Tamny on Fractional-Reserve Banking: Right Conclusion, Faulty Analysis

John Tamny has posted a long and thought-provoking piece entitled “The Closing of the Austrian School’s Economic Mind.” He begins with a cogent critique of the anti-fractional-reserve stance of certain Austrian economists at the Mises Institute. Unfortunately, he follows that with a discussion of fractional reserves, the money multiplier, and other issues in which he goes badly astray.

As Tamny says, it is only some Austrians who have a problem with fractional-reserve banking. I consider myself an Austrian but I do not share the view of fractional reserves of the Mises Institute contingent, whom I prefer to call hard-money advocates.

The alleged problem, as the hard money people have it, is that under fractional reserves it appears that two people have a claim on the same dollar. This, they say, is fraud. But it is not fraud if the arrangement is disclosed to all parties. There are problems with our present-day fractional-reserve system, which I discuss below, but fraud is not one of them. (Incidentally, Tamny scores a point when he wonders about the hard money people calling in the state to crush the alleged fraud, but I believe most of them are anarchists and would have private protection agencies do the job. Just how this might work is beyond me.)

Tamny recognizes that fractional-reserve banking is the norm in all modern societies but he goes a little too far when he says fractional-reserve banking is a tautology. Modern banks do offer warehousing of money to those few who want it, via safe-deposit boxes. Anybody can rent one and stuff it full of currency or near-money assets like gold coins, and of course pay an annual fee. This is a minor sideline for banks, but it exists, so there is no tautology.

Also, contrary to Tamny, it is possible for a well-run business to fail for lack of money. This can happen if the supply of money in an economy falls short of the demand to hold it. (We must not mistake the demand to hold money with the demand to acquire money for spending. We all want to hold a certain level of cash, enough to cover emergencies or unexpected bargains but not so much as to pass up good opportunities for spending or investing it.) Money supply can get out of balance with money demand when there is a monopoly supplier, as there is in all modern economies, which has no market forces to tell it how much money to issue. There would be such forces in a free banking system, which is a topic for another time.

I promised to mention problems with fractional-reserve banking. The first is that government control of the banking system has short-circuited market forces that would signal to bank managers the amount of reserves they ought to keep on hand. If managers keep too little in reserves, they risk a liquidity crisis, or short of that, fear of a crisis on the part of depositors or would-be depositors. If they keep too much, they pass up profit opportunities and dis-serve their shareholders. The safety of a fractional-reserve bank depends critically on its reputation for prudence in lending. Without government interference in the forms of both controls (among them reserve requirements, capital requirements, and asset restrictions) and support (two that come to mind are Federal deposit insurance and the privilege of borrowing from the Federal Reserve), managers would very likely be more prudent about lending, and even more, about maintaining their reputation for prudent lending. Depositors would come to understand banks as something more like a mutual fund than a piggy bank.

This first point is not a strike against fractional reserves, but the government’s failure to let a free-market fractional-reserve system work honestly and efficiently.

The second problem is the flip side of the first. Federal Deposit Insurance relieves depositors of any incentive to question the soundness of their bank’s lending process. Depositors have no reason to look beyond the FDIC sticker in the window. Such is not the case with mutual funds which bear some resemblance to fractional-reserve banks. Most fund investors look carefully at ratings before investing. FDIC insurance does not eliminate risk, it socializes it, wreaking all sorts of distortions in the process.

I agree with Rothbard that occasional bank failures, leaving depositors and shareholders as well as other bank creditors empty-handed, should be welcomed because they put the fear of God into managers and depositors alike.

An advantage of a fractional reserve system over a 100% gold-backed system is that the latter would suck almost all the world’s supply of gold into underground vaults leaving very little for industrial or ornamental uses. Fractional reserves free up a lot of that gold for these uses, more so over time as the reserve levels needed to maintain confidence in the system fall as the system works well and confidence increases.

Tamny next takes up the money multiplier, and in so doing goes wildly off the rails. He cites the textbook example:

  • Someone deposits $1,000 cash in bank A
  • Bank A lends out $900 and keeps $100 cash as reserves
  • The recipient of the $900 deposits it in bank B which loans out $810 and keeps $90 cash as reserves
  • The $810 is deposited in bank C, and on it goes.

Textbooks use this example to show how money is created by fractional-reserve banks via a multiplier which approaches 1/r where r is the fraction of deposits maintained as reserves by each bank, 1/0.1=10 in the example. The new money is categorized as M1, which includes currency and travelers’ checks in addition to demand deposits (checking account balances).

So is M1 really money? Most definitely, because it fits the definition perfectly: a generally accepted medium of exchange. Is there anyone reading this piece who does not keep much more of his money in a checking account than in cash? How often do we pay cash these days? We use our debit cards, paper checks, or on-line transfers instead of currency. Or we use credit cards which we pay off by on-line transfer or check. All this is M1 money, all created by private banks under the aegis of fractional reserve banking. Notwithstanding the problems cited above, it all works rather well.

Tamny will have none of it. He goes through the same textbook exercise, imagining a group of friends in a room instead of a sequence of banks. He is wrong to say that no money is created in the process. To be sure, the amount of currency in circulation has not increased but he fails to notice that M1 money has increased. That’s because each loan recipient has, in addition to some currency, a bank balance that he correctly believes he can spend without ever converting it into currency: M1 money. Tamny could give each borrower in his thought experiment an old-fashioned bank book as evidence of the new money. We have here the nub of Tamny’s problem: his failure to recognize that M1 money (or rather the demand deposits that dominate that category) is real spendable money.

Tamny says money doesn’t grow on trees, but he’s wrong. The Fed creates base money out of thin air, as I’m sure Tamny agrees, but most money creation is done by private banks via the multiplier. And in truth, a fractional reserve system does create real wealth in the long run relative to a 100% reserve system because it increases the efficiency of the money and banking system, freeing up resources for alternate productive uses.

Is the fractional-reserve system inflationary? Yes, when currency flows into banks and is multiplied, it is. The reverse process is deflationary. But if overall bank reserve levels hold steady no price inflation is triggered, other things being equal.

Tamny’s use of NetJets as an analogy to fractional-reserve banking is flawed. The same jet plane cannot be in two different places at the same time. But two dollars of checking account money, each having its origin in the same dollar of currency deposited, can both be spent. Yes, money does grow on fractional-reserve trees. No, real wealth does not.

Tamny asks, if banks can multiply money, why can’t the same be done by “enterprising entrepreneurs eager to quickly turn $1,000 into $10,000 without doing anything?” They can actually, but they must do a lot of work first, like raising capital, setting up an office and web site, rounding up depositors and borrowers. To see details, go to www.startabank.com. The barriers to entry caused by licensing and such are actually rather modest.

Incidentally, the failure to recognize demand deposits as money goes back at least to the Currency School in 1840’s England. This school of thought held that bank notes should be backed 100% by gold but failed to understand that checks payable on demand were also money and required backing.

“Credit is not money,” says Tamny. What is it, then? “Credit is real resources.” But this is a wide departure from the accepted meaning of the term and one that leads to all sorts of confusion. The common definition of credit is a willingness or commitment of lenders to provide loans to certain parties under certain conditions. Businesses often carry lines of credit with banks. Individuals have credit limits on their credit card accounts. No, credit is not money, but it comes close. We feel reassured by credit commitments which we can tap into when needed. Credit is a way to buy stuff, not the stuff itself. I should add that later in the same paragraph Tamny calls credit access to real resources (my emphasis). This is closer to the mark but is not the defining characteristic of credit. Stuff can be bought on credit or with currency or barter. Again, credit is the willingness or commitments of lenders to loan money. But later in the piece Tamny flips back to credit as “resources in the real economy.”

At one point he says true inflation is “devaluation of the dollar.” No, devaluation refers to a drop in exchange rates for a particular currency relative to other currencies. Devaluation is often but not always accompanied by inflation. I’ll give him a pass on this and assume he means true inflation is a drop in the dollar’s purchasing power.

Elsewhere he denies any role for Fed-induced “easy credit” in the housing bubble. It may not have been the dominant factor, and it may have been overpowered by countervailing factors in the examples he cites, but can there be any doubt that lower interest rates stimulate the quantity of housing demanded, other things being equal? Don’t mortgage payments consist almost entirely of interest in the early years? Exercise for the reader: how much more house can you afford given $3,000 per month to spend on a 30-year mortgage if the rate drops from 5% to 4%? Answer: a lot more.

Another Tamny claim is that a growing economy always needs more money. This seems right, since growth generally means more of everything. But as clearing and payment system efficiencies increase, as we turn more to debit cards, credit cards, PayPal, and whatever comes next, our desire to hold money declines. This countervailing tendency could cancel out most or all of the effects of growth on money demand.

Tamny calls government oversight of money “horrid” and wishes for abolition of the Fed. Amen to both, but how can he be sure that, as he claims, credit would soar as a result? It probably would in the long run as sound money prompted increased confidence, but in the short run there could be liquidation of mal-investments and a general hesitation to save and invest pending clarification about where things were headed under the new setup.

John Tamny is correct: the anti-fractional-reserve crusade of the hard-money people is misguided. That case has been made repeatedly, deftly, and at length by Larry White and George Selgin, two of the best contemporary monetary economists. Sad to say, Tamny’s analysis, riddled as it is with errors and confusions, falls far short of their work.

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Tabarrok on “Bernanke vs. Friedman”

Alex Tabarrok has a very flattering post at Marginal Revolution about my 2011 article,  “Ben Bernanke versus Milton Friedman: The Federal Reserve’s Emergence as the U.S. Economy’s Central Planner.” It seems that the President of the Richmond Fed has independently just made a similar argument.

Seven Ways Libertarians Sometimes Run Off the Rails

I’m a dedicated libertarian but my first allegiance is to accuracy.  It pains me when I see libertarians making arguments that are inaccurate, irrelevant, or just plain wrong.  When they do so, they do themselves and our movement a big dis-service.  I list seven such arguments here.  More could be added.

  1. The Fed is privately owned. This is true only superficially. Member banks own shares of stock in one of twelve district Federal Reserve Banks and they receive dividends on those shares. But they have little in the way of genuine ownership privileges. They cannot sell their stock and their voting rights are very limited. The President of the United States appoints the Board of Governors. Just because a legal arrangement is given labels that suggest private ownership, that doesn’t make it so.

  2. The Bureau of Labor Statistics disguises the true unemployment situation by excluding workers who are “discouraged,” i.e., not seeking jobs. This is true of the U-3 unemployment figure which is the most widely cited figure, and the one the Fed says it is targeting. That figure is currently about 6.5%. The BLS also publishes its U-6 figure, which includes discouraged workers and currently stands at around 13%, down from about 17% at the height of the Great Recession. The BLS is not covering up anything here, although politicians may certainly choose to emphasize one figure or the other depending on what ax they’re grinding. Which is the “true” unemployment rate? There’s no such thing. The figures are what they are and observers can make of them what they will.

  3. “Chain-weighted” versions of the Consumer Price Index are politically motivated.  These adjustments are intended to recognize the substitution effect, the classic example of which is when the price of beef rises and the price of chicken doesn’t, people eat less beef and more chicken. Peoples’ cost of living rises less than it otherwise would. CPI increases as measured by a chain-weighted formula reflect this fact, and the resulting price inflation estimates come out lower than under the old approach. That flashes a green light to some conspiracy theorists. While these adjustments are tricky business, substitution effects are real and the attempt to compensate for them should not be impugned.
  4. The Consumer Price Index is politically manipulated by excluding food and energy. There are many versions of the CPI. One of them excludes food and energy because those prices are usually very volatile. That figure may be useful to economists who want to filter out volatile effects and focus on secular trends. Again, the figures are what they are, and politicians or for that matter we bloggers can use or misuse them as we wish.

  5. “Banksters” control the U.S. government. There is a grain of truth in this one. The big banks are both victims and beneficiaries of government dominance of banking and finance. The reality of government regulation is that regulated firms employ many very smart and very well paid individuals who are constantly finding ways to manipulate or sidestep the regulations to which they are subject. The fact is that the regulators and the regulated are very thick. Banking and finance are controlled by a cabal of government and Wall Street firms and individuals. It’s a mistake to say that either group totally dominates the other.

  6. Global warming is a myth and a scam. Ron Paul, whom I admire very much, blotted his copy book when he said on Fox News, “The greatest hoax I think that has been around for many, many years if not hundreds of years has been this hoax on […] global warming.” A few basic facts are beyond dispute: (a) carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, (b) CO2 levels are at an all time high, and (c) human activity is the primary cause of the increase. Beyond that, the evidence starts to get sketchy and incomplete. We do seem to have melting polar ice caps, record high temperatures in some places, droughts, etc. But overall there has been almost no temperature increase during the last ten years or so.  Projections of rising temperatures and rising sea levels appear to be too pessimistic. This is a very complex issue and one where biases can overwhelm us if we aren’t careful. Statists are prone to accept the global warming thesis because they see it as a way to increase state power. Libertarians want the issue to go away for the same reason. This would be a great time for all parties to step back an exercise some epistemic humility. There’s a great deal about this issue that we just don’t know.

  7. Let’s get rid of the state entirely, and all will be well. Given the present primitive degree of evolution of our species, a new state will pop up wherever an existing one is overthrown. The key to peace and prosperity is not anything so simple as abolition of the state, but to convince enough people, thoroughly enough, of the advantages of long-term cooperation. Good institutions will follow.

Distribution of Wealth — A Distortion of Focus

A ‘sociology’ paper by LA Repucci

Wealth vs Wages

Much hay is made of the distribution of wealth in the modern United States.  Recently, the Occupy movement has protested the accruing affluence of a shrinking number of individuals that constitute the top ‘1%’ of wealthy within the country.  Data suggests that the top 1% of income earners in the country represent a myriad of professions, investments, and financial instruments as revenue streams, with the largest portion (30.9%) represented as the executive/corporate professionals, as shown by graphic 1.1 below:

1.1: Top 1% of Wage Earners by Profession, US.  Source, Wikicommons

Analyzing the data from this table paints a picture of broad distribution of wage incomes across a myriad of industries, but fails to account for the disproportionately massive amounts of wealth that aren’t generated by salaries at all, nor are they representative of the fact that the wealthiest legal entities within the US aren’t people — they are tax-sheltered corporate entities:

1.2: Corporate Profits vs Tax Liability

The Corporate Model

Corporations are paper entities recognized by the state as legal persons.  They exist in order to generate and accrue revenue, and pay stakeholders.  Unlike natural persons, corporate entities are immortal.  Instead of competing on the open marketplace for revenue, the most successful and largest corporations have discovered a way to cut the market out of their revenue streams altogether.  It is simply easier and more cost effective to lobby the state to enact laws that protect their revenue stream and squash market forces than it is to operate within a competitive market.  Progressive, draconian tax structures enacted as a hedge against corporate domination of wealth may be adopted by government in an effort to increase tax revenue from the corporations, but in reality, simply provide further incentive for corporations to allocate resources in an effort to mitigate or outright eliminate their tax liability within the US.  For example, Google, the fastest growing and wealthiest of the new tech giants, pays a majority of it’s taxes in Ireland and Bermuda — nations with a far friendlier income tax policy than the US — and bypass their US tax liability almost entirely due to the so-called ‘loophole’ in the income tax law, resulting in the federal government’s lost tax revenue from one of the largest US corporations in history. This leads increasingly to a larger percentage of individuals, sole proprietors and small-to-mid cap businesses shouldering an increasing burden within the tax structure as shown in 1.3 below.

1.3

The State’s Culpability

The new corporate model of tax evasion coupled with astronomical growth in profits-to-cost relies heavily on the government’s complicit action with regard to tax policy and recognition of corporate person-hood.  It is in a company’s interest to make money — but to ‘saw the ladder off’ below them, they require government cooperation to enact laws that make tax sheltering and corporate personhood possible.  This culture of lobbying and outright appropriation of the legislative process has progressed to the point that there is little differentiation between the state and the corporation.  Insurance companies write health care laws, and banking institutions write tax laws and set monetary policy.  The roots of this collaboration run deep through US history, crystallized notably by the creation of the Federal Reserve Bank in 1913 on Jekyll Island by J.P. Morgan, Paul Warburg and other global-level financiers with the collusion of Senator Nelson Aldrich, who had close ties to both Morgan and Nelson Rockefeller. (Further reading: ‘The Creature from Jekyll Island’ by E.B. White)  The Federal Reserve Act of 1913 was signed into law by then US President Woodrow Wilson, and effectively turned over control of the nation’s monetary policy, issuance of currency, and anti-market fixing of interest rates to a private bank set up as a for-profit corporation called the Federal Reserve Bank, effectively undoing the American Revolution and the work of his predecessor, President Andrew ‘Old Hickory’ Jackson.  The ‘Fed’ as it is known today, continues to be the sole issuer of paper money accepted for the payment of taxes in the US.  While the people remain ‘free’ to trade in whatever currency or barter they choose, all state and federal taxes in the US must be paid in Federal Reserve Notes, giving the Fed a monopoly on currency.

The Corporate-State Combine

A century of the above-outlined activities of corporate entities have led to an overlap between the banking community and government that often goes understated.  JP Morgan/Chase market their banking services directly to government, as clearly outlined in their marketing materials: https://www.jpmorgan.com/pages/jpmorgan/cb/government. It is no surprise that most of the nominees for president, cabinet members, the Fed and legislators exist in a professional ‘revolving door’ environment that moves them from banking to high office and back over the course of their careers.  For example, both major party candidates for president in the last 20 years have had direct professional ties to JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs.  This ‘partnership’ has led to a century of collusion between government and banking, taking an ever-increasing cut of the total wealth out of the real market, and enriching our legislators to the point that many of the wealthiest counties in the nation now surround Washington DC as evidenced in the data provided.  This corporate-government combine acts as a siphon, sucking wealth out of the population through inflation, currency devaluation and increased tax burden, and enriches the corporate interest through outright gifting (TARP, Stimulus, Bailouts, etc) to the wealthiest of the wealthiest of the 1%.  Warren Buffett, one of the wealthiest men in the world and owner of Berkshire Hathaway Ltd. championed bailouts while his firm received the largest portion of us taxpayer money from the TARP program. Buffett himself pounds the table for higher tax rates, while he and his company manage to ‘limit’ their tax liability and avoid paying taxes owed back to 2002.  Mr. Buffett is a major campaign contributor to our current President, Barack Obama.

Solutions

With the compound factors of massive increases in government spending (roughly $20,000 annually per citizen), and the steady evaporation of corporate tax liability (less than 40% of the total tax base of businesses in the US is covered by large-cap corporations) the problem of the distribution of wealth in the US is starkly apparent.  To identify what is going wrong in the economy is one thing — providing real solutions is another entirely.  Both major political parties offer their version of the fix — the right would suggest cutting government spending on services and lowering the tax base to broaden it and encourage large cap corporate interests to pay their income taxes in-country.  The left advises steeply progressive tax laws on private citizens (one would assume the left would suggest tax reform for large corporations, but the democrat party has been in charge of the tax law for decades with no such legislation to speak of), and consumption and indulgence taxes on goods and services, combined with further devaluation of the dollar through Quantitative Easing (QE) and raising (or outright elimination of) the debt ceiling.

While it would seem that these two paths are the only potential ‘fixes’ to our nation’s distribution of wealth problem, neither of these plans would provide real, permanent relief to the average citizen who is continually squeezed out of the middle of the economy, with an ever-increasing portion of their revenue taken by the state through tax, and devalued by the state through inflation.  Indeed, it would seem that our problem is not ‘distribution of wealth’, but rather, the redistribution of wealth through taxation and devaluation of the dollar.  Looking at the problem from this perspective, the solutions become simpler and multi-fold.

Monetary Policy/END THE FED

Should the Federal government enact law that checks the monopoly power of the Fed to issue currency by accepting in payment of taxes any and all used currencies in the market, the nation would be free to adopt currencies other than the dollar.

Bitcoin, a decentralized crypto-currency, is a notable example of a market solution to the problem of distribution of wealth.  Though Bitcoin has it’s detractors and a relatively small market cap, it’s value has continued to skyrocket on the open market, and is in the early stages of large-scale adoption and public use.  Bitcoin requires no bank or government to ‘mint’ it as a currency, and is freely traded electronically between users with no bank needed.

Similarly, gold and silver have been used for thousands of years the world over as viable hard currencies.  Hard currencies cannot be devalued through running of a printing press like paper currencies, nor through the click of a button like crypto-currencies.  As there is a finite amount of gold and silver in the market, it’s value has a ‘hard floor’ — it is always worth at least it’s value as a raw material.

The fact that the Federal government will only accept Federal Reserve Notes (which, in itself violates the constitutional directive for the US Treasury to mint coin, not a private bank) in payment of taxes effectively gives the FED a monopoly on currency.  The last US President to order the Treasury mint silver certificates was John F. Kennedy.

Commercial Policy/END CORPORATE PERSON-HOOD

Corporations are legal ‘persons’ with the ability to lobby the legislature directly, resulting in tax laws and policies that favor them over natural citizens of the US.  This has resulted in laws being written directly by corporations, including insurance companies’ authorship of the Affordable Healthcare Act.   The insurance companies’ stock has risen by a factor of 2-5 due to the implementation of the law, while the cost of health insurance for the average citizen has skyrocketed.  Ending corporate person-hood would go a long way to ending the power of lobbyists to purchase legislators, and result in elected officials representing the people who elect them.

Tax Policy/END THE TAX

‘Taxes’, ‘tariffs’, or any other name the state wishes to apply, are simply pseudonyms for extortion — that is, the violation of individual property rights through threats of aggressive reprisal.  When private entities such as a thief or mob perform the same action, we rightly call it theft.  It is completely inconsequent what a thief does with your money once he has violated your rights to acquire it, even if he assures you that it is to your personal, direct benefit that he take your property from you by force.  To fix the distribution of wealth, and as well to return to a moral society where one does not live on the property of his neighbor through state-sponsored theft, all taxes should be eliminated.  If a portion of the population would like to provide a service or product to their neighbors, let them do so legitimately through voluntary free association and exchange.  The state spends more than it takes in in taxes, and floats the rest on credit.  This activity has crippled the purchasing power of the dollar, which has lost 99% of its total purchasing power on the market in the 100 years the Fed has controlled the nation’s currency.

Bibliography:

Wikimedia Commons. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Dec. 2013.

JP Morgan.com “State and Local Government.” N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Dec. 2013.

Cogan, John F. Federal Budget Deficits: What’s Wrong with the Congressional Budget Process. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution, Stanford University, 1992. Print.