the plan for the future
4 November 2008 (latest update: 30 July 2021)
Author: Bart klein Ikink
Suppose that Jesus' mother had put a small gold coin weighing 3 grammes in Jesus' retirement account at 4% interest in the year 1 AD. Jesus never retired, but he promised to return. Suppose now that the bank held on to the money for this eventuality. How much gold would there be in the account in 2020? The answer is an amount of gold weighing 12 million times the mass of the Earth.
A mere 4% yields an incredible amount of gold after 2020 years. Someone has to pay the interest, in this case, the people who borrowed money from the bank. If Jesus doesn't come back to spend his money, that's impossible. At some point, the debtors can't pay the interest, let alone repay their debts. They can only borrow more or default. And if they default, there is a financial crisis.
Financial crises happen when people can't pay the interest or when depositors want their gold. Our money isn't gold. Central banks can print new money out of thin air to pay for debts. If someone comes to the bank and wants 'real' euros, the central bank can print them, uses these euros to buy the debt from the bank so that depositors can get 'real' euros if they want to.
In 2008 some people couldn't pay the interest on their loans after banks had been lending money to questionable borrowers. Interest is also a reward for taking a risk, so questionable borrowers pay more. Higher interest rates mean more profits for banks, and more importantly, bigger bonuses for bankers. If things go wrong, we all may end up paying the bill.
Interest causes financial and economic crises. People already knew this more than 3,000 years ago. Interest can push people into poverty by making them pay their debt several times. Interest was therefore called usury and considered evil. Religions, like Christianity and Islam, banned interest. But without interest, lending and borrowing would have stopped, and a modern economy would not have materialised. So why is that?
Interest has downsides. The 80% poorest pay interest to the 10% richest. Interest is everywhere, hidden in rents, taxes, and the price of everything we buy. Products on average cost 25% more because of interest. And the poorest pay the highest interest rates. Interest is therefore called a tax on the poor for the benefit of the rich.1
A few things have changed over the years. You can lend out money to a bank and still use it anytime. That is convenient. Banks check the financial condition of borrowers and lend out money to many different people. This reduced risk. Central banks can help out banks if there is no money to pay for the interest. There are even government guarantees on bank deposits. That reduced the risk of losing money to the point that bank deposits are safer than cash.
So what about the returns on investments? In the past, returns on investments on average have been higher than the rate of economic growth. Investors have reinvested most of those returns, so the amount of capital has grown faster than the economy, and a growing share of total income was not for wage earners but investors. That cannot go on forever because who will buy all the stuff the corporations make if wages keep on lagging?
Figure 1 shows how total income and interest income develop with an economic growth rate of 2% and an interest rate of 5% when interest revenues start as 10% of total income and investors reinvest all their interest revenues. After 25 years, the economic pie has grown more than interest revenues, and wages have risen. At some point, interest revenues start to increase more than total income, and wages go down. After 80 years, there's nothing left for wages. That won't happen because the economy would have crashed long before that.
It is a reason why interest rates have gone down in recent years. In the short run, it was possible to prop up business profits by lowering interest rates to let people go further into debt to buy the stuff corporations make. In the long run, capital income can't grow faster than the economy. When Thomas Piketty used this logic in his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, it sent a shockwave through the world of economics. The same applies to debts. They can't grow faster than the economy forever.
There is another serious problem. Incomes fluctuate while interest payments are fixed. In this way, interest causes financial and economic instability by escalating existing fluctuations in the economy. If the economy slows down, the burden of interest-bearing debt can aggravate a recession and even cause an economic depression. In recent decades the amount of debt has escalated. At some point, this may collapse the financial system and end human civilisation as we know it. That nearly happened in 2008.
If interest rates go down even further, it may be possible to abolish interest on money and loans altogether. It will be the end of usury. In that case, we do not need more debts to pay for the interest on existing debts, and there will be no incentive to take excessive risks because there is no reward for doing that. That may end financial and economic crises and inflation. Products and services can become cheaper because interest costs will go down. So can it be done? And how?
In 1932, during the Great Depression, the Austrian town of Wörgl was in trouble and prepared to try anything. Of its population of 4,500, a total of 1,500 people were without a job, and 200 families were penniless. The mayor, Michael Unterguggenberger, had a long list of projects he wanted to accomplish, but there was hardly any money to carry them out. These projects included paving roads, streetlights, extending water distribution across the whole town, and planting trees along the streets. The mayor came up with a cunning plan.
Rather than spending the 40,000 Austrian schillings in the town’s coffers to start these projects off, he deposited them in a local savings bank as a guarantee to back the issue of a type of complementary currency known as stamp scrip. The Wörgl money required a monthly stamp to be stuck on all the circulating notes for them to remain valid, amounting to 1% of each note’s value. The money raised was used to run a soup kitchen that fed 220 families.
Nobody wanted to pay for the monthly stamps, so everyone receiving the notes would spend them. The 40,000 schilling deposit allowed anyone to exchange scrip for 98 per cent of its value in schillings, but hardly anyone took this offer as the note was worth one schilling again after buying a stamp.
The key to this success was the fast circulation of the scrip money within the local economy, fourteen times higher than the Schilling. This increased trade and employment. At the time of the project, unemployment in Wörgl dropped while it rose in the rest of Austria. Six neighbouring villages copied the system successfully. The French Prime Minister, Édouard Daladier, made a special visit to witness the 'miracle of Wörgl'.
In January 1933, the neighbouring city of Kitzbühel copied the project. In June 1933, Unterguggenberger addressed a meeting with representatives from 170 different towns and villages. Two hundred Austrian townships were interested in adopting the idea. At this point, the central bank asserted its monopoly rights on issuing money by banning complementary currencies.2 One can only imagine what had happened if communities all over the world had copied the idea. The Great Depression may have ended quickly, and World War II may never have taken place.
The Bible tells a story about a Pharaoh who had some bad dreams that his advisors couldn't explain. He dreamt about seven fat cows being eaten by seven lean cows and seven full ears of grain being devoured by seven thin and blasted ears of grain. Joseph explained those dreams. He told the Pharaoh that seven years with good harvests would come, followed by seven years of crop failures. He advised the Egyptians to store food. They followed his advice and built storehouses for grain. In this way, Egypt survived the seven years of scarcity.
The food storage resulted in a financial system. The historian Friedrich Preisigke discovered that the Egyptians used grain receipts for money.3 Farmers bringing in the grains received vouchers. And bakers who wanted to make bread exchanged these vouchers for grain. According to the Bible, Joseph took all the money from the Egyptians. That may have made the Egyptians look for another form of money.
As a consequence, the grain receipts may have become money instead. There were storage costs to be settled when people exchanged vouchers for grain. And so, they lost value over time. The effects were similar to buying stamps to keep the money valid, as happened in Wörgl. The actions of Joseph may have created this money as he allegedly proposed the grain storage and took all the money from the Egyptians.
During the reign of Ramesses the Great, Egypt became a leading power again.4 Some historians have suggested that grain money was a source of Egypt's wealth during the reign of Ramesses.5 The money remained in circulation after the introduction of coins around 400 BC until the Romans conquered Egypt. The grain money was stable and survived for more than a thousand years. Probably there were no financial crises caused by interest payments.
The miracle of Wörgl suggests that money with a holding fee could have prevented the Great Depression or ended it once it had started. The Egyptian financial system based on grain storage shows that money with a holding fee can be stable. The only way out of the current predicament may be negative interest rates, as the economy can't support interest anymore. To see why you can imagine the economy to be like a game of Monopoly.
Nearly everyone is doing great in the early stages of the game. Money is coming in while capital emerges in the form of houses and hotels. At some point, some people can't pay their bills anymore. To keep the game going, the winners can lend money to the losers. It doesn't take long before the losers can't pay the interest on their loans. So to keep the game going, interest rates must go down, and the bank needs more money to keep on paying out the reward for every round finished.
In this way, the unfortunate can stay in the game. But the bills are mounting, and at some point, they can't pay the interest again. It seems pointless to go on. In a game of Monopoly, we can start all over again from nothing. In the real economy, that's not an option. It means destroying houses (people will be homeless) and closing factories (shops will be empty). It will be a crisis much worse than the Great Depression. Writing off debts is a way to continue the game.
That will not remedy the underlying problem, which is the capitalists owning the means of production (streets, houses and hotels), so the less fortunate will run out of money again at some point. Negative interest rates on debts could solve this. In this way, the game can continue. In the real economy, it makes capitalists hand out money to the rest of us to keep us buying the things their corporations produce. Hence, their capital remains useful.
The example of the game of Monopoly suggests that structural developments in the economy like wealth inequality cause lower interest rates. Central banks only try to continue the game. In the long run, capital can't grow faster than the economy. Wealth inequality and lagging labour incomes limit capital growth and interest rates. Furthermore, machines may take over our jobs, or we need to take measures to save the planet. These measures may result in lower returns on capital, and therefore low or even negative interest rates.
Capitalism provides us with consumer goods and services, but at some point, wealth inequality and interest become destructive. The economy may do better if there is a redistribution of capital returns from capital owners to consumers. There are two ways to accomplish that. The first way is taxing and entitlements, for example, a wealth tax and a basic income. The second option is via the markets for money and capital, for instance, using negative interest rates, so people and governments have more money to spend.
Natural Money is interest-free money with a holding fee. The maximum interest rate is zero, so negative interest rates are possible. The holding fee on central bank money ranges from 0.5% to 1% per month. In the present situation, this is cash and accounts held at the central bank by commercial banks. The holding fee doesn't apply to money lent, including bank accounts. In this way, it can be attractive to put money in bank accounts at negative interest rates.
The Wörgl currency came with a holding fee of 1% per month. A holding fee makes cash unattractive to hold. Such a steep penalty is not needed to stop people from hoarding banknotes. An interest rate just below that of bank accounts suffices. Natural Money, therefore, features a cash currency backed by short-term government loans. This cash is a loan to the government, so the interest rate on short-term government loans applies. This rate may be near -3% per year instead of -12%.
Cash and digital money will be different currencies with an exchange rate between them. Cash will depreciate in terms of digital money. There will probably be no price inflation, and there might even be price deflation, so the value of cash is likely to remain as stable as it is now. It may be possible to have cash bank accounts. Banks are not allowed to lend out money in this account. If a bank goes bankrupt, this money is safe, like banknotes in your wallet.
The German businessman Silvio Gesell was the first to propose a holding fee on money in his book The Natural Economic Order.6 The idea is named Natural Money to honour his legacy. The following points summarise Natural Money:
Natural Money has the following benefits:
Natural Money can improve the economy, so returns on investments can be better, so real interest rates can rise. With Natural Money, interest rates cannot exceed zero, so digital money could increase in value, perhaps at such a pace that interest-free money provides better yields than interest-bearing money.
It was the reason to start this website in 2008. A lack of awareness appears to be the main obstacle standing in the way of Natural Money becoming the money of the future. Perhaps the next financial crisis is going to change that. People may need to become desperate and ready to try anything, just like in Wörgl during the Great Depression. Natural Money may be the solution. That is why I planned for the future and worked out the implications for the global financial system.
The Great Depression never came back, so current local currencies with a holding fee aren't as successful as the local currency of Wörgl. And the success of the Wörgl currency was inflated by the payment of taxes in arrears. That generated additional revenues for the town. The council could spend this money, which provided a stimulus that probably would have petered out if the experiment had continued.7 Maybe it is too good to be true after all, but there are good reasons to think otherwise. If interest rates are near zero, the markets for money and capital cease to operate. A holding fee can make these markets functional again.
Economists and central bankers believe that low and negative interest rates will be temporary, but the graph above tells a different story. It shows the interest rates in the United States between 1961 and 2016. The green line is the real interest rate, which is the inflation-free interest rate. So if the interest rate of your mortgage is 5% and the inflation rate is 2%, the real interest rate on the mortgage is 3%.
The red line represents the natural interest rate, which is the ideal interest rate for optimal economic growth. It is not an interest rate that we can observe in a market. It is estimated by economists using models. Central banks use the natural interest rate to set the interest rate. If the central bank believes that the economy is overheating, it sets the interest rate above this rate. If the central bank thinks that the economy is slumping, it sets the interest rate below this rate.
The trend is clear but most economists and central bankers expect that interest rates will go up again. The developments that drove interest rates down may persist so interest rates may remain low and go even lower. So why can't economists see what's coming?
Negative interest rates go against one of the most basic assumptions of economics, the idea of scarcity. It states that we can never have enough and need savings to finance investments. For that, we need to reward saving with interest. Yet, we should question this assumption because our excessive consumption is destroying the planet. And the wealthy top 1% of people who own most capital do not experience scarcity. They can't spend all their money and are desperately looking for investments.
Proponents of interest-free money often saw interest as a way of making money without contributing to the economy. They complained that projects are feasible only if they yield more than the interest rate, so people remain unemployed. This reasoning goes back to Silvio Gesell, who saw interest as inefficient. If interest rates are high, there is scarcity. It is the accumulation of capital by saving and investing that brings interest rates down.
If most interest rates remain negative, Natural Money could become a success. It is better to implement the holding fee when interest rates are already near zero. It would have little effect otherwise. A maximum interest rate of zero can only be beneficial when most interest rates in the financial markets are already negative, as such a measure would cause financial distress otherwise.
But once interest rates are negative and interest rates above zero are not allowed, the economy may do well by itself. Governments and central banks may not have to ensure the stability of the financial system and the economy. It may be the end of fiscal and monetary policies. That is not to say that governments and central banks shouldn't interfere when markets fail. The advice is limited to ensuring financial and economic stability insofar as usury is a primary cause. Without usury, economic cycles may often be avoidable, and the economy may be self-correcting.
At the 2017 IV International Conference on Social and Complementary Currencies: Money, Consciousness and Values for Social Change in Barcelona, I have presented two papers about Natural Money. The first paper, The End of Usury, explains why interest rates are likely to go lower and become negative and that this may remain so for the foreseeable future. The second paper, Feasibility Of Interest-Free Demurrage Currency, clarifies how to implement Natural Money in the global financial system and what the consequences are likely to be.
This website is frequently updated and reflects the current state of the Natural Money project. The research is still in progress. If you have limited knowledge of the economy and the financial system, you could read Natural Money For Dummies. It explains what money is, what the role of banks is, why the financial system is the way it is, what the problem of interest is, and why Natural Money can solve it. It is easy to understand, and I made some effort to make it entertaining. If you know about economics, you could read Natural Money Theory. The Natural Money Blog highlights several individual aspects of the idea.
1. Poor Because of Money: Our theory on interest, Henk van Arkel and Camilo Ramada, Strohalm, 2001: https://www.naturalmoney.org/ poorbecauseofmoney.html
2. The Future of Money: Creating New Wealth, Work and a Wiser World, pp. 153-155, Bernhard Lietaer, Random House, 2001
3. A Strategy for a Convertible Currency, Bernard A. Lietaer, ICIS Forum, Vol. 20, No.3, 1990: http://www.itk.ntnu.no/...; backup copy: https://www.naturalmoney.org/convertiblecurrency.html
4. Ramesses II - Wikipedia (as on September 3, 2013): https://www.naturalmoney.org/ramesses2.html; current version: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ramesses_II
5. This was mentioned on Discovery Channel or National Geographic but I was unable to recover the source
6. The Natural Economic Order, Silvio Gesell, Translated by Philip Pye, Peter Owen Ltd, 1958: https://www.naturalmoney.org/ NaturalEconomicOrder.pdf
7. A Free Money Miracle?, Jonathan Goodwin, Mises.org, 2013: http://www.mises.org/daily/6336/A-Free-Money-Miracle; backup copy: https://www.naturalmoney.org/freemoneymiracle.html