How to Wipe Out Puerto Rico’s Debt Without Hurting Bondholders

During his visit to hurricane-stricken Puerto Rico, President Donald Trump shocked the bond market when he told Geraldo Rivera of Fox News that he was going to wipe out the island’s bond debt. He said on October 3rd:

You know they owe a lot of money to your friends on Wall Street. We’re gonna have to wipe that out. That’s gonna have to be — you know, you can say goodbye to that. I don’t know if it’s Goldman Sachs but whoever it is, you can wave good-bye to that.

How did the president plan to pull this off? Pam Martens and Russ Martens, writing in Wall Street on Parade, note that the U.S. municipal bond market holds $3.8 trillion in debt, and it is not just owned by Wall Street banks. Mom and pop retail investors are exposed to billions of dollars of potential losses through their holdings of Puerto Rican municipal bonds, either directly or in mutual funds. Wiping out Puerto Rico’s debt, they warned, could undermine confidence in the municipal bond market, causing bond interest rates to rise, imposing an additional burden on already-struggling states and municipalities across the country.

True, but the president was just pointing out the obvious. As economist Michael Hudson says, “Debts that can’t be paid won’t be paid.” Puerto Rico is bankrupt, its economy destroyed. In fact it is currently in bankruptcy proceedings with its creditors. Which suggests its time for some more out-of-the-box thinking . . . . Continue reading

How to Fund a Universal Basic Income Without Increasing Taxes or Inflation

The policy of guaranteeing every citizen a universal basic income is gaining support around the world, as automation increasingly makes jobs obsolete. But can it be funded without raising taxes or triggering hyperinflation? In a panel I was on at the NexusEarth cryptocurrency conference in Aspen September 21-23rd, most participants said no. This is my rebuttal.

In May 2017, a team of researchers at the University of Oxford published the results of a survey of the world’s best artificial intelligence experts, who predicted that there was a 50 percent chance of AI outperforming humans in all tasks within 45 years. All human jobs were expected to be automated in 120 years, with Asian respondents expecting these dates much sooner than North Americans. In theory, that means we could all retire and enjoy the promised age of universal leisure. But the immediate concern for most people is that they will be losing their jobs to machines.

That helps explain the recent interest in a universal basic income (UBI) – a sum of money distributed equally to everyone. Continue reading

Saving Illinois: Getting More Bang for the State’s Bucks

Illinois is teetering on bankruptcy and other states are not far behind, largely due to unfunded pension liabilities; but there are solutions. The Federal Reserve could do a round of “QE for Munis.” Or the state could turn its sizable pension fund into a self-sustaining public bank.

 Illinois is insolvent, unable to pay its bills. According to Moody’s, the state has $15 billion in unpaid bills and $251 billion in unfunded liabilities. Of these, $119 billion are tied to shortfalls in the state’s pension program. On July 6, 2017, for the first time in two years, the state finally passed a budget, after lawmakers overrode the governor’s veto on raising taxes. But they used massive tax hikes to do it – a 32% increase in state income taxes and 33% increase in state corporate taxes – and still Illinois’ new budget generates only $5 billion, not nearly enough to cover its $15 billion deficit. Continue reading

Sovereign Debt Jubilee, Japanese-Style

Japan has found a way to write off nearly half its national debt without creating inflation. We could do that too.

Let’s face it. There is no way the US government is ever going to pay back a $20 trillion federal debt. The taxpayers will just continue to pay interest on it, year after year.

A lot of interest.

If the Federal Reserve raises the fed funds rate to 3.5% and sells its federal securities into the market, as it is proposing to do, by 2026 the projected tab will be $830 billion annually. That’s nearly $1 trillion owed by the taxpayers every year, just for interest. Continue reading

Dear Mr. President, Be Careful What You Wish for: Higher Interest Rates Will Kill the Recovery

Higher interest rates will triple the interest on the federal debt to $830 billion annually by 2026, will hurt workers and young voters, and could bankrupt over 20% of US corporations, according to the IMF. The move is not necessary to counteract inflation and shows that the Fed is operating from the wrong model.

Responding to earlier presidential pressure, the Federal Reserve is expected to raise interest rates this week for the third time since November, from a fed funds target of 1% to 1.25%.  But as noted in The Guardian in a March 2017 article titled “Trump Is Set to Win the Battle on Interest Rates, but US Economy Will Pay the Price”:

An increase in the base rate, however small, will tighten the screw on younger voters and some of the poorest communities who voted for him and rely on credit to get by.

More importantly for his economic programme, higher interest rates in the US will act like a honeypot for foreign investors . . . . [S]ucking in foreign cash has a price and that is an expensive dollar and worsening trade balance. . . . It might undermine his call for the repatriation of factories to the rust-belt states if goods cost 10% or 20% more to export.

In its Global Financial Stability report in April, the International Monetary Fund issued another dire warning: projected interest rises could throw 22% of US corporations into default. As noted on Zero Hedge the same month, “perhaps it was this that Gary Cohn explained to Donald Trump ahead of the president’s recent interview with the WSJ in which he admitted that he suddenly prefers lower interest costs.”

But the Fed was undeterred and is going full steam ahead. Continue reading

If China Can Fund infrastructure with Its Own Credit, So Can We

May 15th-19th has been designated “National Infrastructure Week” by the US Chambers of Commerce, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and over 150 affiliates. Their message: “It’s time to rebuild.” Ever since ASCE began issuing its “National Infrastructure Report Card” in 1998, the nation has gotten a dismal grade of D or D+. In the meantime, the estimated cost of fixing its infrastructure has gone up from $1.3 trillion to $4.6 trillion.

While American politicians debate endlessly over how to finance the needed fixes and which ones to implement, the Chinese have managed to fund massive infrastructure projects all across their country, including 12,000 miles of high-speed rail built just in the last decade. How have they done it, and why can’t we?

Continue reading

What a State-Owned Bank Can Do for New Jersey

Phil Murphy, the leading Democratic candidate for governor of New Jersey, has made a state-owned bank a centerpiece of his campaign. He says the New Jersey bank would “take money out of Wall Street and put it to work for New Jersey – creating jobs and growing the economy [by] using state deposits to finance local investments … and … support billions of dollars of critical investments in infrastructure, small businesses, and student loans – saving our residents money and returning all profits to the taxpayers.”

A former Wall Street banker himself, Murphy knows how banking works. But in an April 7 op-ed in The New Jersey Spotlight, former New Jersey state treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff questioned the need for a state-owned bank and raised the issue of risk. This post is in response to those arguments, including a short refresher on the stellar model of the Bank of North Dakota (BND), currently the nation’s only state-owned depository bank. Continue reading

If “Ryancare” Is Dead on Arrival, Can We Please Now Try Single Payer?

The Canadian plan also helps Canadians live longer and healthier than Americans. . . . We need, as a nation, to reexamine the single-payer plan, as many individual states are doing.  

— Donald Trump, The America We Deserve (2000)

The new American Health Care Act has been unveiled, and critics are calling it more flawed even than the Obamacare it was meant to replace. Dubbed “Ryancare” or “Trumpcare” (over the objection of White House staff), the Republican health care bill is under attack from left and right, with even conservative leaders calling it “Obamacare Lite”, “bad policy”, a “warmed-over substitute,” and “dead on arrival.”

The problem for both administrations is that they have been trying to fund a bloated, inefficient, and overpriced medical system with scarce taxpayer funds, without capping its costs. US healthcare costs in 2016 averaged $10,345 per person, for a total of $3.35 trillion dollars, a full 18 percent of the entire economy, twice as much as in other industrialized countries.

Ross Perot, who ran for president in 1992, had the right idea: he said all we have to do is to look at other countries that have better health care at lower cost and copy them.

So which industrialized countries do it better than the US? The answer is, all of them. Continue reading

How to Cut Infrastructure Costs in Half

Americans could save $1 trillion over 10 years by financing infrastructure through publicly-owned banks like the one that has long been operating in North Dakota.

President Donald Trump has promised to rebuild America’s airports, bridges, tunnels, roads and other infrastructure, something both Democrats and Republicans agree should be done. The country needs a full $3 trillion in infrastructure over the next decade. The $1 trillion plan revealed by Trump’s economic advisers relies heavily on public-private partnerships, and private equity firms are lining up for these plumbing investments. In the typical private equity water deal, for example, higher user rates help the firms earn annual returns of anywhere from 8 to 18 percent – more even than a regular for-profit water company might expect. But the price tag can come as a rude surprise for local ratepayers. Continue reading

The Italian Banking Crisis: No Free Lunch – Or Is There?

It has been called “a bigger risk than Brexit”– the Italian banking crisis that could take down the eurozone. Handwringing officials say “there is no free lunch” and “no magic bullet.” But UK Prof. Richard Werner says the magic bullet is just being ignored. 

On December 4, 2016, Italian voters rejected a referendum to amend their constitution to give the government more power, and the Italian prime minister resigned. The resulting chaos has pushed Italy’s already-troubled banks into bankruptcy. First on the chopping block is the 500 year old Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena SpA (BMP), the oldest surviving bank in the world and the third largest bank in Italy. The concern is that its loss could trigger the collapse of other banks and even of the eurozone itself.

There seems little doubt that BMP and other insolvent banks will be rescued. The biggest banks are always rescued, no matter how negligent or corrupt, because in our existing system, banks create the money we use in trade. Virtually the entire money supply is now created by banks when they make loans, as the Bank of England has acknowledged. When the banks collapse, economies collapse, because bank-created money is the grease that oils the wheels of production.

So the Italian banks will no doubt be rescued. The question is, how? Continue reading

“We’ll Look at Everything”: More Thoughts on Trump’s $1 Trillion Infrastructure Plan

To stimulate the economy, create new jobs and generate new GDP requires an injection of new money. Borrowing from the bond markets or off-balance-sheet in public/private partnerships won’t do it. If Congress won’t issue money directly, it should borrow from banks, which create money on their books when they make loans.

The Trump agenda, it seems, is not set in stone. The president-elect has a range of advisors with as many ideas. Steven Mnuchin, his nominee for Treasury Secretary, said in November that “we’ll take a look at everything,”even the possibility of extending the maturity of the federal debt with 50-year or 100-year bonds to take advantage of unusually low interest rates.

Steve Bannon, appointed chief White House strategist, seems to be envisioning Roosevelt-style experimentation with whatever works. Continue reading

Trump’s $1 Trillion Infrastructure Plan: Lincoln Had a Bolder Solution

Donald Trump was an outsider who boldly stormed the citadel of Washington DC and won. He has promised real change, but his infrastructure plan appears to be just more of the same – privatizing public assets and delivering unearned profits to investors at the expense of the people. He needs to try something new; and for this he could look to Abraham Lincoln, whose bold solution was very similar to one now being considered in Europe: just print the money.

In Donald Trump’s victory speech after the presidential election, he vowed:

We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals. We’re going to rebuild our infrastructure, which will become, by the way, second to none. And we will put millions of our people to work as we rebuild it.

It sounds great; but as usual, the devil is in the details. Continue reading

Prop. 51 Versus a State-Owned Bank: How California Can Save $10 Billion on a $9 Billion Loan

School districts are notoriously short of funding – so short that some California districts have succumbed to Capital Appreciation Bonds that will cost taxpayers as much is 10 to 15 times principal by the time they are paid off. By comparison, California’s Prop. 51, the school bond proposal currently on the ballot, looks like a good deal. It would allow the state to borrow an additional $9 billion for educational purposes by selling general obligation bonds to investors at an assumed interest rate of 5%, with the bonds issued over a five-year period and repaid over 30 years. $9 billion × 5% × 35 equals $15.75 billion in interest – nearly twice principal, but not too bad compared to the Capital Appreciation Bond figures.

However, there is a much cheaper way to fund this $9 billion school debt. By borrowing from its own state-chartered, state-owned bank, the state could save over $10 billion – on a $9 billion loan. Here is how. Continue reading

Central Bank Digital Currencies: A Revolution in Banking?

Several central banks, including the Bank of England, the People’s Bank of China, the Bank of Canada and the Federal Reserve, are exploring the concept of issuing their own digital currencies, using the blockchain technology developed for Bitcoin. Skeptical commentators suspect that their primary goal is to eliminate cash, setting us up for negative interest rates (we pay the bank to hold our deposits rather than the reverse).

But Ben Broadbent, Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, puts a more positive spin on it. He says Central Bank Digital Currencies could supplant the money now created by private banks through “fractional reserve” lending – and that means 97% of the circulating money supply. Rather than outlawing bank-created money, as money reformers have long urged, fractional reserve banking could be made obsolete simply by attrition, preempted by a better mousetrap.  The need for negative interest rates could also be eliminated, by giving the central bank more direct tools for stimulating the economy. Continue reading

Can Jill Carry Bernie’s Baton? A Look at the Green Candidate’s Radical Funding Solution

Bernie Sanders supporters are flocking to Jill Stein, the presumptive Green Party presidential candidate, with donations to her campaign exploding nearly 1000% after he endorsed Hillary Clinton. Stein salutes Sanders for the progressive populist movement he began and says it is up to her to carry the baton. Can she do it? Critics say her radical policies will not hold up to scrutiny. But supporters say they are just the medicine the economy needs.

Stein goes even further than Sanders on several key issues, and one of them is her economic platform. She has proposed a “Power to the People Plan” that guarantees basic economic human rights, including access to food, water, housing, and utilities; living-wage jobs for every American who needs to work; an improved “Medicare for All” single-payer public health insurance program; tuition-free public education through university level; and the abolition of student debt. She also supports the reinstatement of Glass-Steagall,  separating depository banking from speculative investment banking; the breakup of megabanks into smaller banks; federal postal banks to service the unbanked and under-banked; and the formation of publicly-owned banks at the state and local level. Continue reading

Japan’s “Helicopter Money” Play: Road to Hyperinflation or Cure for Debt Deflation?

Fifteen years after embarking on its largely ineffective quantitative easing program, Japan appears poised to try the form recommended by Ben Bernanke in his notorious “helicopter money” speech in 2002. The Japanese test case could finally resolve a longstanding dispute between monetarists and money reformers over the economic effects of government-issued money.

When then-Fed Governor Ben Bernanke gave his famous helicopter money speech to the Japanese in 2002, he was talking about something quite different from the quantitative easing they actually got and other central banks later mimicked. Quoting Milton Friedman, he said the government could reverse a deflation simply by printing money and dropping it from helicopters. A gift of free money with no strings attached, it would find its way into the real economy and trigger the demand needed to power productivity and employment. Continue reading

The War on Weed Part II: Monsanto, Bayer, and the Push for Corporate Cannabis

California’s “Adult Use of Marijuana Act” (AUMA) is a voter initiative characterized as legalizing marijuana use. But critics warn that it will actually make access more difficult and expensive, squeeze home growers and small farmers out of the market, heighten criminal sanctions for violations, and open the door to patented, genetically modified (GMO) versions that must be purchased year after year. 

As detailed in Part I of this article, the health benefits of cannabis are now well established. It is a cheap, natural alternative effective for a broad range of conditions, and the non-psychoactive form known as hemp has thousands of industrial uses. At one time, cannabis was one of the world’s most important crops. There have been no recorded deaths from cannabis overdose in the US, compared to about 30,000 deaths annually from alcohol abuse (not counting auto accidents), and 100,000 deaths annually from prescription drugs taken as directed. Yet cannabis remains a Schedule I controlled substance (“a deadly dangerous drug with no medical use and high potential for abuse”), illegal to be sold or grown in the US.

Powerful corporate interests no doubt had a hand in keeping cannabis off the market. The question now is why they have suddenly gotten on the bandwagon for its legalization. According to an April 2014 article in The Washington Times, the big money behind the recent push for legalization has come, not from a grassroots movement, but from a few very wealthy individuals with links to Big Ag and Big Pharma. Continue reading

Brexit and the Derivatives Time Bomb

Brexit could trigger a $500 trillion derivatives meltdown, by forcing the EU to allow insolvent member governments and banks to write down debt. Italy is in financial crisis and is already petitioning for that concession. How to avoid collapse of the massive derivatives house of cards? Alternatives are considered.

Sovereign debt – the debt of national governments – has ballooned from $80 trillion to $100 trillion just since 2008. Squeezed governments have been driven to radical austerity measures, privatizing public assets, slashing public services, and downsizing work forces in a futile attempt to balance national budgets. But the debt overhang just continues to grow.

Austerity has been pushed to the limit and hasn’t worked. But default or renegotiating the debt seems to be off the table. Why? Continue reading

Hon. Paul Hellyer on “It’s Our Money”

Mayer Rothschild is famously quoted as saying “Permit me to issue and control the money of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws!” – and so it is. When we look at the distribution of capital, we see that those who control the franchise of creating money through loans and debt rule our world. Ellen speaks with one of the planet’s oldest serving statesmen, Canada’s Paul Hellyer, about the nature of this controlling franchise and about the alternatives still available. Walt McRee speaks with Lisa Cody, a researcher for the Service Employees International Union, who did a landmark study of the outrageous costs Los Angeles has paid private financiers as part of our ongoing series What Wall Street Costs America, and Matt Stannard comments on the increasingly popular idea of providing a basic income to people as one way of balancing the scales against the controlling interests. Archived here.

As the War on Weed Winds Down, Will Monsanto Be the Big Winner?

The war on cannabis that began in the 1930s seems to be coming to an end. Research shows that this natural plant, rather than posing a deadly danger to health, has a wide range of therapeutic benefits. But skeptics question the sudden push for legalization, which is largely funded by wealthy investors linked to Big Ag and Big Pharma.

In April, Pennsylvania became the 24th state to legalize medical cannabis, a form of the plant popularly known as marijuana. That makes nearly half of US states. A major barrier to broader legalization has been the federal law under which all cannabis – even the very useful form known as industrial hemp – is classed as a Schedule I controlled substance that cannot legally be grown in the US. But that classification could change soon. In a letter sent to federal lawmakers in April, the US Drug Enforcement Administration said it plans to release a decision on rescheduling marijuana in the first half of 2016. Continue reading