Interview with Vlado Plaga in the German magazine FAIRCONOMY, September 2017.
Originally, you didn’t want to become an economist. How did it come that you changed your plans and digged so deep into economics?
I found economics aesthetic, as beautiful as astronomy. I came to New York expecting to become an orchestra conductor, but I met one of the leading Wall Street economists, who convinced me that economics and finance was beautiful.
I was intrigued by the concept of compound interest. and by the autumnal drain of money from the banking system to move the crops at harvest time. That is when most crashes occurred. The flow of funds was the key.
I saw that there economic cycles were mainly financial: the build-up of debt and its cancellation or wipe-out and bankruptcy occurring again and again throughout history. I wanted to study the rise and fall of financial economies.
But when you studied at the New York University you were not taught the things that really interested you, were you?
I got a PhD as a union card. In order to work on Wall Street, I needed a PhD. But what I found in the textbooks was the opposite of everything that I experienced on Wall Street in the real world. Academic textbooks describe a parallel universe. When I tried to be helpful and pointed out to my professors that the texbooks had little to do with how the economy and Wall Street actually work, that did not help me get good grades. I think I got a C+ in money and banking.
So I scraped by, got a PhD and lived happily ever after in the real world.
So you had to find out on your own… Your first job was at the Savings Banks Trust Company, a trust established by the 127 savings banks that still existed in New York in the 1960s. And you somehow hit the bull’s eye and were set on the right track, right from the start: you’ve been exploring the relationship between money and land. You had an interesting job there. What was it?
Savings banks were much like Germany’s Landesbanks. They take local deposits and lend them out to home buyers. Savings and Loan Associations (S&Ls) did the same thing. They were restricted to lending to real estate, not personal loans or for corporate business loans. (Today, they have all been turned into commercial banks.)
I noticed two dynamics. One is that savings grew exponentially, almost entirely by depositors getting dividends every 3 months. So every three months I found a sudden jump in savings. This savings growth consisted mainly of the interest that accrued. So there was an exponential growth of savings simply by inertia.
The second dynamic was that all this exponential growth in savings was recycled into the real estate market. What has pushed up housing prices in the US is the availability of mortgage credit. In charting the growth of mortgage lending and savings in New York State, I found a recycling of savings into mortgages. That meant an exponential growth in savings to lend to buyers of real estate. So the cause of rising real estate prices wasn’t population or infrastructure. It was simply that properties are worth whatever banks are able and willing to lend against them.
As the banks have more and more money, they have lowered their lending standards.
It’s kind of automatic, it’s just a mathematical law…
Yes, a mathematical law that is independend of the economy. In other words, savings grow whether or not the economy is growing. The interest paid to bondholders, savers and other creditors continues to accrue. That turns out to be the key to understanding why today’s economy is polarizing between creditors and debtors.
You wrote in “Killing the Host” that your graphs looked like Hokusai’s “Great Wave off Konagawa” or even more like a cardiogram. Why?
Any rate of interest has a doubling time. One way or another any interest-bearing debt grows and grows. It usually grows whenever interest is paid. That’s why it looks like a cardiogram: Every three months there’s a jump. So it’s like the Hokusai wave with a zigzag to reflect the timing of interest payments every three months.
The exponential growth of finance capital and interest-bearing debt grows much faster then the rest oft he economy, which tends to taper off in an S-curve. That’s what causes the business cycle to turn down. It’s not really a cycle, it’s more like a slow buildup like a wave and then a sudden vertical crash downward.
This has been going on for a century. Repeated financial waves build up until the economy becomes so top-heavy with debt that it crashes. A crash used to occur every 11 years in the 19th century. But in the United States from 1945 to 2008, the exponential upswing was kept artificially long by creating more and more debt financing. So the crash was postponed until 2008.
Most crashes since the 19th century had a silver lining: They wiped out the bad debts. But this time the debts were left in place, leading to a masive wave of foreclosures. We are now suffering from debt deflation. Instead of a recovery, there’s just a flat line for 99% of the economy.
The only layer of the economy that is growing is the wealthiest 5% layer – mainly the Finance, Insurance and Real Estate (FIRE) sector. That is, creditors living of interest and economic rent: monopoly rent, land rent and financial interest. The rest of the economy is slowly but steadily shrinking.
And the compound interest that was accumulated was issued by the banks as new mortgages. Isn’t this only logical for the banks to do?
Savings banks and S&Ls were only allowed to lend for mortgages. Commercial banks now look for the largest parts of the economy as their customers. Despite the fact that most economic textbooks describe industry and manufacturing as being the main part of economy, real estate actually is the largest sector. So most bank lending is against real estate and, after that, oil, gas and mining.
That explains why the banking and financial interests have become the main lobbyists urging that real estate, mining and oil and gas be untaxed – so that there’ll be more economic rent left to pay the banks. Most land rent and natural resource rent is paid out as interest to the banks instead of as taxes to the government.
So instead of housing becoming cheaper and cheaper it turns out to be much less affordable in our days than in the 1960s?
Credit creation has inflated asset prices. The resulting asset-price inflation is the distinguishing financial feature of our time. In a race tot he bottom, banks have steadily lowered the terms on which they make loans. This has made the eocnomy more risky.
In the 1960s, banks required a 25-30% down payment by the buyer, and limited the burden of mortgage debt service to only 25% of the borrower’s income. But interest is now federally guaranteed up to 43% of the home buyer’s income. And by 2008, banks were making loans no down payment at all. Finally, loans in the 1960s were self-amortizing over 30 years. Today we have interest-only loans that are never paid off.
So banks loan much more of the property’s market price. That is why most of the rental value of land isn’t paid to the homeowner or commercial landlord any more. It’s paid to the banks as interest.