Unconventional Policies, Quantitative Easing, Monetary Bazooka: the last twelve years in economics have been dominated by a flood of new money aimed at creating inflation. And yet there is a puzzle: why is the money meant for everyone only showing up in the stock market? Where is the inflation? Why wages do not go up? Commentators believe this is an unprecedented situation. Well, it is not.
“Everybody agrees that the abundance of money, or an increase in its use in exchange, raises the price of everything. This truth is substantiated in experience by the quantity of money brought to Europe from America for the last two centuries.”
This words are by Richard Cantillon, author of the famous Essai, written sometime in the 1720s but published posthumously in 1755. In his time, as today, economists were convinced that all prices go up together when money is created: the so called “neutral money theory”, first exposed by no less than the philosopher John Locke.
Cantillon noted in his time, as we see today, that the reality was not following the theory: changes in the money supply have different and uneven consequences depending on where the new money is injected — and who the early receivers are. As the first receivers can spend the money at not-yet-adjusted prices for goods and services, they get an (unfair) advantage over later recipients whose incomes lag the increase in prices. In effect, by introducing new money into the system, early receivers are benefited at the expense of late receivers.
“If the increase in actual money comes from a state’s gold and silver mines, the mines’ owner, the entrepreneurs, the smelters, the refiners, and generally all those who work in them will increase their expenditure in line with their gains. At home they will consume more meat and wine or beer than they used to, and they will become accustomed to having better clothes, finer linen, and more ornate houses and other sought-after commodities.”
In contrast to those beneficiaries of new gold, he explicitly identifies the losers:
“Those who suffer first from this dearness and the increase in consumption will be the landlords during the term of their leases, then their servants and all the workers or people on fixed wages on which their families depend. All of them will have to reduce their expenditure in proportion to the new consumption.”
Cantillon concluded that who benefits when the state prints money is based on the institutional setup of that state. In the 18th century, this meant that the closer you were to the king and the wealthy, the more you obtained, and the further away you were, the more you were harmed. Money, in other words, is not neutral. This general observation, that money printing has distributional consequences that operate through the price system, is known as the “Cantillon Effect.”
In Cantillon’s day, the basis of money was gold, so he wrote about what happened when a nation-state discovered a gold mine in its territory. Increasing the amount of gold in the realm would not just increase price levels, he observed, but would change who had wealth and who did not. As he put it, “doubling the quantity of money in a state, the prices of products and merchandise are not always doubled. The river, which runs and winds about in its bed, will not flow with double the speed when the amount of water is doubled.”
Cantillon went on to discuss how money would flow, basically noting that rich people near the mine would spend it on 18th century luxuries like servants and meat pies, prompting a general rise in prices. Eventually the money would get out to the populace, but until it did, working people would have to pay higher prices without access to the new money that mine owners had. So there would be inflation, with uneven distribution of purchasing power.
This theory does not imply that money creation is always biased towards the powerful, only that how money travels matter. There is no inherent money neutrality, such neutrality must be constructed by institutional arrangements.
The Gold Mine today
Today who is close to the Central Banks’ printer gets rich, exactly as who had a new mining privilege granted by the Crown became rich in Cantillon’s time. The only difference is that nowadays new rich do not spend all their gold in beer and meat, instead they invest in stocks and become even richer.
The rich cannot buy every service and product on the market, because they are satisfied with a few luxury items: so their money goes directly from the money printer (Cantillon’s gold mine) to the stock exchange. We can see it clearly in money aggregates and money velocity graphs: money is not moving, is buried minutes after it is born.
Central Banks create money and money has to travel through institutions, and right now, the institutions function well only for the top 1%. Eventually, some money will get to the rest of the population, but in the interim period before that money fully circulates, the wealthy can use their access to money to buy up physical or financial assets. Authorities and politicians celebrate stock markets’ records, but that is beneficial only for the top 1%. The bottom 50% does not get anything because they have no stocks at all.
Central Banks usually see their role as printing money and distributing it to the economy, largely by moving money to banks and assuming they will in turn increase the amount of money available to everyone else equally. When faced with the harsh reality of increasing inequality, they reply that politicians should do their job through fiscal policy and alleviate the middle- and low-class sufferings.
Central banks just keep pushing bond and loan markets, but since most of population does not have access to substantial borrowings (a minority gets a mortgage to buy a house, but they cannot buy real estate every year) only the rich owners of corporations really benefit.
Southern Europeans countries use an unorthodox strategy to spill money to the population: public deficit. Since states are granted by the ECB a generous access to low or even negative rates, they pile up debt, and use it for public spending that should benefit the whole population.
But now, after Bitcoin breakthrough, a new solution would be possible: creating a digital counterpart of fiat currencies and filling an online wallet with money for every citizen. That would benefit everybody equally (even more the lower classes in proportion).
Public support and central banks digital helicopter money: in the future most of the advanced economies population could rely on a small rent.
Zombie banking and the future of work
Central bankers continue to present a future path of sustainable growth and inflation through zero or even negative interest rates, but what is happening in reality is that middle classes are destroyed.
As seen above they do not get money from banks, that instead have an incentive to convince companies to launch new investment projects with a low expected return. In theory, even a new project with a nominal return of zero (e.g. cash hoarding) is advantageous because the bank and the company save on negative interests.
This zombie projects and zombie companies bring with them decreasing productivity and income losses for the workers. Because productivity gains are the basis for real wage increases, negative interest rates become a burden for the young people, whose wages tend to decline in comparison to former generations.
Again, the younger generations will get only pain if they chase prosperity through an old-style career: the only way out of the crisis is joining the top 1% at their own table, investing and getting a rent. The real job of the future is to play the scarcity game and then, sitting on non-inflatable assets, do the work you love.