salaries, bonuses, etc.) This is often referred to euphemistically that banks are repairing their balance sheets.
Prof Krugman was wrong: Keynesian approach would not work in the current situation because the money spent would simply be sunk into banks and would do nothing to stimulate the economy. It would be another tranche of good taxpayers money thrown after bad. What is the way out then? It involves three steps:
Firstly sorting out the banks by explicitly stopping them practicing depleting reserve banking, i.e. perpetuating at exponential pace the existing and contingent liquidity hole. Incidentally depleting reserve banking is highly illegal at present as it is a classic case of a pyramid scheme. However this is completely ignored by the financial industry and we are seeing the effects of this the last 4 years. Thus far the politicians, mainstream analysts, policy-makers and media pundits staunchly defend what is - from technical and legal perspective - a criminal practice that brought upon the western economies the current crisis and keeps them in this, making things worse.
Secondly this should be accompanied by a systemic reform whereby all those in banking take a direct personal risk (civil and criminal liability) for their actions, banks should be deregulated and made compete in such a way that there would be no bank anywhere close to "too big to fail" situation. Simply reintroducing free markets into the financial industry with particular focus on eliminating moral hazard. Prosecuting under criminal law (for setting up and operating a pyramid scheme) all those who caused the current crisis and confiscating their (and their families') wealth would also act as an effective deterrent to the new "captains" of the financial industry. All of them would then think hard before they come up with any "financial innovation" (or as it was in the case of the current crisis a good old and crude pyramid scheme, incompetently disguised as a toolbox of financial innovations).
Thirdly debt reduction in order to reduce the money multiplier to a healthy level, between six to eight. This can be done through printing money, basically by inflation, or through debt restructuring, i.e. defaults. This is not a hard thing to do: the hard part will be to decide who should be losers and to what extent. But this problem, directly or implicitly, is inevitable so we may be better off resolving it in an orderly manner rather than through crude manoeuvrings like around the Greek debt which is simply a question whether the Greek taxpayer have to lose by being squeezed or the banks that lent to Greece (with full knowledge that Greece would not be able to repay the money in any event).
Only then will we have a luxury to discuss Prof Krugman proposal of stimulating the economy in a Keynesian way, through public spending. Or maybe it would be better if it is done through public spending cuts? If the banking system is healthy both will lead to economic growth. The former through consumer spending that will filter to investment, the latter through investment that will filter to consumers' pockets. And as ever, typically, it will be a proper balance that works.
* - more on fractional reserve banking and depleting reserve banking in "Computational complexity analysis of Credit Creation"
COMMENT: I do not hold a strong position how good (or bad) fractional reserve banking is in general. If practiced with loan to deposit ratio of 50% it looks very safe and stable. If practiced with loan to deposit ratio of 99% it is extremely risky and most likely the system would collapse. So it all depends how fractional reserve banking is managed. However depleting reserve banking is a pyramid, is always unsafe and indeed illegal.