On Scottish Free Banking (a Canadian Perspective)

Yesterday, George Selgin responded on Alt-M to a series of (relatively) recent paper that posit the impossibility of private money. While Selgin does criticize the theoretical reasoning of the papers, the majority of his case is based on the historical experience of private money – notably the Scottish experience with free banking.

I wanted to write something on this, but Selgin got there faster. Indeed, the historical evidence of free banking in Canada, Scotland, Sweden and the limited experiences observed in France and elsewhere provide a strong backing for soundness of private money. Selgin is right to emphasize this.

However, I can provide a small piece of evidence to support his case. It is not only scholars like Selgin who believe that the historical experience of Scotland was positive. As far back as 1835 and as far away as Canada, the robustness of the Scottish free banking experience was lauded. Consider the following quote from a report to the House of Assembly of Upper Canada (modern day Ontario):

“In Scotland, private banking has long existed and fewer failures have occurred there than in any other part of the world; their Joint Stock Banking Companies embrace some of the following principles by which the public are quite secured and the institutions useful as Banks of Deposit and circulation, while the stock is above par, and proved to be a good investment”

This report was actually presented in Canada arguing that Scottish free banking was a solution to a longstanding problem in the colony : dearth of small denominations. The “big problem of small change” was a real issue in the colony and created important frictions. The problem was most likely created by the fixing of exchange rates between the different currencies at levels dissonant with the actual value of different currencies so that “bad money drove out good money” (see Angela Redish’s work). The report recommended legislative actions to encourage the formation of banks that would issue private notes to solve this problem. Newspapers in the neighboring colony of Lower Canada also praised (in the early 1830s) the role that banks played in easing the problem of “poor money”.

I have made an initial foray on this with Mathieu Bédard of Aix-Marseille School of Economics (and we plan to make another few) and  showed that the role of free banking in improving economic growth was considerable exactly because of the issue of private money. While Canada is a small, it provides some additional support to the claim that private money can indeed exist, survive and be superior to state money.

Source:  House of Assembly of Upper Canada. 1835. Report of the Select Committee to which was referred the subject of The Currency. Toronto : M.Reynolds Printer.

P.S. Below there is a picture of a half-penny issued by the Quebec Bank in 1837 showing that there was even private coinage in Canada.


Hayek’s Choice In Currency: A Way To Stop Inflation

I have just finished reading Friedrich Hayek’s short essay entitled ‘Choice in Currency’ (1976). I believe that this essay is highly relevant in our current time as we have become witnesses of the emergence of crypto-currencies. In the essay, Hayek argues for market competition in currencies as a way to stop inflation and its dire consequences. He does not contend that the governments’ right to issue money should be done away with. Instead, he argues that what should be abolished is their “exclusive right to do so and their power to force people to use it and to accept it at a particular price” (p. 16). Hayek concludes that

“the best the state can do with respect to money is to provide a framework of legal rules within which the people can develop the monetary institutions that best suit them… if we could prevent governments from meddling with money, we would do more good than any government has ever done in this regard. And private enterprise would probably have done better than the best they have ever done.” (p. 22)

Hayek starts the essay with a critique on John Maynard Keynes and his idea that governments or central banks should increase the aggregate of money expenditure in order to ensure prosperity and full employment. According to Hayek, an increase in money expenditure would stimulate the economy in the short run, but it would make unemployment worse on the long run. For a more detailed explanation of the Austrian Business Cycle Theory that Hayek has supported, you can read this article of mine – you have to be able to read Dutch though.

What I find most interesting about Hayek in the essay, next to his great arguments why we should allow currency competition on the market place, is that he seems to have become more embittered with politics and the common people at the point of writing in 1976. Just as my opinion of governments and the public have worsened over the years, so too has Hayek’s opinion over the course of his lifetime. He writes:

“I never had much illusion in this respect, but I must confess that in the course of a long life my opinion of governments has steadily worsened: the more intelligently they try to act (as distinguished from simply following an established rule), the more harm they seem to do – because once they are known to aim at particular goals (rather than merely maintaining a self-correcting spontaneous order) the less they can avoid serving sectional interests.” (p. 14)

“No worse traps could have been set for a democratic system in which the government is forced to act on the beliefs that the people think to be true. Our only hope for a stable money is indeed now to find a way to protect money from politics.” (p. 16)

What is Hayek’s proposal for the world in 1976? He writes:

“At this moment it seems that the best thing we could wish governments to do is for, say, all the members of the European Economic Community, or, better still, all the governments of the Atlantic Community, to bind themselves mutually not to place any restrictions on the free use within their territories of one another’s – or any other – currencies, including their purchase and sale at any price the parties decide upon, or on their use as accounting unites in which to keep books. This, and not a utopian European Monetary Unit, seems to me now both the practicable and the desirable arrangement to aim at. To make the scheme effective it would be important, for reasons I state later, also to provide that banks in one country be free to establish branches in any of the others.” (p. 17)

Fortunately, our technologies have rapidly changed since then. We are now able to create crypto-currencies that are in direct competition with governments’ or central banks’ issued currencies. I hope that such alternative currencies like Bitcoins will eventually weed out federal currencies and will stop the erosion of our money’s value. A currency that cannot be printed out of thin air would lead to a much safer world as governments cannot finance their wars through inflation anymore. Nor can they secretly usurp ‘taxes’ on seigniorage.

Hayek, F.A. (1976). Choice In Currency: A Way To Stop Inflation. Institute Of Economic Affairs

Critics of Markets have Intervention Denial

There is a meme, an infectious idea, that has spread like a mental plague among advocates of greater governmental intervention. This idea is “intervention denial,” the claim that the US and other developed economies have had complete economic freedom. The critics of markets usually use deliberately mind-numbing language such as “capitalism,” although sometimes they do claim more starkly that today’s economies are a “free market” and practice “free banking” and “free trade.”

Many examples of intervention denial can be found by searching for the submeme “unbridled capitalism” as well as “greed” combined with “capitalism” or statements such as “people over profits.” For example, there is a web article titled “Unbridled Capitalism and the Blight of Greed” which defines “capitalism” as “the economic system in which the pursuit of wealth remains in the control of individuals, free from government regulation or interference.” The article states that “Capitalism, after all, suffers from a fatal flaw – Greed.” Intervention denial has infected well-meaning people in high places, such as the Pope, who declared, “Unbridled capitalism has taught the logic of profit at any cost.”

“Denial” in this context means the refusal to believe in evidence. For example, Holocaust denial is the refusal to accept the enormous evidence of mass murders by the Nazis. There are science denials of various sorts. Intervention denial is one of the most destructive memes in the mental universe human beings live in, because intervention denial blocks effective solutions to social problems.

Consider the claim that the US has had destructive “free banking.” This false meme originated in historians who called the US banking system prior to the civil war “free banking,” even though the banks were tightly controlled by state governments, such as prohibiting banks from establishing branches beyond the state. In true free-market money and banking, there is no restriction or imposed cost on any currency, account, or financial institution so long as its operation is honest and peaceful.

The intervention deniers claim that the USA has a free market in money and banking, disregarding the obvious facts that the US financial system is tightly regulated by the Federal Reserve (“the Fed”), the FDIC, the SEC, and the US Treasury Department. These institutions and Congress bailed out the financial system after the interventions caused the Depression of 2008, as they did with previous busts. The US dollar and interest rates are controlled by the central planning of the Fed. This is the system that intervention deniers call a “free market.”

In a truly free market, there would be no restriction, tax, subsidy, or mandate that alters honest and peaceful human action. Those who claim the US economy is “unbridled” talk as though there were no regulations nor any taxation, let alone subsidies. The extent and effects of regulations on the US economy can be read in the study “Ten Thousand Commandments” published by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, as well as the regulations data base of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. The economic damage done by intervention can also be read in the on-going study “Economic Freedom of the World,” at freetheworld.com.

How can an economy be “unbridled” if enterprise, consumption, and produced wealth are all afflicted with heavy taxation? Intervention deniers talk as though there were no income tax, federal excise taxes, state sales taxes, value-added taxes, and taxes on buildings and equipment. A truly free market would also not have any subsidies, such as the billions of dollars now going into the big farms, along with other corporate welfare.

All these interventions – taxes, subsidies, restrictions, and mandates – distort prices, wages, interest rates, profits, and quantities. The social problems we can observe: unemployment, low wages, unaffordable housing, slow growth, recessions, pollution, can be traced back to government intervention. Consider pollution, for example. Intervention deniers claim that “capitalism” and “greed” result in pollution and environmental destruction. But a truly free market is free of subsidies. When firms and their customers do not pay the full social cost of the products, as the social cost of pollution is imposed on others, that is an implicit subsidy. In a truly free market, with full enforcement of property rights, pollution is treated as a trespass, an invasion of others’ property, requiring full compensation. The problem is not that firms and markets are unbridled, but that ecological destruction is subsidized. The subsidies combine with a legal system that bridles the population with a legal inability to sue the polluters for damages.

There is indeed a bridle to a free market: laws prohibiting force and fraud. A pure market economy consists of voluntary human action. The bridle is on thieves, not on peaceful and honest producers, traders, and consumers.

When interventions are pointed out to the deniers, they respond that these taxes, restrictions, subsidies, and mandates are of little significance. This is similar to Holocaust deniers who respond that perhaps a few Jews and Gypsies were murdered by the Nazis, but not on the large scale that they deny. Intervention deniers do not deny the existence of the Federal Reserve system, but they claim it is a private free-market organization. Deniers of all sorts reject data and other evidence, use undefined terms such as “capitalism” and “greed,” and point to their favored authors, articles, and data as though these present unbridled truth.

“Greed” means wanting and taking more than one morally deserves. A person morally deserves that which is earned by labor and received from voluntary gifts. The honest acquisition of wealth may be avarice, but not greed. Thieves are greedy, and those who indirectly steal by getting government to do or protect their forced taking are also greedy. Intervention denial is ultimately a refusal to think it through, to fully understand the ethics, politics, and economics of human life.

Greece Needs a Radical Transformation

Having rejected austerity with the “no” vote on the referendum, Greece now sits on the edge of an even worse recession and economic collapse, unless the lenders write off or postpone the debt payments even further. The problem is that the Greek politicians have not provided a program of major policy reforms.

Only with radical changes could Greece rise like a phoenix from its economic mess. These are the measures which could quickly make Greece the most prosperous economy on earth.

1. Amend the constitution to eliminate all restrictions on peaceful and honest enterprise and human action. There would be free trade, without tariffs and quotas, with all countries.

2. Leave the European Union.

3. Crank up the printing presses and give each Greek citizen 10,000 new-drachma in paper currency. The new-drachma would be payable for taxes at a one-to-one ratio to the euro. One new-drachma would also pay for first-class postage to European countries. No new-drachmas would be created after this distribution except to pay previously-existing governmental pensions. Banks would be free to issue private currency redeemable in new-drachma.

4. Immediately replace the income tax, the value-added tax, and all other taxes with a tax on land value and a pollution tax. Replace judicial environmental restrictions with the levies on pollution based on the measured damage. Enable citizens to sue polluting firms that are not paying a pollution tax based on the damage. Allow real estate owners to self-assess their land value with the condition that the state could buy their land at their assessment plus 25 percent, and lease it back to the owner of the building at current market rentals.

5. Decentralize all government programs and bureaucracies other than the military to the 13 provincial “regions.” The Greek constitution already prescribes that the administration of the country be decentralized. The land value tax would be collected by the regional governments, which would then pass on a portion to the national government.

6. Pay the foreign lenders with futures contracts payable in new-drachmas maturing in 2025.

Greek democracy was restored in 1974. The politicians sought votes by legislating a welfare state funded by borrowing. With radical reforms, national welfare programs can be phased out as employment increases and programs are shifted to the regional governments.

A prosperity tax shift would bring in massive investment and quickly eliminate unemployment and tax evasion. Billions of euros held in foreign banks would come back to Greece to finance investment and production.

Without radical reforms, Greece will be stuck in debt, austerity, and poverty. Radical reforms are the only way out.

Around the Web: Greece Edition

  1. Tyler Cowen has been owning this debate.
  2. Unfortunately, Greek citizens have been too fed up with the rest of the world to listen.
  3. (Perhaps libertarians and their arguments were just late to the party.)
  4. This is still the best concise sociological analysis of Greece and the EU I’ve come across.

It’s worth noting here that the overwhelming majority of ‘No’ voters – the ones who just rejected the EU after their elected, far Left leader walked out of talks days before said talks were scheduled to end – don’t want to leave the EU. Confused? See the Cowen link.

Matthew and I had a dialogue on Greece awhile back here at NOL that might be of interest.

The Gold Standard is Not Without its Costs

News from the department of “life is bigger than art:” A few days ago I posted a fictitious account of a future Wells Fargo Bank operating on a revived gold standard. Turns out the real Wells Fargo, now a regular large commercial bank with its roots in the California gold rush, has a branch in downtown San Francisco at the site where the bank was first opened in 1852. The branch had an exhibit of historic artifacts, including gold nuggets from the gold rush era. I say had, because last night thieves rammed an SUV into the lobby and made off with the nuggets!

All of which underscores the fact that security is among the real costs associated with a gold standard. There is no law of nature that says free banking has to be based on gold, as I pointed out in my post. The market would, if free to do so, sort out costs and benefits and find the sort of system or systems that best satisfies consumers.

I love Wells Fargo; They Hate Me.

While I have this blog window open I’ll add some unrelated comments about Wells Fargo. I am a happy customer and I credit this to the stiff competition among banks at the retail level. I regularly get solicitations from banks offering $100 bonus to open an account, with strings attached, of course but I stick with Wells Fargo. At the macro level our current banking system is gravely flawed but it works well for us retail customers.

I get free checking, a handy web site, and ATMs all over the place. When my credit card was hacked recently, they replaced it promptly and took my claims about false charges at face value. My average credit card balance last year was nearly $4,000 and I paid zero interest. That’s because I pay it off at the last possible date, which is 25 days after billing. I pay an $18 annual fee but got $300 in cash rebates last year. I never pay late fees or penalties of any kind.

I do not have a savings account with Wells Fargo because those accounts are a joke. Their most popular savings account yields (drum roll) 0.01%. Not one percent, but one hundredth of one percent. For every thousand dollars I might keep in a savings account, I would get ten cents in annual interest, taxable. I do, however, hold shares of Wells Fargo preferred stock which pay 6.8% current yield (for you experts, a somewhat lower yield to call). The shares appreciated about 70% since I bought them at the bottom of the Great Recession.

So I am a money loser for Wells Fargo. They earn merchant fees from my credit card use and that’s about it. They count on their average customer’s ignorance and lack of financial discipline to generate fee income and to carry high-interest balances on their credit cards. Dear reader, if that describes you, don’t despair. You can get out in front of the wave and let the banks work for you, not the other way around. It just takes a little knowledge and some discipline. Most important: if you can’t pay cash for a purchase (or use a credit card paid off before interest kicks in), you can’t afford it! That includes cars. Save up your money and buy a junker. Mortgages are OK for home purchases because of tax breaks, but even there, start with a healthy down payment.

Here endeth today’s sermon. Go in peace and freedom!

A Tale of Free Banking

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.”