Since the financial crisis first erupted in the summer of 2007, there has been a renewed interest in what is now commonly called ‘fractional reserve banking’. This is mainly from those who contend that it is the root cause of the problems besetting the world economy. But is this idea really plausible? Both logic and the available evidence would indicate not.
Fractional reserve banking (the idea that the banking system can lend out vast multiples of what has been deposited with it) is not a new theory. It is also – and perhaps more accurately – sometimes called ‘credit creationism’ as it assumes banks can create almost endless amounts of credit from what has been deposited with them by savers. Ever since the MacMillan Report into Finance and Industry in the UK in 1931 gave it credence, variants of this theory have been taught to students in universities and colleges across much of the world.
In truth, there are two versions of the theory –the initial crude one, and a more sophisticated version which on some readings isn’t really credit creationism at all, even if it uses some of the same terminology. We will examine both versions, starting with the original, crude one.
This version of the theory was the one put forward in the MacMillan Report itself and is based on a simplified ‘one bank’ model of the banking system. The MacMillan Committee assumed that this bank would hold a cash reserve of 10 per cent of their deposits to meet any likely withdrawals from customers (today the cash reserve held by banks is a lot less, usually 2-3 per cent). Into this bank a customer places a deposit of £1,000 in cash. Operating with the 10 per cent cash reserve, the bank would then be able to lend out £900 to another customer which is withdrawn by cheque before being returned to the bank as a new deposit. So in this way the initial £1,000 had grown to £1,900 (the initial £1,000 cash plus the cheque that had been deposited for £900 from the loan granted). This is a process the MacMillan Committee argued could then be repeated nine more times assuming the 10 per cent cash reserve, with the bank therefore lending out £900 to each of ten customers in total. It would lead to a situation after all these transactions had been completed whereby £10,000 in deposits was balanced by £1,000 in cash plus £9,000 in loans owed by borrowers. So, as if by magic, an initial £1,000 deposit had become £10,000.
This type of credit creation theory has been put forward by many modern critics of capitalism (including Zeitgeist and some in and around the Occupy movement) who claim society is being enslaved by bankers and the ‘debt-money’they create. It is used to illustrate the view that banks have special powers to create wealth and that the banking system is inherently fraudulent and corrupt. This outlook also has its echoes on the political right, such as in the views of Representative Ron Paul in the US. Shorn of its overtly political implications, it gets an airing in some standard economics textbooks too. For instance, a typical textbook aimed at undergraduate university students like An Introduction to Modern Economics by Hardwick, Langmead and Khan describes a similar, crude credit creation process as if it were fact. Imagining a one-bank economy where the bank operates a 10 per cent cash reserve, with £10,000 in deposits and £1,000 of this in cash, they say:
‘suppose now a customer deposits an extra £2,000 in cash . . . Notice now that the ratio of cash to deposits is no longer 10%, but is now as high as 25% [i.e. £3,000 out of £12,000]. Given that the bank’s desired cash ratio is 10% and that the bank wishes to maximize its profits [by making loans at interest], it will increase its total deposits to £30,000 so as to restore the desired ratio. The bank does this by granting new loans amounting to £18,000 . . . the cash deposit of £2,000 has led to an increase in loans and investments of £18,000 so that total deposits have risen by £20,000 –that is, by ten times the amount of the cash deposit’. (5th edition, pp.439-440).
In this way banks are allegedly able to magic up money they don’t really have, by either the stroke of a pen or push of a button.
There are a number of reasons why this one-bank model of credit creation is flawed, both theoretically and empirically. The main ones are these:
· Just because a theory is explained or advocated in some economics textbook doesn’t mean it carries any weight.Economists famously cannot agree amongst themselves and economics isn’t called ‘the dismal science’without reason. Conventional economics has consistently failed to explain all sorts of contemporary phenomena within the market economy (unemployment, recessions, inflation, etc) and there is no reason to suppose it has it right about banks and credit. Furthermore, as we shall see, most modern economics textbooks have moved away from the crude credit creationist views outlined above as they know they are intellectually indefensible. Why might this be so . . . ?
· The model assumes a certain cash reserve (10 per cent in the examples quoted, though a lower cash reserve makes the potential for banks to ‘create credit’even greater). But is also assumes something else. It assumes that this cash reserve is never actually accessed by anyone in the entire series of transactions, and so is totally unrealistic. In other words, taking the example used by the MacMillan Committee, the initial £1,000 cash is completely untouched throughout. This is interesting, because if credit creation can multiply £1,000 into £10,000 at a stroke of a pen, the equal but opposite effect would come into play if anyone actually withdrew any cash! It would only need one of the borrowers to access their new deposit by demanding cash rather than a cheque to blow the model apart. So the model is not only unrealistic but logically flawed.
· The model also confuses the apparent ‘creation’of credit or money with what is merely standard double-entry book-keeping.If someone withdrew £10,000 from their bank and lent it to a business associate with an account at the same bank, the total amount of deposits held by the bank would be unaffected –£10,000 would merely go out of one account and into another. However, if the bank, when acting as an intermediary, did the same thing (i.e. the person concerned left the £10,000 on deposit and then the bank took £10,000 from its deposits to lend to the businessman) then in this instance the bank deposits and loans recorded by the bank would have increased by £10,000. Yet the only difference is that the bank has lent the same amount of money itself. Nothing else has materially altered and the bank hasn’t ‘created’anything –the apparent difference is merely the product of the way balance-sheet records are kept.
· If banks really could create multiples of credit from a given deposit base then no bank would ever go bust.If a borrower failed to repay a loan, they could merely write this off and create more credit from their deposit base to make another one. Or, more directly still, the credit ‘created’in this way could be used to buy additional assets. Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Northern Rock, HBOS, Landsbanki and all the other banking disasters testify in a very practical way that this just doesn’t happen in the real world.
· If banks could create vast multiples of credit from their deposit base in the way supposed, they would never have any financing issues and a need to seek any other sources of capital aside from the deposits they have from savers.Yet this is not the case. When Northern Rock imploded it had £113 billion of loans outstanding, but only £24 billion of this was backed by deposits i.e. less than a quarter. Did this mean the difference in these two figures was due to their ability to create credit over and above the £24 billion of deposits? No. The rest was financed from the money markets, where banks, building societies, companies, governments, local authorities and other organisations buy and sell short-term loans to finance their economic activities. When interest rates rose this put Northern Rock under pressure because the interest payments it was receiving on the loans and mortgages it had granted was barely covering what it had to pay in interest on the money markets to get the capital to lend out in the first place. And when the money markets started to seize up in late 2007, Northern Rock was doomed, having no more access to capital. Similarly, HBOS’s deposits covered only 44 per cent of the loans on its books before the crisis, the rest being financed from the money markets –and with most of this being short-term finance, it had a similarly disastrous result. Indeed, until the financial crisis broke the tendency within the banking sector had been for an ever greater proportion of banking capital to come from the money markets rather than deposits. This was because of a competitive drive to expand their capital so they could lend more and hence increase their revenue and profit. Until recent decades this was only ever done at the periphery of banking practice as to ‘borrow short’(via short-term loans on the money markets) while ‘lending long’(granting long-term loans and mortgages) was considered too risky.
· If banks really were able to increase purchasing power in the economy at the stroke of a pen or push of a button, there would be clear and observable consequences of this. For instance, many credit creation theorists have expected prices to rise alongside the expansion of bank credit, yet there is no observable correlation between the two. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher gave up on this view in the mid 1980s when she realized the theory didn’t match the facts. Furthermore, while so-called ‘credit creationism’is as old as banking itself, persistently rising prices (that have been left unchecked) have only been an economic phenomenon since the Second World War.
· If banks were able to flood the markets with credit it would, other things being equal, drive interest rates down, and this is the opposite of what banks want to happen. If this phenomenon were a reality, banks would be caught in a ‘Catch 22’situation where near endless credit creation would push interest rates down towards zero. But the rates banks charge have invariably been very healthy (for them), even during the crisis.
· If banks can create vast multiples of credit from the savings that have been deposited with them, then so could other financial intermediaries. Building societies and even credit unions could do it, as the same principles would apply. But nobody seriously suggests they can –if a credit union lent out more than had been deposited with it, it would go bankrupt (as, in reality, would a bank, the only difference being that a bank can also normally access the money markets for capital).
· The bankers themselves have explicitly stated that they cannot magically create credit in the way the theory supposes. For instance, Walter Leaf , Chairman of the Westminster Bank in the years leading up to the publication of the MacMillan Report was one of many who said so explicitly:
‘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, 1926, p.102)
Indeed, many of the signatories of the MacMillan Report in 1931 (mainly the bankers and economists) later repudiated the theory they helped popularize. These included Reginald McKenna, Chairman of the Midland Bank, and most significantly of all John Maynard Keynes, who was the main author of the Report. In his seminal General Theory in 1936 Keynes stated:
‘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.82)
In recent years the 2011 Vickers Report (the Independent Commission on Banking) has explicitly stated that banks are ‘financial intermediaries’that ‘bring together savers and borrowers’, without giving any indication that banks can create vast quantities of credit out of what is deposited with them.
· Many who are critical of capitalism as an economic system take inspiration from Marx’s ideas and his analysis of the market economy, but Marx took the view that banks are financial intermediaries between savers and borrowers who don’t create purchasing power: ‘A bank represents on the one hand the centralization of money capital, of the lenders, and on the other hand the centralization of the borrowers. It makes its profit in general by borrowing at lower rates than those at which it lends’(Capital, Volume 3, p. 528). For Marx, wealth and purchasing power arise through production, not the sphere of circulation and exchange. Banking profit does not, in Marx’s view, arise mystically out of financial conjuring, but as a portion of the surplus value created when the working class of wage and salary earners is exploited. This surplus value is then turned into industrial profit, ground rent, and banking interest.
In the light of all these arguments and the empirical evidence, it seems reasonable to conclude that the crude credit creationist viewpoint has little if anything going for it.
A recognition of this has led to the popularization of the second, and more sophisticated, version of the theory. This is the version that argues that even if the one-bank model of credit creation isn’t plausible, the banking system when considered as a whole can effectively do the same thing. This was the view for years elaborated in standard economics textbooks by the well-known American academic Paul Samuelson and is perhaps the version that is most common today.
Samuelson dismissed the argument that an individual bank could lend more than had been deposited with it as ‘false' and went on:
‘According to these false explanations, the managers of an ordinary bank are able, by some use of their fountain pens, to lend several dollars for each dollar deposited with them. No wonder practical bankers see red when such power is attributed to them. They only wish they could do so. As every banker knows, he cannot invest money that he does not have; and money that he invests in buying a security or making a loan soon leaves his bank.’ (Economics, 5th edition, 1961, p.331)
The argument he put forward is that when someone deposits £1,000 into a bank when there is a 10 per cent cash reserve ratio, the bank keeps £100 cash and lends out the other £900. This will then be spent by the borrower and will find its way back into the banking system more widely, which will then keep £90 of the £900 as a cash reserve and lend out the remaining £810, and so on. Eventually, after these deposit and loan circuits have been completed, this leads to a situation whereby the initial £1,000 deposit in a particular bank has multiplied to £10,000 across the banking system as a whole.
Although it is an obvious oversimplification, in some respects this theory is sound. The key issue though is that it is not an example of ‘credit creation’at all. All this theory demonstrates is that money circulates and that for every loan that has been created, a deposit (that is greater than the subsequent loan) has also been made. In some ways it is little different to the concept underpinning the circulation of a bank note, whereby a £20 note can be used many times over a given period to facilitate transactions that, when aggregated, are many times the face value of the individual note.
No special powers
Given this, socialists say that ‘fractional reserve banking’or ‘credit creation’are myths. The crude version of the theory is illogical and at variance with any serious knowledge of banking practice, while the watered-down version most commonly found in modern economics textbooks isn’t really a credit-creation theory at all and proves nothing beyond the accepted fact that accepted means of payment circulate within the economy. In reality, banks can only lend out what they have received in deposits (or borrowed on the money markets), making their profits by levying higher interest rates on the loans they grant than they pay depositors (or pay to the money markets).
There really is no mystery to this, and the idea that banks have special powers and can hold the rest of society to ransom is consequently unfounded and movements for banking reform misplaced. The real problem in society stems not from what banks do specifically, but from the way society is organized as a whole. In particular, from the fact that the vast majority of people do not own and control the planet’s resources and have to work at the behest of those who do –some of whom are indeed bankers . . . but most of whom are not.