Economics

Has Fractional-Reserve Banking Really Passed the Market Test?

[Editor's note: the following piece was originally published by World Dollar at zerohedge.com]

In 2003, Jörg Guido Hülsmann, a senior fellow of the Mises Institute, published the essay “Has Fractional-Reserve Banking Really Passed the Market Test?” in a Winter edition of The Independent Review. The key conclusion drawn was that it is the obfuscation of the difference between fractional-reserve IOUs and genuine money titles which preserves the the practice of fractional-reserve banking.

It is the belief of this author that this essay has not received the acclaim that it so richly deserves. Indeed, its implications for the future of money and banking are monumentous. If those who advance the Austrian School of economics, the Mises Institute and Zero Hedge most prominently among them, were to grant its ideas a great renaissance, the worldwide return to sound money may happen far sooner than most could have believed possible.

J.G. Hülsmann 
explains why “in a free market with proper product differentiation, fractional-reserve banking would play virtually no monetary role” (p.403). The incisive reason given is that genuine money titles are valued at par with money proper, while fractional-reserve IOUs + RP (Redemption Promise) would be valued below par, due to default risk.

Here is the deductive argument being made:

1.    Debt (IOUs + RP) is promised money.
2.    A promise has the risk of not being kept (default risk).
3.    Therefore, promised money, debt (IOUs + RP), is less valuable than genuine money titles (/money proper).

J.G. Hülsmann goes on to explain why the mispricing of fractional-reserve debt (IOUs + RP) persists. The reasons given include the outlawing of genuine money titles and deceptive language (“deposits”).  This author would like to add one more reason, namely the myth that the government could actually “guarantee” deposits in the event of a systemic run. Systemic runs mean, by definition, most if not all money proper exiting the fractional reserve banking system, meaning the money proper with which the “guarantees” could be fulfilled doesn’t exist, short of unprecedented levels of new money printing and financial repression. This point is acknowledged on p.22 of the otherwise unexceptional “The Chicago Plan Revisited” by Jaromir Benes and Michael Kumhof.

The history of fractional reserve banking is, then, defined by informational inefficiency. Market participants have failed to reflect the price differential between fractional reserve debt (IOUs + RP) and genuine money titles.

Let us now extend the deductive argument:

4.    Therefore, an arbitrage opportunity exists. All holders of Debt (IOUs + RP) have an economic incentive to make the redemption request for genuine money titles (/money proper).

Mervyn King, ex-governor of the Bank of England, once claimed that it is irrational to start a bank run, but rational to participate in one once it has started. While the second part of the claim is correct, the first is not. It is irrational not to start a bank run, due to the arbitrage opportunity that exists.

This, of course, holds the assumption that the market will become informationally efficient, and will therefore capitalise on the mispricing. But the holding of this assumption is only credible if this idea is spread. We live in a time with an unprecedented level of competing voices wanting to be heard, the unfortunate consequence of which is that we drown out the voices that are truly exceptional. It is no exaggeration to say that “Has Fractional-Reserve Banking Really Passed the Market Test?” may prove to be the most revolutionary essay in the history of monetary economics and banking, if only it  receives the level of appraisal and promotion it deserves.

On this matter, the reasons given for the persistence of the mispricing of fractional-reserve debt (IOUs + RP) are unsustainable in the long run. The lack of legal protection for genuine money titles is no more than a technicality, for there is nothing in practice that can sustainably prevent the existence of full reserve banks. Awareness that “deposits” are not actually money being held for safekeeping is a matter of educating the public, as is awareness that government’s deposit “guarantees” are not actually credible in the event of a systemic run.

If we assume, then, that fractional-reserve banking will come to its logical ending, there is good reason to believe that the shock will herald the endgame for fiat money. It is in fact the case that all fiat money is the liability of the central bank, which also carries the risk of non-repayment (default risk). This, again, means an arbitrage opportunity for market participants to withdraw the fiat money from the fiat money banking system. This confirms that the original basis for fiat money is destroyed, for its repayment to the central bank is not credible.

Finally, at long last, we have a worldwide return to sound money. Will there be a new 21st century Gold Standard? Will we recourse to cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin? Will we see the rise of the Equal Opportunity Standard, with everyone in the world being issued once with an equal amount of World dollars? Or will there be another innovation to come? What we must defend, as proud advocates of freedom, is that the free market will decide. That governments finally learn to stop their oppressive, damaging interference with the monetary system.

2 comments to Has Fractional-Reserve Banking Really Passed the Market Test?

  • I agree with Max Rangeley, except that I think his basic point can be put more briefly and as follows.

    Fractional reserve is fraudulent because an FR bank promises to return $X to depositors for every $X deposited (ignoring interest and bank charges). However the $X gets loaned on or invested and there is no such thing as a totally safe loan or investment, as the never ending series of bank failures throughout history demonstrates.

    Essentially that’s the same as me, 1, borrowing money from someone, 2, promising to return the money, and 3, putting the money on a horse.

  • Max,

    You don’t seem to have considered the respective costs and earnings potential of “promised money” and “genuine money” (to use your terms). The former will in normal circumstances attract some interest return while the latter would necessarily attract administrative and/or storage costs.

    Doesn’t historical experience prior to central banks (and perhaps most relevantly during various free banking episodes) suggest these two factors generally compensate for the risk differential you (and Mr Hülsmann) see as critical?