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Confusing Capitalism with Fractional-Reserve Banking – Article by Frank Hollenbeck

Confusing Capitalism with Fractional-Reserve Banking – Article by Frank Hollenbeck

The New Renaissance Hat
Frank Hollenbeck
August 10, 2014

Today, capitalism is blamed for our current disastrous economic and financial situation and a history of incessant booms and busts. Support for capitalism is eroding worldwide. In a recent global poll, 25 percent (up 2 percent from 2009) of respondents viewed free enterprise as “fatally flawed and needs to be replaced.” The number of Spaniards who hold this view increased from 29 percent in 2009 to 42 percent, the highest amongst those polled. In Indonesia, the percentage went from 17 percent to 32 percent.

Most, if not all, booms and busts originate with excess credit creation from the financial sector. These respondents, incorrectly, assume that this financial system structured on fractural reserve banking is an integral part of capitalism. It isn’t. It is fraud and a violation of property rights, and should be treated as such.

In the past, we had deposit banks and loan banks. If you put your money in a deposit bank, the money was there to pay your rent and food expenses. It was safe. Loan banking was risky. You provided money to a loan bank knowing funds would be tied up for a period of time and that you were taking a risk of never seeing this money again. For this, you received interest to compensate for the risk taken and the value of time preference. Back then, bankers who took a deposit and turned it into a loan took the risk of shortly hanging from the town’s large oak tree.

During the early part of the nineteenth century, the deposit function and loan function were merged into a new entity called a commercial bank. Of course, very quickly these new commercial banks realized they could dip into deposits, essentially committing fraud, as a source of funding for loans. Governments soon realized that such fraudulent activity was a great way to finance government expenditures, and passed laws making this fraud legal. A key interpretation of law in the United Kingdom, Foley v. Hill, set precedence in the financial world for banking laws to follow:

Foley v. Hill and Others, 1848:

Money, when paid into a bank, ceases altogether to be the money of the principal; it is then the money of the banker, who is bound to an equivalent by paying a similar sum to that deposited with him when he is asked for it. … The money placed in the custody of a banker is, to all intents and purposes, the money of the banker, to do with it as he pleases; he is guilty of no breach of trust in employing it; he is not answerable to the principal if he puts it into jeopardy, if he engages in a hazardous speculation; he is not bound to keep it or deal with it as the property of his principal; but he is, of course, answerable for the amount, because he has contracted, having received that money, to repay to the principal, when demanded, a sum equivalent to that paid into his hands. [1]

In other words, when you put your money in a bank it is no longer your money. The bank can do anything it wants with it. It can go to the casino and play roulette. It is not fraud legally, and the only requirement for the bank is to run a Ponzi scheme, giving you the money deposited by someone else if they lost your money and you happen to come back asking for your money. This legalization of fraud is essentially one of the main reasons no one went to jail after the debacle of 2008.

The primary cause of the financial panics during the nineteenth century was this fraudulent nature of fractional reserve banking. It allowed banks to create excessive credit growth which led to boom and bust cycles. If credit, instead, grew as fast as slow moving savings, booms and bust cycles would be a thing of the past.

Critics of the gold standard, (namely, Krugman, et al.), usually point to these cycles as proof that it failed as a monetary system. They are confusing causation with association. The gold standard did not cause these financial panics. The real cause was fractional reserve banking that was grafted onto the gold standard. The gold standard, on the contrary, actually greatly limited the severity of these crises, by limiting the size of the money multiplier.

This is why in the early days of banking in the US, some wildcat bankers would establish themselves in the most inaccessible locations. This was to ensure that few would actually come and convert claims for gold into actual gold since banks had created claims that far exceeded the actual gold in their vaults. And, if by chance a depositor tried to convert his claims into gold, they would be treated as thieves, as though they were stealing the bank’s property by asking for their gold back.

The Federal Reserve System was created following the panics of 1903 and 1907 to counterbalance the negative impact of fractional reserve banking. One hundred years after its creation, the Fed can only be given a failing grade. Money is no longer a store of value, and the world has experienced two of its worst financial crises. Instead of a counterbalance, the central bank has fed and expanded the size of the beast. This was to be expected.

That global poll on capitalism also found that almost half (48 percent) of respondents felt that the problems of capitalism could be resolved with added regulations and reform. Janet Yellen also holds this view, and that regulation, not interest rates, should be the main tool to avoid another costly boom and bust in global finance. This is extremely naïve. We already have more compliance officers in banks than loan officers. Recent banking legislation, Dodd-Frank, and the Vickers and Liikanen reports will probably make the situation even worse. Banks will always be able to use new technologies and new financial instruments to stay one step ahead of the regulators. We continue to put bandages on a system that is rotten to the core. Banking in its current form is not capitalism. It is fraud and crony capitalism, kept afloat by ever-more desperate government interventions. It should be dismantled. Under a system of 100 percent reserves, loan banks (100 percent equity-financed investment trusts) would be like any other business and would not need any more regulation than that of the makers of potato chips.


[1] Quoted in Murray Rothbard’s, The Mystery of Banking (Auburn, AL: Mises Institute, 2008), p. 92.

Frank Hollenbeck teaches finance and economics at the International University of Geneva. He has previously held positions as a Senior Economist at the State Department, Chief Economist at Caterpillar Overseas, and as an Associate Director of a Swiss private bank. See Frank Hollenbeck’s article archives.

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Cyprus and the Unraveling of Fractional-Reserve Banking – Article by Joseph T. Salerno

Cyprus and the Unraveling of Fractional-Reserve Banking – Article by Joseph T. Salerno

The New Renaissance Hat
Joseph T. Salerno
March 30, 2013

[Originally posted on Circle Bastiat, the faculty blog of the Mises Institute. Read Circle Bastiat for Austrian analysis of current economic events from today’s top Misesian and Rothbardian economists.]

The “Cyprus deal” as it has been widely referred to in the media may mark the next to last act in the the slow motion collapse of fractional-reserve banking that began with the implosion of the savings-and-loan industry in the U.S. in the late 1980s.

This trend continued with the currency crises in Russia, Mexico, East Asia, and Argentina in the 1990s in which fractional-reserve banking played a decisive role. The unraveling of fractional-reserve banking became visible even to the average depositor during the financial meltdown of 2008 that ignited bank runs on some of the largest and most venerable financial institutions in the world. The final collapse was only averted by the multi-trillion dollar bailout of U.S. and foreign banks by the Federal Reserve.

Even more than the unprecedented financial crisis of 2008, however, recent events in Cyprus may have struck the mortal blow to fractional-reserve banking. For fractional-reserve banking can only exist for as long as the depositors have complete confidence that regardless of the financial woes that befall the bank entrusted with their “deposits,” they will always be able to withdraw them on demand at par in currency, the ultimate cash of any banking system.

Ever since World War Two governmental deposit insurance, backed up by the money-creating powers of the central bank, was seen as the unshakable guarantee that warranted such confidence. In effect, fractional-reserve banking was perceived as 100-percent banking by depositors, who acted as if their money was always “in the bank” thanks to the ability of central banks to conjure up money out of thin air (or in cyberspace).

Perversely the various crises involving fractional-reserve banking that struck time and again since the late 1980s only reinforced this belief among depositors, because troubled banks and thrift institutions were always bailed out with alacrity—especially the largest and least stable. Thus arose the “too-big-to-fail doctrine.” Under this doctrine, uninsured bank depositors and bondholders were generally made whole when large banks failed, because it was widely understood that the confidence in the entire banking system was a frail and evanescent thing that would break and completely dissipate as a result of the failure of even a single large institution.

Getting back to the Cyprus deal, admittedly it is hardly ideal from a free-market point of view. The solution in accord with free markets would not involve restricting deposit withdrawals, imposing fascistic capital controls on domestic residents and foreign investors, and dragooning taxpayers in the rest of the Eurozone into contributing to the bailout to the tune of 10 billion euros.

Nonetheless, the deal does convey a salutary message to bank depositors and creditors the world over. It does so by forcing previously untouchable senior bondholders and uninsured depositors in the Cypriot banks to bear part of the cost of the bailout. The bondholders of the two largest banks will be wiped out and it is reported that large depositors (i.e., those holding uninsured accounts exceeding 100,000 euros) at the Laiki Bank may also be completely wiped out, losing up to 4.2 billion euros, while large depositors at the Bank of Cyprus will lose between 30 and 60 percent of their deposits. Small depositors in both banks, who hold insured accounts of up to 100,000 euros, would retain the full value of their deposits.

The happy result will be that depositors, both insured and uninsured, in Europe and throughout the world will become much more cautious or even suspicious in dealing with fractional-reserve banks. They will be poised to grab their money and run at the slightest sign or rumor of instability. This will induce banks to radically alter the sources of the funds they raise to finance loans and investments, moving away from deposit and toward equity and bond financing. As was reported Tuesday, March 26, this is already expected by many analysts:

One potential spillover from the March 26 agreement is the knock-on effects for bank funding, analysts said. Banks typically fund themselves with some combination of deposits, equity, senior and subordinate notes and covered bonds, which are backed by a pool of high-quality assets that stay on the lender’s balance sheet.

The consequences of the Cyprus bailout could be that banks will be more likely to use contingent convertible bonds—known as CoCos—to raise money as their ability to encumber assets by issuing covered bonds reaches regulatory limits, said Chris Bowie at Ignis Asset Management Ltd. in London.

“We’d expect to see some deposit flight and a shift in funding towards a combination of covered bonds, real equity and quasi-equity,” said Bowie, who is head of credit portfolio management at Ignis, which oversees about $110 billion.

If this indeed occurs it will be a significant move toward a free-market financial system in which the radical mismatching of the maturities of assets and liabilities in the case of demand deposits is eliminated once and for all. A few more banking crises in the Eurozone—especially one in which insured depositors are made to participate in the so-called “bail-in”—will likely cause the faith in government deposit insurance to completely evaporate and with it confidence in the fractional-reserve banking system.

There may then naturally arise on the market a system in which equity, bonds, and genuine time deposits that cannot be redeemed before maturity become the exclusive sources of finance for bank loans and investments. Demand deposits, whether checkable or not, would be segregated in actual deposit banks which maintain 100-percent reserves and provide a range of payments systems from ATMs to debit cards.

While this conjecture may be overly optimistic, we are certainly a good deal closer to such an outcome today than we were before the “Cyprus deal” was struck. Of course we would be closer still if there were no bailout and the full brunt of the bank failures were borne solely by the creditors and depositors of the failed banks rather than partly by taxpayers. The latter solution would have completely and definitively exposed the true nature of fractional-reserve banking for all to see.

Joseph Salerno is academic vice president of the Mises Institute, professor of economics at Pace University, and editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics. He has been interviewed in the Austrian Economics Newsletter and on Send him mail. See Joseph T. Salerno’s article archives.

Why the Deflationists Are Wrong – Article by Gary North

Why the Deflationists Are Wrong – Article by Gary North

The New Renaissance Hat
Gary North
August 23, 2012

An inflationist is someone who believes that price inflation is the result of two things: (1) monetary inflation and (2) central-bank policy.

A deflationist is someone who believes that deflation is inevitable, despite (1) monetary inflation and (2) central -bank policy.

No inflationist says that price inflation is inevitable. Every deflationist says that price deflation is inevitable.

Deflationists have been wrong ever since 1933.

Milton Friedman is most famous for his book A Monetary History of the United States (1963), which relies on facts collected by Anna Schwartz, who died recently.

It is for one argument: the Federal Reserve caused the Great Depression because it refused to inflate.

This argument, as quoted by mainstream economists, is factually wrong.

I often cite a study, where you can see that the monetary base grew under the Federal Reserve, 1931 to 1932. This graph is from a speech given by the vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. You can access it here.

Figure 1
I posted this first in early 2010.

We can see that there was monetary deflation of the money supply, beginning in 1930. This continued in 1931 and 1932, despite a deliberate policy of inflation by the Fed, beginning in the second half of 1931 and continuing through 1932.

Depositors kept pulling currency out of banks and hoarding it. They did not redeposit it in other banks. This imploded the fractional-reserve-banking process for the banking system as a whole. M1 declined: monetary deflation.

The Fed could not control M1. It could only control the monetary base.

The argument of Friedman and Schwartz was picked up by mainstream economists. It is his most famous and widely accepted position. Bernanke praised him for it on Friedman’s 90th birthday in 2002.

Why was the argument wrong, as applied to 1931–33? I must tell the story one more time. Four letters tell it: FDIC. Well, nine: FDIC + FSLIC. They did not exist.

Franklin Roosevelt froze all bank deposits in early March 1933, immediately after his inauguration. This calmed the public when the banks reopened a few days later. He verbally promised people that the banks were now safe.

The US government created federal bank-depositor insurance in 1933. The Wikipedia article describes the Banking Act of 1933, which was signed into law in June:

  • Established the FDIC as a temporary government corporation
  • Gave the FDIC authority to provide deposit insurance to banks
  • Gave the FDIC the authority to regulate and supervise state non-member banks
  • Funded the FDIC with initial loans of $289 million through the U.S. Treasury

That stopped the bank runs. The money supply reversed. It went ballistic. So did the monetary base.

The key event was therefore the Banking Act of 1933. After that, the money supply never fell again. After that, prices never fell again by more than 1 percent. That was in 1955.

All it took for prices to reverse and rise was this: an expansion of the monetary base coupled with bank lending.

Yet deflationists ever since 1933 have predicted falling prices. They die predicting this. Then their successors die predicting this.

They never learn.

They do not understand monetary theory. They do not understand monetary history. They therefore do not learn. They do not correct their bad predictions, year after year, decade after decade, generation after generation.

They still find people who believe them, people who also do not understand monetary theory or monetary history.

I have personally been arguing against them for four decades.

Price deflation has nothing to do with the fall in the price of stocks.

There can be monetary deflation as a result of excess reserves held at the Fed by commercial banks. But this is Fed policy. The Fed pays banks interest on the deposits. Even if it didn’t, there would still be excess reserves. But by imposing a fee on excess reserves, the Fed could eliminate excess reserves overnight. Then the money multiplier would go positive, price inflation would reappear, and the Fed would get blamed. So, it maintains a policy of restricting the M1 multiplier.

Every inflationist says that monetary inflation will produce hyperinflation unless reversed by the central bank. There will be a return to low prices after what Ludwig von Mises called the crack-up boom. The classic example is Germany in 1934. That was a matter of policy. The central bank substituted a new currency and stopped inflating.

John Exter — an old friend of mine — argued in the 1970s and 1980s that monetary deflation has to come, despite Fed policy. There will be a collapse of prices through deleveraging.

He was wrong. Why? Because it is not possible for depositors to take sufficient money in paper-currency notes out of banks and keep these notes out, thereby reversing the fractional-reserve process, thereby deflating the money supply. That was what happened in the United States from 1930 to 1933. If hoarders spend the notes, businesses will redeposit them in their banks. Only if they deal exclusively with other hoarders can they keep money out of banks. But the vast majority of all money transactions are based on digital money, not paper currency.

Today, large depositors can pull digital money out of bank A, but only by transferring it to bank B. Digits must be in a bank account at all times. There can be no decrease in the money supply for as long as money is digital. Hence, there can be no decrease in prices unless it is Fed policy to decrease prices. This was not true, 1930 to 1933.

Deflationists never respond to this argument by invoking either monetary theory or monetary history. You can and should ignore them until one of them does answer this, and all the others publicly say, “Yes. That’s it! We have waited since 1933 for this argument! I was blind, but now I see! I’m on board! I will sink or swim with this.”

Let me know when this happens. Until then, ignore the deflationists. All of them. (There are not many still standing.)

The fact that a new deflationist shows up is irrelevant. Anyone can predict inevitable price deflation. They keep doing this. Look for the refutation of the inflationists’ position. Look for a theory.

If you do not understand the case I have just made, you will not understand any refutation. In this case, just pay no attention to either side. If you cannot follow economic theory, the debate will confuse you. It’s not worth your time.

For background, see my book Mises on Money.

See also Murray Rothbard’s book What Has Government done to Our Money?

Gary North is the author of Mises on Money and Honest Money: The Biblical Blueprint for Money and Banking. He is also the author of a free 20-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible. Visit his website: Send him mail. See Gary North’s article archives.

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