Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Economics: Do Banks Produce Wealth? (1975)

From the January 1975 issue of the Socialist Standard

There are three main divisions within capitalist society which share the surplus-value which is socially extracted from the working class; the industrialist, the landlord and the banker. These divisions historically reflect the application of the division of labour to the specialized investment of capital in any field of production and distribution, any process of circulation, of which banking is part.

Individual capitalists, or groups of capitalists, may have financial interests in all three of these groups. There is nothing to stop the industrial capitalist from becoming his own landlord and banker, but were he to do so he would require to hold huge reserves of cash, or have part of his capital locked up in bricks and mortar, thus preventing it from being more usefully employed in the exploitation of human labour-power. Generally speaking, the industrialist, the banker and the landlord pursue their own separate courses. Their interests are intertwined but nevertheless are antagonistic. Whilst it is true that the capitalist class have more in common with each other than with the working class, it is necessary to add that a class society must inevitably produce a conflict of interest between capitalist and capitalist, as it does between capitalist and worker, and worker and worker.

Interest and Profit
In capitalist society all wealth takes the form of commodities and is bought and sold. Capital itself is subject to this process: the price of capital represents the amount paid for the use-value of that commodity for a prescribed period. The lender sells to the borrower the use-value of his capital, and expects to receive an additional payment (i.e. interest) as well as having the original sum returned to him at the end of the mutually agreed period.

If we assume annual average rate of profit is 10%, this would mean that anyone owning £10,000, employed as capital, and provided it was used with average intelligence under normal conditions, would expect this capital to yield a profit of £1,000. If, however, he gives or transfers this £10,000 to another person who also proposes to use this as capital, then he has given to that person the power to produce a profit of £1,000; a surplus value which would have cost him nothing. Obviously this person does not expect to receive this privilege without making some payments in return. If he decides to pay, say, £250 to the original owner out of the £1,000 profit, for making the £10,000 capital available to him, that part of the profit is called interest. It is a payment made for the use-value of the capital.

The banker makes his money out of the process of indirectly bringing borrower and lender together. The banker borrows money at say 10% and lends it at say 14%, and the difference between the two rates, after deduction of expenses of book-keeping, rent, wages, etc., represents his profit. It should be borne in mind that the rate of profit has its origin in the productive process, or at the point of production: that is, at the place and places where socially useful human energy or labour-power transforms natural wealth and natural forces into commodities. The essence of the capitalist form of exploitation is that the capitalist does not, nor cannot, pay the full amount of the value of that socially-necessary labour, and pays only the value of the living labour as represented by wages, and that is not the same thing.

The surplus-value is the difference between the value of the product and the value of the producers. Living labour produces a greater value than it takes to reproduce itself, and consequently all surplus- value comes from the exploitation of human labour-power under a wages system. Banks produce nothing. They are really middlemen or custodians of idle capital which must be available as a hoard, as potential money capital waiting to be put to use. “The purely technical labour of paying and receiving money constitutes an employment by itself which necessitates the making of balance, the balancing of accounts, as far as money serves as a means of payment. This labour belongs to the expenses of circulation and does not create any value. It is abbreviated by being organized as a special department of agents who perform this work for the rest of the capitalist class . . (Marx, Capital Vol. Ill, p.373). Their profit is made during the process of circulation, as is the case with all commercial and interest-bearing capital.

The difference between interest-bearing capital and industrial capital, or capital used in the productive process where wage-labour is exploited, is that the owner of money capital who wishes to earn interest on that money throws it into circulation not as capital for himself, but so that others can use it; and consequently gains a profit by this service. The basic difference is that whereas the individual capitalist has his capital locked up in factories, mines, heavy machinery, ships and means of transport and distribution, stocks of materials, or committed to a wages bill, the lender of interest-bearing capital invariably has it returned to him. The main exception to the rule is when certain money has been loaned to the government, in which case the lender has a legal title to a permanent income at a fixed rate of interest.

Banks not Dominant
It is quite true that individual sums of money deposited with banks may be too small to function as capital by themselves, but they can be gathered together into useful masses of capital, and advanced to industrialists and others who use the banking system. In the main, however, the hoard of capital which is deposited with the banks is the residue of unconsumcd profits, or capital which is surplus to immediate requirements.

Contrary to popular belief, banks do not dominate the capitalist system. This mistaken view is due to the fact that wealth is represented by enormous quantities of money. All wealth under capitalism expresses its value in the symbolic money form, but that form tends to conceal the fact that capital exists in the physical implements of the labour, factories, minerals, buildings, ships, etc. and that these are the dominant form of capital; the expansion of capital can only arise from these sources and not from the variety of banking and commercial transactions involving interest-bearing capital. At the present time banks have advanced £8,897 million to the manufacturing industries, including £2,103 million to the engineering and metal industries, £2,247 million to the construction industry, and £1,187 million to food, drink and tobacco. The balance of the loans is mainly divided between chemicals, electrical engineering, shipbuilding, agriculture, and forestry (Financial Statistics, HMSO, Table 53. Oct. 1974).

An estimate of the value of the physical assets of the UK wealth was published recently. The total value of the assets was estimated at £400,000 millions. Of this, the figure of £175,000 million was allocated as representing the value of assets which were directly productive. These are mainly the manufacturing industries referred to above. (Times 16/11/74: “Wealth of the UK” by J. Rothman). The banks’ advances, on the basis of this estimate, show that the banks have a stake in British manufacturing industries of about 5 per cent., and this could hardly be regarded as a dominant interest. In any case, banks do not exist to lend their own money, but other people’s. The total advances made overall by the London Clearing Banks — Barclay’s, Lloyd’s, Midland, National Westminster, Williams & Glyn’s, amount to £21,992 million, but the combined deposit and current accounts (money loaned by depositors to the banks) were £37,374 million (Committee of London Clearing Banks statistical unit, 16th Oct. 74).

Effects of Crises
The Labour Party and the Communist Party mistakenly argue that the slump of the ’thirties was due to the fact that the banks withheld loans from industrialists. A variation of the same argument being used today by politicians of all parties, including the residue of the Left and a number of economists, is that the present high rate of bank interest will dissuade the capitalists from borrowing for fresh investment, thus causing unemployment by reducing production. The assumption behind this rather naive conception of capitalism is that as long as the industrial capitalist can find capital, whether by borrowing from a bank or out of his hoarded resources, he can maintain full employment. The point that they constantly overlook is that the function of capital is to produce profit. This can only become a reality when the commodities produced can be sold.

If for some reason, whether it be that the market is already overloaded and cannot absorb further commodities, or that over-production has already taken place, then production will be scaled down, curtailed, or in some cases halted entirely, and workers will be laid off. In these circumstances there will be little prospect of profit, and as experience has shown a number of capitalists, the smaller ones, go bankrupt. “In the first 9 months of this year, 4,000 Receiving Orders were made ... an increase of 40% over the same period for last year” (Sunday Telegraph City 4, 24 Nov. 74). All the machinations of the banks, either by advancing or retarding credit, whether charging low interest rates or not, cannot alter this. At the moment there is no shortage of cash available for investment, and the banks are only too eager to make capital available to bona-fide capitalists. However, in a failing market there is little incentive to the industrial capitalist to commit himself to paying interest when the prospects of earning surplus-value on the borrowed money are extremely remote. Only these capitalists in dire financial trouble, or those who have to meet certain contracted obligations, will be forced to borrow.

Generally speaking, in periods of crisis, when the capitalist’s position deteriorates and he has to meet payments, he will borrow money almost at any price to stay in business. Invariably the rise in the rate of interest implies a fall in the value of shares and securities. Interest comes out of profit, and in these periods the fact that the capitalist needs to borrow means that his normal source of profit has temporarily dried up, therefore the price of shares has fallen. The present rate of interest, i.e. 14-16 per cent, is the highest for over forty years, and the price of shares the lowest for sixteen years (Financial Times Index 168.5, 23 Nov. 74). There is, of course, the element of inflation written into the present interest rate. Unlike real wealth in the physical sense, loan capital exists as a symbolic paper hoard, and as such is subject to the hazards of inflation. Were the commercial capitalists not to take some preventive action their assets, as they exist purely in the monetary form, would be eroded year by year as a result of inflation. So the price of capital rises as with other prices, and the high interest rate is the protective mechanism the banks etc. use to protect their assets. The Utopian promise of low interest rates, at times when the operation of capitalism is forcing high ones, can be ruled out as a pious hope.

The industrial capitalist does not suffer to any great extent from the ravages of inflation as his assets consist mainly of real wealth, whose relative value rises as the purchasing power of paper currency falls, and he can adjust his prices upwards taking into account the rising cost of production. On the subject of inflation generally, we are reminded of the small boy at the seaside saying to his father “Dad, where does the water go when the tide goes out?”. It had obviously gone elsewhere, but it certainly wasn’t lost, and neither is wealth during periods of inflation.

The rate of interest, or bank rate, itself is not arbitrarily fixed. It fluctuates according to the conditions of the market. Supply and demand cause competition between buyers and sellers, and raises or lowers prices. Competition between borrowers (buyers of capital) and sellers (owners of capital) operating through their banking agents, determines the rate of interest.

The mythology surrounding the power of banking helps those who take the view that this vast institution is so necessary that the prospect of a world without money would be unthinkable. The present world with money is becoming uninhabitable, and that is why we want to establish Socialism.
(To be concluded)
Jim D'Arcy

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