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Paper Promises: Debt, Money, and the New World Order Hardcover – February 7, 2012
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"Bold and confident ... Coggan covers the terrain with characteristic calmness and objectivity, avoids over-simplification, and laces his arguments with his trademark erudition ... The alphabet soup of acronyms, from SIVs to CDO Squareds, is blissfully lacking ... Finally, the book is free from the shrieking ideology that afflicts virtually all contemporary debates over money. Indeed, it offers a clear explanation of the fresh ideological divisions that have arisen over how to deal with the crisis ... the book should be taken very seriously."
Publishers Weekly, October 31, 2011
Coggan traces history’s tug of war between monetary shortage and excess’ in this engaging and timely book about the current financial crisis . Thoughtful and thorough.”
Kirkus, November 15, 2011
Comprehensive . A helpful analysis for anyone who wants to know how the world got into the present financial mess, which issues need to be addressed and what the consequences might be.”
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan
This book stands way above anything written on the present economic crisis.”
Joshua Rauh, Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University
"A compelling sketch of how the indebtedness of much of the developed world will eventually unravel. Rapid credit creation has always been a double-edged sword, associated with economic growth and democratic expansion of opportunity, but also inevitably leading to asset bubbles. In Paper Promises, history serves as a guide for the new order."
Tim Harford, author of Adapt and The Undercover Economist
This is a remarkable book from one of the most respected economics journalists on the planet. Every page brings a fresh insight or a new surprise. A delight.”
[Coggan] covers terrain with characteristic calmness and objectivity, avoids over-simplification, and laces his arguments with his trademark erudition . The book is free from the shrieking ideology that afflicts virtually all contemporary debates over money. Indeed, it offers a clear explanation of the fresh ideological divisions that have arisen over how to deal with the crisis Paper Promises shows that both Occupy and the Tea Party have real reason to be angry The book should be taken very seriously.”
"Writing with a lucidity that enables him to convey deep insights without a trace of jargon . [Paper Promises is] the most illuminating account of the financial crisis to appear to date.”
Times of London
A smart and witty analysis of the current economic storm, set in the context of the history of money.”
Philip Coggan is a well-known financial journalist . He now proves to be an exceptional banking and economic historian.”
Management Today (UK)
Fascinating and authoritative, with the rigour and depth to satisfy an economist and the accessibility and pace to engage the layperson If everyone read Coggan’s book we might just be a little more circumspect if and when the next burst of irrational exuberance overtakes the economy”
In this context of mildly hysterical panic in financial circles, Philip Coggan's book adds a welcome note of calm analysis.”
Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution
”A very good and sensible introduction to the history of the recent economic crisis . Recommended.”
With the developed world facing fiscal and monetary crises, Coggan's new book, Paper Promises, is a veritable enigma machine for investors who wish to decipher today's headlines.”
Paper Promises is not only a great book, it is a great accomplishmenta brilliant work of financial history, a clear examination of the present moment, and a journalistic masterpiece all wrapped into one.”
A crisply written look at how the debt crisis may overturn the global economic order. Like a battlefield guide, Coggan takes us on a tour of paper promises, wending from John Law’s monetary experiments in France following the death of Louis XIV to Ben Bernanke’s quantitative easing . A valuable primer to anyone who still asks, as his father-in-law did, where all the money went during the meltdown of 2007 and 08.”
Philip Coggan's fascinating new book Paper Promises: Debt, Money, and the New World Order is a little hard to sum up: its cast of characters ranges from Dionysius of Syracuse to Ben Bernanke (both practioners of quantitative easing), and its author is both studiously nonideological and unwilling to pretend that we know more about the workings of the global economy than we do.”
About the Author
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Starting in the United Kingdom in the late eighteenth century, the Industrial Revolution resulted into accelerated economic growth, significant population increase, and more trade across the developed world and its colonies. This burst of activity required more official money that remained based on precious metals until WWI. The United Kingdom led the way once again with the adoption of the gold standard among developed economies in the first half of the nineteenth century. The absence of universal suffrage allowed the upper or creditor classes to whom central bankers usually belonged, to favor a policy of sound currency backed by gold, regardless of the pain inflicted to the lower social classes. WWI resulted into the suspension of the gold standard and the massive increase in paper money.
Power shifted to debtors during the inter-war period due to the widespread adoption of democracy and the impossibility to restore the gold standard because of the burden of international debts, especially war reparations. During this period, the global money supply expanded, resulting in more paper money relative to gold. The crisis of 1931 resulted into a deflationary trap and the shift toward the modern welfare state to try to mitigate the effects of persistent mass unemployment in the 1930s. Widespread trade protectionism compounded the difficulty for governments of advanced economies to manage the economic cycle during this period.
Under the leadership of the U.S., the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates was introduced in 1944 and remained in place until 1971. This system was built on the control of capital flows and the confidence of international investors in the U.S. economic policy. Currencies were linked to the U.S. dollar, which was itself linked to gold. Only central banks were able to convert paper money into the gold that the U.S. owned. During this period, economic activity far outstripped the supply of precious metals.
Confidence in the U.S. economic policy broke down in 1971. The final link with gold was removed by the U.S. The combination of paper money and the adoption of floating exchange rates, in the developed world at least, resulted into a massive increase in the volume of debt. Governments, mainly in the developed world, further fueled this debt bonfire by making more and more unfunded promises to their (ageing) electorates. The past decades witnessed first runaway inflation, then a series of bursting asset bubbles from the 1980s onwards. During the same period, the increase in consumer prices was constrained thanks to globalization, technological advances, and the greater role of women in the workforce.
The current global debt crisis, which started in 2007-2008, has witnessed the return of the problems associated with the 1930s, i.e., debt/deflation spiral and the paradox of thrift. Central banks have not hesitated to sacrifice the value of their currencies to protect the financial system.
To his credit, Mr. Coggan clearly articulates the likely long-term consequences of this debt crisis, i.e., inflation, stagnation, and default.
1. High inflation is very tempting to the central banks of heavily indebted countries. However, creditors will push back by asking for the same real rate of interest, regardless of the level of inflation. Furthermore, quantitative easing (QE), which also sacrifices creditors' interests to the benefit of those of debtors, is an unproven tactic that is unlikely to work. As Mr. Coggan learns from Lee Quaintance and Paul Brodsky, two hedge fund managers, printing money and extending credit do not create wealth. QE at best redistributes wealth; at worst may temper its creation.
2. Low interest rates, which reward debtors at the expense of creditors, and low growth, go hand in hand. The cost of capital and the return of capital tend to be at the same level. Therefore, if this is the case, the Western world is following a deeply flawed strategy. Electorates will push sooner or later their representatives to erode the debt, in real or nominal terms, to try to escape from stagnation. Nonetheless, creditors will push back as it was noted previously.
3. The temptation to default is also high. The political unpopularity involved in paying "greedy" (foreign) creditors will overwhelm any other issue associated with a default. The best that creditors can do is to cut off (temporarily) the defaulting debtors from access to further borrowing.
It does not matter which of these three scenarios ultimately gets the upper hand, writes Mr. Coggan. Debt is unlikely to be repaid in the form of money with the same purchasing power as when it was lent. Breaking these paper promises will damage the interests of both debtors and creditors.
Many developed Western economies are unlikely to escape from this crisis by achieving high growth due to population and productivity constraints as well as higher energy prices. Some developed countries will be able to muddle through; others will be ensnared into a debt trap. The developing countries will have to review their options under these circumstances.
Mr. Coggan concludes his examination of the history of money and debt by looking at the outlines of a new international currency system resulting from a world economy in crisis. The U.S. and China are at odds with each other about the outlines of this new system. China prefers a system of fixed exchange rates, the U.S. a system of floating exchange rates.
In summary, Mr. Coggan does a great job in making a complex subject accessible to a wider audience.
Paper Promises is a very well written and unbiased economic history covering different monetary systems from the classic gold standard through Bretton Woods to our current fiat system. In some sense, this book doesn't offer any new information to people who follow closely the present economic crisis and are interested in economic history. And I suppose some people, including myself, will find plenty of places to disagree with the author, and some minor mistakes such as stating that the Fed has bought 600 trillion US dollars of government bonds as part of QE2 (P. 244, British Edition). Yet, this book still has value in it. It seems that Coggan isn't captivated by a particular ideology regarding gold and was able to write a balanced analysis of the advantages and disadvantages of the various gold standards.
However, this book has more to offer than just economic history. Perhaps the better part of the book is the part concerning the ongoing crisis that Coggan reviews, in the context of the theme of his book, debt. Coggan explains the economic crisis and the coming challenges we face with great clarity, which helps to tie all the pieces together.
Ultimately, the most unsatisfying aspect of the book is that it doesn't offer any conclusive solutions of how to get ourselves out of the mess were in.
However, the author's analysis of how debt everywhere - national governments, state governments, local governments, and personal- has grown like cancer for forty years, and now will control our financial future and that of our children and grandchildren, is an absolute must-read for every responsible adult. The list of chapter headings gives a flavor of what is to come: "Paper Promises"; "Riding the Gravy Train"; "Blowing Bubbles"; "The Ponzi Scheme Needed a New Set of Suckers", etc.
Philip Coggan is former investment editor of the "Financial Times", and long-time columnist for the "Economist". He therefore has a nose and instinct for digging at the facts to get to the story, and the writing skill and experience to report the story in ways that the lay reader can follow. This is just as well. The topic of debt and finance is, for most of us, rather dry and removed from what we think about on a daily basis. However, decisions made by those before us to accumulate debt, and decisions we are making now, bind us and our children to a constrained future. Mr. Coggan's economics is, however, not as strong as his reporter skills.
Mr. Coggan writes, "If there is a fundamental theme to this book, is is that there are no easy answers in economics". We certainly agree with this.
We have a huge, self-inflicted problem: In the last forty years, the entire world has been more successful at creating claims on wealth than wealth itself. In other words, we have lived beyond our means. We have amassed huge debts, which cannot ever be repaid in real terms. We have, in essence, "bequeathed our debts to our children". None of us would go to a nice dinner, and tell the headwaiter to send the check for our dinner to our unborn grandchildren to pay. Yet, that is exactly what the entire developed world has done, in a very serious way, for decades. There will be a price to pay. The long term effects of this ocean of debt must be either inflation, stagnation, or default (or, likely, a combination of all three).
Austrian economists will cringe, however, at Mr. Coggan's continued reverence for Keynes. Many blame Keynesianism and perversions of it for getting us here in the first place. However, Mr. Coggan falls into the Keynesian trap of believing we need to fear savings, not spending on things we do not need: "As Keynes pointed out, money saved, rather than spent, reduces demand for goods and thus employment". Many would argue that this is exactly wrong: money spent on things we do not need, especially money borrowed, is the root of our current debt problem.
It is here we part most dramatically from the author. He does not see a good solution to the problem of too much debt, except, apparently the Keynesian tactic of taking on more debt to keep the spending going. There are those, however, who would argue the solution is to get rid of debt, sooner rather than later, so our economies can breathe and grow again. How this is done, and who pays, is part of all our futures.
Somewhat tough sledding here, some flawed analysis in this writer's opinion, but a good lay discussion of an absolutely critical issue affecting all of us.
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