Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Real Bills Doctrine of 2009

In the late 1920s and early 1930s the Federal Reserve System followed a theory called “The Real Bills Doctrine.” While the theory has been totally discredited, it nevertheless emerges in the news and in political circles from time to time. The real bills doctrine makes a distinction between the financial sector of the economy and the “real” economy.

In the late 1920s, the central bank was worried about the amount of money flowing into Wall Street. Many claimed that there was too much speculation, which was creating a false stock market boom. As a result, the central bank stated that it would only loan money to banks and corresponding projects that were “productive.” In others words, the central bank would only loan money to projects that were to be used to produce real goods and services. With the production of real goods and services, the loans would not be inflationary. Or so the theory goes. The reality is that all monetary creation is inflationary regardless of what it is used for.

Today, we are suffering from the real bills doctrine again. It is just dressed up a little differently. The politicians are calling for more economic stimuli to “jump start” the economy. Some politicians are objecting to the direction that Washington is taking not because the theory of increasing government spending to create an economic recovery is flawed (which it is); but rather politicians are objecting to the idea that the money isn’t going toward “real stimulus” projects. They claim that instead of using the money for balancing state budgets, the federal monies should go to “shovel ready” projects. It is in this distinction that the real bills doctrine emerges. When it comes to inflationary pressures, there is no difference between balancing state budgets, shovel ready projects, road construction, stock market speculation, and so on. The more dollars put into the economy devalue each and every dollar, regardless of how it gets into the system.

Furthermore, spending federal dollars will not restart economic growth. The source of economic growth ultimately comes from savings and capital accumulation. Capital accumulation means the production of better tools, better machines, and better equipment. More capital is necessary because it allows each worker to become more productive and raise the standard of living for everyone. This formula has been known and followed by the US since our revolutionary days. Following it has transformed the US from a bunch of small, backwater colonies into the largest economy in human history.

The current stimulus package cannot be funded by using today’s tax receipts. The government will try to get the money to cover these expenditures through borrowing, which will result in the largest deficit ever. Unfortunately, there is simply not enough money to borrow to cover all of the spending. The balance will have to come from money creation. Regardless of what is done with this money, it will cause prices to rise in the near future. Furthermore, since our banks adhere to a fractional reserve system, it means that the newly created base money will be loaned, deposited and reloaned, over and over. This credit creation process will multiply the money supply throughout the economy by a factor of about nine.

We are standing at the edge of a very nasty inflationary period. We can turn back or we can make things worse. If we follow the path of monetary expansion, it will come at a very high cost. Not today, but not too far into the future. It will be at that point when the real bills will have to be paid.