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Can Banks Create Credit?

Confusion about banking operations and the power of bankers has been in evidence for a long time. It was known before 1848, and that year saw the publication of two works putting opposite points of view. One was Lectures on the Nature and Use of Money in which John Gray outlined a scheme which was the forerunner of the Social Credit Movement founded by Major Douglas in the nineteen twenties. The other was John Stuart Mill's Principles of Political Economy which contained the following:

“Credit has a great but not, as many people seem to suppose, a magical power; it cannot make something out of nothing ... It seems strange that there should be any need to point out that credit, being only permission to use the capital of another person, the means of production cannot be increased by it, but only transferred ... The same sum cannot be used as capital both by the owner and also by the person to whom it is lent . . .”

Part of the confusion arose out of the loose use of the term “credit creation”; by some writers to mean merely the grant of a loan by a bank, but by others to mean what Mill had in mind as making something out of nothing.

Marx on occasion wrote of the “creation of credit and capital” by the banks but not meaning anything more than the act of lending or investing. Elsewhere he described banks as merely institutions for bringing together and relending sums deposited by depositors. He ridiculed the “illusions concerning the miraculous power of the credit and banking system”, which he said, were held by those who failed to understand the nature of capitalist production and the credit system (Capital, Vol. III p. 713).

Sir Ralph Hawtrey in his Currency and Credit dealt with another confusion of terms:

“It is true that we are accustomed to think of bank credit as money. But this is only because for the practical purposes of every day the distinction between bank credits and money is rarely of any importance. And for all that a bank credit is merely a debt, differing from other debts only in the facilities allowed by the banker for transferring it to another creditor. No one imagines that a trade debt is money, though it may be as good an asset as a bank credit” (2nd Edition, p. 5).

Major Douglas, like John Gray, would have rejected outright the views of Mill, Marx and Hawtrey on credit. He claimed that bank loans are the issue of money just like the issue of notes by the Bank of England and that, by making loans, “a bank acquires securities for nothing”, and that “it is absolutely correct to say that . . . new money has been created by a stroke of the banker’s pen.” (The Monopoly of Credit, 1931 pp. 15 and 17). In the words of one of his supporters, banks can create “untold wealth at the cost of a few drops of ink and the fraction of a clerk's wages”.

Basically the dispute is between those who hold that banks are merely intermediaries to whom depositors make purchasing power available by depositing with them, and which then make that purchasing power, or most of it, available to others by transferring it to them as loans or using it to purchase securities etc; or whether the banks themselves, by making loans create the largest part of the deposits.

Starting from the production of value by the application of human labour to nature-given materials and its conversion into money, is it that some part is lent to the banks in the form of deposits, for the banks to relend or invest, or is it the banks which create large amounts over and above the amounts deposited?

G. D. H. Cole accepted the “creationist” view. He wrote that bank loans “represent a real creation of additional money — additional purchasing power”. (What Everybody Wants to know about Money, p.39).

Among those who have held the “intermediary” view, along with Mill and Marx were many bankers and, notably Professor Edwin Cannan in his An Economist's Protest.

Of particular interest were Reginald McKenna, politician turned banker, who was Chairman of the Midland Bank, and J. M. Keynes, both of whom at first supported creationist theory and later changed their attitudes.

One of many anti-creationist statements made by bankers, was that by Walter Leaf, Chairman of the Westminster Bank:

“The banks can lend no more than they can borrow — in fact not nearly so much. If anyone in the deposit banking system can be called a ‘creator of credit’ it is the depositors; for the banks are strictly limited in their lending operations by the amount which the depositors think fit to leave with them” (Banking. Home University Library, 1926, p. 102).

Hartley Withers, sometime editor of the Economist popularised creationist theory in his The Manufacture of Money and used the phrase “every bank loan makes a deposit”, later expanded to “every bank loan or purchase of securities creates a deposit”; and its converse that every withdrawal of a loan or sale of a security destroys a deposit.

McKenna repeated this and provided Major Douglas with weighty support.

The theory was given official endorsement in the Report of the MacMillan Committee 1931, (Committee on Finance and Industry) and found its way into the textbooks. Though McKenna was a member of the Committee he then denied that he agreed with Major Douglas about the creation of credit; which was really rather hard on Douglas who had, after all, only taken McKenna's words at their face value. Another signatory of the Report was Professor T. E. Gregory who held the Chair of Banking and Currency at the London School of Economics and who in that capacity took Cannan's line.

The Macmillan Committee's support for creationist theory is still widely accepted. It turned up recently in Ernest Mandel's Marxist Economic Theory where Mandel quotes it with approval.

One argument used by creationists to support their case was that, without creationist theory, it was not possible to explain how the deposits of the commercial banks could exceed the total amount of notes and coin in circulation. This is easily disposed of. If a bank receives deposits of £5 million a week and has £4 million a week withdrawn by depositors, deposits will increase by £1 million a week and the eventual total is in no way limited by the amount of currency in circulation. In 1937 the Post Office Savings Bank had no cheque facilities and made no loans to businesses or private borrowers, but its total deposits did in fact exceed the total amount of notes and coin in circulation with the public. The deposits were invested in government securities.

The statement of the “creationist” case in the MacMillan Report started with the following:

“It is not unnatural to think of the deposits of a bank as being created by the public through the deposit of cash representing either savings or amounts which are not for the time being required to meet expenditure. But the bulk of the deposits arise out of the action of the banks themselves, for by granting loans, allowing money to be drawn on an overdraft or purchasing securities, a bank creates a credit in its books which is the equivalent of a deposit. A simple illustration, in which it will be convenient to assume that all banking is concentrated in one bank will make this clear”.

The illustration assumed that a depositor deposited £1,000 in cash. The bank then lent £900 which was withdrawn by cheque and came back as new deposits. At this stage the deposits in the bank totalled £1,900 made up of the original £1,000 and the later deposits of £900. Against this liability the bank would show, on the assets side of its balance, cash £1,000 and loans to customers £900.

This lending process was repeated with nine more loans of £900, so that the bank's books would then show £10,000 deposits, balanced by £1,000 cash and £9,000 loans owed to it by borrowers. The bank had thus "created" deposits of £9,000 by making loans, and the creationist case was proved. Or was it?

Certainly the Committee got the answer they wanted but in view of the way the conditions were rigged that was not surprising; little in the example had any resemblance to real banking conditions.

Not only did the Report make the thoroughly artificial assumption of only one bank in existence but it also assumed that none of the borrowers made withdrawals except by cheque, never by cash to hold and not to be returned to the bank. This enabled them to proceed on the basis that all the cheques drawn (or all the cash withdrawn) come back to the one bank — there was no other bank to which they could go. Actually the Report did not allow for any withdrawal in cash at all but treated the £1,000 cash deposit as remaining unchanged throughout the operations; which meant that the Committee was assuming, but without saying so, that a change had occurred in the world outside the bank which led to a permanent increase by £1,000 in the amount of cash left in the bank.

This line of reasoning, which isolates from a continuous in-and-out flow of deposits and withdrawals of cheques and cash, one single deposit of cash, is fallacious. If it were valid it could be applied in reverse; that is the Committee could have isolated a single withdrawal of £1,000 cash and treated it is a permanent reduction by £1,000 of the amount of cash left in the bank. It only needed one of the ten borrowers of £900 to take it out in cash or destroy the whole of the Committee's case.

It appears to have been a belated recognition of this fallacy that later led J. M. Keynes to put a view contrary to that of the Report he had signed.

In his General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936) he wrote:

“It is supposed . . . that the banking system can make it possible for investment to occur to which no saving corresponds. But no one can save without acquiring an asset, whether it be cash or a debt or capital goods, and no one can acquire an asset which he did not previously possess, unless either an asset of equal value is newly produced or someone else parts with an asset of that value which he previously had . . . The notion that the creation of credit by the banking system allows investment to take place to which ‘no genuine saving’ corresponds can only be the result of isolating one of the consequences of the increased bank-credit to the exclusion of others” (p. 80-1).

Actually, under the conditions assumed in the Report the bank was needlessly modest in making loans of only £9,000. They could have made it £90,000, or any figure they had cared to name, because every cheque had to come back to the one bank and they had in practice, but without saying so, prescribed that nobody was to draw and hold any of the £1,000 cash.

They also claimed that the result would be the same if there were many banks, i.e. that all withdrawals would automatically come back into the banking system, but this, as already mentioned, was based on the fallacy of supposing that the £1,000 deposit of cash was a permanent increase of cash in the banking system but without going into the change of outside conditions which would make it possible.

In practice there is nothing automatic about deposits. Banks have to attract money on deposit account by paying interest of millions of pounds on it and they spend tens of thousands of pounds on advertisements to attract new depositors.

The Committee also overlooked the fact that banking figures vary according to the method of investing. If a depositor with £1,000 in the bank draws a cheque to lend that amount to a business, bank balance sheet figures are completely unaffected since the £1,000 deposit has merely been transferred from the depositor's account to the account of the business; but if the depositor leaves the £1,000 on deposit and the bank lends £1,000 to the business, bank deposits and loans both increase by £1,000.

The absurdity of creationist theory can be seen in practical terms if we consider what happens if the owner of £1,000 lends it direct to a business firm, and the effect if he deposits it in a bank and the bank then lends to the same firm. The MacMillan Committee's example would have it that though the original owner had only £1,000 to dispose of the bank can lend £9,000 to the firm if it receives the £1,000 on deposit.

The Committee's example also took it for granted that banks with money to lend can always find “creditworthy” clients who want to borrow all the banks have available. When trade is slack, as in recent months, they cannot.

If creationist theory had been correct banks would make profit at a rate far above that of industry — “fabulous profits” and “hundreds per cent” were the claims. It does not happen.

There is one company with wide interests in publishing, oil, engineering and other manufacturing activities, S. Pearson and Son Ltd. which also has a controlling interest in a bank, Lazards. Yet only about a sixth of Pearson's profits come from Lazards. Lazards had a director on the MacMillan Committee who was also on the board of Lloyds Bank. It seems that he failed to convince Lazards — assuming that he even tried — that they really have the creationist powers set out in the Report he signed.

The MacMillan Report worked out its figures on the basis that banks need to keep ten per cent of their deposits in cash “to meet the demands of customers”. This ten per cent ratio enabled them to suppose that banks can lend nine times the amount of the £1,000 deposit. The conventional cash ratio is now down to 8 per cent, which would increase the creationist power to eleven and a half times the deposit. But the cash ratio is largely window dressing. If there were a mass withdrawal by depositors of the London Clearing Banks, £700 million of notes and cash would be quite ineffective if the depositors wanted to withdraw their £11,000 million of deposits. What banks endeavour to do is to anticipate events and match outgoing withdrawals and loans with incoming deposits and repayments of loans. If they could match these outgoing and incomings completely day by day they would need no cash in their tills, without the banks thereby being any less safe. If they could get it down to one per cent the assumed creationist powers would then be 99 times the £1,000 deposit. The cash ratio of the Savings Bank in 1937 was a quarter of one per cent.

Another consequence of creationist theory, accepted by its supporters, is that bank loans by increasing purchasing power have a determining influence on the price level. The facts show this to be baseless. Between the first quarter of 1921 and the first quarter of 1933 prices were falling continuously, by a total of forty four per cent. They fell when the deposits and loans of the London Clearing Banks were falling, when they were stationary and when they were rising. At the beginning of 1931 deposits and loans were at the same level as in 1921 but prices had fallen by forty per cent. Between 1926 and 1933 deposits and loans went up by seventeen per cent while prices went down by nineteen per cent. (Incidentally the MacMillan Committee wanted prices to rise in order to cure the depression). Bank deficits went down slightly between 1968 and 1970 while prices went up by twelve per cent.

Mention has been made of Marx having a view on the specific question of credit creation which was in line with that of some other economists, but he did not share their views on wider aspects. He wrote:

“The superficiality of Political Economy shows itself in the fact that it looks upon the expansion and contraction of credit which is a mere symptom of the periodic changes of the industrial cycle, as their cause” (Capital Vol. I. p. 695)

Against logic and all the weight of evidence, credit creationism still has its believers. Professor Cannan hit the nail on the head when he called them “the mystical school of banking theorists”.