When I taught at Ramapo, on the first day of class, I would ask my international finance students to help me build the balance sheet for the whole global economy as if it were co-owned by the entire human race — no estimated values of course, just the items listed in the statement. The typical makeup of class would be seniors or, at least, juniors who had already taken two heavy courses in financial accounting, one or two micro courses, one or two macro courses, two courses in corporate finance, perhaps one money and banking, and at least one econometrics. Some of them worked for banks or financial firms in northern NJ or Manhattan.
The starting point was the balance sheet of a typical firm. (We’d treat governments, nonprofits, households, individuals as “firms.”) On the balance side, it’d have assets: cash and liquid securities, receivables and other short-term financial assets, longer-term financial assets, inventories, equipment, vehicles, buildings, and real estate. I asked them to, first, consolidate the balance sheets of all U.S. firms and then add them to the consolidated balance sheet of the rest of the world.
At this point, they would start to see how all the financial claims issued by U.S. firms and held by other U.S. firms would be on both sides of the sheet and thus dropped out. At the end, they’d have on the top of the U.S. asset side only domestically-held foreign financial assets and the different forms of U.S. productive wealth. All U.S. cash held by Americans would cancel out, because it was a liability of the U.S. government offset by the cash holdings on the asset side of Americans.
On the right hand side, they’d have the U.S.-issued financial assets held by the rest of the world, including the portion of U.S. currency not held domestically. In the rest-of-the-world balance sheet, they’d report those same U.S.-issued financial assets plus the productive wealth held by the rest of the world. On the liability side, the same things that appeared on the left hand side of the U.S. balance sheet.
At this point, the students would start to come up with the punchlines.
The next exercise was, “on the basis of what you just figured out about the global balance sheet, help me draw a diagram of the human economy overall.” First off, “What is the point of the whole human economy? What is it for?” After a bit of discussion, we’d conclude that it had to be some form of well-being or welfare. Or that’s what the economists would have us believe. (Please, economists, don’t take this as economics baiting.)
“How do people obtain well-being?” Through consumption of wealth (goods). Okay. We drew a box and labeled it “Consumption.” But wealth has to be produced before (or at the same time as) it is consumed? A box on the left hand side labeled “Production” with an arrow connecting it to the consumption box. Not all wealth produced is consumables. We labeled the arrow “Consumption Goods.” “What are the inputs to production?” If a distracted student said money, the rest of the class would correct him. “No, all money drops out when you look at the global economy.” Exactly! The items that remain in the global balance sheet! Natural resources and “capital goods.” Natural resources: an arrow labeled T (for terrum, the Latin word for land) from nowhere into the production box. “Capital goods”: an arrow coming out of production and looping back into production. The classical economists and Marx, I’d say, called them “means of production.”
“What else is required?” Something that our accountant’s global balance sheet didn’t show, because slavery is illegal. Indeed, [hu]manpower. “What else is produced when people produce wealth?” Somebody would say “garbage.” Right! Garbage, pollution, waste, noise, etc. We produce goods and bads. Goods enhance welfare. Bads reduce it. An arrow out of production into nowhere would indicate those bads. “Aside from well-being, what else is produced when people consume?” “Garbage as well.” Another arrow out of the consumption box. And labor. People replenish themselves and produce themselves as producers when they consume. An arrow from consumption looping back into the production box.
Do production generate well-being directly? Do we get some of our well-being from the things we do at work? How about the negative of well-being, misery? We produce goods and garbage, and also social garbage: “We get out of work [out of the production box] exhausted and grumpy, and then go and become aggressive drivers, bad neighbors, bad citizens.” — a female student once said. And from the consumption box? “As well, sometimes we consume and feel empty inside.” She made my point much better than I could have. The arrows pointing out of production and consumption labeled “Well-being” now had the inscription “>=< 0.”
A last push: “Do garbage get into our consumption and production boxes? Is the bad side of nature feeding back into those boxes?” Yes, the answers would pour. We live in noisy cities, breath polluted air, our products have toxic chemicals, trash entertainment, hurricanes, etc.
When we had a more or less populated diagram, I’d pause and say, “This is perhaps the broadest picture we can draw of our global economy. This is the ultimate foundation of the international monetary and financial systems. Those systems, very bulky and complex, are built on top of our production/consumption metabolism. We often lose sight of what lies underneath. So, what conclusions can you draw from these exercises?”
A shower of punchlines:
Wealth (and well-being) can only be produced the hard way, with productive wealth: labor, capital goods, natural resources. Central banks and regular banks can create money. And almost anybody can create financial assets. But that is not the same as creating actual wealth. Finance doesn’t produce wealth. It consumes wealth. Therefore it doesn’t produce well-being. “Not directly” — a student would reply — “but if financial markets transfer wealth to its best uses, then financial markets help preserve well-being.” The markets-are-efficient argument. The efficiency of financial markets can’t just be assumed. It has to be shown that they are indeed doing that job. But, in a reference to their micro courses, I’d ask: “Do markets (e.g. financial markets) always lead to an efficient allocation of resources, goods, and bads?” “No, there are market failures: monopoly, externalities, public goods, information imperfections.” Financial markets are plagued by them.
At some point, I’d show them a chart with the estimated size of the different financial markets. By comparison, the figures dwarf global GDP. Are financial markets efficient? Why are they so bloated? Remember, they use wealth, but they don’t produce it directly. Are they really giving the human race the bang for the buck? Forex markets were the biggest: spot, forwards, futures, options, swaps, not only on currencies but also on deposits (interest rates), volatility, etc. — and lots of exotics. I’d ask, “Look at what happened in Europe. What do you think would happen to the forex markets if there were a single global currency?” No need for them. They’d disappear. And no need for a course in international finance. We could be in the Bahamas instead!