Thursday, August 16, 2012

The art of Reserve Banking (at the Zuidas Amsterdam)

Reserve Banking is an art. While Draghi and Bernanke are highly qualified and professional economists, they must also master the art of performance. As true actors, they use their voice, their remarks, eyebrows and somewhat vague statements to provide hints and indications that the market then swiftly responds to. It is something you can't learn from the books. It's an art that can only be mastered in practice.

Since this year, the Zuid-As in Amsterdam is also home to the art of reserve banking. But it's a bit different. I heard about it yesterday, when visiting the Holland Financial Centre. From high up in the nearby Symphony building I looked down onto a small rectangular area of the Art Reserve Bank, well fenced, with cameras and three small office buildings. One is the minting press, the other is the teller and the third one was hard to identify. It looked like this:

The Art Reserve Bank: an experiment
What happens there is a unique experiment. A group of artists have set up, without any monetary funding, a so-called Art Reserve Bank. The plan was there for some time, but as the financial crisis came along, it became easier to convince sponsors to join a project that questions the value basis of money. The main idea is that there is far too much money circulating in the world and that the crisis demonstrates that we need a new approach towards money and debt. And in the experiment, art (or: the intrinsic value of human artistic expression) becomes the money. And thus helps to freshen up or minds and stimulate us to re-think our concept of money.

The idea is that for a period of five years, each month 400 coins are minted. These are 4 series of 100 coins per week, costing 100 euro each. For each month: a different artist is asked to design the coins, which all bear the same backside with the motto: ARS PECUNIA MAGISTRA: Art is the teacher of money. A nice motto and also a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Amsterdam Zoo that bears the motto: Natura Artis Magistra (Nature is the teacher of Art).

Anyone can buy coins and thus becomes a member of the Cooperative Art Reserve Bank (Kunstreservebank). All holders of the coin are thus the collective owner of the bank. Of the 100 euro costs, 90 % is used to pay for the operational cost of the experiment and 10 % is withheld as a 'cash reserve'. Should a buyer not appreciate his/her work of art, he can return it to the bank and get the original value back with a 10% interest fee. There is also a dealing room on the site of the bank, for those who wish to buy or sell their coinst. And at the end of the five years, all owners of coins can collectively decide what will happen with accumulated capital (if there is any and if the bank stil exists).

Money, dreams and art
The experiment challenges one to consider: what is happening in our world of money and value?

For me, the Art Reserve Bank made me realize that there may now be so much difference between their coins and the official legal tender in circulation. Both coins are the product of our imagination, dreams and creativity. Which is quite clear for the Art Reserve Bank currency, but may be less clear for the euro. So let me try to explain.

What happened over decades is that we moved from a mentality of: save first, spend later, to a mechanism of: spend first, repay later. If your story about the future would be probable enough (having a job, education etc) some bank would lend you money. And the same thing was true for businesses. Essentially this is a mechanism where tough choices are made. If you don't have the job or a solid story explaining how you can repay in the future, you don't get money. Which all sounds very realistic.

Fact is however, that with hindsight we can now see that banks, consumers and companies have on a large scale lived in dream worlds with expectations of future income, growth that were not realistic after all. Money was created, lent on the basis of these dreams and imagination. And part of that money is now in our pocket. And we also know that some of the debts are definetely not going to be repaid in the future.

So wouldn't it be fair to state that some of our euros are just as much the result of our imagination, as the Art Reserve Bank coins?