From the Comments: Money, Currency, and Bitcoins

Dr Gibson chimes in on Chhay Lin‘s most recent post about bitcoins (I hope there will be more):

“Unspent dollars means reduced sales, and as sales decline, profits drop, layoffs increase, and the total social income decreases, making less money available for consumption. Hoarding induces more hoarding as the economy sinks into a downward spiral.” (Smith, 2009)

That’s a lot of nonsense in just two sentences. (Note this is Smith’s paraphrase of the anti-hoarding argument, which he ably disputes.)

First, there is no distinction between “spent” and “unspent” dollars. Money jumps instantly from one pocket to another whenever it is used in a transaction. All money is “idle” between jumps. This could refer to the demand to hold money which is the inverse of the velocity of money. We hold money for convenience, safety, and occasionally as a hedge against deflation.

Second, decreased velocity means price deflation, other things being equal, and if a fall in velocity happens suddenly and unexpectedly, it can be a temporary boon to buyers and a detriment to sellers. But the idea of a deflationary spiral feeding on itself is silly, if only because we all have to eat. Low prices are the cure for low prices, as bargain-hunters move in and prices stabilize.

Then there’s this “social income” phrase. Real social income is not enhanced by faster spending. It is enhanced by greater productivity which depends on private saving, which in turn depends largely on property-friendly institutions. We cannot spend our way to prosperity.

I’ll also comment on Kaminska’s claim that bitcoins “do not benefit the economy” because they do not bear interest. Along with currency and (in their time) gold and silver coins, bitcoins are what economists call “outside money” meaning they are an asset that is no one’s liability. Checking account balances are a form of “inside money” because they are at once an asset of the account holder and a liability of the bank. When outside money is deposited in a fractional-reserve bank where it becomes inside money, some is kept in reserve and some is loaned out. This apparently what is meant by “benefit to the economy” but in fact it’s a benefit to the bank which can earn profits on the new loans and to the borrower, if all goes well. It’s a detriment to the rest of us because there is an increase in the money supply which causes price inflation.

There is nothing anti-social about holding outside money. Some of us see marginal benefits in holding outside money (security, convenience) that exceed the cost in foregone interest. So what?

My own two cents on this (get it?) is merely that Dr Gibson needs to spend more time at NOL fixing the mistakes of financial journalists and keeping his fellow economists honest. (Notereaders and Notewriters, holla at me and Warren in the ‘comments’ threads if you agree!)

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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.

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.