Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Why We Do NOT Have a Fractional-Reserve System

This blog entry is for anyone who believes, as John Tamny here puts it, that “Fractional reserve banking quite simple IS.”

Among the many good points Tamny makes in his article, there is the underlying assumption that our system is, in some important sense, a fractional-reserve system. But is this a valid contention?

My contention is that it is misleading to view our system as a fractional-reserve system, that a truly fractional-reserve system functions in a very different way than ours does, and that the focus on reserves obfuscates the true nature of money. If our system is fractional-reserve, then why don’t we have any panics and deflationary contractions the way we did in the 19th century, the heyday of fractional-reserve banking?

The way it worked then was that there was a specie convertibility requirement. Specie – gold or silver – had to be held by banks for them to issue money substitutes, either notes or deposits. The reserve ratio – required by law – was set at 1:3 or 1:5, although in practice banks would often exceed this ratio. What would happen is that there would be drains of specie, for various reasons, out of the banks, to the big banks in New York, or oftentimes out of the country as well. In the case of the Panic of 1837, it was the government that unwittingly set off the panic. The government began requiring specie payments for land purchases in the western territories, leading to demand for specie that outstripped supply, thus drains of specie, runs on banks by depositors afraid that their particular bank would not be able to maintain specie levels, resultant bank failures, business failures, unemployment, etc.

This is quite definitely a problem of liquidity shortage. The banks’ books balanced, assets matched liabilities; the only problem was the specie requirement, a setup that, in James Steuart’s words, was only demanded by custom, as only specie was considered to be real money – Keynes’ “barbarous relic.” It was finally dispensed with, for all practical purposes, during the 1930s.

Fast forward to today. When does anyone talk of reserve requirements the way they did in the 19th century? When does anyone worry that banks don’t have enough reserves, therefore they ought to pull their savings or cash deposits out of the bank, precipitating a bank run? We don’t have “runs on the bank” any more. Why? Why is the Fed's discount window -- the ultimate source of liquidity in need -- hardly ever resorted to?

The problem we have today regarding bank reserves is of an entirely different order. When we worry about a bank’s reserves, we worry about whether it can deal with a balance-sheet problem: assets that have lost their value, as for instance collateral being marked to market. We have solvency problems today, not liquidity problems. There is plenty of liquidity. The problem is, where the assets aren’t available to exchange for liquidity, the provision of liquidity becomes problematic. The solvency problem then becomes a liquidity problem. Interbank lending rates go through the roof. And commercial/business lending, the heart and soul of economic growth, grinds to a halt.

The protagonist of Fed fiat money as base money would say that this base money forms the reserve, is established by law as reserve against which reserve requirements must be met. So that, if the Fed wished, it could precipitate similar deflationary contractions simply by selling off part or all of its holdings, thereby reducing deposits and/or bank notes in circulation, precipitating a reduction in the money supply by the amount dictated by the money multiplier. This doesn’t happen, our protagonist would say, because of political pressure. But it could, theoretically. Let’s suppose that it did. Does anyone think that the banking system really would participate in reducing the money supply to that degree? Not only would it miss out on the profits involved in lending, such a measure would precipitate a depression. It is my view that as soon as banks realized what the Fed was doing, they would stand up to this obvious insanity and refuse to comply with the legal reserve requirement. What would then happen? I don’t think the government could force compliance across the board, perhaps at one bank or a few banks, but not all the banks. Because the reserve requirement is an entirely artificial arrangement and has nothing to do with actual practice, the way it did in the day of specie convertibility. In those days, it was customers, not the government, that enforced compliance. In our day, the banks would simply refuse compliance, not to customers, but to the government.

For this reason, it is permissible to speak of the modern banking system as a fractional-reserve system only in the most formalistic way. Actual practice makes fractional reserve a non-issue. Reserve requirements do not have the importance that they had in the days of specie convertibility. We have made the transformation that James Steuart foreshadowed, when he pointed out that bank money was not money because an extension of specie – a fortiori of “base money” – but because a representation of the assets put up for security. This “Copernican Revolution” has yet to be adequately acknowledged. Theorists like Hyman Minsky work within its framework. They don’t talk of fractional-reserve requirements, they talk about asset bubbles as problematic because leading to balance-sheet mismatches.

Why do we maintain the fiction of the centrality of fractional-reserve? Because the system we now have grew out of a true fractional-reserve system. We removed the base money component, and the Fed has endeavored to maintain the illusion that its money somehow is as important as specie used to be. But Fed action does not produce automatic changes in the money supply the way gold inflows and outflows did in days of yore. Fed action can only indirectly induce changes in the money supply by influencing interest rates, and thus making lending more or less attractive. In our system, the liquidity problem has receded; it is solvency (balance-sheet) problems that we have to worry about.

To make my point crystal clear: our system may be labelled fractional-reserve in the same way that England may be labelled a monarchy. In terms of law, England is a monarchy. But if the queen ever attempted to exercise the power of a monarch, the monarchy would be peremptorily abolished. In the same way, in terms of law we have a fractional-reserve system. But if the Fed ever attempted to exercise the power inherent in such a system, such as absolute reductions of the money supply by virtue of the money multiplier mechanism, it would be peremptorily abolished as well.

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