Partners

Archive for March, 2012

JOHANNESBURG – THE GOLDEN

Wednesday, March 21st, 2012

A Portrait from circa 1895

(Adapted from Cochran, Robert, The Romance of Industry and Invention, W.&R. Chambers, London, no date, but clues in the text imply 1895)

“The railway journey from Capetown to Johannesburg of almost three days is through a seemingly endless sandy country, with range succeeding range of distant mountains, all alike, and strikes a greater sense of vastness and desolation than an expanse of naked ocean itself. Well, we reach Johannesburg, which has not even yet, with all its wealth, a covered-in railway station; whilst by way of contrast, just across the road is a huge club, with tennis, cricket, football, and cycling grounds, gymnasium, military band, halls for dancing, operas, and oratorios, &c., which will bear comparison with any you please. Its members are millionaires and clerks, lodgers and their lodging-house keepers, all equal there; for we have left behind caste, cliques, and cathedral cities, and are cosmopolitan, or, in a word, colonial. An institution like this gives us the state of society there in a nutshell, for, as wages are very high, any one in anything like lucrative employment can belong to it; and the grades in society are determined by money, and money only.

“Johannesburg, the London of South Africa, which was a barren veldt previous to 1886, is now the centre of some one hundred thousand inhabitants, and increasing about as fast as bricks and mortar can be obtained. It is situated directly on top of the gold, and on looking down from the high ground above, it looks to the English eye like a huge, long-drawn-out mass of tin sheds, with its painted iron mine-chimneys running in a straight line all along the quartz gold-reef as far as you can see in either direction. The largest or main reef runs for thirty miles uninterruptedly, gold-bearing and honeycombed with mines throughout. This, even it were alone, could speak for the stability and continued prosperity of the Transvaal gold trade. In a mail-steamer arriving from the Cape there is sometimes as much as between £300,000 and £400,000 worth of gold, and the newspapers show that usually about £100,000 worth is consigned by each mail-boat.

“It was one Sunday evening in 1886 that the great ‘find’ was made which laid the base of the prosperity of the Johannesburg-to-be. A farm-servant of the brothers Struben went over to visit a friend at a neighbouring farm, and as he trekked homeward in the evening, he knocked off a bit of rock, the appearance of which led him to take it home to his employer. It corresponded with what Struben had himself found in another part, and following up both leads, revealed what became famous as the Main Reef, which was traced for miles east and west.

“With this discovery the name and fame of ‘the Rand’ were established, and for years the district became the happy hunting ground of the financiers and company promoters. The Rand, or Witwatersrand, is the topmost plateau of the High Veldt of the Transvaal, and on the summit of the plateau is the gold-city of Johannesburg.

“Soon the principal feature in Johannesburg was the Stock Exchange, and the main occupation of the inhabitants was the buying and selling of shares in mining companies, many of them bogus, at fabulous prices. Today the city is the centre of a great mining industry, and the roar of the ‘stamps’ is heard all round it, night and day. From a haunt of gamblers and ‘wild-catters’, it has grown into a comparatively sedate town of industry, commerce and finance, and the gold-fever which maddened its populace has been transferred (not wholly, perhaps) to London and Paris.

“The Stock Exchange of Johannesburg sprang into existence in 1887, and before the end of that year some sixty-eight mining companies were on its list, with an aggregate nominal capital of £3,000,000.

“In 1887 the Transvaal produced only about 25,000 ounces of gold; in 1894 the output was 2,024,159 ounces; in 1895 it was 2,277,633 ounces.

“As to the future of the South African sources of supply, it is estimated by Messrs Hatch and Chalmers, mining engineers, who have published an exhaustive work on the subject, that before the end of the century the Witwatersrand mines alone will be yielding gold to the value of £20,000,000 annually; that early next century they will turn out £26,000,000 annually; and that the known resources of the district are equal to a total production within the next half century of £700,000,000, of which, probably, £200,000,000 will be clear profit over the cost of mining.”

THE KNOWLEDGE ECONOMY

Monday, March 19th, 2012

Dr Eamonn Butler, of The Adam Smith Institute, in one of his more recent books “The Rotten State of Britain” (Gibson Square, London, 2009), gives a succinct account of the regulatory burden on Britain:

“Each year, the state requires us to fill out more than a billion forms. And each year, the government passes twenty or more major laws. It also approves around 3,500 regulations, amounting to around 75,000 pages of rules, with another 25,000 pages of explanation.” He goes on to point out that “[i]n 2009 the British Chamber of Commerce reported that the cost of regulation on businesses rose by more than  £10 billion over the year before, to a staggering £76.8 billion. That’s more than six times the 2001 figure.”

The picture painted would be only too familiar to anyone attempting to do business in the developing world – even more so. There are places where, for example, it takes nineteen years to fill out the government paper work before one can start a business, or others where the forms to be filled in, laid end to end, lengthen out to 11 miles (for more details read Hernando de Soto’s classic “The Mystery of Capital”, probably one of the most important books on economics published since Adam Smith wrote “The Wealth of Nations”, and for the same reason: he describes in clear prose exactly how a developing economy works).

The effect of all this is of course in both the developed and the developing world deeply discouraging to enterprise. People simply don’t bother – or, in the developing world, go into the extra-legal economy. But the combination of the unnecessarily complex regulatory regimes in the developed world with the economic meltdown of the financial crisis, raises an interesting question which is the corollary of the matters I discussed in the recent post What is Money?

Are we in effect in the western economies entering a phase which we could call “de-development”? As Dr Butler rightly points out with reference to the regulatory burden: “Nobody can possibly keep up with this torrent of red tape.” And that inability has profound effects on the way business is conducted: people become increasingly careless of the law – such regulatory burdens always have the consequence of bringing lawmaking and legal processes into contempt – to our cost.

For if we live in a “knowledge economy”, then the foundation of that economy is the law. Indeed, in “The Mystery of Capital” referred to above, de Soto demonstrates that all successful economies are based on knowledge – economic facts enshrined in legal documents the ultimate purpose of which is to anchor title to property, making it justiciable and thereby tradeable and negotiable. It is the legal fact that comes first: that title is ultimately justiciable means that it can be safely traded, in the knowledge that any disputes that may arise have an objective forum in which they may be peaceably settled.

It is this that government regulatory systems destroy (in the case of the west) or prevent (in the case of the developing world).

In a thoughtful and alarming analysis, de Soto’s immensely fruitful work in the developing world enables him to see with great clarity just what are the roots and mechanisms of the financial crisis: “The Destruction of Economic Facts“.

GOLD BACKED MORTGAGES?

Saturday, March 17th, 2012

By Howard R. Gray, Guest Contributor

When Debt’s Called Credit (1), (2) and (3) looked at the follies of the modern mortgage. In the following piece, Howard R. Gray, Chartered Surveyor and Barrister at Law of Lincoln’s Inn and the Middle Temple, discusses the alternatives to foreclosure.

Why should mortgages be hostages to fortune?

The concept of a loan secured upon real estate has been a standard feature of our society: Common law systems have used real estate as a fundamental element of wealth. The engine of society must be production, distribution and sale of goods and services, and these need to be financed. Loans come in two main varieties, secured and unsecured; as would reasonably be expected, security is preferred and thus the mortgage provided the very best security for commercial transactions.

So what exactly is the mortgage? The dead pledge is that the real estate is held in a shell form by the home purchaser until the loan is paid, while ownership in real estate terms is recognized to be in the hands of the owner of the property. However, the truth is the mortgagee has the power in theory to reclaim his money should the mortgage payments fail to arrive on time. We’re used to the situation, though there have been very serious problems with the way mortgagees choose to bundle mortgages, treating them as negotiable securities. This has become such a problem in the U.S. that situations have arisen where mortgages are so muddled administratively that it is frequently impossible to know who has title to the income stream as mortgagee.

Foreclosure and Perpetual Institutions

Let me tell you what happened during one of my property cases many years ago. My client owned two properties in London, one in Camden Town and one further north towards Alexandra Palace. He was behind in his payments on the Camden property and found himself in court in foreclosure proceedings:  the usual method was to repossess the property, sell it cheap and recoup the difference, if possible, from the mortgagor.

I thought this innately unfair and frankly inequitable. I therefore broached the perpetual nature of banks: the mortgagee (a recently converted building society) took great umbrage at this idea. The question was simply: if a bank is a perpetual institution why is it selling property on the cheap when it could quite as easily hold onto it until the market turned as it always does, recoup the loan plus any ancillary expenses and, of course, hand back the difference to the mortgagor. Does this not appear to be a thoroughly equitable solution to a very unpleasant financial situation? The response was most alarming: defending counsel was spat upon by the solicitor for the bank!

Moral of the story

Banks generally are perpetual so long as they are properly managed. The truth is that banks being in the real estate business should be better equipped to be in that market during a recession or depression. Writing off loans, attacking mortgagors’ equities, often negative or thoroughly underwater during a recession, results in spectacular losses. Most mortgagees (the banks) ignore the benighted borrowers unless so large they threaten the bank’s viability: so why not immunize against such threats?

If Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae had been disenfranchised from foreclosure in the first instance and had been made to stand back and look into the future and consider the possibility of managing underwater real estate, loans would have been factored to take that possibility into account. Given that recessions come and go and that banks are perpetual entities, by smoothing out repossessions over time very large elements of risk in real estate finance would disappear.

Since banks in any event hold onto properties in excess of 20 to 30 years why should they be shy of holding onto a property for three or four years to await a return to normality during a recession? While it is true that such a procedure might tie up funds, nevertheless a smoothing process which prevents a precipitous collapse in value through inimical short-term behaviour can only improve investment strategies for lender and borrower let alone the nation.

It would behoove the banking system to come up with this sort of arrangement rather than ask the government to do it for them. Now that gold and silver are becoming increasingly valuable it is high time to back up this process by ensuring some more rational security is built into the real estate market. By way of example, multigenerational mortgages exist in France, meaning that longer time horizons do not have to be a problem even for the shorter terms we are used to: this suggests that there are means of ensuring that foreclosure procedures could be smoothed out, as well as ensuring that the market waves are taken into account ab initio when the mortgage is granted.  

Money out of nothing – or gold?

Governments which overspend do not have a clue how to operate other than by creating money out of nothing or raising taxes. By having a mortgage market that can ride out economic waves there would be potential for underwriting the real economy as opposed to the fantasy economy of economically predatory governments. It won’t prevent government from fiscal irresponsibility but it might slow down the crash a while.

Introducing some form of gold valuation as an ancillary method of making real estate credible and tradable, should the currency collapse completely, ought to be carefully considered: this is a question of innovative contract design. Revaluing English real estate in the rental sector with regular rent reviews has, for example, been largely successful in dealing with inflation. If value is going to diminish significantly over time because of recession, why not make allowances for it and use some form of valuation based upon gold, coupled with foreclosure extension. This could be a short term method for the duration of a currency collapse.

Linking the value of real estate to gold through an underwriting formula is not an unreasonable proposition. Whatever the dollar or pound price of a good such as a Saville Row suit, pricing it in gold does not change much in the simple weight of gold. Real estate would work in the same manner: while for the most part the price of the real estate may go up or down, nevertheless, there would remain a component of the price that wouldn’t change much in real value over time, although it may change by significant amounts when measured in fiat currency terms.

Sustaining value

The simple conclusion is that banks are perpetual entities: they will be around after all the mortgagors have passed out of this world. It is not unreasonable to suggest that foreclosure should not entail the complete destruction of a loan contract. Given that recessions, depressions and booms are the norm in real estate as they are in the rest of the economy, nor should it be unreasonable to take account of this nature of the market by using a smoothing process to deal with a failure of the mortgagor to make his payments in full and on time. Since so many mortgagors have considerable equity in buildings this situation should have some form of protection in the loan recovery process. The market will develop ways to handle a creative process to allow a mortgagor to at least recover his investment just by allowing the market to turn back to an upward move in value.

By sustaining the value of buildings and preventing mortgagors from defaulting while awaiting a market turn coupled with creative processes to handle this there will be far fewer buildings coming onto the market in a distressed condition thus destroying overall building values during the pit of a depression.

WHAT IS MONEY?

Friday, March 16th, 2012

By Mark Rogers

At the end of the post on the U.S. Federal Reserve’s non-existent gold I quoted C.H.V. Sutherland on paper money, which he points out  “is not money at all, in any true sense, but an extension of credit”, hence “credit currency”. The latter term now of course encompasses electronic money, the device which makes quantitative easing so much easier.

The idea that paper or electronic money is really nothing more than an extenstion of credit, a promise to pay, raises an interesting point: to borrow money is in effect to take out a mortgage on the paper credit you hold and earn, that is, to extend credit on the basis of credit currency earnings is to extend credit on credit.

This raises the issue of trust that lies behind such a system to the level of the most important practical as well as moral feature of that system, and potentially compromises any sense of value that the monetary system embodies.

This post is by way of reflecting on some basic ideas about value and how it arises and what systems best embody it and allow it to function. These are introductory ideas merely, and the examination of this problem will continue in later posts, embracing history and anthropology as well as economics.

Hernando de Soto (whose work has already been referred to here and here) makes the interesting claim that we are only beginning to understand the nature of money, what brings it into existence and what supports it. His work in the extra-legal economies of the developing world has thrown up this question in sharp relief. His discovery that the poor, some 87% of whom live and work outside any formal legal structure, are camping on assets worth trillions (the value of which cannot be realised because of the absence of workable legal systems that realise title to those assets), raised the question of how assets are dissociated from their potential value.

There would appear to be a formula that runs from assets to value to capital to money, and that the jump from the first to the second of these, which in turn gives rise to the latter two, is a jump over a very large gap. That jump is taken very much for granted in the developed world because we do it all the time without necessarily realising it, so secure are our legal arrangements; but the gap effectively immobilises the poor in developing economies. They have assets in the form of unrealisable savings, which renders them, therefore, essentially worthless.

There is an interesting anthropological speculation arising from the idea that without property there can be no money system: that is if the formula suggested above turns out to be a true and fruitful one, then the common understanding that things such as cowrie shells and cattle were a form of pre-currency is a misunderstanding of the functions of money. That is, they may have been no more than a more highly stylised form of bartering and possibly, again against previous understandings, a less efficient one, not a rationalisation that led in time to formal money currencies.

If money only arises against a property system, and that in turn is the result of the development of formal legal systems, there can be very little connection between any system of bartering and formal money. The idea that money is a realisation of value inherent in property means currency is the result of a property holding system which, to be realisable, must have clear title. Then, on the basis of that title, the value of the asset can be ascertained and then realised as capital which then has a representational form as currency. That is, money as a representation of value, as a means of realising that value and being a store of that value is the result of a legal system that can render property fungible – that is, that the asset can be more than one thing.

This, of course, means that property is a form of savings, and that savings are therefore at the root of money. As we have seen in earlier posts, savings have been under attack throughout the twentieth century, with Keynes as a cheerleader of that attack, an attack which has been redoubled recently with quantitative easing and with measures against the purchase of gold being enacted in Europe. Even George Bernard Shaw saw through the paper money promise and recommended the purchase of gold! 

The failure to realise the necessity of savings and their wider functions in a workable economy is at the root of the financial crisis.

Those wise Cantonese grandmothers in Hong Kong understood the vital nature of savings – and, moreover, the best way to store them as gold.

IRAN AND GOLD

Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

By Mark Rogers

In Gold in Iraqi Kurdistan, we mentioned the Iranian government’s facilitation of gold exploration in its Kurdish province. The mining of gold at Sari Gunay was abandoned in 2007 by Rio Tinto, because the mine was not commercially viable being apparently too small at a mere 16 tons. Proven reserves of gold in Iran are some 220 tons, with an annual production of about 2 tons. In January 2011 it was reported that Rio Tinto was to sell its 70% stake in Sari Gunay, having failed to dispose of it earlier when a deal with a Chinese investor fell through.

While this little venture has collapsed, there is some interesting news out of Iran – which may help explain certain mysteries about the Chinese purchasing of gold.

In February 2012, the question was raised as to how much gold the Chinese central bank was purchasing: Did China’s Central Bank Buy 139 Tonnes Of Gold In The Fourth Quarter?  In the last quarter of 2011 “China’s imports from Hong Kong, which account for the majority of its overseas buying, soared to 227 tonnes in the last three months of 2011 … That compares to demand of 191 tonnes for gold jewellery, bars and coins … Since China does not allow the export of gold, there was a domestic supply/demand gap of about 139 tonnes during the last three months of the year and central bank purchases likely accounted for some or all of that gap.”

The fact that the Chinese Central Bank prefers to go about the purchase of gold on the quiet, only revealing the size of its purchases long after the event, helps explain the uncertainty over the surge in buying at the end of last year. There is another intriguing fact, though, which may cast light on this purchasing  in the not-too-distant future.

In order to continue to facilitate its export of oil and minerals, “Iran’s central bank governor said on Tuesday [28 February 2012] Tehran was willing to accept gold as payment for its oil as sanctions imposed by the United States and Europe hamper the country’s financial institutions and force its trading partners to seek alternative ways to settle transactions.” (Full Reuters’ story here.) So a very interesting game is being played out, with results that are far from clear both for Iran and those who continue trade with it. “Iran used gold and oil to pay for shipments of grain earlier [in February], according to European grain traders. It has also used currencies such as the yen or the rouble to pay for grain imports, thereby skirting the need to employ either dollars or euros.”

And this is, potentially, where China comes into play. Although it is the world’s largest producer of gold, its mines cannot keep up with demand. Hence the Central Bank’s purchasing. The Reuters’ report quotes Ross Norman, CEO of the bullion dealer Sharps Pixley as saying: “China interestingly enough is under-resourced in terms of its gold reserves but, not withstanding that, it’s also the world’s biggest gold producer so presumably it’s got the ability to fund any purchases from Iran that it needs to put through. What the Iranians are saying is that there are other financial mechanisms out there for those who want to transact.”

Does this help explain the Chinese Gold Rush?

GOLDEN NUGGETS: THE ANCIENT GREEKS

Saturday, March 10th, 2012

An occasional series of curiosities of Gold, its history and ideas about it.

By Mark Rogers 

The Ancient Greeks had no gold.

So much has come down to us from the Ancient Greeks – philosophy, history, poetry, architecture and sculpture – that it is often forgotten that the Greeks were a relatively poor people for much of their history. What we know of the ancient Greeks was made possible by the defeat of the Persians, firstly by the Athenians at Marathon in 490 B.C., and then again in 480 B.C. when a large Greek army beat the Persians at Salamis. Without these defeats, the Greeks would have been subsumed under the despotic Persian Empire – with incalculable results not only for Greek culture but the whole of European history.

These defeats were the triumph of an agrarian and small city-state civilization, a people who struggled in fierce competition even to subsist on silver, over an Empire which at the time of its defeat had amassed a considerable proportion of the known world’s available gold; the robust determination of the Greeks not to vanish into an oriental despotism secured their victory over such a wealthy power, backed by gold.

Until then, gold had been centred on a territory bounded by Egypt, Asia Minor and the Black Sea; henceforth, gold was to move steadily into Europe, first through the agency of the Greeks and then the Romans.

But the Greeks had no gold of their own; indeed, they knew so little of the sources of gold that they were inclined, out of a sense of awe, to exaggerate the fame and riches of ancient sources such as the River Pactolus: this was the most renowned source of gold in the ancient world. Its identity now uncertain, it then flowed down from Mount Tmolus in the highlands of Anatolia, bearing vast quantities of alluvial gold, which tended to be the natural alloy electrum, “white gold”, composed of random quantities of gold and silver. In spite of Greek exaggeration, these quantities were huge enough, providing a rich source throughout the Persian and later Greek periods. Upon this wealth of gold was created the kingdom of Lydia, the most famous monarch of which was Croesus.

His eponymous (“as rich as Croesus”) wealth had a considerable impact on the Greeks. He was a sophisticated Hellenophile who went to great, indeed munificent, lengths to conciliate Greek feeling by the gold which he offered to the shrine of Apollo at Delphi – that most important of all the religious cities in the ancient Greek world, renowned for its political acumen and internationalism. Herodotus recounts that he  not only gave cups of gold and couches covered in gilt and silver, but also an immense quantity of ingots:

“He melted down a great quantity of gold and fashioned ingots from it, making them six palms [i.e. about 18 inches] in length and three in breadth, and one palm high; and their number was one hundred and seventeen. Four of these were of pure gold, each weighing two and a half talents [i.e. some 550 lbs in all]: the others were of gold alloyed with silver, weighing two talents each. And he also had made a lion of pure gold weighing 10 talents … and two mixing bowls of great size … of which the golden one … weighed over eight and a half talents. … He also sent the golden figure of a woman 3 cubits high … and dedicated his wife’s necklaces and girdles.”

Estimating that the ingots made of the alloy contained at least 50% gold then Croesus’s benefaction must have contained a minimum of 7,500 pounds of the yellow metal.

(Source for this article: C. H. V. Sutherland, “Gold, Its Beauty, Power and Allure”, 3rd revsied and enlarged edition, Thames and Hudson, London, 1969)

DIDDLING WHILE TAXES BURN

Wednesday, March 7th, 2012

By Mark Rogers                 

On 27th January 2012, The Daily Telegraph reported that a Civil Servant with the position of Permanent Secretary for Tax at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, delivered himself of the opinion that those who pay tradesmen in cash are “diddling” the economy, “allowing them to evade VAT or income tax”.

The Permanent Secretary for Tax stated what taxpayers’ money is spent on:  “Tax provides the funding to run the country: hospitals, schools and everything else,” he says. “Every time someone pays cash in order not to pay VAT, the nation gets diddled.”

The Permanent Secretary for Tax has a pension pot, paid for by taxpayers, of £1.7 million pounds. He also said that those who contribute to the cash economy have no cause to complain about austerity. Clearly, £1.7 million pounds is no austerity – and so is very much open to objection.

H.M.R.C. – Stasi-style

H.M.R.C. is planning a “major clampdown”. In order to perform it, the government is to encourage sneaking: The Daily Telegraph reports: “Mr Hartnett encourages anyone who suspects wrongdoing to telephone the Revenue’s whistle-blower hotline and tip off inspectors.  He says: ‘Cash has been a problem for a long time. The people who are worried about it should use our whistle-blowing line to tell us. We are getting better and better at finding people who receive cash.’” Furthermore: “Tax disclosure rules introduced in 2004 had ‘massively changed the environment for tax avoidance and business’, he says. ‘We have now got to do the same with individuals’.”

These are highly charged statements; whatever other tasks a Permanent Secretary for Tax may perform, making political remarks is not one of them: they are beyond the brief of a mere Civil Servant.

Where does it all go?

Let’s see what we can make of these allegations and proposals. In the first place, having taken it upon himself, as a Civil Servant, to tell us that our taxes go on “hospitals, schools and everything else”, before making accusations about “diddlers”, perhaps he should justify this statement: is he certain that the taxpayer gets value for money?

The “everything else” is a bit suspicious, too: foreign aid that is declined by its recipients (here); MPs’ expenses; Civil Servants’ expense credit cards that leave no audit trail; one third of the national budget being spent on social workers, who routinely fail to save infants from horrible fates, while a mere 3% of what is spent on social workers is spent on the Armed Forces – which nevertheless face savage cuts; inordinately high salaries for local authority CEOs; vast sums wasted on government computer schemes, which just get written off; those in the private sector on the state pension seeing their pensions vanish, while those in the public sector have guaranteed pensions…. the welfarist list goes on (The Taxpayers’ Alliance are the experts on government waste). And while there is no guarantee whatsoever that this money is well spent, the government is so profligate that the Bank of England is indulging in massive Quantitative Easing so that the government can pay its debts… which is another way of saying that the government is able to write off its responsibility and accountability.

There’s the rub

“Cash” is indeed the problem. QE, while allowing the government to pay its debts, while decreasing the value of borrower’s liabilities, has a huge negative impact on pensions, annuities and savings.

So perhaps Mr Permanent Secretary for Tax had better be careful who he accuses of “diddling”. With the Welfare State seemingly beyond reform – but also beyond the nation’s pocket, and with QE devaluing the efforts of the prudent, why shouldn’t people find ways of doing what they can to hang on to their wealth? In an encouraging addendum to The Daily Telegraph’s story, an online poll shows 68.36% of respondents agreeing with the statement that “It’s not up to me to force other people to pay their tax”, while 18.98% agreed that they were “not willing to pay more if [they] can get a good deal with cash”.

In other words, prudence is valued. Savings, trying to do well for oneself and one’s family, are only regarded as “selfish” in the moral vacuum that the Welfare state creates. What a long way from the ringing endorsement of individuality and wealth creation that Gladstone made: “Let the wealth of the people fructify in the pockets of the people.”

There is a particularly ugly aspect to this move by H.M.R.C., which is very worrying in constitutional terms: the Customs and Excise, being the body that raised the King’s money, has always had stronger, almost extra-legal powers, than the Inland Revenue, the distinction being that Customs was practically a police force, founded in the days before income tax and granted powers to, for example, deal with smugglers. It was always a concern that VAT had been deemed a Customs’ matter; now given the merger of the Revenue with the Customs by Gordon Brown, there was always the possibility that this was a way of granting an extension of the sort of powers Customs officers enjoyed to the Revenue. And the remarks quoted above, including references to income tax, suggest that this indeed is what it happening….

Monopoly?

But let’s suggest a deal, taking our cue from the Permanent Secretary for Tax: those who operate in the cash economy shouldn’t complain of austerity – well, if they don’t complain, will they be left alone? After all, their activities may in their own small way help revive the economy.

And if the government can simply print money to pay its debts, will the Revenue have cause to complain if the rest of us decide to pay our taxes in Monopoly money?

(The manufacturers of Monopoly print more money every day than the U.S. Federal Reserve – although not, perhaps, for much longer……)

Le CORBUSIER AND THE ARCHITECTURE OF SAVINGS

Monday, March 5th, 2012

By Mark Rogers

In “Tales from a Palm Court”, Ronnie Knox-Mawer’s hilarious account of his years as a Judge in the last British colonies of the South Sea islands, he recalls his meeting with one of the island Resident officers. The living room of his Residence looked like a Victorian parlour, crammed as it was with artefacts, bric-a-brac, ornaments and furniture, including a harmonium.

The Resident, noticing the surprise on the Judge’s face, told him that the habit of keeping things ran deep in his family and recalled that on the demise of an aunt, there was found in her attic a large sack neatly tied with a label that read: “Bits of string too short to be of any use”…

The Victorian middle-class house was a place to keep things. Houses with capacious attics, rooms large enough to hold substantial wardrobes and chests of drawers, often a room given over to a library, and an ingeniously hidden safe – households were synonymous with saving and preserving. It was truly said: “The home should be the treasure chest of living.”

No room, no room!

Enter the brutalist and minimalist modernists. Surprisingly, the remark just quoted, so redolent of the sort of homes the Georgians and Victorians built, was made by Le Corbusier, more famous for his assertion that: “A house is a machine for living in”.

So which did he really believe? Well, he also said: “I prefer drawing to talking. Drawing is faster, and leaves less room for lies.” So let us look at a typical drawing:

1312428502-corbu1925-528x405

This is the “Plan Voisin” of 1925, a proposal to bulldoze most of central Paris north of the Seine, and replace it with sixty-storey cruciform towers.

Jane Jacobs, in her seminal work, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”, the book that demolished the inhuman assumptions of the modern movement in architecture, the anti-planner’s bible, notes: “In Le Corbusier’s vertical city the common run of mankind was to be housed at 1,200 inhabitants to the acre, a fantastically high city density indeed, but because of building up so high, 95% of the ground could remain open.” So perhaps the home as conceived by Le Corbusier was more of a machine in which to store human beings: as Jacobs mordantly remarks this was conceiving of the city “as a collection of separate file drawers”.

The vertical city as epitomised by the drawing above does not suggest that there is any room for storing and saving, indeed the design militates against these virtues, not least because in the absence of streets, there is no room in these cities for the arts and amenities of life – no streets, no shops and so no commerce: how were people to actually maintain and provide for themselves and the generations after them? The ordinary requirements of getting and spending, mundane productive labour, all these arts are overlooked by those who plan the shining path to the radiant future.

Indeed, everything that people used to provide for themselves, was to be provided by the authorities: thus is imprudence encouraged by such designs on people’s livelihoods.

What need to save, then, least of all in the safe haven of gold, that bulwark against the authorities’ own imprudence in imagining that people should be deprived of responsiblity for their own welfare.

THE UNITED STATES FEDERAL RESERVE’S GOLD HOLDINGS

Friday, March 2nd, 2012

By Mark Rogers

The Federal Reserve’s holdings of gold are not only non-existent, contrary to what many people understand, they do not even amount to paper gold.

In 1933, the first year of his presidency, President Roosevelt ordered the seizure of private holdings of gold (with some exceptions for jewellery and dentistry); this was followed in 1934 by the confiscation of gold from the banks. This was allegedly in response to the shortage of gold caused by the great depression.

In 1934 the United States fixed the dollar price of gold at $35/troy ounce (devaluing the dollar thereby). This became known as the “statutory” or “legal” price. In spite of all that subsequently happened, the U.S. refused to consider an increase in this price of gold, not the establishment of the Bretton Woods agreement and the International Monetary Fund, nor the devaluation of the pound sterling in 1949 which in effect raised the price of gold in the sterling area without a rise in its price in the dollar area.

In the 1950s the volume and value of the world trade in gold kept on increasing, leading to the idea that a universal rise in the price of gold could be brought about by its dollar revaluation. The growth of the world’s monetary gold reserves as then valued fell far below the increase in the current volume/value; thus, it became clear that the annual yield of new gold (at the same valuation) could not express the increasing volume of goods produced. The U.S. gold reserves had by now fallen to well below the level at which they guaranteed paper money. Nonetheless the U.S. price of gold remained the same.

Decoupling the dollar from gold

In 1972 the “statutory” price was adjusted to $38/ounce and again in 1973 to $42.22/ounce. These movements were followed in 1975 by the revocation of the prohibition on ownership of gold by private parties.

Amongst the banks that had had its gold reserves confiscated was the Federal Reserve – the Treasury was the authority which performed the confiscation. The fact that the Federal Reserve is quasi-independent of the government (somewhat analogously to the Bank of England before it was nationalized in 1946), explains the apparent anomaly of the state confiscating its own reserves.

The Federal Reserve was obliged to sell its gold to the Treasury at $20.67/oz, in return for which it received gold certificates worth around $3.617 billion.

So why does the idea persist that the Federal Reserve has any gold reserves at all? Because the deal done with the Treasury issued in those certificates just mentioned, which is why the Federal Reserve lists them, as the “Gold certificate account”, in its accounts, consistently valued at the final price of 1973.

The Fed’s “paper gold” not even paper gold

Dr Ron Paul, member of the House of Representatives, is the champion of getting the Federal Reserve to be audited by the Government Accountability Office: that task has always been undertaken by the Federal Reserve itself (surprising as that may seem). Hitherto his efforts at getting this into law have met huge resistance and evasion by the Federal Reserve (which is not surprising at all).

On the first of June, 2011, testimony by Scott G. Alvarez, General Counsel, and Thomas C. Baxter Jr., General Counsel, Federal Reserve (formal testimony here) before the Subcommittee on Domestic Monetary Policy and Technology, Committee on Financial Services, U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, D.C., of which Dr Paul was the Chairman, on Federal Reserve Lending Disclosures, exposed the nature of the “gold certificate account” in exchanges between Dr Paul and Mr Alvarez.

Crucially, it transpires that these certificates are not even claims to the actual gold that the Treasury confiscated. Said Mr Alvarez: “No we have no interest in the gold that is owned by the Treasury. We have simply an accounting document that is called gold certificates that represents the value at a statutory rate that we gave to the Treasury in 1934.″

In a fascinating analysis of this extraordinary statement, GoldNews.Com discusses what this means in terms of the relationship between the Treasury and the Federal Reserve: “The Treasury, however, in a desire to realize the value of the gold without selling it, used their gold as collateral against gold certificate issuance to the Fed in exchange for fresh cash for the Treasury to spend. The Treasury is able to print as many gold certificates as they choose, under one restriction from the Gold Reserve Act: the amount of gold certificates outstanding shall at no time exceed the value of gold held by the Treasury, priced at the statutory rate. This meant any increase in the value of the Treasury’s gold could be matched by printing gold certificates and those certificates could be used to acquire new Federal Reserve Notes (dollars) from the Fed.”

This is Quantitative Easing with a vengeance! In order to have more money to spend, the Fed is asked to print more notes, in return for which, and in order, presumably, not to disturb the “statutory” price recorded on the Fed’s accounts, the Treasury then prints more gold certificates.

An upshot of this is that the dollar is worth a good deal less than is assumed. And a corollary of this is that the manner in which the Treasury acquired the gold and its subsequent valuation as “gold certificates” would explain why, as noted above, the U.S. insisted on maintaining the dollar price at $35 for so long: it was an accountancy exercise and no more, and continues as such to this day.

Does this, at least in theory, mean that should there ever be a deal whereby the Fed buys its gold back from the Treasury, it would do so at that “price” on its books?

The analysis of this extremely complicated state of affairs by GoldNews.Com can be found here (Part One) and here (Part Two, from which the substantial quotation above has been taken).

Credit no measure of true value

Here, in the light of the above discussion, is a sobering observation made by C.H.V. Sutherland, then Keeper of Coins at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, in “Gold: Its Beauty, Power and Allure” (published by Thames and Hudson, 1969): “Collapse of the gold standard was followed by the era of credit currency. We accept a bank-note for the payment of £1, but in accepting it we receive in fact only the bank’s promise to pay £1. We accept a cheque, similarly; but a cheque again is no more than its drawer’s promise that his bank will pay us another bank’s promises. The growth of ‘money’ in this sense – and of course it is not money at all, in any true sense, but an extension of credit – is one of the most remarkable features of economic life since 1914 [emphasis added].”

There is considerable historical irony in the fact that President Roosevelt ended Prohibition in 1933, only to enact another prohibition on the private ownership of gold, with consequences which are still unravelling in the “current” financial crisis: I say “current” because the problems of paper money have been unravelling ever since the decisions about gold related above were taken – just as the same President’s New Deal, with its state-backed savings and loans funds, is a fundamental cause of the subprime crisis.