Mr. Stolyarov, a supporter of Gary Johnson, explains why principles and policy should be the only considerations for voters in the 2012 Presidential Election.
One of the most enduring myths in the United States is that this country has a free market, when in reality, the market is merely the structural shell of formerly free institutions. The federal government pulls the strings behind the scenes. No better illustration of this can be found than in the Federal Reserve’s manipulation of interest rates.
The Fed has interfered with the proper function of interest rates for decades, but perhaps never as boldly as it has in the past few years through its policies of quantitative easing. In Chairman Bernanke’s most recent press conference he stated that the Fed wishes not only to drive down rates on Treasury debt, but also rates on mortgages, corporate bonds, and other important interest rates. Markets greeted this statement enthusiastically, as this means trillions more newly-created dollars flowing directly to Wall Street.
Because the interest rate is the price of money, manipulation of interest rates has the same effect in the market for loanable funds as price controls have in markets for goods and services. Since demand for funds has increased, but the supply is not being increased, the only way to match the shortfall is to continue to create new credit. But this process cannot continue indefinitely. At some point the capital projects funded by the new credit are completed. Houses must be sold, mines must begin to produce ore, factories must begin to operate and produce consumer goods.
But because consumption patterns have either remained unchanged or have become more present-oriented, by the time these new capital projects are finished and begin to produce, the producers find no market for their goods. Because the coordination between savings and consumption was severed through the artificial lowering of the interest rate, both savers and borrowers have been signaled into unsustainable patterns of economic activity. Resources that would have been used in productive endeavors under a regime of market-determined interest rates are instead shuttled into endeavors that only after the fact are determined to be unprofitable. In order to return to a functioning economy, those resources which have been malinvested need to be liquidated and shifted into sectors in which they can be put to productive use.
Another effect of the injections of credit into the system is that prices rise. More money chasing the same amount of goods results in a rise in prices. Wall Street and the banking system gain the use of the new credit before prices rise. Main Street, however, sees the prices rise before they are able to take advantage of the newly-created credit. The purchasing power of the dollar is eroded and the standard of living of the American people drops.
We live today not in a free market economic system but in a “mixed economy”, marked by an uneasy mixture of corporatism; vestiges of free-market capitalism; and outright central planning in some sectors. Each infusion of credit by the Fed distorts the structure of the economy, damages the important role that interest rates play in the market, and erodes the purchasing power of the dollar. Fed policymakers view themselves as wise gurus managing the economy, yet every action they take results in economic distortion and devastation.
Unless Congress gets serious about reining in the Federal Reserve and putting an end to its manipulation, the economic distortions the Fed has caused will not be liquidated; they will become more entrenched, keeping true economic recovery out of our grasp and sowing the seeds for future crisis.
This article has been released by Dr. Paul into the public domain and may be republished by anyone in any manner.
Chairman Paul and members of the subcommittee, I am deeply honored to appear before you to testify on the topic of fractional-reserve banking. Thank you for your invitation and attention.
In the short time I have, I will give a brief description of fractional reserve-banking, identify the problems it presents in the current institutional setting, and suggest a potential solution.
A bank is simply a business firm that issues claims to a fixed sum of money in receipt for a deposit of cash. These claims are payable on demand and without cost to the depositor. In today’s world these claims may take the form of checkable deposits, so called because they can be transferred to a third party by writing out a check payable to the party named on the check. They may also take the form of so-called “savings” deposits with limited or no checking privileges and that require withdrawal in person at one of the bank’s branches or at an ATM. In the United States, the cash for which the claim is redeemable are Federal Reserve notes — the “dollar bills” that we are all familiar with.
Fractional-reserve banking occurs when the bank lends or invests some of its depositors’ funds and retains only a fraction of the deposits in cash. This cash is the bank’s reserves. Hence the name fractional-reserve banking. All commercial banks and thrift institutions in the United States today engage in fractional–reserve banking.
Let me illustrate how fractional-reserve banking works with a simple example. Assume that a bank with deposits of $1 million makes $900,000 of loans and investments. If we ignore for simplicity the capital paid in by its owners, this bank is holding a cash reserve of 10 percent against its deposit liabilities. The deposits constitute the bank’s liabilities because the bank is contractually obligated to redeem them on demand. The assets of the bank are its reserves, loans, and investments. Bank reserves consist of the dollar bills in its vaults and ATMs and the bank’s deposits at the Federal Reserve, which can be cashed on demand for dollar bills printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing at the order of the Fed. The bank’s loans and securities are noncash assets that are titles to sums of cash payable only in the near or distant future. These assets include short-term business loans, credit-card loans, mortgage loans, and the securities issued by the US Treasury and foreign financial authorities.
Now the key to understanding the nature of fractional-reserve banking and the problems it creates is to recognize that a bank deposit is not itself money. It is rather a “money substitute,” that is, a claim to standard money — dollar bills — universally regarded as perfectly secure.
Bank deposits transferred by check or debit card will be routinely paid and received in exchange in lieu of money only as long as the public does not have the slightest doubt that the bank that creates these deposits is able and willing to redeem them without delay or expense.
Under these circumstances, bank deposits are eagerly accepted and held by businesses and households and regarded as indistinguishable from cash itself. They are therefore properly included as part of the money supply, that is, the total supply of dollars in the economy.
The very nature of fractional-reserve banking, however, presents an immediate problem. On the one hand, all of a bank’s deposit liabilities mature on a daily basis, because it has promised to cash them in on demand. On the other, only a small fraction of its assets is available at any given moment to meet these liabilities. For example, during normal times, US banks effectively hold much less than 10 percent of deposits in cash reserves. The rest of a bank’s liabilities will only mature after a number of months, years, or, in the case of mortgage loans, even decades. In the jargon of economics, fractional-reserve banking always involves “term-structure risk,” which arises from the mismatching of the maturity profile of its liabilities with that of its assets.
In layman’s terms, banks “borrow short and lend long.” The problem is revealed when demands for withdrawal of deposits exceeds a bank’s existing cash reserves. The bank is then compelled to hastily sell off some of its longer-term assets, many of which are not readily saleable. It will thus incur big losses. This will cause a panic among the rest of its depositors who will scramble to withdraw their deposits before they become worthless. A classic bank run will ensue. At this point the value of the bank’s remaining assets will no longer be sufficient to pay off all its fixed-dollar deposit liabilities and the bank will fail.
A fractional-reserve bank, therefore, can only remain solvent for as long as public confidence exists that its deposits really are riskless claims on cash. If for any reason — real or imagined — the faintest suspicion arises among its clients that a bank’s deposits are no longer payable on demand, the bank’s reputation as an issuer of money substitutes vanishes overnight. The bank’s brand of money substitutes is then instantly extinguished and people rush to withdraw their deposits in cash — cash that no fractional-reserve bank can provide on demand in sufficient quantity. Thus the threat of brand extinction and insolvency is always looming over fractional-reserve banks.
In other words, a fractional-reserve bank must develop what Ludwig von Mises called a “special kind of good will” in order to create a clientele who treats their deposits as money substitutes. On a free market this kind of good will is very difficult and costly to acquire and maintain. This reputational asset is what induces a bank’s clients to forebear from immediately cashing in their deposit claims and driving the bank into instant insolvency. Of course to remain profitable the bank must also build up conventional business good will, which depends upon convenient geographical location, outstanding customer service, attractive facilities, the reputation of its management team and so on. But unlike the common form of good will essential to all successful business ventures, the good will that is necessary for a particular bank’s brand of deposits to circulate as money substitutes is indivisible. In almost all other industries, customer good will can be gained or lost in marginal units and does not typically vanish all at once, destroying its product brand and plunging the firm into immediate insolvency.
Ludwig von Mises described the loss of confidence in a bank’s solvency and the related phenomenon of brand extinction in the following terms:
The confidence which a bank and the money-substitutes it has issued enjoy is indivisible. It is either present with all its clients or it vanishes entirely. If some of the clients lose confidence the rest of them lose it too.… One must not forget that every bank issuing fiduciary media is in a rather precarious position. Its most valuable asset is its reputation. It must go bankrupt as soon as doubts arise concerning its perfect trustworthiness and solvency. 
The issuing of deposits not fully backed by cash is therefore always a precarious business on the free market. The slightest doubt about the bank’s solvency among even some of its clients will instantly destroy the character of its deposits as money substitutes. Furthermore, the loss of confidence that causes this phenomenon of “brand extinction” is the cause and not the result of a run on the bank and cannot be deterred by a high ratio of reserves to deposits. For under fractional-reserve banking, by definition, reserves are always insufficient to pay off all the demand liabilities that the bank has incurred. In fact the level of cash reserves is not directly relevant to the stability of a bank. It is simply one of several factors that a bank’s clients take into account in forming their subjective judgment concerning whether a bank’s brand of notes and deposits are or are not money substitutes. For example in the 19th century the ratio of gold reserves to notes and deposits of the Bank of England are reported to have been as low as 3 percent, yet it was generally regarded as one of the most stable financial institutions in the world.
The peculiar and overriding importance of public confidence in sustaining fractional-reserve banking was particularly emphasized by Murray N. Rothbard:
But in what sense is a bank “sound” when one whisper of doom, one faltering of public confidence, should quickly bring the bank down? In what other industry does a mere rumor or hint of doubt bring down a mighty and seemingly solid firm? What is it about banking that public confidence should play such a decisive and overwhelmingly important role? The answer lies in the nature of our banking system, in the fact that both commercial banks and thrift banks have been systematically engaging in fractional-reserve banking: that is, they have far less cash on hand than there are demand claims to cash outstanding.
Rothbard’s point about the extreme fragility of public confidence in issuers of fractionally-backed money substitutes is well illustrated by the stunning collapse of Washington Mutual (WaMu) in September 2008, the largest bank failure in United States history. WaMu had been in existence for 119 years and was the sixth-largest bank in the United States with assets of $307 billion. It had branches throughout the country and billed itself as the Walmart of banking. It was one of the top performers on Wall Street until shortly before its failure. Its depositors clearly had enormous confidence in its solidity, especially given that its deposits were insured by the federal government reinforced by the existence of the Fed’s “too-big-to-fail” policy. And yet, almost overnight the special good will that gave its deposits the quality of money substitutes vanished as panic-stricken depositors rushed to withdraw their funds. The unlikely event that triggered the sudden loss of confidence and subsequent brand extinction was the failure of Lehman Brothers, a venerable investment house. A week after Lehman failed, mighty WaMu was no more.
The highly publicized Lehman Brothers failure had shaken public confidence in the solvency not only of WaMu but of the entire banking system. Had the Fed and Treasury not acted aggressively to bail out the largest banks in the fall of 2008, there is no doubt that the entire system would have collapsed in short order. Indeed on a single day in December, the combined emergency lending by the Fed and the US Treasury had risen to a peak of $1.2 trillion. The recipients of these billions included some of the most trusted and reputable brand names in banking: Citibank, Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, as well as European banks like the Royal Bank of Scotland and UBS AG. Without this unprecedented bailout, these discredited brand names would have been relegated to the dustbin of business history
The ever-present threat of insolvency is a relatively minor problem with fractional-reserve banks, however. Its effects are restricted to the bank’s stockholders, creditors, and depositors who voluntarily assume the peculiar risks involved in this business.
The major problems with fractional-reserve banking are its harmful effects on the overall economy caused by the related phenomena of inflation and business cycles.
First, fractional-reserve banking is inherently inflationary. When a bank lends out its clients’ deposits, it inevitably expands the money supply. For example, when people deposit an additional $100,000 of cash in the bank, depositors now have an additional $100,000 in their checking accounts while the bank accumulates an additional $100,000 of cash (dollar bills) in its vaults. The total money supply, which includes both dollar bills in circulation among the public and dollar balances in bank deposits, has not changed. The depositors have reduced the amount of cash in circulation by $100,000, which is now stored in the bank’s vaults, but they have increased the total deposit balance that they may draw on by check or debit card by the exact same amount. Suppose now the loan officers of the bank lend out $90,000 of this added cash to businesses and consumers and maintain the remaining $10,000 on reserve against the $100,000 of new deposits. These loans increase the money supply by $90,000 because, while the original depositors have the extra $100,000 still available on deposit, the borrowers now have an extra $90,000 of the cash they did not have before.
The expansion of the money supply does not stop here however, for when the borrowers spend the borrowed cash to buy goods or to pay wages, the recipients of these dollars redeposit some or all of these dollars in their own banks, which in turn lend out a proportion of these new deposits. Through this process, bank-deposit dollars are created and multiplied far beyond the amount of the initial cash deposits. (Given the institutional conditions in the United States today, each dollar of currency deposited in a bank can increase the US money supply by a maximum of $10.00.) As the additional deposit dollars are spent, prices in the economy progressively rise, and the inevitable result is inflation, with all its associated deleterious effects on the economy.
Fractional-reserve banking inflicts another great harm on the economy. In order to induce businesses and consumers to borrow the additional dollars created, banks must reduce interest rates below the market-equilibrium level determined by the amount of voluntary savings in the economy. Businesses are misled by the artificially low interest rates into borrowing to expand their facilities or undertake new long-term investment projects of various kinds. But the prospective profitability of these undertakings depends on expectations that bank credit will remain cheap more or less indefinitely. Consumers, too, are deceived by the lower interest rates and rush to purchase larger residences or vacation homes. They take out second mortgages on their homes to buy big-ticket luxury items. A false economic boom begins that is doomed to turn into a bust as soon as interest rates begin to rise again.
As the inflationary boom progresses and prices rise, the demand for credit becomes more intense at the same time that more cash is withdrawn from bank deposits to finance the purchase of everyday goods. The banks react to these developments by sharply raising interest rates and contracting loans and deposits, causing a decline in the money supply. Indeed the money supply may very well collapse, as it did in the early 1930s, because the public loses confidence in the banks and demands it deposits back in cash. In this case, a series of bank runs ensue that pushes many fractional-reserve banks into insolvency and instantly extinguishes their money substitutes, which had previously circulated as part of the money supply. Recession and deflation results and the binge of bad investments and overconsumption is starkly revealed in the abandoned construction projects, empty commercial buildings, and foreclosed homes that litter the economic landscape. At the end of the recession it turns out that almost all households and business firms are made poorer by fractional-reserve bank-credit expansion, even those who may have initially gained from the inflation.
Inflation and the boom-bust cycles generated by fractional-reserve banking are enormously intensified by Federal Reserve and US-government interference with the banking industry. Indeed, this interference is justified by economists and policymaker precisely because of the instability of the fractional-reserve system. The most dangerous forms of such interference are the power of the Federal Reserve to create bank reserves out of thin air via open market operations, its use of these phony reserves to bail out failing banks in its role as a lender of last resort, and federal insurance of bank deposits. In the presence of such polices, the deposits of all banks are perceived and trusted by the public as one homogeneous brand of money substitute fully guaranteed by the Federal government and backed up by the Fed’s power to print up bank reserves at will and bail out insolvent banks. Under the current monetary regime, there is thus absolutely no check on the natural propensity of fractional-reserve banks to mismatch the maturity profiles of their assets and liabilities, to expand credit and deposits, and to artificially depress interest rates. Without fundamental change in the US monetary system, the growth of bubbles in various sectors of the economy and subsequent financial crises will continue unabated.
The solution is to treat banking as any other business and permit it to operate on the free market — a market completely free of government guarantees of bank deposits and of the possibility of Fed bailouts. In order to achieve the latter, federal deposit insurance must be phased out and the Fed would have to be permanently and credibly deprived of its legal power to create bank reserves out of nothing. The best way to do this is to establish a genuine gold standard in which gold coins would circulate as cash and serve as bank reserves; at the same time the Fed must be stripped of its authority to issue notes and conduct open-market operations. Also, banks would once again be legally enabled to issue their own brands of notes, as they were in the 19th and early 20th century.
Once this mighty rollback of government intervention in banking is accomplished, each fractional-reserve bank would be rigidly constrained by public confidence when issuing money substitutes. One false step — one questionable loan, one imprudent emission of unbacked notes and deposits — would cause instant brand extinction of its money substitutes, a bank run, and insolvency.
In fact on the banking market as I have described it, I foresee the ever-present threat of insolvency compelling banks to refrain from further lending of their deposits payable on demand. This means that if a bank wished to make loans of shorter or longer maturity, they would do so by issuing credit instruments whose maturities matched the loans. Thus for short-term business lending they would issue certificates of deposits with maturities of three or six months. To finance car loans they might issue three-year or four-year short bonds. Mortgage lending would be financed by five- or ten-year bonds. Without government institutions like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — backed by the Fed’s money-creating power — implicitly guaranteeing mortgages, mortgage loans would probably be transformed into shorter five- or ten-year balloon loans, as they were until the 1930s. The bank may retain an option to roll over a mortgage loan when it comes due pending a reevaluation of the mortgagor’s current financial situation and recent credit history as well as the general economic environment. In short, on a free market, fractional-reserve banking with all its inherent problems would slowly wither away.
 Ludwig von Mises, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics. Scholar’s Ed. (Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 1998), pp. 442, 444.
 Murray N. Rothbard, Making Economic Sense, 2nd ed. (Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2006), p. 326.
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 Mises.org. Send him mail. See Joseph T. Salerno’s article archives.
This is a revised version of written testimony submitted to the the Subcommittee on Domestic Monetary Policy and Technology of the Committee on Financial Services, US House of Representatives “Fractional Reserve Banking and Central Banking as Sources of Economic Instability: The Sound Money Alternative,” June 28, 2012.
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Copyright © 2012 by the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided full credit is given.
The economic and personal consequences of foreclosure are devastating. Foreclosures leave behind not only blighted neighborhoods, but ruined lives. Furthermore, during the past three years, immense abuses of the foreclosure process have come to light – with numerous banks being found to have improperly foreclosed on thousands of homeowners. The banks have either been unable to produce documentation that demonstrated their right to foreclose – or, worse, have foreclosed on individuals who were never even delinquent or did not have mortgages in the first place (see, for instance, here, here, and here). The violations of due process, private-property rights, and the rule of law have been astounding.
At this point, any solution that can reduce the number of foreclosures will be a welcome benefit to individual liberty, the US economy, and millions of Americans. Indeed, the concept of foreclosure – the expropriation of one’s home – resulting from a few late payments has always struck me as draconian. It disregards one fundamental fact: the homeowner has equity in his or home, even if he or she fails to make a few scheduled payments. So, suppose that a homeowner has a $150,000 outstanding mortgage loan on a home whose market value is $200,000. This means that the homeowner’s equity in the home is $50,000 – or one quarter of the home’s value. If the homeowner fails to make a $1000 hypothetical monthly payment on time, why is the bank entitled to appropriate the entire home and thereby deprive the homeowner of the entire $50,000 in equity? Suppose, as is often the case these days, that the foreclosure proceedings drag on for a year. A 5000% annual rate of interest for that one delinquent payment is quite steep indeed!
While delinquencies ought to be penalized, wholesale expropriation of a home is an unnecessary and disproportionate response in most cases. It would not have been possible on a truly free market, where roughly equal negotiating power would exist between lenders and borrowers. In today’s politicized financial environment, however, the large banks receive all of the privileges: bailouts, loan guarantees, access to “free money” from the Federal Reserve, barriers to entry for smaller competitors, the ability to “securitize” personal loans through means of dubious accountability, the ability to flout laws such as those pertaining to mortgage modifications, and a swiftly operating “revolving door” between bankers and politicians. Thus, homeowners are often left to acquiesce to terms that are far harsher than what they could have gotten for themselves in a truly free market.
A more equitable solution, that recognizes that the real value of the homeowner’s equity, is not to foreclose, but rather to reduce the homeowner’s equity for each delinquent payment. If the homeowner fails to make a scheduled payment, then the bank should be able to recoup its resulting losses – by seizing the portion of the homeowner’s equity corresponding to the amount of the delinquency, perhaps also incorporating an interest charge at the prevailing market rate. Only when all of the homeowner’s equity has been exhausted in this way should the bank have the right to foreclose. In today’s housing market, where many homes are “underwater” (i.e., the mortgage balance exceeds the market price, which has declined precipitously since the days of the housing bubble), this solution would still mean that some foreclosures would occur. But the number of foreclosures would be greatly reduced, and the majority of currently planned foreclosures would never occur. Furthermore, the “underwater” homeowners could still be helped by downward principal modifications that recognize the illusory and unsustainable nature of the inflated market prices that existed during the housing bubble and that were fueled by the expansionary monetary policy of the Federal Reserve. Homeowners should not be made to suffer for the Federal Reserve’s blunders.
Under my proposed approach, the mere involuntary loss of one’s job, or a catastrophic illness, would not put one’s place of shelter in immediate jeopardy. Rather, in the time that it takes for the homeowner’s equity to be exhausted, the homeowner would have the opportunity to attempt to regain his or her employment or health. Furthermore, with fewer foreclosures, the unsightly, wasteful, and dangerous effects of neighborhood blight would be greatly scaled back. A homeowner will still largely maintain his or her residence, even if he or she cannot make a regular mortgage payment. But once a home enters foreclosure, it suffers from deterioration and decrepitude at best – and outright vandalism and destruction at worst.
In rolling back the political privileges of the large banks, it is essential to compensate ordinary, law-abiding, innocent homeowners for the damage that these special privileges have wrought. The benefits of years of hard work and consistent mortgage payments should not be nullified overnight by a single delinquency. Over a year ago, in “Wrongful Foreclosures and the Free Market”, I advocated breaking up the bailed-out banks and declaring a temporary moratorium on foreclosures. Rewriting foreclosure law to require the exhaustion of the homeowner’s equity before a foreclosure can be initiated can be another step to wipe out most foreclosures at the stroke of a pen – while restoring an outcome more compatible with individual liberty, true market freedom, and natural justice.