Herewith we visit an imaginary future where free banking prevails. Government regulation of banks is a thing of the past. Banks have the freedom and the responsibility that they lacked under government regulation. In particular, private banks are free to print money, either literally, in the form of paper banknotes for the shrinking number of customers who want them, but in electronic form for most.
Print money? Horrors, you say! Fraud! Runaway inflation!
Not so fast. Come with me on a fantasy visit to the local branch of my bank, a future incarnation of Wells Fargo to be specific.
The first thing we notice is a display case showing a number of gold coins and a placard that says, “available here for 1,000 Wells Fargo Dollars each, now and forever.” I have in my wallet a number of Wells Fargo banknotes in various denominations. I could walk up to a teller and plunk down 1,000 of them and the smiling young lady would hand over one of these coins. More likely I would whip out my smartphone and hold it up to the near-field reader, validate my thumbprint, and complete the transaction without paper.
I have a few of these beautiful gold coins socked away at home but I don’t want any more today nor do I want to carry them around. Electronic money is ever so much safer and more convenient. Still, I am reassured by the knowledge that I could get the gold any time I wanted it. That is the basis for my confidence in this bank, not the FDIC sticker we used to see in the bank’s window.
Confidence? What about inflation? Wells Fargo can create as many of these dollars as they want, out of thin air. Without government regulation, who will stop them from creating and spending as many dollars as they want?
The market will stop them, that’s who.
In my scenario, Consumer Reports and a number of lesser known organizations track Wells Fargo and other banks. These organizations post daily figures online showing the number of Wells Fargo dollars (WF$) outstanding and the amount of gold holdings that the bank keeps in reserve to back these dollars. Premium subscribers, I imagine, can get an email alert any time a bank’s reserves fall below some specified levels. Large depositors will notify Wells Fargo of their intention to begin withdrawing deposits and/or demanding physical gold. Small depositors piggyback on the vigilance efforts of big depositors. They know it is not necessary for them to pester the bank when the big guys are doing it for everybody.
Wells Fargo practices fractional reserve banking. They cannot redeem all their banknote liabilities and demand deposit liabilities at the stated rate of one ounce of gold per thousand WF$. This situation is clearly outlined in the contract that depositors sign and is printed on their banknotes.
Let’s assume Wells Fargo backs just 40% of its banknotes and deposits with physical gold. How is this figure arrived at? By trial and error. Managers believe that if they let the reserve ratio slip much below 40% they will start getting flak from the monitoring websites and their big depositors. If they let it rise much above that figure their stockholders will begin complaining about missed profit opportunities.
Under fractional reserve banking, bank runs are possible. A bank run is a situation where a few depositors lose confidence in a bank and demand redemption of their deposits in gold or in notes of another bank. Seeing this, other depositors line up to get their money out, and if left unchecked, the bank is wiped out along with the depositors who were last in line. Bank runs are not a pretty sight.
Wells Fargo has a number of strategies for heading off a bank run. They have an agreement with the private clearing house of which they are a member that allows the bank to draw on a line of credit under certain circumstances. There is a clause, clearly indicated in the agreement with their depositors, allowing them to delay gold redemption for up to 60 days under special circumstances. They can reduce the supply of WF$ by calling in loans as permitted by loan agreements. Most important, though, is Wells Fargo’s reputation. Not once in their long history has Wells Fargo been subject to a bank run. Management is keenly aware of the value of their reputation and will move heaven and earth to preserve it.
To sum up, Wells Fargo’s ability to create unbacked money is limited by the public’s willingness to hold that money. The bank can respond to changes in the demand to hold WF$ whether those changes are seasonal in nature or secular. They have strategies in place to head off runs should one appear imminent or actually begin.
What about competing banks, you may ask. Does Bank of America issue its own money? If so, there must be chaos with several different brands of money in the market. Are there floating exchange rates? Is a BofA$ worth WF$1.05 one day and WF$0.95 the next? What else but government regulation could put an end to such chaos?
The market, that’s what else.
Competing suppliers of all sorts of products have an incentive to adhere to standards even as they compete vigorously. If we were in a classroom right now I would point to the fluorescent lights overhead. The tubes are all four feet long and 1.5 inches in diameter, with standard connectors. They run on 110 volt 60 Hz AC current. Suppliers all adhere to this standard while competing vigorously with one another. If they don’t adhere to the standards people won’t buy their light bulbs.
So it is that competing banks in my fantasy world have all converged on a gold standard. They all adhere to the standard one ounce of gold per thousand dollars. (I trust it’s obvious that I just made up this number. Any number would do.)
Why gold? Gold has physical properties that have endeared it to people over the ages—durability, divisibility, scarcity to name a few. But other standards might have evolved such as a basket of commodities—gold, silver, copper, whatever.
You may raise another objection. All this gold sitting in vaults detracts from the supply available for jewelry, electronics, etc. That’s a real cost to these industries and their customers.
Yes, it is. It’s called the “resource cost” of commodity-backed money. To get a handle on this cost we must recognize that gold sitting in vaults is not really idle, but is actively providing a service. It is ensuring a stable monetary system immune from political meddling. How valuable is that? The market will balance the benefits of stability against the resource costs of a gold standard.
Furthermore we can expect resource costs to decline slowly as confidence in the banking system increases and people are comfortable with declining reserve ratios. Wells Fargo may find that a 30% reserve ratio rather 40% will be enough to maintain confidence. Other things equal, this development would boost profits temporarily, but those profits would soon be competed away, to the benefit of depositors and the economy as a whole.
Let’s go back to bank runs. Aren’t they something horrible, to be avoided at all costs?
Actually an occasional bank run is something to be celebrated. Not for those involved, of course, but to remind depositors and bank managers alike that they need to be careful. The same is true of the recent Radio Shack bankruptcy. Bad news for stockholders, suppliers and employees but an opportunity for competitors to learn from this bankruptcy.
Under my free banking scenario, depositors must take some responsibility for their actions. That doesn’t mean they have to become professional examiners. They just have to take some care to check with Consumer Reports or other rating organizations before signing on with a bank.
Have I sketched out a perfect situation? There’s no such thing as perfection in human affairs but I submit that this situation would be vastly superior to what we have now, where the Federal Reserve’s policy of printing money to finance government deficits will end badly. Furthermore, relatively free banking has existed in the past and worked well. To learn more, start with Larry White’s “Free Banking in Britain.”