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How Money Disappears in a Fractional-Reserve Money System – Article by Frank Shostak

How Money Disappears in a Fractional-Reserve Money System – Article by Frank Shostak

The New Renaissance Hat
Frank Shostak

Most experts are of the view that the massive monetary pumping by the US central bank during the 2008 financial crisis saved the US and the world from another Great Depression. On this the Federal Reserve Chairman at the time Ben Bernanke is considered the man that saved the world. Bernanke in turn attributes his actions to the writings of Professor Milton Friedman who blamed the Federal Reserve for causing the Great Depression of 1930s by allowing the money supply to plunge by over 30 percent.

Careful analysis will however show that it is not a collapse in the money stock that sets in motion an economic slump as such, but rather the prior monetary pumping that undermines the pool of real funding that leads to an economic depression.

Improving the Economy Requires Time and Savings
Essentially, the pool of real funding is the quantity of consumer goods available in an economy to support future production. In the simplest of terms: a lone man on an island is able to pick twenty-five apples an hour. With the aid of a picking tool, he is able to raise his output to fifty apples an hour. Making the tool, (adding a stage of production) however, takes time.

During the time he is busy making the tool, the man will not be able to pick any apples. In order to have the tool, therefore, the man must first have enough apples to sustain himself while he is busy making it. His pool of funding is his means of sustenance for this period—the quantity of apples he has saved for this purpose.

The size of this pool determines whether or not a more sophisticated means of production can be introduced. If it requires one year of work for the man to build this tool, but he has only enough apples saved to sustain him for one month, then the tool will not be built—and the man will not be able to increase his productivity.

The island scenario is complicated by the introduction of multiple individuals who trade with each other and use money. The essence, however, remains the same: the size of the pool of funding sets a brake on the implementation of more productive stages of production.

When Banks Create the Illusion of More Wealth
Trouble erupts whenever the banking system makes it appear that the pool of real funding is larger than it is in reality. When a central bank expands the money stock, it does not enlarge the pool of funding. It gives rise to the consumption of goods, which is not preceded by production. It leads to less means of sustenance.

As long as the pool of real funding continues to expand, loose monetary policies give the impression that economic activity is being boosted. That this is not the case becomes apparent as soon as the pool of real funding begins to stagnate or shrink. Once this happens, the economy begins its downward plunge. The most aggressive loosening of money will not reverse the plunge (for money cannot replace apples).

The introduction of money and lending to our analysis will not alter the fact that the subject matter remains the pool of the means of sustenance. When an individual lends money, what he in fact lends to borrowers is the goods he has not consumed (money is a claim on real goods). Credit then means that unconsumed goods are loaned by one productive individual to another, to be repaid out of future production.

The existence of the central bank and fractional reserve banking permits commercial banks to generate credit, which is not backed up by real funding (i.e., it is credit created out of “thin air”).

Once the unbacked credit is generated it creates activities that the free market would never approve. That is, these activities are consuming and not producing real wealth. As long as the pool of real funding is expanding and banks are eager to expand credit, various false activities continue to prosper.

Whenever the extensive creation of credit out of “thin air” lifts the pace of real-wealth consumption above the pace of real-wealth production this undermines the pool of real funding.

Consequently, the performance of various activities starts to deteriorate and banks’ bad loans start to rise. In response to this, banks curtail their loans and this in turn sets in motion a decline in the money stock.

Does every curtailment of lending cause the decline in the money stock?

For instance, Tom places $1,000 in a savings deposit for three months with Bank X. The bank in turn lends the $1,000 to Mark for three months. On the maturity date, Mark repays the bank $1,000 plus interest. Bank X in turn after deducting its fees returns the original money plus interest to Tom.

So what we have here is that Tom lends (i.e., gives up for three months) $1,000. He transfers the $1,000 through the mediation of Bank X to Mark. On the maturity date Mark repays the money to Bank X. Bank X in turn transfers the $1,000 to Tom. Observe that in this case existent money is moved from Tom to Mark and then back to Tom via the mediation of Bank X. The lending is fully backed here by $1,000. Obviously the $1,000 here doesn’t disappear once the loan is repaid to the bank and in turn to Tom.

Why the Money Supply Shrinks
Things are, however, completely different when Bank X lends money out of thin air. How does this work? For instance, Tom exercises his demand for money by holding some of his money in his pocket and the $1,000 he keeps in the Bank X demand deposit. By placing $1,000 in the demand deposit he maintains total claim on the $1,000. Now, Bank X helps itself and takes $100 from Tom’s deposit and lends this $100 to Mark. As a result of this lending we now have $1,100 which is backed by $1,000 proper. In short, the money stock has increased by $100. Observe that the $100 loaned doesn’t have an original lender as it was generated out of “thin air” by Bank X. On the maturity date, once Mark repays the borrowed $100 to Bank X, the money disappears.

Obviously if the bank is continuously renewing its lending out of thin air then the stock of money will not fall. Observe that only credit that is not backed by money proper can disappear into thin air, which in turn causes the shrinkage in the stock of money.

In other words, the existence of fractional reserve banking (banks creating several claims on a given dollar) is the key instrument as far as money disappearance is concerned. However, it is not the cause of the disappearance of money as such.

Banks Lend Less as the Quality of Borrowers Worsens
There must be a reason why banks don’t renew lending out of thin air. The main reason is the severe erosion of real wealth that makes it much harder to find good quality borrowers. This in turn means that monetary deflation is on account of prior inflation that has diluted the pool of real funding.

It follows then that a fall in the money stock is just a symptom. The fall in the money stock reveals the damage caused by monetary inflation but it however has nothing to do with the damage.

Contrary to Friedman and his followers (including Bernanke), it is not the fall in the money supply and the consequent fall in prices that burdens borrowers. It is the fact that there is less real wealth. The fall in the money supply, which was created out of “thin air,” puts things in proper perspective. Additionally, as a result of the fall in money, various activities that sprang up on the back of the previously expanding money now find it hard going.

It is those non-wealth generating activities that end up having the most difficulties in serving their debt since these activities were never generating any real wealth and were really supported or funded, so to speak, by genuine wealth generators. (Money out of “thin air” sets in motion an exchange of nothing for something — the transferring of real wealth from wealth generators to various false activities.) With the fall in money out of thin air their support is cut-off.

Contrary to the popular view then, a fall in the money supply (i.e., money out of “thin air”), is precisely what is needed to set in motion the build-up of real wealth and a revitalizing of the economy.

Printing money only inflicts more damage and therefore should never be considered as a means to help the economy. Also, even if the central bank were to be successful in preventing a fall in the money supply, this would not be able to prevent an economic slump if the pool of real funding is falling.

Frank Shostak is an Associated Scholar of the Mises Institute. His consulting firm, Applied Austrian School Economics, provides in-depth assessments and reports of financial markets and global economies. He received his bachelor’s degree from Hebrew University, master’s degree from Witwatersrand University and PhD from Rands Afrikaanse University, and has taught at the University of Pretoria and the Graduate Business School at Witwatersrand University.

This article was originally published by the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided full credit is given.

Today’s War Against Deflation Will Make Us Poorer – Article by Frank Shostak

Today’s War Against Deflation Will Make Us Poorer – Article by Frank Shostak

The New Renaissance HatFrank Shostak
October 29, 2015

The yearly growth rate of the US consumer price index (CPI) fell to 0 percent in September 2015, from 0.2 percent in August and, 1.7 percent in September last year.

The yearly growth rate of the European Monetary Union CPI fell to minus 0.1 percent in September from 0.1 percent in the previous month and 0.3 percent in September last year.
Shostak 1 102915_0
Also, the growth momentum of the UK CPI fell into the negative in September with the yearly growth rate closing at minus 0.1 percent from 0 percent in August and 1.2 percent in September last year.

The growth momentum of China’s CPI eased in September with the yearly growth rate falling to 1.6 percent from 2 percent in August.

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Deflation Fears Gain Steam
Consequently, many experts are expressing concern regarding the declining growth momentum of the CPI and are of the view that rather than tightening the monetary stance, central banks should loosen their stance further in order to counter the emergence of deflation, which is regarded as a major threat to economic well-being of individuals. For most experts, deflation is bad news since it generates expectations of a decline in prices. As a result, they believe, consumers are likely to postpone their buying of goods at present since they expect to buy these goods at lower prices in the future. This weakens the overall flow of spending and in turn weakens the economy. Hence, such commentators believe that policies that counter deflation will also counter the slump.
Will Reversing Deflation Prevent a Slump?

If deflation leads to an economic slump, then policies that reverse deflation should be good for the economy, so it is held.

Reversing deflation will simply involve introducing policies that support general increases in the prices of goods, i.e., price inflation. With this way of thinking inflation could actually be an agent of economic growth.

According to most experts, a little bit of inflation can actually be a good thing. Mainstream economists believe that inflation of 2 percent is not harmful to economic growth, but that inflation of 10 percent could be bad for the economy.

There’s good reason to believe, however, that at a rate of inflation of 10 percent, it is likely that consumers are going to form rising inflation expectations.

According to popular thinking, in response to a high rate of inflation, consumers will speed up their expenditures on goods at present, which should boost economic growth. So why then is a rate of inflation of 10 percent or higher regarded by experts as a bad thing?

Clearly there is a problem with the popular way of thinking.

Price Inflation vs. Money-Supply Inflation
Inflation is not about general increases in prices as such, but about the increase in the money supply. As a rule the increase in the money supply sets in motion general increases in prices. This, however, need not always be the case.

The price of a good is the amount of money asked per unit of it. For a constant amount of money and an expanding quantity of goods, prices will actually fall.

Prices will also fall when the rate of increase in the supply of goods exceeds the rate of increase in the money supply.

For instance, if the money supply increases by 5 percent and the quantity of goods increases by 10 percent, prices will fall by 5 percent.

A fall in prices cannot conceal the fact that we have inflation of 5 percent here on account of the increase in the money supply.

The Problem Is Really Wealth Formation, not Rising Prices
The reason why inflation is bad news is not because of increases in prices as such, but because of the damage inflation inflicts to the wealth-formation process. Here is why:

The chief role of money is the medium of exchange. Money enables us to exchange something we have for something we want.

Before an exchange can take place, an individual must have something useful that he can exchange for money. Once he secures the money, he can then exchange it for the good he wants.

But now consider a situation in which the money is created “out of thin air,” increasing the money supply.

This new money is no different from counterfeit money. The counterfeiter exchanges the printed money for goods without producing anything useful.

He in fact exchanges nothing for something. He takes from the pool of real goods without making any contribution to the pool.

The economic effect of money that was created out of thin air is exactly the same as that of counterfeit money — it impoverishes wealth generators.

The money created out of thin air diverts real wealth toward the holders of new money. This weakens the wealth generators’ ability to generate wealth and this in turn leads to a weakening in economic growth.

Note that as a result of the increase in the money supply what we have here is more money per unit of goods, and thus, higher prices.

What matters however is not that price rises, but the increase in the money supply that sets in motion the exchange of nothing for something, or “the counterfeit effect.”

The exchange of nothing for something, as we have seen, weakens the process of real wealth formation. Therefore, anything that promotes increases in the money supply can only make things much worse.

Why Falling Prices Are Good
Since changes in prices are just a symptom, as it were — and not the primary causative factor — obviously countering a falling growth momentum of the CPI by means of loose a monetary policy (i.e., by creating inflation) is bad news for the process of wealth generation, and hence for the economy.

In order to maintain their lives and well-being, individuals must buy goods and services in the present. So from this perspective a fall in prices cannot be bad for the economy.

Furthermore, if a fall in the growth momentum of prices emerges on the back of the collapse of bubble activities in response to a softer monetary growth then this should be seen as good news. The less non-productive bubble activities that are around the better it is for the wealth generators and hence for the overall pool of real wealth.

Likewise, if a fall in the growth momentum of the CPI emerges on account of the expansion in real wealth for a given stock of money, this is obviously great news since many more people could now benefit from the expanding pool of real wealth.

We can thus conclude that contrary to the popular view, a fall in the growth momentum of prices is always good news for the wealth generating process and hence for the economy.

Frank Shostak is an Associated Scholar of the Mises Institute. His consulting firm, Applied Austrian School Economics, provides in-depth assessments and reports of financial markets and global economies. He received his bachelor’s degree from Hebrew University, master’s degree from Witwatersrand University and PhD from Rands Afrikaanse University, and has taught at the University of Pretoria and the Graduate Business School at Witwatersrand University.

This article was originally published by the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided full credit is given.

Price Fixers of the World, Unite! – Article by Bradley Doucet

Price Fixers of the World, Unite! – Article by Bradley Doucet

The New Renaissance Hat
Bradley Doucet
December 4, 2013

Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro has never met a price control he didn’t like. The latest news is that he will regulate the price of new and used cars in order to fight inflation, which hit 54% in October. This is a lot like using leeches to balance the four humours: It’s discredited nonsense that does more harm than good (and shame on for its uncritical report on the matter, though I’m sure many other news outlets are just as bad).

As Matt McCaffrey and Carmen Dorobat pointed out in the International Business Times last month, inflation in Venezuela (and elsewhere) is quite simply the result of monetary expansion. The government prints money like a lunatic, which makes each single unit of currency worth less (and eventually worthless). More units of the debased currency are therefore needed to purchase goods and services, which is just another way of saying that prices go up.

Imposing controls to stop nominal prices from rising therefore actually lowers real prices below market rates. This leads to shortages, something long-suffering Venezuelans know a thing or two about. Their country is tragically being gutted of its accumulated capital by disastrously wrongheaded economic policies.

Equally mistaken, though not quite as harmful, is the Quebec government’s plan to control the price of books in order to keep sellers from selling them too cheaply. Pauline Marois’s Parti Québécois wants to cap discounts on new books at 10% to protect small booksellers from competition from online and big-box retailers. Whereas Maduro imposes price ceilings, Marois wants to impose a price floor, which will keep books above their market rate. As my Québécois Libre colleague Larry Deck quipped, “Surely nobody would buy fewer books just because they cost more, right?”

Ceilings or floors, fixing prices by diktat distorts market signals and makes most everyone worse off. Depending on their pervasiveness, price controls can lead to a little—or a lot—of hardship. Quebec’s politicians would do well to think twice before emulating an economic basket case like Venezuela.

Bradley Doucet is Le Québécois Libre‘s English Editor and the author of the blog Spark This: Musings on Reason, Liberty, and Joy. A writer living in Montreal, he has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness. He also writes for The New Individualist, an Objectivist magazine published by The Atlas Society, and sings.

New Fed Boss Same as the Old Boss – Article by Ron Paul

New Fed Boss Same as the Old Boss – Article by Ron Paul

The New Renaissance Hat
Ron Paul
October 13, 2013

The news that Janet Yellen was nominated to become the next Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System was greeted with joy by financial markets and the financial press. Wall Street saw Yellen’s nomination as a harbinger of continued easy money. Contrast this with the hand-wringing that took place when Larry Summers’ name was still in the running. Pundits worried that Summers would be too cautious, too hawkish on inflation, or too close to big banks.

The reality is that there wouldn’t have been a dime’s worth of difference between Yellen’s and Summers’ monetary policy. No matter who is at the top, the conduct of monetary policy will be largely unchanged: large-scale money printing to bail out big banks. There may be some fiddling around the edges, but any monetary policy changes will be in style only, not in substance.

Yellen, like Bernanke, Summers, and everyone else within the Fed’s orbit, believes in Keynesian economics. To economists of Yellen’s persuasion, the solution to recession is to stimulate spending by creating more money. Wall Street need not worry about tapering of the Fed’s massive program of quantitative easing under Yellen’s reign. If anything, the Fed’s trillion dollars of yearly money creation may even increase.

What is obvious to most people not captured by the system is that the Fed’s loose monetary policy was the root cause of the current financial crisis. Just like the Great Depression, the stagflation of the 1970s, and every other recession of the past century, the current crisis resulted from the creation of money and credit by the Federal Reserve, which led to unsustainable economic booms.

Rather than allowing the malinvestments and bad debts caused by its money creation to liquidate, the Fed continually tries to prop them up. It pumps more and more money into the system, piling debt on top of debt on top of debt. Yellen will continue along those lines, and she might even end up being Ben Bernanke on steroids.

To Yellen, the booms and bust of the business cycle are random, unforeseen events that take place just because. The possibility that the Fed itself could be responsible for the booms and busts of the business cycle would never enter her head. Nor would such thoughts cross the minds of the hundreds of economists employed by the Fed. They will continue to think the same way they have for decades, interpreting economic data and market performance through the same distorted Keynesian lens, and advocating for the same flawed policies over and over.

As a result, the American people will continue to suffer decreases in the purchasing power of the dollar and a diminished standard of living. The phony recovery we find ourselves in is only due to the Fed’s easy money policies. But the Fed cannot continue to purchase trillions of dollars of assets forever. Quantitative easing must end sometime, and at that point the economy will face the prospect of rising interest rates, mountains of bad debt and malinvested resources, and a Federal Reserve which holds several trillion dollars of worthless bonds.

The future of the US economy with Chairman Yellen at the helm is grim indeed, which provides all the more reason to end our system of central economic planning by getting rid of the Federal Reserve entirely. Ripping off the bandage may hurt some in the short run, but in the long term everyone will be better off. Anyway, most of this pain will be borne by the politicians, big banks, and other special interests who profit from the current system. Ending this current system of crony capitalism and moving to sound money and free markets is the only way to return to economic prosperity and a vibrant middle class.

Ron Paul, MD, is a former three-time Republican candidate for U. S. President and Congressman from Texas.

This article is reprinted with permission from the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity.

Review of Gary Wolfram’s “A Capitalist Manifesto” – Article by G. Stolyarov II

Review of Gary Wolfram’s “A Capitalist Manifesto” – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
January 5, 2013

While Dr. Gary Wolfram’s A Capitalist Manifesto is more an introduction to economics and economic history than a manifesto, it communicates economic concepts in a clear and entertaining manner and does so from a market-friendly point of view. Wolfram’s strengths as an educator stand out in this book, which could serve as an excellent text for teaching basic microeconomics and political economy to all audiences. Wolfram is a professor of economics at Hillsdale College, whose course in public-choice economics I attended. The book’s narration greatly resembles my experience of Wolfram’s classroom teaching, which focuses on the essence of an idea and its real-world relevance and applications, often utilizing entertaining concrete examples.

The book begins with several chapters on introductory microeconomics – marginal analysis, supply, demand, market equilibrium, opportunity cost, and the effects of policies that artificially prevent markets from clearing. The middle of the book focuses on economic history and political economy – commenting on the development of Western markets from the autarkic, manorial system of the feudal Middle Ages, through the rise of commerce during the Early Modern period, the Industrial Revolution, the emergence of corporations, and the rise in the 20th century of economic regimentation by national governments. One of the strengths of this book is its treatment of the benefits of free trade, from its role in progress throughout history to the theoretical groundwork of Ricardian comparative advantage. Enlightening discussions of constitutionalism and the classical idea of negative liberty are also provided. Wolfram introduces the insights of Ludwig von Mises regarding the infeasibility of central planning in solving the problem of economic calculation, as well as Friedrich Hayek’s famous “knowledge problem” – the dispersion of information among all the individuals in an economy and the impossibility of a central planner assembling all the information needed to make appropriate decisions. Wolfram further articulates the key insights of Frederic Bastiat: the seen versus the unseen in economic policy, the perils of coercive redistribution of wealth, the immorality of using the law to commit acts which would have been unacceptable if done by private individuals acting alone, and the perverse incentives created by a system where the government is able to dispense special privileges to a select few.

The latter third of the book focuses on such areas as money, inflation, and macroeconomics – including an exposition of the Keynesian model and its assumptions. Wolfram is able to explain Keynesian economics in a more coherent and understandable manner than most Keynesians; he thoroughly understands the theories he critiques, and he presents them with fairness and objectivity. I do, however, wish that the book had delved more thoroughly into a critique of Keynesianism. The discussion therein of the Keynesian model’s questionable assumptions is a good start, and perhaps a gateway to more comprehensive critiques, such as those of Murray Rothbard and Robert Murphy. A layperson reading A Capitalist Manifesto would be able to come out with a fundamental understanding of Keynes’s central idea and its assumptions – but he would not, solely as a result of this book, necessarily be able to refute the arguments of Keynes’s contemporary followers, such as Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman. Wolfram mentions critiques of Keynesianism by Milton Friedman and the monetarist school, the concept of rational expectations precipitating a move away from Keynesianism in the late 1970s, and the “supply-side” interpretations of the Keynesian model from the 1980s. However, those viewpoints are not discussed in the same level of detail as the basic Keynesian model.

More generally, my only significant critique of A Capitalist Manifesto is that it is too brief in certain respects. It offers promising introductions to a variety of economic ideas, but leaves some significant questions arising from those areas unanswered. Wolfram introduces the history and function of the corporation but does not discuss the principal-agent problem in large, publicly traded firms with highly dispersed ownership. To anticipate and answer (and perhaps partially acknowledge the validity of) criticisms of the contemporary corporate form of organization, commentary on how this problem might be overcome is essential. Wolfram explains the components and computation of Gross Domestic Product and the Consumer Price Index but devotes only a small discussion to critiques of these measures – critiques that are particularly relevant in an electronic age, when an increasing proportion of valuable content – from art to music to writing to games – is delivered online at no monetary cost to the final consumer. How can economic output and inflation be measured and meaningfully interpreted in an economy characterized partially by traditional money-for-goods/services transactions and partially by the “free” content model that is funded through external sources (e.g., donations or the creators’ independent income and wealth)? Moreover, does Wolfram’s statement that the absence of profit (sufficient to cover the opportunity cost) would result in the eventual decline of an enterprise need to be qualified to account for new models of delivering content? For instance, if an individual or firm uses one income stream to support a different activity that is not itself revenue- or profit-generating, there is a possibility for this arrangement to be sustainable in the long term if it is also justified by perceived non-monetary value.

Wolfram’s discussion of inflation is correct and forms a strong link between inflation and the quantity of money (government-issued fiat money these days) – but I would have wished to see a more thorough focus on Ludwig von Mises’s insight that new money does not enter the economy to equally raise everybody’s incomes simultaneously; rather, the distortion due to inflation comes precisely from the fact that some (the politically favored) receive the new money and can benefit from using it while prices have not yet fully adjusted. (This can be logically inferred from Wolfram’s discussion of some of the “tools” of the Federal Reserve, which directly affect the incomes of politically connected banks – but I wish the connection to Mises’s insight had been made more explicit.) Wolfram does mention that inflation can be a convenient tool for national governments to reduce their debt burdens, and he also discusses the inflationary role of fractional-reserve banking and “tools” available to central banks such as the Federal Reserve. However, Wolfram’s proposed solutions to the problems of inflation remain unclear from the text. Does he support Milton Friedman’s proposal for a fixed rate of growth in the fiat-money supply, or does he advocate a return to a classical gold standard – or perhaps to a system of market-originated competing currencies, as proposed by Hayek? It would also have been interesting to read Wolfram’s thoughts on the prospects and viability of peer-to-peer and digital currencies, such as Bitcoin, and whether these could mitigate some of the deleterious effects of central-bank-generated inflation.

Wolfram does discuss in some detail the sometimes non-meritocratic outcomes of markets – stating, for instance, that “boxers may make millions of dollars while poets make very little.” Indeed, it is possible to produce far more extreme comparisons of this sort – e.g., a popular “star” with no talent or sense earning millions of dollars for recording-studio-hackneyed “music” while genuinely talented classical musicians and composers might earn relatively little, or even have their own work remain a personal hobby pursued for enjoyment alone. To some critics of markets, this may well be the reason to oppose them and seek some manner of non-market compensation for people of merit. For a defender of the unhampered market economy, a crucial endeavor should be to demonstrate that truly free markets (unlike the heavily politicized markets of our time) can tend toward meritocracy in the long run, or at least offer people of merit a much greater range of possibilities for success than exists under any other system. Another possible avenue of exploration might be the manner in which a highly regimented political system (especially in the areas of education) might result in a “dumbed-down” culture which neglects and sometimes outright opposes intellectual and esthetic sophistication and the ethic of personal productivity which is indispensable to a culture that prizes merit. Furthermore, defenders of markets should continually seek out ways to make the existing society more meritocratic, even in the face of systemic distortions of outcomes. Technology and competition – both of which Wolfram correctly praises – should be utilized by liberty-friendly entrepreneurs to provide more opportunities for talented individuals to demonstrate their value and be rewarded thereby.

Wolfram’s engaging style and many valid and enlightening insights led me to desire more along the same lines from him. Perhaps A Capitalist Manifesto will inspire other readers to ask similar questions and seek more market-friendly answers. Wolfram provides a glossary of common economic terms and famous historical figures, as well as some helpful references to economic classics within the endnotes of each chapter.  A Capitalist Manifesto will have its most powerful impact if readers see it as the beginning of their intellectual journey and utilize the gateways it offers to other writings in economics and political economy.

Disclosure: I received a free copy of the book for the purposes of creating a review.

Let Unsound Money Wither Away – Article by Joseph T. Salerno

Let Unsound Money Wither Away – Article by Joseph T. Salerno

The New Renaissance Hat
Joseph T. Salerno
July 29, 2012
[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.]

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. [1]

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.[2]

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.


[1] Ludwig von Mises, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics. Scholar’s Ed. (Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 1998), pp. 442, 444.

[2] 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 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.

Not Enough Inflation? – Article by Tyler Watts

Not Enough Inflation? – Article by Tyler Watts

The New Renaissance Hat
Tyler Watts
July 15, 2012

Two wrongs may not make a right, but a second dose of poison might just cure the first dose. That’s at least what Paul Krugman, America’s most prominent left-wing economic pundit, is saying about an untapped remedy for our economic woes. In his April 5 New York Times column, “Not Enough Inflation,” Krugman repeated his claim that “a bit more inflation would be a good thing, not a bad thing.”

If you’re wondering how progressively higher prices for everyday goods could help any household get ahead economically, let alone contribute to overall economic recovery, you’re in good company. As all econ-principles students know, inflation is caused by an increase in the supply of money relative to money demand. The increase in consumer goods prices—that’s how the layman defines and experiences inflation—is really just a symptom of the reduced purchasing power of money caused by the increase in its quantity. The higher prices for all goods in turn mean lower real incomes for consumers—which is all of us—not to mention that inflation is also typically symptomatic of the boom-bust business cycle and can cause significant widespread economic damage. In its most severe forms, inflation can wipe out people’s monetary wealth and bring commerce to a halt.

But smart guys like Professor Krugman aren’t mere monetary cranks. They know that high inflation is economically dangerous. What they’re asking for is just a small, temporary dose of fresh money to inject some new life into the economy. There is a kernel of truth to this inflationary prescription. As the Scottish philosopher David Hume explained in his 1752 essay Of Money, prices for different kinds of goods react differently to new money entering the economy. Generally speaking, commodities or consumer goods prices will rise faster than wages. So for a manufacturing entrepreneur, for instance, who employs many workers, inflation will cause output prices (revenue) to increase relative to wages (costs), bringing an increase in profits that will induce an increase in output. Therefore, in Hume’s terms, an increase of money “must first quicken the diligence of every [entrepreneur], before it increase the price of labor.”

This “sticky wages” effect is what economists like Hume, John Maynard Keynes, and Krugman have in mind when advocating inflationary stimulus. Krugman also notes that “parts of the private sector continue to be crippled by the overhang of debt accumulated during the bubble years,” and that “modest inflation . . . by eroding the real value of that debt . . . [would] help promote the private-sector recovery.” So higher inflation not only increases the demand for labor, but can also help clean up companies’ and individuals’ balance sheets, giving them the ability to ramp up their hiring and spending. What’s not to love about this miracle elixir?

There are two big problems with inflationary stimulus. The first involves the process dynamics of the market economy. The inflationists tend to omit the rest of the story, which involves the long-run effects of new money. New money will eventually increase all prices—even wages—meaning the stimulus effect can only be temporary. For if entrepreneurs read the price increases not as mere inflation, but higher demand for their products (as the inflationists hope), they are liable to make investments to expand their production capacity. Once the inflation effect peters out, once rising wages eventually push profits back down, they find that extra production is no longer profitable. The expansion can’t be sustained without more inflationary stimulus.

In a rising inflation environment, moreover, people will eventually come to anticipate further price increases. Workers demand upward wage adjustments in advance, and entrepreneurs anticipate rising costs and thus scale back their expansion plans. Once people catch on to inflationary stimulus in this fashion, larger and larger money injections (that is, higher inflation rates) are needed to merely maintain output levels. At some point, the high, rising, and volatile inflation rate itself becomes a drag on the economy. Miscalculation of next year’s, or even next month’s, inflation rate could spell disaster for entrepreneur and worker alike. As inflation heats up, it can actually drag investment down, as people seek to shelter their wealth in “sterile” assets like gold. Inflation, instead of a stimulus factor, becomes a source of economic confusion and frustration. Iconic images of people hauling wheelbarrow loads of money to buy a loaf of bread in post-World War I Germany remind us of the potential economic turmoil of unchecked inflation. This of course is not what Krugman has in mind, but we should not forget that the mightiest river begins as a trickle.

The second big problem with inflation is a moral one. Along with causing economic confusion, inflation redistributes wealth. The key fact here, again, is that not all prices rise immediately when new money enters circulation. People who are first to receive the new money get to spend it before prices go up. Those last in line see prices go up before their own incomes do. Inflation also redistributes wealth from lenders to borrowers, as Krugman indicated, by reducing the real value of debt. But Krugman conveniently ignores the corresponding fact that, whenever a borrower’s real debt burden is eased, a lender’s asset value is eroded. Thus to use inflation as a partial bailout for borrowers is to harm lenders and investors. This is happening already—even at “mild” inflation rates that are too low for Krugman’s tastes, real returns on investments like bank CDs are driven into negative territory.

Through these redistributions of purchasing power, inflation acts like a tax: a tax on savers, on investors, on those at the very end of the monetary policy food chain. Ironically for Progressives like Krugman, this inflation tax arguably hits the poor and uneducated hardest. Educated, economically sophisticated people know the warning signs of inflation and know how to shelter their assets—as attested by the flurry of gold bullion dealers’ ads on cable news and AM radio. The poor are much more likely to be wage earners whose incomes tend to lag inflation, or pensioners who, even with annual cost-of-living adjustments, can still see consistent reductions in their purchasing power.

Nonetheless, Krugman and the inflation party don’t understand the free-market camp’s arguments against inflation. He accuses us of “obsessing” over inflation, while he thinks the Fed should focus on curing unemployment. Even conceding that inflation can provide a temporary, halting employment stimulus, the objection remains strong. It comes down to the fact that inflation is a big lie—or, should we say, a million little lies, because inflation distorts all prices and thereby hinders their crucial function of giving entrepreneurs and workers the correct information and incentives on which to make the best economic decisions. Inflation’s promises of faster growth and greater wealth are illusory. Like alcohol or drug abuse, every high begets a crash that demands larger and larger doses to maintain the effect. Inflation is a dangerous medicine that stands to do the patient more harm than good.

Tyler Watts is an assistant professor of economics at Ball State University and the winner of the 2012 Beth A. Hoffman Memorial Prize for Economic Writing.

This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.