By Arvind Damarla
Why Austrian Economists are mistaken about 100% Reserve Banking
(Mis)diagnosis of the Debt Bubble
It is clear that the US and other western economies are not growing fast enough to close their "Output Gaps" - a term that loosely describes the difference between the maximum potential output of an economy and its present output. A symptom of the Output Gap is chronic high unemployment.
As Eric Janzen, Koo, Steve Keen, Mish Shedlock and everyone has correctly diagnosed (other than Profs. Ben Bernanke, Paul Krugman & their intellectual bedfellows), the main reason for this Output Gap is the huge PRIVATE debt overhang from the ponzi property bubble. The bubble was caused by Alan Greenspan's policy of holding the Fed's discount rate too low for too long, and this policy was encouraged by Prof. Krugman & friends. The "feel-good factor" created by rising asset prices has now evaporated, and the suckers left holding the bag and will be stuck paying down large debts for a generation.
Despite the Fed's numerous attempts to reduce the interest burden on private and public debt, a heavy burden of debt-service hangs over the lives of western consumers. The hangover caused by the past 10 years' borrowing-binge is to be met with self-imposed austerity as consumers increase savings where they can to pay off debts. As long as this condition persists, we can not expect consumers to be the engine of GDP growth in the US and world economies.
The Fed can not acknowledge that private debt was the root cause of the problem for two reasons:
Since the monetary authorities failed to correctly diagnose the problem, one can hardly be surprised by their continued failure to design an effective solution to the current economic problems. Their wilful and arrogant ideological blindness exposes an inability to fulfil their mandate to regulate the economy; and it highlights the sad neglect of their responsibilities towards those who have lost their livelihoods and homes due to the continuing economic malaise. You can watch an Austrian criticism of the ideas proposed in Prof. Krugman's book "End This Depression Now" by Prof. Pedro Swartz, OBE. Prof. Bernanke's policies are self-evidently failing to revive growth and close the Output Gap.
- Ideology - Profs. Krugman & Bernanke; and Alan Greenspan have repeatedly asserted that the level of private debt does not matter. They have never seriously considered the work of Hyman Minsky and Prof. Frederich von Hayek. Instead they have adopted some some of the worst ideas of John Maynard Keynes and taken them to grotesque extremes.
- Complicity - The Fed deliberately turned a blind eye towards the huge growth in private debt under Greenspan's watch. Prof. Krugman continues to insist that the entire financial crisis was caused by a few NINJA loans, and not excessive debt.
Solving the crisis - Prof. Steve Keen proposes a Modern Debt Jubilee
In this context there is a lively ongoing debate between Prof Steve Keen and Mish Shedlock over how to solve the debt crisis. I have been an avid reader of both Mish Shedlock (Austrian) and Prof. Steve Keen (post-Keynesian) for several years. I have enjoyed watching their respectivemessages gain a worldwide audience and both of them rise to prominence in internet media.
This debate was sparked by Prof. Steve Keen's proposal for a Modern-day Debt Jubilee (video). He proposes "Quantitative Easing for the Public" wherein the Fed writes each tax-payer a (regular series of) cheque(s), with the proviso that the recipient MUST use the funds distributed to pay any outstanding debts. The idea is to provide relief to those who participated in the ponzi housing bubble, while offering a cash award to the sensible borrowers who did not.
This scheme would free many consumers from debt-servitude, while putting enough cash into consumers' pockets to revive demand in the economy. Although this is bound to cause inflation at some point, that would provide central banks with the perfect excuse to re-normalise interest rates. The reduction in debt-principal will allow consumers to continue servicing their debts at higher rates without escalating defaults.
I think this proposal is better than the current solution of "Quantitative Easing for the Banks", wherein central banks buy up Treasury debt, while banks front-run Fed-purchases and drive bond prices to stratospheric levels. The resulting distortion of the yield curve makes the price of all risky assets dependent on future actions of the Fed (Risk-on/Risk-Off).
The Austrian non-Solution - 100% Reserve Banking
Mish Shedlock has criticised the idea of a debt-jubilee (see here, here and here). He comes from the view that all lending must be 100% backed by Gold deposits, and that this is the only way to constrain the unlimited growth of credit and prevent asset-bubbles. He holds the view that Fractional Reserve Banking is inherently fraudulent because it creates "credit out of thin air". He asserts that this fraudulent behaviour is the root cause of the business cycle. This view is very popular with several Austrian economists (especially in the U.S.) includingJoseph T. Salerno, Gary North and others. It is often repeated on Austrian and Libertarian sites such as www.lewrockwell.com and www.mises.org.
I believe 100% Reserve Banking is non-solution to the current crisis. Although it will prevent debt-crises in the first place, it does not provide a roadmap to get out of the current debt crisis. Besides it has the dangerous side-effect of hampering efficient production of industrial goods as I explain below.
Endogeous Credit Money in a Free Market
Prof. Steve Keen has demonstrated how an endogenous (purely credit-based) monetary system can function properly without the need for 100% reserve backing, or Gold convertibility. In a series of Lectures on Behavioural Economics he used an innovative computer simulation tool to model the dynamic behaviour of stocks and flows of money and credit in an economy. His simulations use double-entry book-keeping to keep accounts and differential equations to represent financial transactions. The key difference between his model and the conventional DSGE (Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium) models used by Bernanke, Krugman, & co. - is the lack of any assumption of "equilibrium" in financial flows.
I think Austrian economists need to take this demonstration by Prof. Keen very seriously. Although Austrians unabashedly support free-markets and libertarian ideas, they demand application of the full force of the law in preventing Fractional Reserve Banking; which they consider fraud. Some of them go as far as asking the State to force the use of Gold as money. There is a lot of distance between this position and the laissez-faire ethos that guides the free market philosophy they claim to represent. Their approach places an enormous amount of power in the hands of the State instead of relying on private mechanisms to "create money and regulate the value thereof".
I whole-heartedly endorse the idea that free-markets must be allowed to make their own choice of money; and that today's government-mandated "fiat" paper-money systems exacerbate the business cycle that they claim to regulate.
I whole-heartedly endorse the view that that central bank intervention in activities such as Open Market Operations & Quantitative Easing constitute blatant "price-fixing" of the interest rate - i.e. market price of money.
As Keith Wiener correctly pointed out, the LIBOR scandal (wherein a few large banks quoted a low number for the inter-bank lending rate) is small potatoes compared to the massive daily manipulation of the interest-rate markets by people such as Mervyn King, the very central banker who claimed to be outraged by LIBOR manipulation! This appearance of hypocrisy is further reinforced by new reports that key central bankers at the BoE and NY Fed know about LIBOR-manipulation all-along, and did nothing.
Real Bills - a blind-spot in the 100% Reserve Banking argument
The New Austrian School of Economics argues that Fractional Reserve Banking is not only legitimate, it is vital for the proper functioning of modern industrial economies. It arises naturally in a free-market economy with free-market money (presumably Gold) and free-banking (i.e. the absence of Central Banks). In fact, lending without reserves can spontaneously arise out of a free market, even in the absence of banks.
For many years I supported the Austrian 100% Reserve Banking position. My opinion changed after I became aware of the work of Prof. Antal Fekete. He describes the free-market phenomenon of Real Bills - these are unbacked credit notes that spontaneously circulate in a free-market economy in order to facilitate the production and distribution of goods. I came to the conclusion that Austrian economists have a blind spot towards the role of Real Bills due to their insistence on 100% Reserve Banking.
Here is an example that illustrates the spontaneous circulation of Real Bills. Consider a producer of consumer goods, such as a flour mill. The mill may not have the money to purchase grain from a farmer to supply flour - a consumer good in high demand. The mill has two options. It can either borrow the money from a saver and pay cash for the grain; OR it can write an IOU to the farmer (payable in say, 90 days) for grain delivered today. In the latter case the farmer will negotiate a premium in the sale price for his produce equal to the prevailing discount rate over the term of the IOU.
As long as the farmer is be confident that the mill is financially sound (perhaps due to ongoing profitability, or a long-standing business relationship), he will readily accept such an IOU in return for the discount premium. As a further incentive for him, he will be able to use the IOU to buy items for his use, as long as the local store where he makes his purchases also believes the flour mill is good for the money. In this manner the unbacked IOUs issued by the flour mill circulate in the local economy based on the credit-worthiness of a sound business due to high consumer demand its products. Indeed, the quantity of flour demanded by consumers automatically regulates the quantity of IOUs that enter circulation.
Such short-term IOUs (called REAL BILLS)have historically circulated with high rates of acceptance in modern industrial economies. Importantly, they do not require any backing in specie by the issuer. Instead, they represent "forgone consumption" by the holder of the bill, who earns the discount premium as compensation. Real bills are "self-liquidating" - i.e. when the flour mill sells the flour, it repays the IOU and the Real Bill vanishes.
Thus we see that Real-Bills are a consequence of consumer demand in a free-market economy. They exist solely to facilitate the production and sale of products that satisfy this consumer demand.When this demand is satisfied, they "self-liquidate" and cease to exist.Until maturity they circulate due to the credit-worthiness of the issuer, due to backed by expected revenue from sale of the goods demanded by the customers of the bill-issuing business.
Importantly, any business (such as the flour mill) that uses Real Bills to finance production enjoys a competitive advantage over its rivals. It does not need to borrow money permanently from capital markets at a higher rate to pay for its inputs. It "borrows" from its suppliers at the prevailing discount rate, and only for the required duration. In effect creating "credit out of thin air".
Real Bills - Intermediation by Banks
Bank perform a vital market service by specialising in the Credit Analysis of balance sheets. They are subject matter experts in evaluating the credit-worthiness of producers such as the flour mill. They perform this analysis on behalf of the general economy, and indeed profit from it through arbitrage between the discount rate applied to the business and the market discount rate applied to the bank (typically in inter-bank funding markets).
When a bank intermediates the issuance of Real Bills, it offers the business an open credit line for which interest is only charged when Bank Notes are drawn against confirmed orders. In this manner the bank replaces the circulation of the business's credit-notes with the bank's own notes. For this service a well-capitalised bank can earns a small fee in the form of a discount on the flour mill's IOU accepted in exchange for Bank Notes. The bank notes, being much more marketable than the flour mills IOUs, circulate more widely than the flour mill's notes, at a lower discount rate.
It is important to emphasise that Bank Notes are also discounted by the market - at a rate dependent on the credit-worthiness of the bank. Unlike the modern monetary system, in a free-market for money, Bank Notes remain 100% convertible into the market's choice of money. This convertibility is a key feature missing from Prof. Steve Keen's model, but it does not take anything away from his central argument.
It is important to understand that the bank does not need to accept any deposits to intermediate Real Bills. It only needs to maintain a (relatively small) capital buffer to cover infrequent losses due to default by the occasional flour mill.
There must be no question about a bank's capital buffer being overwhelmed by loan-losses. Otherwise the market discount applied to the Bank's Notes will become higher than the discount on the business's bills. This would eliminate the profit margin enjoyed by the bank and hamper its ability to profit from its Credit Analysis expertise. Poorly run banks will see their balance sheets shrink over time, and thus never be Too Big To Fail if they do collapse due to loan losses. A bank's discount rate is a much better gauge of its health than the CDS price as the Real Bills market is deeper and more liquid than the CDS market.
Thus, a 100% reserve banking is unnecessary, and Real Bills offer a "clearing" mechanism for financing the production and distribution of goods.
Real Bills are Vital for Modern Industrial Economies
In addition to being unnecessary, 100% Reserve Banking is counterproductive, because it would kill off a vital artefact of the free market - Real Bills. A functional Real Bill market is absolutely vital because without Real Bills financing long production chains that characterise modern specialised, industrial economies could not be affordable.
Consider that in a 100% reserve system, each stage in the production chain will need working capital equal to the purchase price of its raw material and operating costs (salaries, bills, etc) for the entire duration of the production cycle. In a multi-stage production process, this working capital requirement in various stages adds up to a impractically large amount.
For example, assume a production chain for shirts has 10 production steps before the shirt is purchased by the end-consumer for $20. Assume that each step in the chain makes a $1 profit. In a 100% reserve system the participants in the production chain combined will need total financing to the tune of $19+$18+.....+$10 = $100. In such a system, someone somewhere needs to save $100, and lend it to the production chain participants before the $20 shirt can be produced.
In a 100% Reserve system the above economy needs a surplus savings of 5 x the current production. This is unnecessary and uncompetitive. A much better solution is for each link in production chain to issue IOUs to purchase their inputs (via bank credit facilities). When payment is received from the end-consumer, each link in the chain pays their bank and the credit is extinguished. This process can be efficiently intermediated through the banking system (which specialises in credit analysis) without any need for 100% reserve backing, or even deposit taking.
I have described Fractional Reserve Banking using the safest of credit instruments - Real Bills. These instruments are "safe" because consumer goods in high-demand will almost certainly be sold, and it is highly unlikely that a well-capitalised bank will suffer large losses on these bills that overwhelm its capital buffer.
The question for the future is - how does one prevent the extension of bank credit to activities that are somewhat more speculative than the production and distribution of consumer goods in high demand? What about bank finance for long-distance trade? Or sub-prime mortgages? Or the purchase of peripheral European government bonds?
Well, the simple answer to that is that you can not prevent these activities in the modern fiat-money system. No market discount is applied to Bank Notes because they have been replaced from circulation by irredeemable Central Bank Notes - which have been given the status of "money". The free market is prevented (by law) to choose its own unit of account, and to discover the discount rate on central bank money relative to that unit of account. Central Banks blatantly manipulate the discount rate in the name of regulating the business cycle, only to cause excessive credit creation and sow the seeds for bigger and bigger financial crises in the future.
Such a mis-regulated environment encourages bad behaviour by banks. While a lender of last resort exists to back-stop cash-strapped banks, they will ALWAYS try to lend as much as they can. Bank Management is incentivised to grab maximum market share for short-term profits and bonuses. Bank management will ALWAYS try to minimise their capital ratios in order to increase the return-on-capital. Banks will ALWAYS push the envelope in borrowing short to lend long (duration mismatch kills banks ) in order to earn maximum carry and rolldown.
And when the lending binge falls apart, the Financial industry will ask for easy-money from the central bank, re-capitalisation from the tax-payer, etc. Otherwise, they argue, the entire system may collapse and cause a Depression.
Therefore, the correct solution to the debt crisis is the restoration of the Real Bills market and a monetary unit selected by the free-market. This will require a repeal of legal-tender laws that confer a legal status of "money" on Central Bank Notes. This single step will automatically restore convertibility for all bank notes into the free market's choice of money. Real Bills will once again signal the credit-worthiness through the natural discount rate, thus providing banks with a financial incentive to behave responsibly.
Forcing 100% Reserve Banking is the wrong solution. It will collapse the long, specialised production chains of the modern, industrial economy and (literally) send us back in time beyond the Industrial Revolution into the dark ages.