Borrowing from the Past vs. Borrowing from the Future
When I say 'borrowing from the past' I am referring to the act of taking out some excess assets from the storehouse of past production. I've often used the cereal granary as an example. Each year farmers produce as much grain as they can given the weather and other resources for the season. The grains are stored in communal granaries until they can be bought at the market place. In really good years more grains are produced than are sold leaving an excess. Because dried grains are good for storage for more than one season, the excess can be maintained in the granary for possible emergency conditions in the future.
Indeed humans learned long ago to consciously produce and store excess grains (and other commodities) in the event of tough times causing a less than adequate growing season. These granaries were the first banks. The development of enumeration in symbolic form and accounting were developed to allow these otherwise fungible assets to be allocated fairly to the farmers/owners. The marks on a piece of clay represented claims the farmers had against the store of grain. If the grains were sold in market, the proceeds were appropriately allocated to owners on the basis of how much they had put into the store in the first place. Early forms of government were developed to encourage farmers (generally through taxes) to grow more than they needed for income alone so that there would be a reserve kept for the bad times.
Of course the management of farming became so good that there were generally more good times than bad. In ancient Egypt, for example, the science of water management and irrigation from the Nile waters ensured that granaries would generally be full, absent a truly bad season. Governments got into the habit of selling the excess commodities to other societies to subsidize their other ventures and projects.
Drawing down the excesses, whether to mitigate bad times or to fund adventures, was an act of borrowing from past work-derived assets. Borrowing from the savings was risky business. It was necessary to mitigate disaster, in which case it was insurance and not finance. But when it was done to fund some adventure or project it became the early form of financing. Nevertheless, it was financing based on savings and so would always be constrained by the successes of past seasons.
Somewhere along the line some bright bulb had an idea. Since those marks on clay represented quantities of commodities that already existed and could be claimed at some future time, they could be used to represent something quite different. They could be used as a promise to pay in the future a quantity of commodity that had not yet been produced!
The logic is simple. For many years past we have been producing excesses that have provided an ability to trade for other things we needed. Since this has been going on for a while now, we should expect to produce excesses in future seasons. Therefore, we can promise to pay out those excesses in a future period for other assets that we need now. For example it is probably not far from what happened to imagine some government agent (maybe a town ruler) thinking that the town needed some public place for the people to gather. Checking the granary coffers he realizes that there won't be enough grain to pay for the work needed today to get this project done. So, being confident that next year's crops will provide more excess, he produces IOU-like markers that he promises to make good on in the future. He issues these to workers and sets up accounts of owing so that when the time comes the excesses gained in the future can be doled out fairly.
What a fantastic breakthrough idea! If the agent does a reasonable job of predicting the future success of this scheme, he can get his work done today, pay off the workers in the future, and everyone should be better off as a result. Thus was born the notion of financing work today with promises to pay from tomorrow's profits. Borrowing from the future was made possible simply because we had become so good at our agricultural technologies that we were fairly assured of producing excesses in most years. Certainly there were inevitable mistakes and disasters. But on average the scheme worked.
One of the factors that made it work was the expansion of agriculture beyond the needs of the immediate population. As long as new fields were developed, that is as long as the agrarian economy was growing, the government authorities could be assured that there would be more profit next year than this year.
I realize that this is a bit simplistic but I bet its not far from how things developed. One thing is sure; as long as the economic system could grow based on growing inputs of energy into the system, it was possible to believe that there would be more assets produced in the future than needed in that future. And those excess assets could be used to pay back for the assets borrowed in the present. It was a reasonable and valid belief because that is exactly how things continued to work. Either more energy sources were found, more powerful sources were found, or more efficient methods (technologies) were developed that allowed this expansion at the same energy input level.
When coinage and other markers representing real physical value were developed (however the value was established for these markers, e.g. fiat or hard asset backed) it was not a hard thing to develop the non-agricultural version of a granary in the form of a bank. Profits could be stored in a bank (for a fee) for insurance purposes and both forms of borrowing could be accomplished with tokens rather than with food.
When Things Started To Go Astray
Borrowing from a bank (and I use the term very generically here) creates an interesting problem. When someone deposits funds in the bank they receive a promissory marker acknowledging that they 'own' the money so deposited. In theory they can draw on that account whenever they want. But bankers figured out long ago that as more depositors put money into the bank, there was a decreasing likelihood that all of them would put demands on their accounts at the same time. In other words, most of the money would be left in the bank most of the time. This meant that if a banker gave a loan to someone else they could take it out of the deposits — they could loan out other peoples money and not worry too much about the depositors wanting all their money back. As far as depositors were concerned their money was still sitting in the bank. But some of it was actually out in circulation paying for new work to be done. This scheme, too, would work as long as borrowers paid back their loans in a timely fashion.
This is different from the case where somebody makes a personal loan to someone else. In this case the lender knows full well that the money is no longer in his possession. He won't consider spending it because he doesn't actually have it. What he has is a real IOU promising that he will be paid back the money lent and perhaps some compensation for the inconvenience of not having his money to use whenever he wanted — interest.
In the case of bankers they don't tell the depositors that, by the way, some of your money is no longer available because on your behalf I made a loan to Joe Schmoe so he could start a bakery. Instead, they plan on covering any individual depositor's withdrawals by the fact that they can count on most of the money being left in the bank for the duration of the loan. The trick is knowing when to stop giving out loans so that you don't exceed the likelihood of depositors wanting back so much money that there won't be enough to cover the demands. When banks have exceeded this limit the word gets out and people flock to get their money out before the bank runs out entirely. It's called a bank run.
But that isn't the only potential problem. What happens is that by loaning out money from savings accounts but not putting some kind of lock on the depositors' access to those funds, the bank has effectively created more money than was physically in circulation. In other words, as far as the economy is concerned, it is as if the money supply has increased by the percentage of loaned money. If money is to have any meaning as a store of real value this creates a conundrum (except for bankers of course). A larger money supply against a more or less stable, possibly fixed (in the short term) supply of real wealth means that each unit of money represents fewer units of that wealth. The currency gets devalued. The ability to start new projects today by borrowing from the past (savings) is generally considered a societal good. It promotes growth! And, happily, growth is necessary to support the other form of borrowing — from the future.
Banks did not actually loan money from the future as such, historically. A fiscally responsible, conservative banker stuck to loaning from savings, albiet other people's savings. But they also needed to make a profit on their work. In order to encourage deposits (and to keep them in the bank) they offered a modest interest payment to depositors as a reward for not withdrawing funds (except on a need basis of course). Compound interest is a wonderful notion, for savers. Leave the funds in and the rate of growth is exponential, even if modest. It was a good inducement to savings and living well within ones means.
And then bankers charged interest (also compounded) to the borrowers. This was an inducement, along with other 'terms', to pay the money back as soon as possible. To make a profit the interest earned by loaning had to exceed the interest paid to depositors. Simple.
It worked rather well for the longest time. But as the 'invisible hand' gained more influence on everyone's thinking about making profits something started to go wrong. Bankers are no different than anyone else who starts thinking about ways to increase profits (once usury was no longer an issue). What they noticed is that they, like other enterprises, could count on making more profits in the future as long as the economy was growing (something they actually appeared to contribute to by increasing the money supply). So, it occurred to a few more adventurous bankers that if they fudged on their reserves, lent out more money than would have been thought prudent, they could promise to pay back the deficits from future earnings. And so, the pyramid scheme came to the venerable enterprise of banking. Generally, as long as the economy did expand (owing to increasing energy flows, of course) the scheme seemed to work, with only occasional hiccups due to misjudgments or mistiming. [Take a look at this short clip, Move Your Money on the Huffington Post. I'm not endorsing the idea (well maybe a little), but I thought it provided some thought provoking ideas.]
Meanwhile yet another form of borrowing developed rather early in the history of capitalism. In this form a 'capitalist' who wanted to start a new adventure/business would 'incorporate' in some form and issue stock certificates that could be bought by 'investors' to supply funds for the enterprise. The expectation had now been thoroughly ingrained that such enterprises would produce a profit stream that, in turn, would provide a dividend to those investors. This is, of course, another form of earning money on the use of money just as interest for banks. What it allowed, and it really was a wonderful idea at the time, was to let individuals take some of their own savings and through aggregation with other individuals create a sum of real money to pay for work that would eventually create the profit stream. Once again, the funds were coming more or less from savings by individuals, as though they were making personal loans to the forming enterprise. [Bonds are in the same category,]
But once again something else developed that made it appear that there was more wealth about than was actually the case. The downside of investing in bonds and stocks is that you are committing funds for longer periods of time and there is no immediate way to withdraw your money as you could with a bank. This meant that you might get into financial trouble if you suddenly needed your funds to handle an emergency that wasn't covered by insurance. This situation is known as the liquidity problem. It can be a strong inhibitor for many potential investors. But coming to the rescue is the MARKET!
Stock and bond markets provide an excellent way to escape the liquidity problem. Indeed, as initially instigated this was their primary purpose and it had the effect of freeing up a lot of capital to fuel the industrial revolution. By providing an easy escape from the bondage of stock investments, the market made it safer for more people to become investors. Then, in principle, they could conceivably live off of investment income from fixed returns, even getting to a point where they didn't have to actually work! What a fantastic idea as long as the economy could grow. The problem arose, however, when people realized that such markets were essentially legal gambling casinos!
In theory, the capitalists invested all of the funds in the enterprise and so the wealth represented was tied up in hard assets and operating expenses. But when stocks and bonds took on a life of their own beyond the original investment things started going haywire. Suppose I own a stock that I bought originally from a newly formed company (an IPO in today's parlance) for $50.00. Suppose that a registry exists listing all stocks sold and their prices so that someone who might be interested in purchasing a stock in the company that I own a little piece of could contact me and offer to buy the stock. As a means to solve the liquidity problem this is great. If I were in financial straights I could sell the stock at face value, or more likely in this cutthroat business, at a stressed loss because I need the money, effectively a pawn of my paper asset for money. But the exact opposite can occur. Suppose the potential buyer thinks that the company's worth is greater than the face value of all of its issued stocks. Suppose he thinks the future earnings and dividends will be greater than the nominal values projected when the stock was issued. He might be willing to pay MORE for the stock (regardless of my financial condition). And if I sold it, I would make a profit over the face value. Now this in itself isn't such a problem if the company in fact does perform better than expected and creates more real wealth than had been projected. The new stock price might represent real wealth in the end. But there has been a time lag between the time of the sale of the stock at the higher price and the time when the performance is recognized. This time lag creates a slight difference between perceived and real value, and that can be problematic.
Introduce an information service beyond the mere listing of stocks and owners. Suppose you also track the latest selling price for the stocks and publish this on a regular basis. Now potential investors can see what others are paying for stocks (and bonds). They can further speculate on the underlying value of the paper by assuming that other buyers and sellers know something more than they do and this 'information' is encoded in the movement of stock prices. If the price of a stock is going up regularly, it must mean that the stock is undervalued and is really worth more than is reflected in its price. So maybe I should buy! Conversely, if the stock price is trending down, maybe I should sell. Now provide brokerage services to facilitate these more speculative transactions and you have a formula for potential disaster.
The whole story is far too complex for such a 'short' blog. For example there are reasons that companies like their stock prices to be higher than their face value, not the least of which is that under the theory that the job of management is to maximize shareholder value, bonuses are based on stock price performance. There are reasons that stock brokers want stock prices to keep going up, not the least of which is their fees are related to sales volume which is indirectly impacted by the general direction of stock prices (like the DOW Jones Index). Basically there are lots of incentives for people whose only contribution to the economy is to make it look like things are worth much more than there is real wealth in the system. And that is the problem. The stock and bond markets create phony (paper) wealth but do not actually contribute to the production of real assets. The speculation that has taken over the field of investment means that people are borrowing again from the future not really understanding this and not really caring as long as the paper value seems to be going up, up, up. It's a scheme that looks like it works but only as long as the underlying real economy is expanding. But that is only possible when the inflows of energy needed to do the actual physical work of producing assets is expanding. And it MUST expand at an exponential rate in order to support the notion of compound interest and stock price inflation.
Beginning of the End
With all the fancy and increasingly complex methods of creating paper wealth without paying attention to the real wealth supposedly underlying it, people simply forgot a basic fact of reality. All money ever did was to represent an ability to do work. Originally token markers existed to represent work done in the past and stored for the future. Then they came to also represent potential work, work to be done in the future that would yield a profit. That is when speculation entered the arena. But the representation of real physical wealth was still the primary role of money. Over the years of the evolution of mercantilism, capitalism, etc. the connection between the role of money and reality got severed. The gold standard helped to stabilize economies because it fixed a volume of money to something physical. But of course, gold has no real intrinsic value. You can't run a machine with it, nor can you eat it. So that plan didn't go too far. When President Nixon took the US off the gold standard he effectively left money to be, as Milton Friedman advocated, just another commodity. Its value was determined by its relation to the good name of the United States government (i.e. the dollar took the place of gold, but at a floating rate of exchange with other currencies). The bankers and stock brokers were quite happy with that arrangement because it freed them from worrying about any relation between finance and the real economy of things and services.
But, of course, money was still used as a claim on work. In other words, it still represented a quantity of available energy, either used in the past and embodied in current assets, or potential (stored) for doing work in the near future. And therein lies the problem with finance.
It started to unravel as far back as the 1970s when the energy return on energy invested (EROI), especially on oil, started to decline more rapidly. The energy needed to build and maintain/operate oceanic-based oil drilling, the massive energy investments in refining and distribution systems for oil-based energy, and the increased effort needed to locate new oil patches, started eating away at the net energy available to the working economy. By this time the idea of financing enterprises by borrowing from the future and creating faux money in the banking and stock/bond sectors had taken firm hold as the principle belief system of how the world worked. No one was paying attention to the role of energy flow in this whole economic system. They actually began to believe in their own Ponzi scheme, that creating more money was the same as creating more wealth for the world. It's no wonder Wall Streeters honestly believe that they are doing "God's work".
As the 1980s proceeded businesses that actually manufactured things began to become pinched. In the US especially workers wages had grown high because of the high energy (and wasteful) lifestyles adopted by Americans required it. At the same time the US went from a net exporter of energy to a net importer. Being a basically wealthy country, from the savings of past built assets, including industrial farming, this didn't seem like a big thing at the time. But it was the beginning of the end. Through a combination of pressures from decelerating energy flows along with increasing insistence by Americans to consume junk just because they thought they had a God-given right to do so, many corporations realized that they could not sustain operations on this continent. Political processes had a lot to do with the rise of China and India, in particular, as low energy using but productive economies. But the off-shoring of many production jobs to factories in these countries helped spur an increase in consumption because workers there were willing to work for lower wages, but more money than they had ever had before.
Globalization, generally touted as a leveling of the playing field (see Tom Friedman's The World is Flat), was actually an acceleration of an already on-going process of trying to find the lowest energy costs while maintaining production. Previously cheap transportation fuels substituted for expensive labor and electricity production in the developed world. Simultaneously, many developed countries further opened their borders to the flood of cheap-wage migrant workers in order to stave off the energy hounds. One look at the lifestyles of migrants compared with the average American worker tells the whole story.
Even so, the illusionists on Wall Street and the banks have doubled down, with the Obama administration's help, on their futile attempts to keep the Ponzi scheme up. It even looks, to the casual viewer and the main stream media, like they are succeeding for the moment. The average American consumer is also persuaded that things will get better, eventually. Eventually we'll go back to the way things were. We can borrow from the future to pay for stuff we want to play with today. That, for too many, represents NORMAL life.
But the evidence is building that suggests that we have passed the peak of net energy production. Not only is the rate of energy production decelerating, it is now in actual decline. It is simply no longer possible to maintain the illusion of expanding real wealth by propping up a financial system constructed and designed to provide benefits in a world of expanding energy flow. That world is gone, and short of some kind of technological miracle, it is gone forever.
The financial sector of the economy is, itself, a bubble. It can't exist without an underlying economy producing real wealth. And that depends entirely on real physical work, which, in turn, depends entirely on the flow of net energy. I find it utterly astounding that supposedly intelligent people can't see such a simple fact. They seem to be using all of their mental facilities trying to find reasons why the old financial structures should work and how they can get them to work again. But this is a fool's errand. Sadly, as they waste energy in this futile endeavor. And they waste all of our time. While they fiddle, Rome burns. Ever is it so for pseudo-sapient leaders. Of course we pseudo-sapient followers keep raising such leaders to their positions. Look in a mirror and say "Mea culpa".
For a really good read about money and debt I recommend Niall Ferguson's, "The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World". You can also view his PBS series in four segments at these URLs.