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Cooking the Books 2: The myth of magic money

One thing that the current banking crisis has done is to explode the myth about banks being able to create credit, i.e. money to lend out at interest, by a mere stroke of the pen. Events have clearly confirmed that banks are financial intermediaries which can only lend out either what has been deposited with them or what they have themselves borrowed or their own reserves. As the US Federal Reserve put it in one of its educational documents:

“Banks borrow funds from their depositors (those with savings) and in turn lend those funds to the banks’ borrowers (those in need of funds). Banks make money by charging borrowers more for a loan (a higher percentage interest rate) than is paid to depositors for use of their money.” ( p. 57)

Actually, banks don’t just borrow from individual depositors, or “retail”. They also borrow “wholesale” from the money market. It is in fact the difficulties they have experienced here that has revealed that they cannot create credit out of nothing.

Because some banks had burnt their fingers by buying securities based on sub-prime mortgages in America, other banks were reluctant to lend on the money market for fear that the borrowing bank might turn out to be insolvent. Which meant that one source of money for the banks to re-lend to their customers had shrunk. Or at least had become too expensive as interest rates had risen too high compared with the rate banks could charge their borrowers to allow them to make a profit or enough profit. So, deprived of this source of money, the banks had less to lend out themselves. Which of course wouldn’t have been a problem if they really did have the power to create money to lend out of nothing.

But at least one person was unable to see what should have been obvious. On 15 October the Times printed a letter from a Malcolm Parkin, in which he wrote:

“Only 3 per cent of money exists as cash. Therefore the rest is magic money conjured into existence, and issued as debt by banks, at a ratio of about 33 magic pounds to 1 real pound, by the quite legal means of fractional reserve banking. In a rising market, it follows that anybody able to create such money, at such a ratio, can soon get rich.”

The “fractional reserve” he mentions is the proportion of retail deposits that a bank keeps as cash to handle likely withdrawals. Fifty years ago in Britain it was 8 percent. But, as banks resorted more and more to the wholesale money market to get money to relend, the percentage of cash to loans became almost irrelevant. Parkin’s figure of 3 percent is the percentage of cash banks hold compared to total loans, including those based on money borrowed from the money market (which even on his definition is not “magic money“).

What a “fractional reserve”, or “cash ratio”, of say, 10 percent means, is that if £100 is deposited in a bank that bank has to keep £10 as cash and can lend out £90. Parkin has misunderstood this to mean that a bank can lend out £900 - and charge interest on it. Easy money, as he says, if it were true. But it isn’t.

The theory of “fractional reserve banking” is that an initial deposit of £100 can lead to the whole banking system, but not a single bank, being able to make loans totalling £900. The argument is that the initial £90 will eventually be re-deposited in some bank (not necessarily the bank that made the loan), which can then lend out 90 percent of this, i.e. £81, which in turn will be re-deposited, and so on, until in the end a total of £900 has been loaned out.

This is theoretically the case as one of the key features of capitalism is that money circulates, but what the theorists never emphasise is that this is based on the assumption that the same money is used and re-used to create new deposits. If this does not happen then the process cannot work or continue. So, the banking system has not created any “magic money” out of nothing. It is still dependent on individual banks only being able to lend out what has been deposited with them or what they themselves have borrowed – they cannot magically lend out vast multiples of this, as poor Malcolm Parkin assumed.