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Thursday, December 2, 2010

To the Opponents of Fractional Reserve Banking

It's not what you think.

In some free-market circles fractional reserve banking (FRB) is blamed for everything from business cycles to bad breath.  Defenders are seen as apologists for inflation and fraud.  Thankfully these views remain a minority because they are gravely mistaken.  As I, and other Austrian monetary theorists, such as George Selgin and Larry White, have argued, there’s nothing wrong with FRB that getting rid of a central bank can’t cure.  Fractional reserve banking works just fine in a free market.

I don’t want to rehearse the whole debate in this column, but I do want to address a claim made by opponents of FRB.  They often say something like: “If I deposit $1,000 in my bank and it has to hold only 10 percent reserves, it can create $10,000 in new money.”  This claim is ambiguous at best and downright wrong at worst. As stated it betrays a lack of understanding how fractional reserve banks (whether under free or central banking) actually work.

First of all, this claim is ambiguous about where the deposit comes from and what it consists of.  For example, if I deposit a $1,000 check in my bank that you’ve written on your bank, what happens?  It’s true that my bank gets $1,000 in new reserves, but it cannot create $10,000 in new loans with the money.  Why not?  Imagine it credited $10,000 to the borrowers’ accounts.  What would they then do?  They would spend it because that’s why people borrow money!  And what happens when it’s spent?  The banks in which the funds are eventually deposited ask the original bank for $10,000 in reserves.

The problem is that if the bank was at its 10 percent requirement before the $1,000 deposit came in, it cannot lose $10,000 in reserves without falling below its minimum requirement (or its desired level, in a free-banking system with no such requirement, which would be unacceptably risky without deposit insurance).  What can the original bank afford to lose?  Well, it has my new deposit of $1,000 against which it has to keep 10 percent, or $100.  Therefore it has $900 to loan out.  And that’s all.  Banking rule #1: No individual bank can lend more than its excess reserves, in this case $900.

Now you say, “Yes, but that $900 will be spent and deposited at another bank, which will keep $90 and lend out $810, and so on.”  And you are quite right, which indicates banking rule #2:  The banking system can expand by a multiple of those original excess reserves.  Assuming 1) all banks face a 10 percent requirement, 2) no one takes out cash, and 3) no banks hold excess reserves, the system will create $10,000 based on that original $1,000 deposit.  So perhaps the problem with the original statement is that it focused on one bank only rather than the banking system as a whole.

What’s Unseen

But that’s not it — and we need the help of Monsieur Bastiat to see the unseen.  If the $1,000 I deposited came from your bank, it loses the $1,000 in reserves transferred to my bank.  That forces your bank to call in loans to make up the lost reserves, which leads to reserves being lost by other banks, which then have to do the same thing.  The result is that the $10,000 created by my bank’s gain in reserves is canceled by the $10,000 destroyed by your bank losing those reserves.  When you write a check to me and I deposit it, there is no bank multiplier on net (assuming the three conditions above hold). Thus we see the reverse of rule #2, as the system simultaneously contracts by a multiplied amount of the original deposit/withdrawal.

So how does new money ever get created and multiplied on net?  By injections of new reserves.  Only one entity can create new reserves in a fiat money system with a central bank:  the central bank.  When the Fed conducts open-market operations it adds new net reserves to the system, which enables the money-multiplier process with no offsetting loss in reserves elsewhere.  The central bank and only the central bank can do this.

A clever fellow might now say, “Well, what if I deposit currency into my bank?  There’s no offset then, right?”  That is indeed true.  But where did the currency come from?  At some point, you or someone else had to withdraw it from the banking system, which caused a multiplied contraction in the total money supply because currency counts as reserves.  The two halves of the process are separated in time, unlike with the deposits, but the net effect in the long run is still zero.

New currency can cause the money multiplier, but guess what is the only thing that can create new currency in a system with a monopoly central bank?  You got it:  the central bank. If you want to know whom to blame for setting off the money-multiplier process, you need only look there.

The moral of the story?  There’s nothing wrong with fractional reserve banking that getting rid of central banking and its various interventions can’t cure.

  • Steven Horwitz was the Distinguished Professor of Free Enterprise in the Department of Economics at Ball State University, where he was also Director of the Institute for the Study of Political Economy. He is the author of Austrian Economics: An Introduction.