Fractional Reserves in Free Banking

by Fred Foldvary

A bank is a firm that accepts funds as deposits. The generic term “bank” includes various institutional types, such as credit unions. The bank is an intermediary between savers and borrowers. The interest paid by borrowers pays the expenses of the bank, and what remains is paid to the depositors.

There are two ways to organize a banking system. The first is with central banks, such as the Federal Reserve (the “Fed”) in the USA. The central bank issues the currency and regulates the private banks. In the USA, the Fed includes regional Federal Reserve Banks, which are the bankers’ banks. The private banks hold accounts with a Federal Reserve Bank; the funds are called “reserves.” The Fed creates money by buying bonds: it pays the seller a check, the seller deposits the check into a bank, the bank presents the check to the Federal Reserve Bank, and the Federal Reserve Bank covers the check by increasing the reserves of that bank, thus creating money out of nothing. The interest income from bonds pays the expenses of the Fed, and the remaining interest is paid back to the US Treasury.

The other method of banking is with free-market banking, or “free banking,” whereby there is no central bank; the private banks issue their own currencies and are not restricted other than by laws that prohibit fraud. The banks would usually use the same unit of account, such as the dollar or euro.

There are two ways to do banking. The first is called “one hundred percent reserves” or “full reserve” banking. In that method, the bank may not loan out the funds that are deposited. One of the challenges of banking is that with checking accounts, also called “demand deposits,” the account holders may withdraw their money at any time. In contrast, loans are typically long term, such as for mortgages or business loans or car loans. So if depositors suddenly want to withdraw much of their funds, the money will not be there. With full-reserve banking, the money is always there, but the bank get no interest payments. The depositors pay a fee to have their money stored at the bank.

The workings of a banking system also depend on the money system. The three basic types of money are 1) commodity money, where a commodity such as gold or silver is used as a general medium of exchange, 2) a fiat money system, in which the currency has no fixed convertibility to any natural commodity, and 3) an artificial-commodity system, where the unit of account is constructed in a way that limits the supply.

With commodity money, banks create money substitutes convertible to the real money at a fixed rate. For example, if gold is the real money, banks issue paper currency convertible into gold, so that, for example, a $20 paper note can be exchanged for a $20 gold coin with $20 worth of gold. All government-created money today is fiat. With fiat money, the real money is paper currency and coins, and bank deposits are money substitutes. The prime example of artificial-commodity money today is the bitcoin, an electronic currency created by computer programs.

The other method of banking is called “fractional reserve banking.” With that method, a bank holds only a small fraction of deposit funds in its reserves. Governments typically impose some minimum of required reserves. The remainder are “excess reserves,” which may be loaned out.

For example, suppose Samantha deposits $100 of currency into her account, and the required reserves are ten percent. The bank keeps $10 in reserve, and loans out the other $90 to Ralph. The loan consists of an account created by the bank. The loan therefore creates $90 in new money, since Samantha still has her $100 in the bank. With the $90 account, the bank again keeps 10%, or $9, and loans out $81. This money creation can continue until all the excess reserves are fully loaned out, in which case the original $100 deposit is multiplied into the creation of $1000.

With all reserves loaned out, if the depositors seek to withdraw their money, the bank will not have sufficient currency. A bank can deal with this liquidity problem in several ways. One is to have most of the funds in time deposits, funds that are held for a fixed period of time, unless the account holder pays a large penalty. Another method is for a bank to be able to borrow funds from other banks or from a central bank. A third way is for the bank to have contracts that state that the bank may not be able to provide withdrawals at times when it has insufficient funds.

Critics of fractional reserve banking claim that the private banks are a private monopoly cartel that inflates the money supply by making loans and obtains interest that robs the economy of money and goes to privileged bank owners.

With fiat money and central banking, there is indeed a potential for inflation, as there is no limit to money creation. The main problem with central banking is that there is no scientific way to know in advance the optimal money supply, and historically, the Fed created destructive deflation in the 1930s, high inflation in the 1970s, and the cheap credit that generated the real estate bubble and the Crash of 2008.

Some critics of central banks want the government to directly issue money. But if the Treasury or Finance department can issue money at will, political influences can induce inflation, and even hyperinflation as happened in Zimbabwe.

However, with free banking and commodity money, these problems do not arise. Banking would not be a monopoly cartel, since new banks, including credit unions can be created. The convertibility of money substitutes into real money prevents inflation, as the quantity of money substitutes is limited by the demand by the public to hold them. Competition among banks limits their profit to normal returns, as the rest of the debt service paid by borrowers goes to interest payments to depositors. Fractional-reserve free banking generates a flexible yet stable money supply. Free banking does not generate inflation, because new deposits into the banking system come from additional real money, such as from gold mining, which is costly to produce.

The failures of central planning in the economy include the failure of central banks to successfully manage the money supply and optimally manipulate interest rates. Free banking worked well where tried, such as in Scotland until 1844, when the Bank of England took over its money system. A pure free market would let the market determine both the money supply and the natural rate of interest. In Scotland, the banks formed an association to lend funds to banks that needed more liquidity. With free banking, the market’s natural rate would avoid the distortions that arise from either cheap credit or a shortage of credit.

The boom-bust cycle will only be eliminated by the prevention of the fiscal and monetary subsidies to real estate. Sustainable economic progress requires both the public collection of land rent and a free market in money and banking.

Note: this article appeared as “Fractional Reserve Banking” in the Progress Report.

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