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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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.