Disclaimer: what I explain here is viewed from the eyes of Central Bankers. If I were a Central Banker, I would think differently. But what I present here is the point of view of Central Banks, at least the one they make public. There is also quite a bit of speculation here on what choices they will make in the near future.
With public debt at extremely high levels everywhere in Europe and a dying banking system, the ECB (European Central Bank) and the Euro are on the verge of collapse. So is the US financial system, but for now we will focus on Europe.
In my 2016 book “Money, What You Don’t Know”, I was already mentioning that Central Banks (including the ECB) were looking into crypto-currencies. During the last few years, the ECB has revealed bit after bit the possibility of having a Central Bank Crypto-Money in the short term. Citizens would have a bank account directly at the ECB. It has also recently spoken about “helicopter money”. How does all this add up? Why are all these needed? Or are they?
The root cause
The root of the problem is the way money is currently created. Right now, private banks are the ones creating the bulk of the money. At least, that is how it works in the Eurozone and in the US, as well as in some other places on Earth.
The system is similar all over the world: Central Banks issue fiat money, then the private banks take as much fiat money as they can from the economy, and start giving credits (loans). When a bank offers a credit, it creates that money, rather than having to take it from its reserves. And that money is destroyed upon paying back the credit. This system has many problems, as I have detailed in two books: “Money, What You Don’t Know” and the French « La monnaie : l’essentiel ».
But now we will stop on one of its problems: the need for more and more money. Indeed, to fuel the mechanism of credits, you need to have more and more money in the economy. If the money supply diminishes at some point, the whole system collapses.
So, why is this a problem at all? Well, since the 2008 subprimes crisis, the economy by itself does not generate enough “growth” for the whole financial system to be sustainable. By the way, only theoretical economists don’t understand why this is a real problem. You cannot have infinite growth on a finite planet, it is quite a simple concept to understand. In this regard, maybe asteroid mining will save us. Maybe not.
Anyway, after the 2008 crisis, Central Banks faced one big problem: how to create enough money so that the banking system can continue operating? Obviously, growth was not sufficient and not enough credits were being made to create more money.
The first phase (2008-2015)
Central Banks don’t have so many tools to fuel the economy. They can create bank notes, but only to a certain extent. Printing a banknote costs money. By contrast, creating money for a credit is essentially clicking the button of a mouse on a computer. This is why, in the Western world, 90% of the money is digital and created by private banks. It is quite different in other places, where people mostly use cash in their daily lives.
Anyway, the role of Central Banks is to take care of the banking system and ensure its survival. When they saw that money would be scarce if they didn’t do anything in 2008, they had to take action.
To save the banking system, the Central Banks used their first tool: the Official Bank Rate. Indeed, this rate has a direct influence on the interest rates at which private banks give credits. And of course, interest rates are one of the main drivers behind the decision to take a credit or not.
If interest rates are high, people are more reluctant to take a credit, given that they will have to pay back a lot more for the credit. Conversely, when interest rates are low, people are more inclined to take a credit. This is quite obvious.
By lowering the interest rates, the Central Banks managed to make banking credits very attractive, thus pushing people to take more credits.
The second phase (2015-2021)
This system looks great. However, when you still need to stimulate the credits and the interest rates have been lowered to the point where they are negative, you have a problem. No banking system can survive giving out money to people who take a credit. And indeed, the interest rates became negative in quite a short time.
The Central Banks, including the ECB, had to find another way of keeping the system afloat. The problem is that they can’t really do much. Normally, they are actually not allowed to create so much digital money. That digital money is also supposed to be only used by the banking system to exchange debts and bills between banks.
However, it was a matter of life and death. The ECB, along with other Central Banks, started using a tool that is normally prohibited and used only in emergency cases: Quantitative Easing. Basically, the Central Bank is “buying public debts” and injecting money into the financial system.
Through all those actions (interest rates and quantitative easing), the Euro money supply has doubled every 10 years in the last 2 decades! That is a 10% yearly inflation rate! For more detail, I explain all this in my book.
Quantitative Easing cannot go on forever. Furthermore, it doesn’t seem to solve the problem so much. Indeed, I have mentioned a 10% inflation rate, but that is not what we observe in everyday life. Yes, prices increase, but they don’t double every 10 years. In fact, the money that is generously dispatched by the Central Banks never goes back to the “real economy”. It remains in the banking system, where banks use it to gamble on the stock market and also keep it in their accounts as a safety net. Who thought tickle-down economy was real?
Central Banks have to face the fact that they need another tool if they want the banking system to survive. Maybe the best way would be to acknowledge the failure of that system, but doing this would put their credibility at risk.
Debt and Inflation
So far, the ECB has set a target for a 2% yearly inflation (roughly). Although inflation can be calculated with a lot of biases, let’s pretend it did achieve that goal in the last 10 years.
The problem is that there is a lot of debt in the economy right now. Private companies are especially accumulating debt following losses during the Covid lockdowns and the general slowing down of the economy. Similarly, the already very indebted states everywhere around the world are forced to have more debt to finance their collapsing economies.
From the standpoint of a Central Bank, there is one way to fight debt and relieve the economy from it: inflation. The idea is simple: if you owe a fixed amount of money, and money is worth less and less value, then you owe less and less as a result. Typically, if you manage to have 10% inflation per year, your debt is simply halved in 10 years.
However, remember that a Central Bank is not supposed to create money directly. So they have to change the rules.
A Digital Currency
The ECB is making more and more statements in favor of a “digital euro”. Some call it a “crypto-Euro”, but this is clearly a misnomer since a centralized crypto-currency is nothing more than an oxymoron! In reality, it is called a “Central Bank Digital Currency”, or CBDC.
Anyway, the idea behind the ECB’s digital money is that every citizen of the Eurozone would have a digital wallet at the ECB. In other words, along with your bank account, you and I would also have an ECB account. The amounts allowed in that account would be limited to a few thousand euros, but it would be there.
The main driver behind this, the ECB says, is that “citizens are ditching cash”.
Really? What is the point of this? Why such a big change, a big communication, on an account where you could have a few thousand euros when there are billions of euros turning around every day?
“Helicopter Money” is simply money created by the Central Bank and freely distributed to citizens. In Europe, Mario Draghi, the President of the ECB at the time, said that the concept was “interesting”. Peter Praet, the Chief Economist of the ECB, stated:
Yes, all central banks can do it. You can issue currency and you distribute it to people. That’s helicopter money.
Although there is no official statement that the ECB is looking into it, there are many people pushing for it.
Now, you need a system to distribute helicopter money. If every single person has 5 bank accounts in 5 different private banks, it is quite difficult. You also have to distinguish between associations, private companies, and individuals.
Now, if every individual in the Eurozone had a bank account directly at the ECB, now things would be made much easier! The digital account at the ECB is the prerequisite for Helicopter Money.
Is it a serious option?
Think about it. The banking sector lacks money. They are literally paying people to take credits! The ECB has tried everything it could to inject more money into the banking system, and it’s running out of options. There is a lot of debt around that will simply choke the economy in the long run.
Now, you have a tool that lets you inject money directly into the economy, by giving it directly to the citizens. You create money. You create inflation, which will lower the overall debt. And in the meantime, you get rid of cash, which costs you money and empowers your citizens – along with money laundering.
If I were in a Central Banker’s shoes and I wanted to keep the system alive, I wouldn’t think twice. I would go for it without a micro hesitation.
A new centralized “thing”
Let’s not delude ourselves about the intentions of such an innovation. It is a new control tool, nothing else. We could even name it a “supreme control tool”.
For a while, people have been hinting that it could go much further than simple “money”. For instance, it would be possible to distribute digital “food vouchers” with this system. In other words, you would receive “money” on your account, but you would only be able to use this money to buy basic food products with it.
One can also imagine a “basic income” indexed on your “rating”, given to you by the state, based on your “good behavior”. A typical example is the Chinese “Social Credit”. It is not yet used to distribute money, but it could very well be the next step. It could also drive the level of tax you would have to pay.
In other words, this system enables a whole new range of control tools.
What about us?
Again, this is only the vision of a Central Banker. As an individual who has thought a lot about money, we would be better off throwing away the current banking system. Restart from scratch. It wouldn’t be the first time in history. And sometimes, a fresh start with a better system is much better than letting the older one rot away.
Some people may think that this is a version of a Universal Basic Income. Well, maybe. But I warned in my books that the UBI can also be a trap. A sneaky method to help the corrupt system survive.
But for us, citizens, there is already an alternative, and every single one of us can choose it freely: Libre Money. Be sure to check out the Relative Theory of Money, as well as my book “Money: What You Don’t Know” to discover your options.