Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Testimony on fractional-reserve banking

Lawrence H. White, Professor of Economics, George Mason University, testified before the House Subcommittee on Domestic Monetary Policy and Technology, United States House of Representatives. His testimony is a good discussion of fractional-reserve banking.

One of the more interesting sections of the testimony has to do with advantages and disadvantages of fractional reserves.
The advantage to the bank from keeping fractional reserves is clear: it earns interest on the lent-out funds. A few commentators have declared that FRB [fractional-reserve banking] must be a fraud: the gain is all on the bank’s side, and no customer would agree to it if she realized what the bank was up to. But this claim assumes that there are no advantages to the bank’s customers. In fact there are clear advantages to the bank’s customers, at least under competition. To compete for customers, all experience shows, banks offering fractional-reserve accounts charge zero storage fees and even pay interest on deposits, up to point where the interest they pay falls short of the interest they earn only by just enough to cover the bank’s operating costs for safekeeping and payment services. In this way FRB creates a synergy between payments services (checkable deposits, banknotes) and intermediation (pooling savers’ funds for lending to selected borrowers). When the deposited funds that are not needed as reserves can be lent out, depositors enjoy lower (or zero) storage fees and interest on checking deposit balances.

By contrast to money warehousing, the savings of fractional-reserve banking do carry a disadvantage in the form of greater default risk. If the bank’s investments go sour, the depositor may not be repaid in full. The warehouse, by contrast, makes no investments. So the customer choosing between a bank account contract and a warehousing contract needs to consider: is the saving in storage fees and the interest paid on deposits high enough (relative to the increased risk of not being paid promptly)? Historically, in competitive systems where banks were free to diversify and capitalize themselves well, the answer was yes for most people. Thus well informed consumers who want economical payment services typically prefer a fractional-reserve bank to a warehouse. In sound banking systems historically, before deposit insurance, the risk of loss was a small fraction of one percent, while the interest was more than one percent, and the sum of interest and storage fee savings was even higher. Thus FRB can arise and survive without fraud. The economist George Selgin has examined the record of the London goldsmith bankers, and debunked the myth that they pulled a fraudulent switcheroo, promising 100% reserves but holding less, at the beginning of the practice of FRB. Goldsmith bank accounts became enormously popular in the mid-1600s because they offered interest on demand deposits. The offer of interest is a clear signal that the contract is not a warehousing contract.

For payment by account transfer, FRB offers a more economic way of providing payment services. A money warehouse or 100% reserve institution could also offer payments by account transfer, but its services would be significantly more expensive. The other bank payment instrument, redeemable banknotes circulating in round denominations, simply cannot exist without fractional reserves. Banknotes are feasible for a fractional-reserve bank because the bank doesn’t need to assess storage fees to cover its costs. It can let the notes can circulate anonymously and at face value, unencumbered by fees, and cover its costs by interest income. An issuer of circulating 100% reserve notes would need to assess storage fees on someone, but would be unable to assess them on unknown note-holders. There are no known historical examples of circulating 100% reserve notes unemcumbered by storage fees.

Under a gold or silver standard, the introduction and public acceptance of fractionally backed demand deposits and banknotes means that the economy needs less gold or silver in its vaults to supply the quantity of money balances (commonly accepted media of exchange) that the public wants to hold. Thus money is supplied at a lower resource cost, that is, with less labor and capital devoted to mining or importing precious metals and fashioning them into coins or bars. Looking at the change in balance sheets from money warehouses to fractional reserve banks, the economy can now fund productive enterprises where before it only held metal. Gold can be exported, and productive machinery imported. This development in Scotland was praised by Adam Smith as a source of his country’s economic growth. As the economist Ludwig von Mises put it, “Fiduciary media [fractionally backed demand deposits and banknotes] … enrich both the person that issues them and the community that employs them."

Under a fiat money standard, as we have today with the Federal Reserve dollar, things are different. There are no mining or minting costs saved by holding fractional rather than 100% reserves in the form of fiat money. For commercial banks to hold 100% reserves in the form of fiat money issued by the federal government would, however, change drastically the function of the banks. Instead of funding productive enterprises, the banks would instead only fund the federal government. Fewer loanable funds would be available to the private economy, and more to the government. Private investment would be suppressed, and public spending enlarged.
White's conclusion is
The evidence shows that a fractional-reserve banking system is not unstable when the banking system is free of hobbling legal restrictions and free of privileges. The US banking system in the 19th century was weakened by legal restrictions. In response to that weakness, rather than let the banking system become robust by repealing its restrictions, Congress in the 20th century patched over the problem by creating the Federal Reserve system (to act a “lender of last resort”) and federal deposit insurance. As a result, the US banking system in the 21st century is chronically weakened by government privileges (especially taxpayer-backed deposit insurance and taxpayer-backed “too big to fail” bailouts) that generate moral hazard. Banks take advantage of these guarantees by holding asset portfolios too full of default risk and interest-rate risk. They finance their portfolios with excess leverage (too much debt, not enough equity). Rather than trying to come up with another patch, Congress should seek to dismantle the restrictions and the privileges that have left the American people saddled with an unhealthy banking system.

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