The ancient Greeks used quantitative easing

What can they teach us?

Quantitative easing is fast becoming common parlance given the Bank of England’s £375bn programme, so it was with enjoyment that I recently read up on some of the history of QE in Schroders’s Dialogue newsletter.

Paraphrasing Philip Coggan at the Secular Market Forum, the article clarified that QE is, despite the media hysteria, nothing new. "2,500 years ago Dionysius of Syracuse called in all coins from his populace on pain of death, re-stamped all the one drachma coins as two drachma, returned the face value of all the money he had seized to his people and used the remainder to pay off his debts."

Startling as the stunt may have been, it gave future leaders inspiration. "Following the reign of Louis XIV at the start of the 18th century," the article runs, "the French monarchy was essentially bankrupt and so turned to a Scottish mathematician, gambler and economist called John Law to come up with a way of paying off the huge debts.

"He did this through a scheme that involved the creation of a joint-stock company, the Compagnie d’Occident, to exploit France’s colonial possessions, and by creating extra money with which to buy shares in the company and keep their value rising." Little surprise that "the scheme became one of the greatest bubbles in history and failed."

So where does the historic tale of woe leave the West?  According to Coggan, author of Paper Promises: Money, Debt and the New World Order, (which won a Spear's Book Award last year) facing the unholy trinity of inflate, stagnate or default.

"Japan has taken the stagnate option over the past 20 years and remains a prosperous place," the article says. "But importantly, its debt is internal whereas Europe’s debt is cross border so creditors will tend to force change rather than kicking the can down the road.

"Due to the fixed exchange rate system, Europe also cannot inflate or devalue, which means default is the only viable option of the three."

Alarming stuff – so let’s hope that Coggan’s history is better than his predicting.

This article originally appeared in Spear's magazine. Read more from Freddy Barker.

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Richmond is a wake-up call for Labour's Brexit strategy

No one made Labour stand in Richmond Park. 

Oh, Labour Party. There was a way through.

No one made you stand in Richmond Park. You could have "struck a blow against the government", you could have shared the Lib Dem success. Instead, you lost both your dignity and your deposit. And to cap it all (Christian Wolmar, take a bow) you self-nominated for a Nobel Prize for Mansplaining.

It’s like the party strategist is locked in the bowels of HQ, endlessly looping in reverse Olivia Newton John’s "Making a Good Thing Better".

And no one can think that today marks the end of the party’s problems on Brexit.

But the thing is: there’s no need to Labour on. You can fix it.

Set the government some tests. Table some amendments: “The government shall negotiate having regard to…”

  • What would be good for our economy (boost investment, trade and jobs).
  • What would enhance fairness (help individuals and communities who have missed out over the last decades).
  • What would deliver sovereignty (magnify our democratic control over our destiny).
  • What would improve finances (what Brexit makes us better off, individually and collectively). 

And say that, if the government does not meet those tests, the Labour party will not support the Article 50 deal. You’ll take some pain today – but no matter, the general election is not for years. And if the tests are well crafted they will be easy to defend.

Then wait for the negotiations to conclude. If in 2019, Boris Johnson returns bearing cake for all, if the tests are achieved, Labour will, and rightly, support the government’s Brexit deal. There will be no second referendum. And MPs in Leave voting constituencies will bear no Brexit penalty at the polls.

But if he returns with thin gruel? If the economy has tanked, if inflation is rising and living standards have slumped, and the deficit has ballooned – what then? The only winners will be door manufacturers. Across the country they will be hard at work replacing those kicked down at constituency offices by voters demanding a fix. Labour will be joined in rejecting the deal from all across the floor: Labour will have shown the way.

Because the party reads the electorate today as wanting Brexit, it concludes it must deliver it. But, even for those who think a politician’s job is to channel the electorate, this thinking discloses an error in logic. The task is not to read the political dynamic of today. It is to position itself for the dynamic when it matters - at the next general election

And by setting some economic tests for a good Brexit, Labour can buy an option on that for free.

An earlier version of this argument appeared on Jolyon Maugham's blog Waiting For Tax.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues.