The Promise of Fiscal Money
The Promise of Fiscal Money by Yanis Varoufakis – Project-Syndicate
ATHENS – Western capitalism has few sacred cows left. It is time to question one of them: the independence of central banks from elected governments.
The rationale for entrusting monetary policy fully to central banks is well understood: politicians, overly tempted during the electoral cycle to create more money, pose a threat to economic stability. While progressives have always protested that central banks can never be truly independent, because their autonomy from elected officials increases their dependence on the financiers they are meant to keep in check, the argument in favor of removing monetary policy from democratic politics has prevailed since the 1970s.
Setting aside the political controversy, central bank independence is predicated on an economic axiom: that money and debt (or credit) are strictly separable. Debt – for example, a government or corporate bond that is bought and sold for a price that is a function of inflation and default risk – can be traded domestically. Money, on the other hand, cannot default and is a means, rather than an object, of exchange (the currency market notwithstanding).
But this axiom no longer holds. With the rise of financialization, commercial banks have become increasingly reliant on one another for short-term loans, mostly backed by government bonds, to finance their daily operations. This liquidity acquires familiar properties: used as a means of exchange and as a store of value, it becomes a form of money.
And there’s the rub: as banks issue more inter-bank money, the financial system requires more government bonds to back the increase. The growing inter-bank money supply fuels demand for government debt, in a never-ending cycle that generates tides of liquidity over which central banks have little control.
In this brave new financial world, central banks’ independence is becoming meaningless, because the money they create represents a shrinking share of the total money supply. With the rise of inter-bank money, backed mostly by government debt, fiscal policy has become an essential factor in determining the quantity of actual money lubricating modern capitalism.