Dear George

Dear George,

No purple prose this time, I promise – I wouldn’t dream of risking any untoward interruption of your natural digestive processes – but I just came across the little invective (is there any other genre to which you turn your hand?) – in which you gave full vent to your scorn for my alleged lack of understanding of the banking system.  

[Oh, and thanks for the editorial obiter dicta, but ‘fulfil’ is correct in real English, while the OED validates my use of both ‘nominated’ and ‘incongruous’. Typos are, alas, another matter for which you will just have to excuse one’s eternal inability properly to proof read one’s own work. It was however very stylistically astute of you, I must say, to exploit the frequent use of the [sic] insertion to make the subliminal suggestion that someone who apparently could not set grammatically accurate sentences on a page was ipso facto to be considered suspect in the coherent thought department, too! But, let’s not be too schoolgirlish about it. Onward to the point in hand.]

To chew over the first bone of contention and as you will not take my word for it that banks do create deposits by lending money, let me quote you a little Roepke from a footnote (p113) to his 1936 work, ‘Crises & Cycles’: 

The process [of credit creation] is now clearly explained in any text-book on economics, banking or money (especially recommendable is Hartley Withers’ Meaning of Money). A fuller treatment may be found in the following books: R. G. Hawtrey, op. cit.; J. M. Keynes, A Treatise on Money, pp. 23-49 : C. A. Philips, Bank Credit, New York, 1920; W. F. Crick, “The Genesis of Bank Deposits,” Economica, June 1927, and F. A. von Hayek, Monetary Theory and the Trade Cycle, London,1933.

Without an understanding of this process and of its limitations, no real insight into the working of our banking system and, consequently, of our entire economic system seems possible, to say nothing of the mechanism of business cycles. There may still be many people who can no more believe the story of the genesis of bank money than they can believe the genesis of the Bible, but on the whole it now seems to be generally accepted. A last but hopeless attempt at disproving it has recently been made by M. Bouniatian, Credit et conjoncture, Paris, 1933. [Emphasis mine and apparently NOT the last!]

Or as Hayek indeed noted in ‘Prices and Production’ above his own lengthy footnote (pp 81-2):-

The main reason for the existing confusion with regard to the creation of deposits is to be found in the lack of any distinction between the possibilities open to a single bank and those open to the banking system as a whole.

Shall we hear from Mises?  ‘Monetary Stabilization and Cyclical Policy’ (p105) seems pretty unequivocal on the matter:- 

If the banks grant circulation credit by discounting a three month bill of exchange, they exchange a future good—a claim payable in three months—for a present good that they produce out of nothing. It is not correct, therefore, to maintain that it is immaterial whether the bill of exchange is discounted by a bank of issue or whether it remains in circulation, passing from hand to hand. Whoever takes the bill of exchange in trade can do so only if he has the resources. But the bank of issue discounts by creating the necessary funds and putting them into circulation. [which, incidentally, is an almost exact paraphrase of the argument I advanced and to which you took such exception, George]

Finally, let us allow Dennis Robertson a few words on the matter from the posthumous collection ‘Essays in Money and Interest’, p25:-

…bank money comes into existence mainly as the result of loans and investments made in the banking system… … Historically, there seems to me no question that the bulk of bank money in existence has come into existence in this way… If anyone retains any lingering doubts on this matter, whether these doubts arise from consideration of the multiplicity of banks or from some less rational cause, I commend to him the patient and careful article of Mr. Crick [see above]… Here time forces me to treat this particular controversy as closed. [Emphasis mine again]

Your basic case is that when a miller supplies flour to a baker on credit and takes the evidence of his claim on the latter to a bank to be monetized, the blameless Free Fractional Bank can only accommodate this demand once its managers are satisfied they already have sufficient, saved monies – either to hand or readily available – to honour whatever surplus of cheques it is which, as a consequence, will be presented to them at the next clearing.

This is utterly wrong, but to demonstrate my point, you will have to grant me a little empirical diversion.

Bundesbank data for aggregated balance sheets across the EZ show that, as of the end of QII, banking institutions (or ‘MFI’s) had taken in roughly 60¢ of deposits from other banks for every €1 owed to non-banks, and had extended a similar proportion of 60/100 in credit to other banks versus that granted to non-banks by means of loans or security purchases. In the first case, the total was some €7,617 billion outstanding, in the latter €9,515 billion – whether in absolute terms or at 38% of the relevant totals, hardly trifling sums. 

Meanwhile, BIS data for cross-border banking shows an even greater predominance of ‘pig-on-pork’ with $19,204 billion in assets out of a total of $32,655 billion (59%) being claims against other banks and $20,875 billion out of $31,646 billion (66%) being liabilities due to other banks.

Clearing, did I hear you say? Clearing? Or, are we rather dealing with ‘money-from-thin-air’ pyramiding?

Since you so like to affect a folksy tone in your dismantling of opposing views, let me respectfully offer you a simple analogy in my turn.

Mick the Miller delivers flour to Bert the Baker in exchange for a post-dated IOU to the redeemable value of, say, $100. So far, so good – savers and lenders matched and nary a sign of inflation. Mick, however, next sells the note to Bartholomew the First Banker for a small discount and spends the $99.50 credited to his account on wages for the mill-hands.  Matt the Miller’s assistant gets his paid into his account with Benjamin the Second Banker. 

Alack and alas for your Trumpton theory of free banking, Ben does not send a runner, post haste off to present the cheque for clearing and thereby instantly expose Bart’s reckless issue of an unreserved demand claim, instead he goes searching for a convenient place to acquire an offsetting asset to put against his newly-assumed liability and typically ends up lending an equal amount to Bart in an interbank market which I have already demonstrated is still vast in extent, even today in our post-Lehman state of funk and even though I will grant you that as much as €1 trillion of this had to be further intermediated via the ESCB’s own balance sheets, using the TARGET2 system, at the height of the panic.

In this way (feel free to draw out the T-accounts if it is somehow not clear), money – i.e., Matt’s all too readily spendable credit balance in his demand account with Bank of Ben – has indeed been created ex nihilo. What is more, this has taken place long before Bert the Baker has had time to bring a fresh batch of his widely-praised Rustic Cobs out of the oven to sell to Matt and thereby begin the process of redeeming his own liabilities with an exchange of goods for the newly-created money. That creation was therefore inflationary, despite the complete absence of a central bank to muddy the waters in our toy community. 

Not that this has exhausted the possibilities either. Banker Bart could simply sell Baker Bert’s IOU to Banker Ben, though obviously Ben will have to repeat the exercise if the recipient of Matt’s imminent expenditure does not himself bank with Ben. More likely Bart will try to repo it (effectively, pledge the IOU as security for the sum he needs to borrow from Ben). After all, this is a market which just in the US amounts to a $2.8 trillion daily turnover, a mind-boggling sum to which we can add the €11.9 trillion a month passing across the LCH in London and the €700 billion a day going via Euroclear. Furthermore, given the controversy which has arisen over the multiple use of such collateral as Bert’s IOU – its ‘rehypothecation’ in the proper jargon – we can be fairly sure that this innocent little promise to pay will be positively flying around the system, assuring the ready creation of ‘money-from-thin-air’ for so long as it remains in some banker’s or broker-dealer’s hands.

You might like to know that, many years ago now, I started out working in the Treasury department of a small international bank in the City and that several of my peers from that day now occupy decidedly senior positions in that same milieu. I can assure you that none of us had ever given much thought to the business of covering (or at least of matching) our loans before granting them up, right up until the late outbreak of unpleasantness. The working assumption was that funds could always be had in the short-date interbank market, even if a degree of interest rate risk was therefore unavoidable (indeed, this latter, offering the chance of a profitable arbitrage, was often the primary motivation behind the lending decision itself). Things may not be quite so free and easy post-2008, but the point nonetheless stands.

Incidentally, even with the baleful presence of the CB, you should be aware that for much of the last boom, as the result of a captured-regulatory race to the bottom, reserve requirements – and hence active, statist reserve provision – were so nugatory (indeed, in the UK they were both voluntary and the degree of that voluntarism was actually capped) that they were irrelevant to the everyday functioning of the banks in much of the developed world. Moral hazards and implied backstops were of course all too operative, but reserve provision per se was not really a determining factor in the contemporary insanity.

For reasons which escape me, it is widely recognised in your circles that the supposed automaticity of the restraint imposed by the classical gold standard was honoured more in the breach than the observance because of the ready resort to the creation of deferred claims between surplus and deficit entities (whether private or public) in place of any actual final settlement through the transfer of metallic reserves (you cannot afford to be too respectful of the role of the barbaric relic, lest you sound too Rothbardian, I suppose) and yet you seem to insist that the paper trail from every last, utterly mundane banking transaction must be instantly be presented for an equivalent, expansion-restricting act of ‘clearing’. To the contrary, you will find that whether conducted electronically or not, ‘note wars’ are a curiosity of the past and, it is my contention, would be likely to remain so even if the evil central banking were miraculously to be abolished. 

It may be a truism of accounting that every asset has to have a corresponding liability (and that for entities such as banks, unlike for individuals and states, these must match internally, to boot), but this is to elide over the yawning gap between a genuinely ‘saved’ deposit and one which merely happens to have been caught on camera in someone’s possession at the instant of book-closing as it flits busily about between owners, performing its primary role as a medium of exchange. 

Nor are we here even beginning to deal with the distortive effects of ex ante, desired versus ex post, forced savings (I think I am right to venture that I have not seen your school deal much with this concept either).

No. I would suggest to you that the dangers and distortions are much more immediate than that.

If Mick the Miller is turned into Mick the Mortgage Dealer and Bert the Baker into Bert the Bungalow-Buyer, I can hardly see it as a comfort that, when the accounts are squared up at COB each evening, there must necessarily exist a positive entry somewhere in the system (barring the more remote possibility of there existing a corresponding cash holding) or that this is very likely to consist of an inside-money, demand account one which, however fleetingly held between the act of buying and selling, has been transmuted via an equally transient interbank loan into the associated 30-year obligation. 

Kind regards, from a ‘self-styled’ Austrian,


More from Sean Corrigan
Material Evidence
In the 1 September 2009 edition of Material Evidence, Sean Corrigan explains...
Read More
One reply on “Dear George”
  1. says: Paul Marks

    I believe it is waste of time to argue with GS – because he changes his position and then he says he has not. He just blatantly denies what he has done – even with the text on the screen.

    I remember GS supporting borrowing being financed by bank credit expansion (as long as it was credit expansion by private banks – not a Central Bank). I argued that all lending be from REAL SAVINGS (the sacrifice of consumption – rather than credit bubbles).

    So what? It is a old argument – one that has been had many times (by many people) over decades. But here is the twist…..

    G.S. then promptly denied that he had supported total borrowing being greater than total real savings – he maintained that he had always held that borrowing (all borrowing) be from real savings.

    This was blatantly false – a flat out lie.

    But when I pointed that out (pointed out that he was lying) my comment was deleted.

    That is when I came to the conclusion that arguing with G.S. was a waste of time.

Comments are closed.