By William Watson, December 11, 2020
A pandemic catchphrase, when you’re talking to people across the two-metre gap, is “What are you watching on Netflix?” In my home, what we’re currently watching on Netflix is Money Heist, a Spanish series about, as the name suggests, a bank job. Everywhere in the world people locked up in their homes are enjoying TV from everywhere else in the world; 2020 is, among other things, the year of the sub-title.
Money Heist is an Iberian Ocean’s Eleven. A group of small-time criminals and misfits, each with a specific skill set, is organized by a mysterious bespectacled “professor” to seize the Royal Mint of Spain and, while keeping police negotiators busy with various ruses and diversions, use the printing presses to roll off 2.4 billion euros’ worth of new currency, with which they hope to escape and live happily and anonymously ever after. Spoiler alert: … actually, I can’t spoil the ending since I’m only halfway through.
The beauty of this clever plot, the professor keeps reminding his team, and why they may get public opinion rooting for them, is that they are not stealing from anyone. They are printing the money de novo. (Remember the Beatles’ heroine who came in through the bathroom window: She could steal but she could not rob.)
The team members all buy into and periodically repeat this mantra. Which, of course, only shows that none of them is an economist.
The Bank of Spain’s annual report for 2019 shows that banknotes in circulation on Dec. 31 last year totalled 142.5 billion euros. So — hard as this is to say — 2.4 billion euros is not actually that much, only 1.7 per cent of the total outstanding, even if it does take 10 days to print. And of course there’s more to the money supply than just banknotes. There are demand deposits in banks and, beyond that, a whole range of liquid assets that do or don’t get counted as money, depending on who’s doing the analysis.