Banking: the shape of the debate

ESCP EuropeShould banks be permitted to operate with a fractional reserve on demand deposits or should 100% reserves be a legal requirement? Should there be a central bank with a monopoly on note issue? What are the consequences of these choices? These were mainstream questions in the 19th century and they demand attention today. Here, following the ESCP Europe/Cobden Centre “Colloquium on Honest Money”, Steve Baker  frames the debate to be had about money and banking.

Today, people are well aware that we have a banking crisis, a “credit crunch“. That is, there is a problem in the financial system, a system which is centrally planned — see Economic Interventionism, Banks and the Crisis — and an approach which necessarily works badly — see Strip the Bank of England of its power. So, what are the features of the present system and what are the alternatives?

The two important features of the present, orthodox system are:

  • The banks are not required to keep money in reserve to the value of demand deposits. That is, they operate with a fractional reserve. As Toby Baxendale has pointed out, today if more than one person in 34 asks their bank for their money back in notes and coins, which is a reasonable, contractually-sound request, we will have a systemic banking crisis — a run on all banks — because there is simply not as much cash as people’s bank statements say there is.
  • There are, across the world, central banks in which committees of experts set “monetary policy” — see The kindness of geniuses — a rate of interest which, through various mechanisms, affects the entire economy.  And the economy is, of course, what people choose to do, since the economy is nothing more or less than the cooperation of thinking, acting individuals and of corporations run by thinking, acting individuals; therefore, manipulating the interest rate necessarily distorts the actions of people and the productive structure. Central banks also act as “lenders of last resort” in the event of a run on a particular bank — which is possible because of their fractional reserve — but in the case of Northern Rock, the Bank of England did not ultimately fulfill that role.

Stepping back from today’s monetary orthodoxy — a fractional reserve and a central bank — the options are plain: we can have a 100% reserve on demand deposits, or not, and separately, we can have central banks with a monopoly on the supply of currency, or not. Hence, Jesús Huerta de Soto models (PDF) the banking debate as follows:

The shape of the banking debate

The shape of the debate (click to enlarge)

As Irving Fisher, one of the founders of Monetarism, pointed out in the sub-title and content of his book 100% Money, there are potential benefits to be gained from moving to another system. For example, Fisher identified the following as the headline benefits of moving to a 100% reserve requirement:

  • keeping chequing banks 100% liquid so that there can be no more runs on banks,
  • preventing inflation and deflation,
  • largely curing or preventing depressions,
  • and wiping out much of the National Debt.

Since we have had a run on a bank, since the money supply has deflated, since attempts to reflate the money supply risk price inflation and distort the economy, since the boom-bust cycle is evidently still in progress and since we are doubling our national debt, it is perhaps worth taking seriously the question of how our system of money and banking is organized.

Furthering that discussion was the purpose of the recent ESCP Europe/Cobden Centre Colloquium on Honest Money directed by Founding Fellow Dr Anthony J. Evans, Chaired by Corporate Affairs Director Steve Baker and attended by Chairman Toby Baxendale amongst 9 other academics and practitioners in the field of money and banking.

We will continue to develop and promote a range of ideas to open up and further the debate on money and banking.

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