Let Unsound Money Wither Away
[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 demand 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 cli
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