Posts tagged with: bank

MoneyRoll

Note: This is the latest entry in the Acton blog series, “What Christians Should Know About Economics.” For other entries in the series see this post.

The Term: Money

What it Means: In economics, money is a broad term that refers to any financial instrument that can fulfill the functions of money (more on that in a moment).

There are three basic ways to exchange goods and services: gifting (e.g., I give you a banana, expecting nothing in return); barter (e.g., I give you a banana, in exchange you give me an apple); by using money (e.g., I give you a banana, in exchange you give me $1). Money was invented (and reinvented in every culture) because it makes exchanges easier than the barter system.

What Money Is: Money is a shared belief system used to simplify exchanges of goods and services. To be used as money people have to share a belief that the item —whether paper, gold, rocks, etc. — can perform three main functions: be a store of value, be used as a unit of account, and serve as a medium of exchange.

In the next section we’ll examine these functions. For now, here are two examples of how money serves as a shared belief system:
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On Exchange and Usury, Cajetan, ThomasChristian’s Library Press has released a new translation of two treatises on exchange and usury by Thomas Cajetan (1469-1534), a Dominican theologian, philosopher, and cardinal.

Although best known for his commentaries on the Summa of Thomas Aquinas, Cajetan also wrote dozens of other works, including short treatises on socioeconomic problems.

Published under the name On Exchange and Usury, these treatises reflect on the banking industry of the early modern era in the context of the Church’s usury doctrine, examining which transactions were licit, and which involved usury, among other things. The book is part of CLP’s growing series, Sources in Early Modern Economics, Ethics, and Law.

In the introduction, Raymond de Roover summarizes some of the historical context, as well as Cajetan’s contribution therein:

Because of the Church’s usury doctrine, bankers were not supposed to charge interest and, consequently, had to look for some other way of lending money at a profit, with the result that banking became tied to exchange: local banking to manual exchange (cambium minutum), and foreign banking to real exchange or exchange by bills (cambium per litteras). Since the discounting of commercial paper was ruled out by the usury prohibition, bankers bought bills of exchange at a price that was determined by the foreign exchange rates… (more…)

Blog author: johnteevan
posted by on Thursday, April 17, 2014

There are several ways to understand that poverty is expensive.

First poor people pay more for the things they buy or they find that cheap stuff is not good. The poor find it hard to pay for housing which leads to having a harder time saving money even by cooking. The poor have a hard time using a bank or even cashing a check without high fees.

Then there are the lower wage part-time jobs that some bosses make worse by urging people to work a few minutes or more or even over lunch for free.

A second way to look at the expense of poverty was highlighted by the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty. The amount spent on poverty reduction, $1t annually, is terrifically expensive. Most of that comes from 80 means-tested federal programs according to Heritage’s Steven Moore.

A trillion dollars is equal to each of 45m people having $22,222. Of course, money is not given to people, there is a vast government and private web of helpers who work hard to improve conditions for those in poverty.  And they are paid well.

The third way, a way I think is better than the first two, is to count the cost of poverty in terms of wasted lives, wasted opportunity, and loss to our society.

If even 15m people went to work and earned $22,222 our GDP would thrive, tax revenues would rise and programs to help the poor would require dramatically less money.

There is dignity to work, satisfaction in working with others to meet a goal, and the pleasure of doing your job well and being paid for it. Millions are missing that opportunity and are living lives that tend toward mere passivity.

The high cost of poverty is essentially a human cost that is not limited to economic deprivation. The upside is that many who have little tend to be more spiritually rich than others though this idea is treated as a phony sop to keep people down.

wallet-lockWhen bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he is (mis)quoted as having said, “Because that’s where the money is.” Turns out that is also why there is more street crime in poorer neighborhoods: because that’s where the cash is. Or at least it’s where the case was.

It has been long recognized that cash plays a critical role in fueling street crime due to its liquidity and transactional anonymity. In poor neighborhoods — where street offenses are concentrated — a significant source of circulating cash stemmed from public assistance or welfare payments. But starting in the 1990s that changed, as the Federal government gradually phased out paper welfare checks in favor of electronic debit cards (the Electronic Benefit Transfer [EBT] program).

A team of researchers studied the effects of this change in Missouri and found that it was directly responsible for a hefty 10 percent drop in the overall crime rate:
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Samuel Gregg is quoted in today’s New York Times story about the Vatican note calling for a central world bank — he gives the final word on the document. The “politically liberal Catholics” quoted before him reveal that they have missed a crucial distinction in the document produced by the Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice. Gregg, of course has picked up on that distinction; he wrote yesterday:

Putting aside doctrinal questions, this text also makes claims of a more strictly economic nature…. The text makes a legitimate point about the effects of a disjunction between the financial sector and the rest of the economy.

Unfortunately, many of its authors’ ideas reflect an uncritical assimilation of the views of many of the very same individuals and institutions that helped generate the world’s most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression.

The academics and activists who see in the document a way forward to socialism have missed the split between the note’s diagnosis of the world economy, and its proposed economic reforms. I cannot resist quoting G.K. Chesterton: “The reformer is always right about what is wrong. He is generally wrong about what is right.”

To say that “the time has come to conceive of institutions with universal competence,” as PCPJ President Cardinal Turkson did yesterday, is all well and good, but the possibility of such institutions running effectively is another matter.

Indeed, Kishore Jayabalan, the director of Istituto Acton and a former staffer at the Council, asked the National Catholic Reporter, “What makes the [Council] think that ‘global’ leaders will succeed where so many national ones have failed? It is a shame this document is based more on sentimental political hopes for world government than on actual experience and expertise of financial markets.”

Acton’s director of research Samuel Gregg has provided his reasoned take on the new document from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace — it’s up at The Corner. While its diagnosis of the world economy is fairly accurate, the council’s treatment plan is lacking in prudential analysis. Gregg’s disappointment is expressed at the end: “For a church with a long tradition of thinking seriously about finance centuries before anyone had ever heard of John Maynard Keynes or Friedrich Hayek, we can surely do better.”

He’s got four main points (full text below): (1) the fiat money system that accelerated financial decline wouldn’t be reformed by a world bank; (2) neither would the proliferation of moral hazards, which might in fact be increased; (3) there is no mention in the document of public debt and deficits, which problems face most developed countries and can’t be ignored; (4) there is little reason to believe that a newly created world bank could avoid the mistakes made by the Federal Reserve and other sovereign banks in the lead-up to the 2008 crash.

Despite the Catholic Left’s excited hyperventilating that the document released today by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (PCJP) would put the Church “to the left of Nancy Pelosi” on economic issues, more careful reading of “Towards Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of Global Public Authority” soon indicates that it reflects rather conventional contemporary economic thinking. Unfortunately, given the uselessness of much present-day economics, that’s not likely to make it especially helpful in thinking through some of our present financial challenges.

Doctrinally speaking, there’s nothing new to be found in this text. As PCJP officials will themselves tell you, it’s not within this curial body’s competence to make doctrinal statements that bind Catholic consciences. Moreover, the notion that an increasingly integrated world economy requires some type of authority able to make decisions about what the Church calls “the universal common good” has long been a staple of Catholic social teaching. Such references to a global world authority have always been accompanied by an emphasis on the idea of subsidiarity, and the present document is no exception to that rule. This principle maintains that any higher level of government should assist lower forms of political authority and civil-society associations “only when” (as this PCJP text states) “individual, social or financial actors are intrinsically deficient in capacity, or cannot manage by themselves to do what is required of them.”

But putting aside doctrinal questions, this text also makes claims of a more strictly economic nature. Given that these generally fall squarely into the area of prudential judgment for Catholics, it’s quite legitimate for Catholics to discuss and debate some of this document’s claims. So here are just a few questions worth asking.

First, the text makes a legitimate point about the effects of a disjunction between the financial sector and the rest of the economy. It fails, however, to note that one major reason for this disjunction has been the dissolution of any tie between money and an external object of value that regulates the quantity of money and credit in circulation in the “real” economy.

Between the late 1870s and 1914, such a linkage existed in the form of the classic gold standard. This gave the world remarkable monetary stability and low inflation without any centralized authority. You needn’t be a Ron Paul disciple to recognize that fiat money’s rise is at least partly responsible for the monetary crises this document correctly laments.

Second, this document displays no recognition of the role played by moral hazard in generating the 2008 crisis or the need to prevent similar situations from arising in the future. Moral hazard describes those situations when people are effectively insulated from the possible negative consequences of their choices. This makes them more likely to take risks they wouldn’t otherwise take — especially with other people’s money. The higher the extent of the guarantee, the greater is the risk of moral hazard. It creates, as the financial journalist Martin Wolf writes, “an overwhelming incentive to privatize gains and socialize losses.”

If PCJP were cognizant of this fact, it might have hesitated before recommending we consider “forms of recapitalization of banks with public funds, making the support conditional on ‘virtuous’ behaviours aimed at developing the ‘real economy.’” Such a recapitalization would simply reinforce the message that Wall Street can always turn to taxpayers to bail them out when their latest impossible-to-understand financial scheme goes south. In terms of orthodox Catholic theology, it’s worth reminding ourselves that the one who creates an occasion of sin bears some indirect responsibility for the choices of the person tempted by this situation to do something very imprudent or simply wrong.

Third, given this text’s subject matter, it reflects one very strange omission. Nowhere does it contain a detailed discussion of the high levels of public debt and deficits in many developed economies, the clear-and-present danger they represent to the global financial system, and their negative impact upon the prospects for economic growth (i.e., what gets people out of poverty).

Given these facts, how could governments provide the aforementioned public funds when they are already so heavily in debt and already tottering under the weight of existing fiscal obligations? By raising taxes? Even Bill Clinton thinks that’s not a great idea in an economic slowdown. Indeed, the basic demands of commutative justice indicate that governments need to meet their current obligations to existing creditors before they can even consider contributing to further bailouts.

Fourth, the document calls for the creation of some type of world central bank. Yet its authors seem unaware that much of the blame for our present economic mess is squarely attributable to central banks. Here one need only note that the Federal Reserve’s easy-money policies from 2000 onwards played an indispensible role in creating America’s housing-market bubble, the development of questionable securities products, and the subsequent 2008 meltdown.

Calls for a global central bank aren’t new. Keynes argued for such an organization 75 years ago. But why, given national central banks’ evident failures, should anyone suppose that a global central bank wouldn’t fall prey to the same errors? The folly of a centralized supranational body like the European Central Bank setting a one-size-fits-all interest-rate for economies as different as Greece and Germany should now be evident to everyone who doesn’t live in the fantasy world inhabited by EU bureaucrats. Indeed, it is simply impossible for any one individual or organization to know what is the optimal interest-rate for every country in the EU, let alone the world.

Plenty of other critiques could — and no doubt will — be made of some of the economic claims advanced in this PCJP document. As if in anticipation of this criticism, the document states, “We should not be afraid to propose new ideas.” That is most certainly true. Unfortunately, many of its authors’ ideas reflect an uncritical assimilation of the views of many of the very same individuals and institutions that helped generate the world’s most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression. For a church with a long tradition of thinking seriously about finance centuries before anyone had ever heard of John Maynard Keynes or Friedrich Hayek, we can surely do better.

Bread for the World CEO David Beckmann once said, “We can’t food-bank our way to the end of hunger.” As I said then, if “changing the politics of hunger” means that more people are getting food assistance from the government rather than food banks and community efforts, count me out.

But on a more hopeful note, this story from NPR tracking how Walmart has partnered with Feeding America, the largest food bank network in the nation, to get food that would otherwise be wasted into the hands of those that need it most. Last year Walmart announced a plan to contribute $2 billion to food banks in the form of direct cash assistance as well as material donations. You can see more at Walmart’s “Fighting Hunger Together” page.

And be sure to check out Feeding America to find out what food banks really can do.