Money by Felix Martin: Exposing the flaws in the way we think about money

A fresh addition to the growing library of "recession lit": one which delves into anthropology and ancient history to argue we will never understand the financial crisis with our current misguided perspective on money.

Money: the Unauthorised Biography
Felix Martin
Bodley Head, 336pp, £20

By now, one might have thought there was little to add to the literature of the “Great Recession”. But it keeps coming and some leading economic practitioners, notably the departing governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, argue that it will be three decades until we get the authoritative account. Many believe the best book on the 1929 meltdown was John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Great Crash 1929, published in 1955.

One of the biggest failings of modern-day economic and financial writing is a lack of historical perspective. When the run on Northern Rock caught the Bank of England and other regulators on the hop in August 2007, King established a recherché book club at his Notting Hill home in west London, where economists and economic historians gathered to discuss works on financial panics.

Felix Martin, an academic economist who now seeks to apply his knowledge in the financial world, reaches beyond conventional analysis in explaining the events that brought about the biggest disruption to finance and economic activity for more than a century. His core argument, reaching into anthropology and ancient history for support, is that classical economics – as exemplified by Adam Smith – misjudges the nature of money.

Smith and his cohorts saw money as commodity, based on gold, silver, copper or some other substance, that is used as a medium of exchange in commercial transactions. Martin does not disagree with this but views it as only part of the picture. He reaches into the primitive culture of the Pacific island of Yap and into the almost destroyed history of England’s Exchequer tallies: strips of willow on which non-monetary business transactions were recorded to understand the social technology of money.

What the author finds is enormously helpful in resolving some of the mystery behind the “Great Recession”. He found that physical coins and banknotes issued by central authorities such as the Bank of England tell only a fraction of the money story. The broader narrative is one of accounting: unseen transactions conducted privately among businesses and, in modern times, among banks without any notable intervention by central authorities.   

These transactions are so vast and so much more important socially and commercially that they far outstrip the notes and coins in circulation and the officials bills and bonds issued by central bankers on behalf of governments. It is this enormous social edifice that was the hidden hand behind the “great panic” of 2007-08 that came close to bringing the whole banking and financial system down. Financiers took “social” banking to the ultimate degree, turning the dodgy physical product of sub-prime mortgages into exotic securities.       

When it came to stabilising the financial system, the traditional central banking solution of providing temporary cash (lender of last resort money) in exchange for bills or securities, was inadequate to the task. The banks needed recapitalisation to restore solvency, and only the “sovereigns” – national governments – were adequate to the task. In the US the capital injections came to 4.5 per cent of GDP or the size of the vast US defence budget; in Britain, with its bloated financial sector, the sovereign bailout was 8.8 per cent of GDP and in Ireland it reached 40 per cent. Bank debt, at a stroke, had been socialised and politicised.

The virtue of Martin’s book is that it exposes the deep flaws in the way we have traditionally thought about money. The exposition is clear, unlike most jargon-filled economic texts. But this book could have done with some tighter editing. The flow is interrupted by clunky transitions from the ancient to the modern, interspersed with attempts at a conservational, over-a-drink style. Nevertheless, it provides a fresh understanding of its subject.

Alex Brummer is city editor of the Daily Mail and the author of “Britain for Sale”

Adolfo Tovar, collector of old banknotes and coins, brandishing his treasures. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 10 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, G0

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Why it's a mistake to assume that Jeremy Corbyn has already won

The shadow chief secretary to the Treasury on why the race to be Labour's leader is far from over.

They think it’s all over.

But they’re wrong.

The fat lady has yet to sing.

The commentary and reporting around the Labour party leadership campaign has started to assume we have a winner already in Jeremy Corbyn. The analysis, conjecture, predictions/complete guesswork about what happens next has begun in earnest. So we have seen speculation about who will be appointed to a Corbyn shadow cabinet, and “meet the team” pieces about Jeremy’s backroom operation.

Which is all very interesting and makes for the usual Westminster knockabout of who might be up and who might be going in the other direction pdq...

But I think it’s a mistake to say that Jeremy has already won.

Because I hear that tens of thousands of Labour party members, affiliates and registered supporters are yet to receive their ballot papers. And I am one of them. I can’t remember the last time I checked my post quite so religiously! But alas, my papers are yet to arrive.

This worries me a bit about the process. But mostly (assuming all the remaining ballots finally land in enough time to let us all vote) it tells me that frankly it’s still game on as far as the battle to become the next leader of the Labour party is concerned.

And this is reinforced when we consider the tens of thousands who have apparently received their papers but who have yet to vote. At every event I have attended in the last couple of weeks, and in at least half of all conversations I have had with members across the country, members are still making their minds up.

This is why we have to continue fighting for every vote until the end – and I will be fighting to get out every vote I possibly can for Yvette Cooper.

Over the campaign, Yvette has shown that she has a clear vision of the kind of Britain that she wants to see.

A Britain that tackles head-on the challenges of globalisation. Instead of the low-wage low-skill cul-de-sac being crafted by the Tories, Yvette's vision is for 2m more high skill manufacturing jobs. To support families she will prioritise a modern childcare system with 30 hours of fully funded child care for all 3 and 4 year olds and she will revive the bravery of post war governments to make sure 2m more homes are built within ten years.

It's an optimistic vision which taps into what most people in this country want. A job and a home.

And the responses of the focus groups on Newsnight a few days ago were telling – Yvette is clearly best placed to take us on the long journey to the 2020 general election by winning back former Labour voters.

We will not win an election without winning these groups back – and we will have to move some people who were in the blue column this time, to the red one next time. There is no other way to do it – and Yvette is the only person who can grow our party outwards so that once again we can build a winning coalition of voters across the country.