Web of Debt
December 30, 2008
Cartoon in the New Yorker:
A gun-toting man with large dark glasses, large hat pulled down, stands in front of a bank teller, who is reading a demand note. It says, “Give me all the money in my account.”
Bernie Madoff showed us how it was done: you induce many investors to invest their money, promising steady above-market returns; and you deliver – at least on paper. When your clients check their accounts, they see that their investments have indeed increased by the promised amount. Anyone who opts to pull out of the game is paid promptly and in full. You can afford to pay because most players stay in, and new players are constantly coming in to replace those who drop out. The players who drop out are simply paid with the money coming in from new recruits. The scheme works until the market turns and many players want their money back at once. Then it’s game over: you have to admit that you don’t have the funds, and you are probably looking at jail time.
A Ponzi scheme is a form of pyramid scheme in which earlier investors are paid with the money of later investors rather than from real profits. The perpetuation of the scheme requires an ever-increasing flow of money from investors in order to keep it going. Charles Ponzi was an engaging Boston ex-convict who defrauded investors out of $6 million in the 1920s by promising them a 400 percent return on redeemed postal reply coupons. When he finally could not pay, the scam earned him ten years in jail; and Bernie Madoff is likely to wind up there as well.
Most people are not involved in illegal Ponzi schemes, but we do keep our money in accounts that are tallied on computer screens rather than in stacks of coins or paper bills. How do we know that when we demand our money from our bank or broker that the funds will be there? The fact that banks are subject to “runs” (recall Northern Rock, Indymac and Washington Mutual) suggests that all may not be as it seems on our online screens. Banks themselves are involved in a sort of Ponzi scheme, one that has been perpetuated for hundreds of years. What distinguishes the legal scheme known as “fractional reserve” lending from the illegal schemes of Bernie Madoff and his ilk is that the bankers’ scheme is protected by government charter and backstopped with government funds. At last count, the Federal Reserve and the U.S. Treasury had committed $8.5 trillion to bailing out the banks from their follies.1 By comparison, M2, the largest measure of the money supply now reported by the Federal Reserve, was just under $8 trillion in December 2008.2 The sheer size of the bailout efforts indicates that the banking scheme has reached its mathematical limits and needs to be superseded by something more sustainable.