Time for a Reset

That may get Italy out of the woods, but the system is clearly broken. A $500 trillion derivatives time bomb poised atop a $100 trillion mountain of debt is not a stable situation. It’s time to push the reset button, but how? Bailouts and bail-ins have been tried and proved wanting. But a debt “jubilee” – simply canceling the debt – would devastate creditors and collapse the massive derivatives bubble.

All else having failed, it may be time to do what should have been done all along: convert “sovereign debt” into “sovereign money.” The “event of default” triggering a derivatives meltdown can be avoided by simply paying the debts with money issued by the government.

A government oppressed by “sovereign” debt is not really sovereign. A sovereign government has the power to issue money and need not go into debt at all. But EU member governments have lost that sovereign power. They are unable to issue their own money or borrow money issued by their own central banks. If they leave the EU, they can get that power back for future expenditures; but their existing debt is in euros, and only the ECB has the power to convert bonds into euros.

In fact that is what it does when it buys government bonds with QE. The problem with QE as currently practiced is that the bonds remain on the central bank’s books, “sterilizing” their effect on the market. The idea is to be able to sell them back into the market should inflation become a problem. But that means the bonds are still counted as debt for purposes of balancing national budgets, forcing continued austerity, cutbacks and privatization. If the bonds were bought back and voided out, national governments would be free to spend again. QE doesn’t need to be unwound by selling bonds into the market. If the money supply grows too large, money can be pulled back with taxes, interest or fees.

The invariable objection to paying off the debt with central bank-issued money is that it would lead to hyperinflation. But would it? Government bonds are already classified as “near money” – so liquid that they are readily exchangeable for cash. Turning them into cash is little different from moving money from your savings account to your checking account. One draws interest and the other doesn’t, but cashing out the savings account doesn’t make you any richer than before. It doesn’t propel you to spend more on goods and services, driving consumer prices up.

If people and governments were incentivized to spend more, however, that would actually be a good thing. Consumer markets need more demand today. The way to stimulate economies is to get money into the pockets of people who will spend it. Demand (money) stimulates supply (productivity). Before QE can stimulate the real economy, it has to make it into the real economy. If the goal of the EU is to hold itself together and avoid a derivatives meltdown, some QE that actually got into the hands of the people could be just the ticket.

Ellen Brown
Founder of the Public Banking Institute

Author of: Web of Debt and
The Public Bank Solution