Tuesday, 19 September 2017

The Wolf, Balls, Boait debate at the Royal Society of Arts on bank reform, London, 18th Sept 2017.


Martin Wolf is the chief economics commentator at the Financial Times. Ed Balls is a former UK politician who worked under Martin Wolf at the FT for a few years. Fran Boait is director of Positive Money.

The latter three gave speeches in the order in order given above, i.e. Martin Wolf went first. Wolf’s speech was much the most technically competent, as might be expected. I didn’t disagree with anything he said.

I’ve set out a summary of their speeches below. I’m not guaranteeing my summary is accurate or fair. Listen to the debate if you want a total accuracy and fairness.

Times given are APPROXIMATE: certainly not accurate to the nearest second or even the nearest 30 seconds.

Martin Wolf.

7.30 Martin Wolf started with the interesting point that money can be defined (to paraphrase him) as the stuff you hold which is supposed to be totally safe and which you can use in times of trouble. Yet it is precisely privately issued money which has a habit of disappearing into thin air in times of trouble.

The crisis was not just a shadow banking crisis: virtually all banks were involved.

UK banks’ capital ratio HAS BEEN improved, but not by nearly enough. In fact ratios have simply been returned to where they were around 1970.

17.00  Quote: “a bank is about as unsound a financial structure as you can imagine” (produced laughter)

Ring fencing will help, but it’s not the basic solution.

Risk weighting doesn’t work: banks claimed their assets were totally risk free just before the 2007 crisis.

20.0 Banks have a big incentive so subvert the regulations, and essentially they will succeed in demolishing all the new regulations passed since the crisis.

Wolf likes Mervy King’s “pre-positioned collateral” idea.

21.00  Wolf likes Positive Money’s “Sovereign Money” proposal.

Quote: “Money consists of the liabilities of unsound financial institutions”.

25.0  Wolf’s ends by saying that the existing bank system is a huge nonsense. That reminds me of Mervyn King’s famous quip: “Of all the many ways of organising banking the worst is the one we have today”

Wolf says there will be another bank crisis. It’s not a question of if: it’s a question of when.

Ed Balls starts at 25.0.

In his first ten minutes he explains how he, and the then governor of the Bank of England and others in early 2007 had a “war game” to mimick a bank crisis. The war game was accurate for the UK in that it envisaged a crisis sparked off by a building society / bank in the North of England in trouble – that was good foresight given the Norther Rock fiasco that happened a few months later. But the war game did not forsee the extent to which the real crisis was international.

35.0  Claims Friedman’s monetarism was an example of Chicago School thinking. Strange claim. Balls gets Keynsianism, Chicago School, monetarism and other stuff very muddled.

Balls claims there are three question marks to be put over full reserve banking. The first is whether we can pin down what is used as money?

Well my answer to that is we do not need to “pin down” in order to reap the benefits of full reserve. Indeed, after the introduction of full reserve, people will certainly continue to use a variety of forms of money other than that nation’s official currency. Plus many advocates of full reserve don’t even object to some of those alternative forms of money (e.g. local currencies like the Lewis pound in the UK or Ithaca dollars in the US).

The important point is that full reserve makes available to everyone a form of money which is totally safe. If people want to take risks and stock up on strange forms of money like Bitcoins or Krugerands, that’s their business.

38.0. Balls says (rightly) that under a sovereign money / full reserve system there is some sort of committee of economists that decides how much money to create per month (a point which Positive Money would not disagree with) but that the job of that committee is incredibly hard. Reason is that the committee has to foresee crises. That’s his second point.

Well the simple answer to that is that crises would not occur at all because it’s impossible for banks to go bust under full reserve!!!!! Of course that’s not to say economies would be 100% stable under full reserve, but advocates of full reserve never claimed they would be 100% stable. But the solution to a downturn under full reserve is much the same as under the existing system: stimulus. The main difference is that the FORM OF stimulus advocated by Positive Money amounts to a merge of monetary and fiscal policy: that is, given a need for stimulus, the state simply creates money and spends it (and/or cuts taxes).

His third point is that full reserve is much better introduced world-wide than being introduced by just one country. True. But then there are numerous organisations around the world pushing for full reserve.

Balls is a bit clueless. He claims that the above mentioned money creation committee has to take all sorts of decisions, like what constitutes worthwhile investments!!! Total nonsense.

Balls claims that avoiding bank crisis is not the most important issue we face.

Well I dare say it isn’t, but that’s not an argument for not tackling the issue. Sprained ankles or flue may not be the most important issues facing the National Health Service, but if we can find a way of halving the time taken to cure sprained ankles or flue, why not go for it? False logic there by Balls.

Fran Boait starts around 42.0.

She says she won’t talk much about stripping private banks of their powers to create money. And launches forth about inequalities, climate change, and other issues. She attacks “neoliberalism”.

Well neoliberalism is a favourite gripe of lefties. Be nice if they defined it!!!! Also it should be remembered that neoliberalism, at least in the UK, was a reaction to what preceded it, namely the Labour government throwing taxpayers’ money at clapped out loss making industries so as to “save jobs”. At least that was the excuse. “So as to buy votes” might be nearer the mark.

Many reacted to that episode with something like, “S*d taxpayer funded subsidies: let’s just have the free market rip.” Can’t say I totally disagreed with the latter “let market forces rip” philosophy.

47.0 She disagrees with Carney’s claim that the UK needs a much bigger financial sector.

She claims lots of people think markets are perfect!! Well about 95% of economists realize (apparently unbeknown to Fran Boait) that markets are highly IMPERFECT. She claims “markets are people” – meaningless phrase, but the phrase will go down well with lefties.

51.0  Complains that QE and interest rate cuts (almost the same thing) makes the rich richer by increasing asset prices. Problem with that is that as Positive Money itself has said, INTEREST RATE INCREASES can also be argued to increase inequalities in that debtors have to pay more interest to the rich (i.e. creditors).

She wants the Treasury committee inquiry into monetary policy to be re-opened.

52.0 She ends by saying she wants to “democratize” the Bank of England and the financial system. What does that mean? Democratize is one of those words like “neoliberal”, “radical” or “progressive”: fashionable at the moment, but their exact meaning is not clear.


  1. Good summation.
    Ed Balls was being a typical politician here. He ,like Alistair Darling in his RSA talk in the same series,claim to have "saved the day " or even the world,for their actions after 2008. Fran Boait correctly points out that all they did was do what they had to.Namely hose a shed load of money at the banking sector,it wasnt rocket science nor was it subtle.
    I also balk at the use of the word "neoliberal" and Ed Balls certainly did not see Labour as "neoliberal". So we get a pointless debate about that. I would have used a simpler phrase and just said they did what they had to do within the "current financial system". The important fact is that a total bailout/guarantee is the only solution to major financial crises. Neoliberalism is something far wider in my view. I don't know why she brought that up here.

    1. I object to the constant repetition of the word "neoliberal" as well. Unfortunately the political left seems to have a limited stock of trendy words at any one time which it repeats like parrots.

      I thought Fran went beyond her remit: she seemed to claim that the vague concept "neoliberalism" was responsible for the bank crisis. Certainly Thatcher / Regan / big bank policies (if that's what one means by neoliberalism) didn't help. But banks are INHERENTLY fragile: i.e. their problems go deeper than the problems that neoliberalism throws up.


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