Do you feel repressed? No? Well, maybe you should.
Please let me explain. If you live in a nation that has a central bank (and who doesn’t?) then you are probably subjected to some form of financial repression.
Governments spend money on wars or the preparation for war and on social programs. Governments spend a lot of money. Trouble is, they don’t have any money. But you do. You have money because you worked and provided a tangible good or service for which someone else was willing to pay you.
Since the government has no money they get it from you through taxation or through borrowing. Governments issue bonds that people purchase and in return the government pays back the bondholders both principal and interest. So, where does the government get the money to pay back its creditors?
Tax increases are obvious and unpopular so governments usually pay back bondholders by selling yet more bonds. As long as the government can find buyers for its debt, then its leaders are lulled into thinking they need not raise taxes or cut spending.1 Instead, government debt is continuously increased. Eventually paying even the interest on all the debt becomes burdensome. 2
There are a few ways a government can reduce its debt. Economic growth and the increased taxes that accompany it is one way. A two-pronged approach of raising taxes and decreasing spending is the most obvious solution, but tax increases are opposed by one side as vehemently as spending decreases are by the other. Outright default or restructuring of debt is not an avenue that the U.S. is willing to go down at this point.
What if there was another way to pay off the debt? What if there was some sort of “hidden tax” that the government could levy to pay down its debt? There is. It’s called financial repression.
What Is Financial Repression?
Financial repression refers to methods used by governments and central banks to liquidate public and private debts and ease the burden of servicing those debts following periods of war or financial crisis.3 Governments promote monetary policies that favor debtors because they themselves are debtors.
Financial repression includes but is not limited to the following: capping interest rates banks can pay on savings deposits, interest rates for loans capped through the central bank’s target interest rate, and requiring pension funds to hold government debt.4 All of these actions direct funds to government that would normally flow elsewhere. It makes borrowing cheap for government.
But when the Federal Reserve talks about interest rates it doesn’t mention anything about trying to reduce government debt or financial repression. Instead, they base their monetary policy on “promoting maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates.” They believe their mandate is best accomplished by monetary policy that has a 2% rate of inflation as its goal.5 Setting interest rates charged to banks near zero for the past seven years has been an attempt to stimulate the economy and increase employment.
So why do I believe that Fed policy is, in fact, financial repression and not economic stimulus?
- First, their policy is based on the erroneous belief that demand creates supply and the irrational fear that deflation is the worst thing that can happen to an economy. In short, I don’t believe their policies can accomplish their stated purpose.
- Second, the fact is, paying interest on our nation’s debt has already reached the point of being burdensome. The only rate of interest we can really afford is 0%. Therefore it is imperative that interests rates be kept near zero.
- Third, employing quantitative easing (QE) proves how desperate the government is to keep interest rates low. When the Fed buys government bonds from banks in large amounts, the interest rate on bonds naturally goes down. Therefore, the government doesn’t have to offer higher rates to attract buyers (creditors) so the interest burden on its debt is less than if interest rates were higher. The Fed creates the artificial demand for its own debt and keeps interest rates down by printing money! It is only incidental that the fed hopes the money will circulate causing the economy to grow yielding more taxes to reduce the debt.
Why Use the Term Financial Repression?
So, you may ask, why use the term financial repression? Who gets hurt when the government and central bank intervene in the marketplace in this manner?
- If there is any inflation at all, anyone who saves will see the purchasing power of his savings erode. Retirees are especially vulnerable because they are usually not in a position to put their money into higher yield, higher risk investments such as stocks that have the potential for large losses.
- People who live within their means are forced to subsidize spendthrifts. Not only do Fed policies reduce the debt of the government, they reduce the debt of private individuals and corporations as well which have reached record levels in the last decade. The Fed’s policies make it possible for borrowers to get their hands on money at a lower interest rate than they could in a free market. A lower interest rate is forced upon savers who, without such interference, would receive a higher rate of interest from banks competing for deposits. This is not wealth creation; this is yet another example of wealth transferred from one group to another.
- The economy as a whole suffers when financial repression is employed. Inequality rises when capital flows into stocks, not solely based on value, but because other alternative places to park money yield no return thanks to the Federal Reserve. Then, of course, prices are bid up and a bubble forms. The system is set up in favor of the rich who have access to the first use of capital.6 When the bubble pops, capital is wiped out having served little purpose in growing the economy. Then, the Fed and the Treasury bail out the financial sector.
- Unemployed workers are harmed when they can only find part-time work or work at a lower wage because capital has been funneled into non-productive asset bubbles instead of being used to build factories or start new businesses.
- Proponents of current monetary policy would argue that low-interest rates allow more people to obtain a home mortgage. Aside from the fact that indebting yourself for most of your working life might not be a good idea, the Federal Reserve’s policies essentially remove an important option for many people – to wait until they have saved more money. People who want to buy a home are harmed as the government entices them to borrow by offering low interest rates and tax incentives, and by producing asset bubbles prompting people to buy before they would normally for fear of being priced out of the market. This is especially true during a period of stagnating wages that are also a direct result of the same Fed policies.
Financial repression punishes you for saving, rewards you for going into debt, increases inequality, provides a disincentive for elected officials to balance the national budget, is a deceptive way to fund government spending, and tends to replace unemployment with underemployment. It produces a boom-bust economic cycle and then is offered as additional medicine to cure the diseases it caused in the first place.
On second thought, if you are retired or you live within your means or you are a member of the future generation who will more than likely pay the highest price for the Fed’s misguided policies, then maybe you shouldn’t feel repressed. The term is too vague. Maybe you should feel like someone who has been forced to contribute to someone else’s prosperity and later forced to suffer the consequences of their financial folly when the economy crashes because borrowers’ short-term gains came at the expense of long-term investment in the economy.
- In the case of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, taxes were decreased and spending increased. Evidently it was believed that the tax cuts would increase tax revenues from individuals and corporations due to economic growth enough to offset the cost of the wars. It didn’t turn out that way.
- Anyone with substantial credit card debt knows this. The difference between the credit card holder and the government is that the government can lower to zero the percentage interest rate it pays on the balance owed.
- “Financial Repression Redux”, Finance & Development, June 2011, Vol. 48, Carmen M. Reinhart, Jacob F. Kirkegaard, and M. Belen Sbrancia
- “The Liquidation of Government Debt” Carmen M. Reinhart, M. Belen Sbrancia, NBER Working Paper 16893
- “Statement on Longer-Run Goals and Monetary Policy Strategy”
- Read about the Cantillon Effect in my blog – Inequality, Part 3