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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