This post is a follow on from many comments on my last post on fractional reserve banking. If this is your first visit to the blog, you may want to look at some of the posts linked to on the left before this post, as this post is a little narrow and more than a little abstract, and attempts to clarify the previous post. If you do want to read on, in order to understand this post, you will need to read my previous post, which is here and may find the comments made by readers helpful in understanding the questions I am trying to address.
Before going on, I will re-emphasise something that some people missed. I am very clear that the central banks do indeed create money (but more of that in a future post). However, this should not be mixed up with the principle of whether Fractional Reserve Banking FRB creates money. My post on FRB seems to very contentious, with one commentator on a forum being very complimentary about the blog overall, but also suggesting that I do not understand FRB. I think the problem prompting such comments is very basic, and is the subject of argument amongst the different schools of economics - the question of what money is.
Returning to the definition of money, in my original post I went to some effort to make clear my definition of money. The argument about whether FRB creates money depends on how you might define money. Perhaps I never made the relationship between FRB and money clear as one person asked why I added this discussion of what money is.
I specifically gave the case of the IOU to make the point of my definition. The IOU is only money in the narrowest sense because it has a limited use in exchange, as it is only meaningful to a very limited number of people who are able to assess the value of the IOU. I would quote the section of the original post here but it is quite long. As such you may wish to return to the post, and you will find it about a third of the way down (using the scrollbar).
As another aside, it might be noted that a fiat currency can be viewed as an IOU, as in a fiat system we just collectively (most of the time) believe in the value of the fiat money. There is no underlying contract that gives value to the money, but simply a belief that is has vale. This is a difficult point to summarise, so you may wish to read my post here as this discusses money in some depth.
The question at the heart of the debate is whether FRB allows the creation of money from nothing. If we go back to how the money creation argument let us look at another example which is as follows:
Depositor A deposits 100 gold coins into Bank A.
Bank A loans 80 gold coins to borrower A for the purchase of a house.
Borrower A writes an IOU for 80 gold coins made out to Bank A.
At this stage we still have a total of 100 gold coins.
The house Seller A accepts the 80 gold coins in exchange for the house.
Seller A then deposits the 80 gold coins into Bank A.
At this point in time, we still have only 100 gold coins in total.
Bank A again has in hand the 80 gold coins.
Bank A lends out 64 of the gold coins to borrower B to purchase a house.
Borrower B writes an IOU for the 64 gold coins.
And so the process might continue....
....But you will notice that on each occasion, the total number of gold coins never changes, and the amount that the bank can lend diminishes on each occasion. Furthermore, there is never an increase in the number of gold coins, just an increase in the IOUs. I have left out interest on this occasion for simplicity and also because (at some point) I would like to deal with this on a post about inflation and deflation. In the end, in the above scenario, the bank will only ever be able to lend a total of 80 gold coins.
The key question in all of this is how money is defined, and this is why I went to some effort to make clear what my definition of money actually is. Under my definition, money only exists in the collective minds of all of us. Whilst some might imagine that the IOUs are money, they are not money, they are IOUs whose value requires specialist knowledge, is highly speculative and they are therefore of limited use as money.
The whole point of a bank run is that, when push comes to shove, these IOUs can not be used as money, because the depositors will not accept a note from the bank that says 'at some point in the future, subject to all kinds of circumstances, we will be able to give you x number of gold coins' - the simple reality is that in a case where gold coins are the universally accepted currency, that is all that counts as money in real terms.
As the situation stands, when people lined up outside Northern Rock, they wanted and accepted £5, £10, £20 and £50 notes, not IOUs. By their definition this is the only money there is, and they collectively are the only people that matter, as they finally determine what money actually is. In other words, the banking system creates what they believe is money on their balance sheets, but the people that really matter (all of us) do not accept the 'money' on their balance sheets as 'money'. It is an entry in a book, and can not be used as a unit of exchange that is accepted by us all.
In the example I have given above, lots of IOUs are created but there are never more than 100 gold coins, and therefore no money has been created. When someone wants their money back, they will not accept the IOUs, but they will accept the gold coins.
I used gold coins on the basis that in everyone's minds eye, it could be seen that no more money is created in the system. In my discussion of the subject I make very clear that the 100 pieces of gold creates a total of 80 pieces of gold lending in a 20% reserve system. Even Ben Bernanke's discussion of FRB agrees with this saying the following regarding a 20% reserve system:
'At this final stage the ratio of reserves to deposits equals the ratio desired by the banks (20%). No further expnasion of loans and deposits can occur after this point because the ratio of reserves to deposits is at its minimum acceptable level.' - Macroeconomics, 4th Edition, Ben Bernanke and Andrew Abel, p525.
In other words, at the end of the system, no more than 80% of the reserves can be lent. However the money shuffles around, the total money 'out in the world' will never be more than 80% of the total deposits. In the case of inter-bank lending, as I pointed out, the amount of those reserves 'out in the world' actually diminishes each time a bank lends to another bank.
At its most basic, an IOU on a bank balance sheet does not constitute money. It does not constitute money because it is not accepted as a unit of exchange. This is why we have bank runs.
I can quite understand why people become so confused about this, as many people would like to imagine that the IOUs do constitute money, in particular many economists. However, the reality is that, when push comes to shove, this does not constitute money, which is why banks hold reserves. However everyone might try to pretend that an IOU is money, the truth that it is not money is revealed when a depositor asks for their money back.
The problem that we have here is made even greater by the fact that fiat money is of itself a form of money based upon nothing more than belief that it is money. However, it is the only medium of exchange that is universally accepted. The idea that IOUs on a bank balance sheet are money is occasionally tested, and whenever the test happens, it is found that it is NOT money. Once again, we can see this in the case of Northern Rock.
As before, comments are welcome. I hope that I can leave this subject and start to look at central banks, but will come back to the subject if anyone can do the following:
1. Show me how the IOUs held by Northern Rock, the numbers in their books, constituted money.
2. How, using gold coins, with no central bank input, a fractional reserve banking system might create more gold coins than depositors have put in (excluding interest payments). For the sake of ease, please try to use 20% reserves.
3. How a bank lending to another bank does not lead to diminishing credit outside of the banking system (again in a flat 20% reserve system)
As I have said, comments welcomed and I hope that I have clarified my point. Like many commentators on my last post, I am occasionally seduced by the idea that money is 'created' when I have read the clever arguments, but keep pulling myself back to the reality of what a depositor accepts as money, and also what I would accept as money. What would you accept as money if you went to get your money from the bank, and they refused to return your £10 as a bank note when you ask for it to be returned as such?