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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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.