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Economics

Is it Time to Lose Interest In Interest?

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Among the treasure trove of extraordinary theories and schools of thought in monetary history, there was a self-taught author whose theories garnered the admiration of even top economists such as Keynes and Fisher. Yet, today, his name is absent from almost all textbooks that are devoted to the history of economic thought. The economist in question is Jean Silvio Gesell (1862-1930). This is very unfortunate since he proposed to do away with financial capitalism; in other words, the possibility for those who hoard capital to get rich while sleeping. Gesell inspired a worldwide movement that introduced a completely new form of money. It’s one of the most fascinating, but largely forgotten stories in economic history.

Silvio Gesell and the ‘melting currency’

Money is a polymorphic and ambivalent object. It can be both an ‘exclusive’ and ‘private’ good (the quantity of money I have belongs to me exclusively), but also a ‘rival’ good (the quantity I have deprives others of its use if I don’t spend it). Thus, money is, on the one hand, a facilitator of exchange and therefore a factor of connection between people. But very quickly, it can become a source of vertiginous inequalities when it is desired for itself and diverted from its primary purpose. This desire for accumulation as an end in itself is the hallmark of a capitalism dominated by finance, where the money goes to money without even having to go through the production and sale’s process.

How then can we keep it beneficial? Silvio Gesell formulated an extraordinary idea in a work entitled “The Natural Economic Order” (1916): the melting currency. This theory postulates that hoarding and stockpiling wealth is bad for the economy because it stops money flow dynamics. The only way to encourage the circulation of money and to discourage hoarding is to place money at the level of a perishable commodity. By analogy with commodities, whose value deteriorates over time and with wear and tear, likewise, money must melt and lose value respectively. If one person has a bag of apples and another person has the money to buy those apples, the person with the apples is obliged to sell them in a relatively short period to avoid the loss of his assets. Money owners, however, can wait until the price is right for them; their money does not necessarily create ‘holding costs.’

Gesell advocated a depreciation of one-thousandth per week, which corresponds to 5.2% per year. The depreciation would have been organized in the form of stamping on ​​the banknotes, in order to reduce their face value. The consumer is therefore encouraged to spend quickly because the note regularly loses value, if it is unspent. If the holder wishes to keep it, he must buy and stick extra stamps on the note so that the latter retains its purchasing power.

The author’s idea was, in fact, equivalent to imposing a negative interest rate on hoarded cash. He called it ‘free money’—‘free’ because he believed it would be freed from hoarding and would encourage bankers to lend money without charging interest. It’s like a game of hot potato. You want to pass it on. Gesell believed this would keep money whizzing through the system, preventing future depressions and increasing economic prosperity.

On closer scrutiny, Gesell’s free money is the opposite of a debt-money system based on interest. The first mechanically institutionalizes solidarity in society by taxing all idle and hoarded capital. On the other hand, the system based on interest institutionalizes greed by favouring idle wealth and accentuates socio-economic inequalities.

The miraculous experience of Wörgl

During the 1930s, the followers of Gesell’s theory found opportunities to initiate interest-free money projects, to overcome unemployment and to demonstrate the validity of their ideas. There were endeavours to introduce free money in Austria, France, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, and the United States. One of the most successful was in the town of Wörgl in Austria.

This small town of about 4,300 inhabitants and a few factories were in a deplorable economic situation after the crisis of 1929: 3,500 people were with the public assistance; 1,500 were registered unemployed; public finances were in a dire situation as factories were abandoned and trade stagnated. Local tax arrears from 1926 to 1931 amounted to around 118,000 schillings and tax revenues were steadily declining.

As a consequence, the small Austrian town decided to conduct a monetary experiment in the way suggested by Silvio Gesell, between 1932 and 1933. As per the initiative of the mayor, a local currency was issued and in the form of 32,000 ‘work certificates’ or ‘free schillings’ (i.e. interest-free schillings). This amount was covered by the same amount of ordinary Austrian schillings in the bank. The characteristic of this currency was that it would depreciate by 1% every month. For a note to remain valid, a stamp had to be affixed on a given day of each month.

Within one year, Wörgl reduced its unemployment rate by 25%: the cellulose factory hired 350 workers, cement factory 400, and a beach development required another 200. Roads and canals were built and workers received wages. In shops, new purchases were made and everyone was getting richer in the sense that this new currency was fulfilling its natural duty—circulating endlessly among the population. The 32,000 free schillings circulated 463 times, thus creating goods and services worth over 14,816,000 schillings. By contrast, the official schillings circulated only 21 times. In 1932, tax receipts rose from 93,000 to 121,000 schillings without any tax increase. Even advanced tax payments for 1933 were made! The fees collected by the town government which caused the money to change hands so quickly amounted to a total of 3,840 schillings (12% of the initial 32,000 free schillings issued) and this sum was used for public services.

When over 300 communities in Austria began to be interested in adopting this model, the Austrian Bank saw its monopoly of issuing the official currency being endangered. It intervened against the town council and prohibited the printing of its local currency in January 1933, the exact year and month during which Hitler acceded to power. Despite continuing to inspire local currency schemes around the world and a long-lasting battle that went right up to the Austrian Supreme Court, neither Wörgl nor any other community in Europe has been able to repeat the experiment up to the present day.

The practical example of Wörgl teaches us some important lessons. When money, as a pure medium of exchange, has lost all of its hoarding power, it can have a completely astonishing and favourable impact, from an economic and social perspective. While interest nowadays is a private gain, a small levy on idle wealth would be a public gain. This would have to return into circulation to maintain the balance between the volume of money and the volume of economic activities. This would also serve as an income to the government, and thereby a powerful redistributive tool to reduce the dreadful amount of current socio-economic inequalities.

The concept of a ‘melting currency’ finds a certain topicality when it has been launched in a Bavarian village since 2003 or the current fear of interest rates to enter into negative territory in the UK. The idea is also supported by the Belgian economist Bernard Lietaer, who indicates that such currencies have existed in ancient Egypt and medieval Europe. This suggests that interest in a melting currency doesn’t wane over time, and it would not be surprising if, in a relatively short time, other towns or states would follow such a model.

All views expressed in this editorial are solely that of the author, and are not expressed on behalf of The Analyst, its affiliates, or staff.

Ahmed Danyal Arif is a French economist by education and currently working in London. He has a Masters degree in Economics and Politics. After working for the French tax administration system, he published two books in French: Islam & Capitalism: For an Economic Justice (2016), and Economic History of the Islamic World: From Pre-Islamic Arabia to the Umayyad Dynasty (2019). He currently serves as the Editor for the Economics Section in The Review of Religions.

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Economics

Lebanon’s crashing economy leaves many desperate for basic needs

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The ongoing struggles in Lebanon have resulted in a huge chunk of the population struggling to make ends meet. With about half of the population currently living below the poverty line, families are finding it difficult to cover the essentials to survive. Lack of access to food, medicine, shelter, and money from the banks is a serious problem across the country. 

The collapsing economy, alongside the nation’s failing political system, has left the Lebanese people feeling frustrated at how the government has been handling the back-to-back crises the country has faced over a number of years. 

Financially, the value of the Lebanese Pound (LBP) has been plummeting since March 2020, accelerated by the pandemic and political unrest. Then, one Great British Pound (GBP) was equal to around 1,700 LBP, whereas today it is north of 2,050 LBP. This has resulted in stagnant wages being unable to cover even the most basic of living costs for lots of people. 

In August of 2020, the Lebanese government was forced into resigning after numerous anti-government protests across the county, which were sparked by the explosion which centred at the port in Beirut. The incident killed at least 200 people, left about 5,000 people injured, millions were made homeless, and it pushed the entire country into even further economic turmoil.

Discontent with the Lebanese government was already running rampant by that point, due to concerns over deeply rooted corruption. For years, citizens have struggled to get the government to cater to the most basic of needs; they face daily power cuts, limited public healthcare and lack of safe drinking water. All the while, there is a huge economic disparity, with the rich truly shadowing the general population in terms of standard of living. 

These factors have all pushed a struggling nation even further into debt, financial ruin, and political uncertainty. 

Global leaders have spent decades staging various forms of intervention across the Middle East, with President Emmanuel Macron being the latest to announce an aid event to be hosted for Lebanon next year on 4th August, the first anniversary of the Beirut disaster. 

Even with international aid, Lebanon will still need both stable internal leadership, and time, to get through these troubles.

All views expressed in this editorial are solely that of the author, and are not expressed on behalf of The Analyst, its affiliates, or staff.

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Economics

The Australia-China trade spat

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For many years, Australia has been feeding China’s meteoric rise into becoming an economic strongman supplying commodities like iron ore and other exports such as  seafood, timber, alcohol, and coal. Yet, the geopolitics of the pandemic has forced Australia to square up to a “more assertive” China with the latter only recently revealing that its trade sanctions against Australia were in retaliation for Australia going against China’s narrative and its view of the world. To put it simply, China is using Australia as an example to the rest of the world – if a country crosses China’s path, then prepare to feel China’s wrath via economic sanctions and political desertion.

China’s approach to upending Australia’s export-heavy economy has largely proved to be somewhat of a blessing in disguise, with Australian exporters finding success in other markets beyond China. Some commentators have said these bans have diversified the markets of Australian exports, which is good given how the bans exposed Australian exporters’ addiction towards the Chinese market. Roland Rajah, an economist at the Lowy Institute noted that “Australian coal in India has been gaining market share” and that the coal trade was 9.5b AUD higher than before the ban (in annualized terms). However, sectors such as beef and alcohol seem to be struggling, and while the latter has found record sales in Britain, it still did not beat the amount the Chinese market was buying.

China achieves political desertion by instructing its allies to alienate the country in question by abandoning all diplomatic, economic and military channels. It has achieved great success in alienating Taiwan for instance, from many countries especially developing ones. In return for denouncing Taiwan and adhering to China’s view that it is a rebel territory yet to be unified with China, the country receives diplomatic, economic and military aid and partnerships. To date, only about 15 countries have diplomatic relations with Taiwan, showing how closed-door lobbying and dirt cheap Chinese credit is valued far more than Taiwan’s right to independence. Probably the most striking factor is that the United Nations does not recognise Taiwan either, leaving it abandoned on the world stage.

While concrete evidence of Australia being deserted by China is yet to exist, Australian allies have stepped up their rhetoric in their commitment to stand by Australia’s side. This is something the Trump administration was vocal about with former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declaring that “we stand with Australia” and their decision to call for an independent inquiry into the pandemic’s origins. It should be noted this was a bipartisan response from Washington D.C with this letter signed by 27 members of Congress from both parties reaffirming its support for Australia and condemning China’s economic manipulation. 

In economic terms, the first material impact occurred when Beijing threatened – and followed through – to ban Australian barley from being imported should Australia pursue a motion for an independent inquiry into the pandemic’s origins. In 2018 alone, that market was worth AUD 1.5b. In return, Australia got the support of more than 120 member countries at the 2020 World Health Assembly and that became the catalyst for where the trade relationship rests today. 

The scope of the import bans from barley alone was extended to beef, wine, coal, cotton, timber and lobsters while China warned its local population against studying or touring in Australia. To illustrate the stakes this trade relationship holds, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) estimates that in the 2018-19 year, the two-way trade between the two countries was worth AUD 235b, or 27% of all Australian trade making it the most valuable trading relationship. So, it does not help if diplomatic relations sour, as the economic repercussions follow suit. 

China’s furore did not stop there. In what was widely perceived to be a deliberate public relations stunt, the Chinese embassy in Australia released a list of 14 grievances against Australia. Items in the list included blocking Huawei from the 5G rollout, calling for an investigation into Covid-19’s origins, speaking out about the South China Sea, accusing China of human rights abuses in Xinjiang, among others. The embassy said that should Australia apologise for its anti-Chinese rhetoric, then the relationship will get back on even ground. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said Australia “slandered and accused China of engaging in intervention and infiltration activities in Australia” revealing how seriously the Chinese embassy took these grievances.

Officially that list has been labelled a “massive own goal by China” by the then Secretary of DFAT, Frances Adamson. As of the time of writing, China continues to be an economic headache for Australian exporters and whether Australia can weather the storm depends on its success in pivoting to other markets. China also has a stake here as it cements its image like a dragon whose wrath better not be incurred, lest the economic tirade directed at Australia be directed at a country less stable in governance and vulnerable and reliant on foreign aid and investment. 

Only time will tell whether Australia sticking to its values is worth the money.

All views expressed in this editorial are solely that of the author, and are not expressed on behalf of The Analyst, its affiliates, or staff.

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Economics

Has the UK government borrowed too much money?

During the pandemic, the UK government has spent billions of pounds to help the public. Where has the government found this money, and how will we pay back our large debt?

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The state of the current UK economy

The UK was issued its first debt in 1694, during the reign of William III. Since then, the UK has borrowed a lot of money due to wars and other national events. Borrowing money is easy, but paying it back is often more of a challenge. The UK government was planning to borrow £160bn even before the Covid-19 outbreak, of which nearly £100bn would have been just to pay back previous debt. 

Looking at the current debt, statistics from the ONS indicate that where the debt has increased over the last decade, the debt as a percentage of the GDP has not increased as much. This suggests that either the UK is paying back the debt, or the GDP (‘Gross Domestic Produce’) i.e. the total value of goods and services produced by a country) is growing at a faster rate. This is arguably a positive thing because, despite large debt, our economy remains strong enough to handle our debt levels. 

Government borrowing this April was at £31.7bn – the second-highest borrowing in April since records began in 1993. This is £15.6bn less than in April 2020.

Why is the UK government borrowing money?

Many countries need to borrow money, as they are spending more than their income (government income is mainly from the taxes which we pay). Though government can increase taxes to match spending, this will politically damage a government as the public do not like high taxes. We can see this in Columbia, where mass protests were triggered by proposed tax reforms that were subsequently very quickly withdrawn. Higher taxes would also mean less consumer spending, and so the economic growth of the country would decrease. Thus, borrowing money instead is a better option. 

When the Conservatives won the 2019 General Election, they promised not to increase income tax, corporate tax, and Value Added Tax. To maintain this promise, Sunak is freezing the tax threshold. This is the amount of income someone needs to have to pay tax. So as the amount of wages rises a little each year, if the threshold stays the same, the government can receive more tax, without raising the tax. 

How does the UK government borrow money?

The UK government mainly uses bonds to borrow money. A government bond is a promise between the public and the government, where the public buys government bonds at a fixed rate of interest. These bonds are also bought by different financial institutions, as well as by the Bank of England, to stimulate the economy (quantitative easing), but they can also be bought by private savers. This method of investment is very reliable, as there is a very small chance of not being paid back by the government.

Debt interest

Government spending on debt interest was lower in 2020/21 than in 2019/20. This can be attributed to two factors: lower inflation (the interest paid on around 20% of government debt is linked to inflation) and the Bank of England holding around 30% of government debt. The effective interest rate paid by the government on the debt held by the Bank of England is the UK’s official interest rate (known as the bank rate), which has been at a record low during the pandemic.

Why has the UK government borrowed so much?

The UK government has provided a lot of financial support to individuals, as well as businesses e.g., through the furlough scheme. During the pandemic, as there were less people in work, not only did the UK government receive less tax (corporate and income tax), but it also had to provide more unemployment benefits. The deficit grew. 

The government supported the public in two main ways:

Subsidies

In 2020, the UK government spent over £140 billion in subsidies. Out of this, £64bn was spent on the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (the furlough scheme), and £20bn was spent on the self-employed.

Goods and services

The UK government’s day-to-day spending (current spending) on goods and services increased to a total of £506bn. This includes the costs of Test and Trace, as well as the vaccines. 
Reuters Graphic

The graph on the above shows the debt of the UK compared to other nations. The UK is fourth in the list, below France, Spain and Greece, respectively. This shows that we have accumulated a lot of debt. However, as analysis by Bloomberg Economics shows, debt from G-7 countries rose from 85% of GDP in 2005 to 140% in January 2021. The cost of servicing that debt, on the other hand, has fallen, from close to 2% of GDP to 1.5%. Projections out to 2030 show that for many countries, costs are expected to stay manageable. Thus, though it will take us a long time to pay back our debt, we will be able to pay it back. We must also recognise that extra spending because of the pandemic has been necessary to push the economy through this difficult period; one which has affected economies globally. 

What is the impact of this debt?

The UK economy, though heavily in debt and with high levels of unemployment, should see a “bounce-back” in the economy, though it will not be a boom, as seen in post-war nations. It is not clear yet whether the 7.25% prediction for the increase of GDP will prove accurate. Post-Brexit Britain has seen an increase in Europeans leaving the UK. Therefore, there are greater employment opportunities for the younger generations but, even so, they may not fill up all the gaps that Brexit may have caused in the jobs market. Large government investment is already needed to mitigate the climate crisis and this may compromise the strength of this “bounce-back”. 

All views expressed in this editorial are solely that of the author, and are not expressed on behalf of The Analyst, its affiliates, or staff.

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Economics

Is Cryptocurrency a Viable Replacement? – In Focus

How does Cryptocurrency differ from standard or Fiat Currency and what’s next for these distributed networks?

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All views expressed in this editorial are solely that of the author, and are not expressed on behalf of The Analyst, its affiliates, or staff.

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Economics

Scarcity in an abundant world: Poverty and the Economic divide in the US

The financial rescue or the stimulus package for low-income groups and businesses hit by Covid is criticised at almost all affluent dinner tables.

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If you live in the United States, an common weekend chore is a trip to Costco, the most beloved store in the country, to conveniently purchase a five litre bottle of ketchup, a five pound bag of your favourite candy or 10 toothbrushes in one packet. Abundant quantities mean more bang for your buck. The pushers of hundreds of carts rolling out of the store seek sense of security that ensuring that will never run out of ketchup and that by buying in bulk, they are getting a great deal. While big box stores have gradually morphed into consumer marketplaces, whether you are a household of two or ten you can buy all you want to the delight of your heart. A trip to Costco can make you forget all about the world, be it just for 30 minutes. 

Despite the world being full of commodities, scarcity is a living reality for millions in America. Economic wellbeing is not a certainty in a capitalistic society like the United States. Capitalism inherently is not a discriminatory economic model, as it is based on the core fundamentals of free enterprise and competitive marketplaces. There is no dearth of free enterprise in the US; however, the element of competitiveness is gradually depleting. One big corporation is swallowing another company to create a bigger giant than before, just to benefit from bigger breaks. America is the land of opportunity; There are countless anecdotal stories of those who have been able to make fortunes out of nothing. However those that are successfully able to accumulate wealth remain a few in number; while those who are economically vulnerable, remain vulnerable. While Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are in efforts to launch rockets into  outer space, 1 in 7 American children goes hungry to bed. For thousands of families, school closures during the global Covid-19 pandemic did not mean just entail learning gaps, but meant one less meal for their child. Vulnerable economic populations deserving some share of the abundance are often described as “free riders”. ‘Each for its own self’ is the core principal of the American economy.

Unfortunately, one’s zip code and where he or she resides determines one’s economic and social standing in the system. A zip code with a higher percentage of low income and minority populations translates into poor infrastructure, inadequate healthcare services, poorly rated public schools, and housing scarcity, making poverty a multi-generational cyclical issue. In mainstream America, a bricks and mortar store has aisles and aisles of cereal types, yet a good number of the population cannot afford even cereal – there’s a plethora of variety, but it remains inaccessible to many. One in seven Americans are projected to have resources below the poverty line in 2021. The poverty rates for 2021 are projected at 13.7%, with 4.4 percent of people in deep poverty. Black people and Hispanic people are experiencing poverty at about twice the rate of white people. Poor neighbourhoods visually depict scarcity; there are usually more liquor stores than fresh produce stores, more cash checking shops than banks, and less affordable housing than mainstream America suburbs.

Public Housing projects have started to emerge in the 1960s promising  minority demographics economic security. Somehow, they became a major hindrance to economic freedom for the same communities. Suburban areas with a largely white demographic developed into small towns and cities of their own with ample access to supermarkets and fancier establishments, while those living in urban minority populations remained yearning for the basics. In addition, poor minority populations have to carry the heavy burden of strong, undermining stereotypes, illiteracy and less opportunistic attitudes. This cause and effect of economic disparity contributes to the systematic discrimination. The challenge of mental and physical escape from the zip code boundaries makes it not a fair game. As in a reversal of fate, today the same minority groups are experiencing gentrification in major cities and poorer communities are being further pushed out to areas with little to no economic resources. 

The financial rescue or the stimulus package for low-income groups and businesses hit by Covid is criticised at almost all affluent dinner tables. While Walmart and Best Buy have had to slightly adjust their business models, the blue collar workers or businesses do not have similar conveniences; the latter have been hit harder. Big companies are finding new savings by facilitating a remote work environment, and the shift to remote work seems inevitable. My no-commute work will be a convenient, flexible and often described as creative solution. But, this solution is not available by service workers such as bus drivers, gas station workers, or security guards whose physical presence is compulsory. What is profitable to one group will result in less for another. Access to education, public services, investment in infrastructure will further decline due to the widening digital and economic divide. 

Political leaders advocating for social support are ridiculed as being socialists who are working against the core American values. Historically, economic decisions have been more favourable for wealthier America. Social welfare is considered un-American.  Political leaders are shy to put forward any agenda for free education, health care or taxes for the wealthy; and those who do, often lose. The question of how to address scarcity for millions in an abundant land such as America requires a policy, economical, and societal shift. The future seems bright as younger America is promoting a new vision of equality, but it is too early to determine when scarcity will change into availability.

All views expressed in this editorial are solely that of the author, and are not expressed on behalf of The Analyst, its affiliates, or staff.

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Economics

What is Cryptocurrency and Who Controls It? – On the Radar

What are you actually getting when investing in Cryptocurrencies? We discuss this question and more in this episode of On the Radar, with Azeem Khan, CEO of the Medici Consulting Group and Maaz Bajwa, Engineer and Macro Economist, looking at the differences between standard or fiat currencies and these new, blockchain-based cryptocurrencies.

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What are you actually getting when investing in Cryptocurrencies? We discuss this question and more in this episode of On the Radar, with Azeem Khan, CEO of the Medici Consulting Group and Maaz Bajwa, Engineer and Macro Economist, looking at the differences between standard or fiat currencies and these new, blockchain-based cryptocurrencies.

THIS IS NOT FINANCIAL ADVICE. You should do your own research before investing any money.

All views expressed in this editorial are solely that of the author, and are not expressed on behalf of The Analyst, its affiliates, or staff.

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