Sunday, 15 July 2012

Why Austrian Economists are mistaken about 100% Reserve Banking

(Mis)diagnosis of the Debt Bubble

It is clear that the US and other western economies are not growing fast enough to close their "Output Gaps" - a term that loosely describes the difference between the maximum potential output of an economy and its present output. A symptom of the Output Gap is chronic high unemployment. 

As Eric Janzen, Koo, Steve Keen, Mish Shedlock and everyone has correctly diagnosed (other than Profs. Ben Bernanke, Paul Krugman & their intellectual bedfellows), the main reason for this Output Gap is the huge PRIVATE debt overhang from the ponzi property bubble. The bubble was caused by Alan Greenspan's policy of holding the Fed's discount rate too low for too long, and this policy was encouraged by Prof. Krugman & friends. The "feel-good factor" created by rising asset prices has now evaporated, and the suckers left holding the bag and will be stuck paying down large debts for a generation. 

Despite the Fed's numerous attempts to reduce the interest burden on private and public debt, a heavy burden of debt-service hangs over the lives of western consumers. The hangover caused by the past 10 years' borrowing-binge is to be met with self-imposed austerity as consumers increase savings where they can to pay off debts. As long as this condition persists, we can not expect consumers to be the engine of GDP growth in the US and world economies.

The Fed can not acknowledge that private debt was the root cause of the problem for two reasons:
  1. Ideology - Profs. Krugman & Bernanke; and Alan Greenspan have repeatedly asserted that the level of private debt does not matter. They have never seriously considered the work of Hyman Minsky and Prof. Frederich von Hayek. Instead they have adopted some some of the worst ideas of John Maynard Keynes and taken them to grotesque extremes. 
  2. Complicity - The Fed deliberately turned a blind eye towards the huge growth in private debt under Greenspan's watch. Prof. Krugman continues to insist that the entire financial crisis was caused by a few NINJA loans, and not excessive debt. 
Since the monetary authorities failed to correctly diagnose the problem, one can hardly be surprised by their continued failure to design an effective solution to the current economic problems. Their wilful and arrogant ideological blindness exposes an inability to fulfil their mandate to regulate the economy; and it highlights the sad neglect of their responsibilities towards those who have lost their livelihoods and homes due to the continuing economic malaise. You can watch an Austrian criticism of the ideas proposed in Prof. Krugman's book "End This Depression Now" by Prof. Pedro Swartz, OBE. Prof. Bernanke's policies are self-evidently failing to revive growth and close the Output Gap.

Solving the crisis - Prof. Steve Keen proposes a Modern Debt Jubilee

In this context there is a lively ongoing debate between Prof Steve Keen and Mish Shedlock over how to solve the debt crisis. I have been an avid reader of both Mish Shedlock (Austrian) and Prof. Steve Keen (post-Keynesian) for several years. I have enjoyed watching their respective messages gain a worldwide audience and both of them rise to prominence in internet media. 

This debate was sparked by Prof. Steve Keen's proposal for a Modern-day Debt Jubilee (video).  He proposes "Quantitative Easing for the Public" wherein the Fed writes each tax-payer a (regular series of) cheque(s), with the proviso that the recipient MUST use the funds distributed to pay any outstanding debts. The idea is to provide relief  to those who participated in the ponzi housing bubble, while offering a cash award to the sensible borrowers who did not.

This scheme would free many consumers from debt-servitude, while putting enough cash into consumers' pockets to revive demand in the economy. Although this is bound to cause inflation at some point, that would provide central banks with the perfect excuse to re-normalise interest rates. The reduction in debt-principal will allow consumers to continue servicing their debts at higher rates without escalating defaults.  

I think this proposal is better than the current solution of "Quantitative Easing for the Banks", wherein central banks buy up Treasury debt, while banks front-run Fed-purchases and drive bond prices to stratospheric levels. The resulting distortion of the yield curve makes the price of all risky assets dependent on future actions of the Fed (Risk-on/Risk-Off). 

The Austrian non-Solution - 100% Reserve Banking

Mish Shedlock has criticised the idea of a debt-jubilee (see here, here and here). He comes from the view that all lending must be 100% backed by Gold deposits, and that this is the only way to constrain the unlimited growth of credit and prevent asset-bubbles. He holds the view that Fractional Reserve Banking is inherently fraudulent because it creates "credit out of thin air". He asserts that this fraudulent behaviour is the root cause of the business cycle. This view is very popular with several Austrian economists (especially in the U.S.) including Joseph T. Salerno, Gary North and others. It is often repeated on Austrian and Libertarian sites such as and

I believe 100% Reserve Banking is a non-solution to the current crisis. Although it does prevent debt-crises, it does not provide a roadmap to get out of the current debt crisis. Besides it has the dangerous side-effect of hampering efficient production of industrial goods as I explain below.

Real Bills - a blind-spot in the 100% Reserve Banking argument

For many years I supported the Austrian 100% Reserve Banking position. My opinion changed after I became aware of the work of Prof. Antal Fekete. He describes the free-market phenomenon of  Real Bills. These are unbacked credit notes that spontaneously circulate in a free-market economy in order to facilitate the production and distribution of goods. I came to the conclusion that Austrian economists have a blind spot towards the role of Real Bills due to their insistence on 100% Reserve Banking.

The New Austrian School of Economics argues that Fractional Reserve Banking is not only legitimate, but also vital for the proper functioning of modern industrial economies. It arises naturally in a free-market economy - i.e with market-selected money (presumably Gold) and free-banking (i.e. the absence of non-economically constrained Central Banks). In fact, lending without reserves or deposits can spontaneously arise out of a free market, even in the absence of banks.

Here is an example that illustrates the spontaneous circulation of Real Bills. Consider a producer of consumer goods, such as a flour mill. The mill may not have the money to purchase grain from a farmer to supply flour (a consumer good in high demand). The mill has two options. It can either borrow the money from a saver and pay cash for the grain; OR it can write an IOU to the farmer (payable in say, 90 days) for grain delivered today. In the latter case the farmer will negotiate a premium on the cash price for his produce by discounting the face value of the IOU. This discount rate has two components (1) the opportunity cost of an alternative (safe) investment, and (2) the risk-premium associated with the flour mill's credit-worthiness.

Typical wording on the bill may be familiar to anyone who has seen a modern currency note - "I promise to pay the bearer of this note the sum of $10 after 90 days from issuance - (signed and dated by an officer of the business)," or words to that effect.

If farmer is confident that the mill is financially sound (due to ongoing profitability, or a long-standing business relationship), and the discount rate adequately compensates him for the opportunity costs and risks, he will accept the IOU and start to accrue the discount premium while the IOU matures. 

As a further incentive he can use the IOU to buy items for his own use - if the local store where he makes his purchases also finds the flour mill's IOU acceptable. In this manner the unbacked IOUs issued by the flour mill circulate in the local economy. Their acceptability is ultimately due to the the high consumer demand for flour, which guarantees that a well-run mill will be able to repay the IOU on maturity. Indeed, the quantity of flour demanded by consumers automatically regulates the quantity of IOUs that enter circulation. 

One can see how the IOUs (which are short-term promissory notes) have gained currency in this manner. In this manner a crucial distinction may be established between currency (that which is commonly used for payments) and money (that item which is demanded to ultimate extinguish a debt).

Such short-term IOUs (called Real Bills) have historically gained currency in modern industrial economies. Evidently, they do not require any backing in monetary specie by their issuer.  Instead, they represent "forgone consumption" by the holder of the Real Bill. As the bill matures, the initial discount accrues to its holder as compensation for foregoing consumption. Real bills are "self-liquidating" - i.e. when the mill sells flour, the bill-holder demand its fulfilment in real money, and the Real Bill is redeemed. 

Thus we see that Real-Bills are a consequence of consumer demand in a free-market economy. They exist solely to facilitate the production and sale of products that satisfy this demand. When the demand is satisfied, they "self-liquidate" and cease to exist. Until maturity they gain currency due to the credit-worthiness of the issuer, underpinned by the expected revenue from sale of consumer goods in high demand

Importantly, any business that uses Real Bills to finance production enjoys a significant competitive advantage over its rivals. It need not raise money for a long duration from capital markets at a high rate to pay for its inputs. It "borrows" from its suppliers at a lower discount rate, and only for the duration required to finance production

In effect, this creates  "credit out of thin air" due to deferred consumption by prior stages in the production chain. When the end-consumer pays for the product with money, the credit is liquidated all the way down the production chain and the Real Bills vanish-back into thin air.

Real Bills - Intermediation by Banks

Banks specialise in Credit Analysis. They are best-placed to evaluate the credit-worthiness of producers such as the flour mill. They profit from this analysis by earning a spread between the discount rate they apply to the business's IOUs; and the market discount rate applied to the bank's IOUs (typically in inter-bank funding markets).

A bank offers the businesses a credit line. Interest on this is charged only when Bank Notes are borrowed against confirmed orders. In effect, banks facilitate replacing the circulation of the business's Real Bills with Bank Notes of the same duration. For this service a well-capitalised bank can earn a spread between the rate charged on the business's credit line and the Bank's borrowing rate. For this income to accrue to the bank, it must be more creditworthy than the business whose notes it is discounting in the eyes of the market. 

It is important to re-emphasise that in a free-market: 

  1. Bank Notes circulate as currency, but are discounted at a rate determined by the credit-worthiness of the bankA bank's discount rate is a much better gauge of its health than the CDS price as the Real Bills market is deeper and more liquid than the CDS market.
  2. Bank Notes remain 100% convertible into the market's choice of money
  3. Banks need not to accept any deposits to intermediate the issuance of Real Bills. They need only to maintain a (relatively small) capital buffer to cover infrequent losses caused by the occasional failure of a flour mill. 
There must be never be a question about a bank's capital buffer being overwhelmed by loan-losses. Otherwise the market discount applied to the Bank's Notes may become higher than the discount rival banks offer on the business's bills. This would eliminate the profit margin enjoyed by the bank and hamper its ability to profit from its Credit Analysis expertise. Poorly run banks will see their balance sheets shrink over time, as borrowers leave to rivals, and if they do collapse due to loan losses they would not be "Too Big To Fail". 

Thus, a 100% reserve banking is unnecessary, and Real Bills offer a "clearing" mechanism for financing the production and distribution of goods. 

Real Bills are Vital for Modern Industrial Economies

In addition to being unnecessary, 100% Reserve Banking is counterproductive, because it would kill off a vital artefact of the free market -  Real Bills. A functional Real Bill market is absolutely vital because without Real Bills financing long production chains that characterise modern specialised, industrial economies could not be affordable. 

Consider that in a 100% Reserve Banking system, each stage in the production chain needs to borrow working capital equal to the purchase price of its raw material and operating costs (salaries, bills, etc) for the duration of the entire production cycle. In a multi-stage production chain, this working capital requirement in various stages adds up to a impractically large amount.

For example, assume a production chain for shirts with 10 steps before the shirt is purchased by the end-consumer for $20. Assume that each step in the chain makes a $1 profit. In a 100% reserve system the participants in the production chain will need combined financing to the tune of $19+$18+.....+$10 = $100. In such a system, someone somewhere in the economy needs to save $100 of money, and lend it to the production chain participants before the $20 shirt can be produced. 

In a above example the economy needs surplus savings of 5 times the "net" production. This becomes increasingly unnecessary and uncompetitive as production chains lengthen due to further specialisation and increased productivity. It is more efficient for each link in production chain to pay for inputs with Bank Notes (exchanged for discounted IOUs at a bank credit facility). When end-consumers pay, each link in the chain repays their bank line of credit. This process is best intermediated through the banking system (which specialises in Credit Analysis) without any need for reserves, or even deposit taking. 

Preventing Debt Bubbles

I have described Fractional Reserve Banking using the safest of credit instruments - Real Bills. 
  1. Real Bills are "safe" because they are issued against confirmed orders for goods in high-demand. It is highly unlikely that a well-capitalised bank will suffer large losses on these bills that overwhelm its capital buffer. 
  2. As a manifestation of Fractional Reserve Banking credit is created in proportion to the quantity of goods produced in the economy and only for the duration that the goods are in the production cycle. 
  3. In addition, extension of such credit represents "deferred consumption" by the holder of the Real Bill, and therefore it does not create spurious demand that would confuse the crucial price signal in the market.
  4. There is no duration mismatch if the Bank Notes maturity on the same date as business IOUs against which they were issued.

The key question is this - how does one prevent the extension of bank credit to activities that are somewhat more speculative than the production and distribution of consumer goods in high demand? What about bank finance for uninsured long-distance trade? Or sub-prime mortgages? Or the purchase of peripheral European government bonds?  

Well, the simple answer is that you can not prevent these activities in the modern fiat-money system. No market discount is applied to Bank Notes because they have been replaced from circulation by irredeemable Central Bank Notes given the status of "money" (by law). Instead, the free market is prevented (by law) from choosing its own unit of account. It can not discover the discount rate on central bank money relative to its preferred unit of account.  Central Banks blatantly manipulate the discount rate up and down in the name of regulating the business cycle. All they do is cause excessive credit creation and sow the seeds for bigger and bigger financial crises in the future. 

Such a mis-regulated environment encourages very bad behaviour by banks. While a lender of last resort exists to back-stop cash-strapped banks, they will ALWAYS try to lend as much as they can. Bank Management is incentivised to grab maximum market share for short-term profits and bonuses. Bank management will ALWAYS try to minimise their capital ratios in order to increase the return-on-capital. Banks will ALWAYS push the envelope in borrowing short to lend long (duration mismatch kills banks ) in order to earn maximum carry and rolldown. 

And when a lending binge falls apart, the Financial industry demands suppression of the inter-bank discount rate by the central bank, re-capitalisation from the tax-payer, etc. Otherwise, they argue, the entire system may collapse and cause a Depression. 

Therefore, the correct solution to the debt crisis is the restoration of the Real Bills market, and a monetary unit selected by the free-market. This will require a repeal of legal-tender laws that confer a legal status of "money" on Central Bank Notes. This single step will automatically restore convertibility for all Bank Notes into the free market's choice of money. Real Bills will once again signal the credit-worthiness of banks and businesses through the natural Discount Rate, thus providing banks with a financial incentive to behave responsibly.

Forcing 100% Reserve Banking (by law) is the wrong solution. It will collapse the long, specialised production chains of the modern, industrial economy and (literally) send us back in time beyond the Industrial Revolution into the dark ages.

Endogeous Credit Money in a Free Market

Prof. Steve Keen has demonstrated how an endogenous (purely credit-based) monetary system can function properly without the need for 100% reserve backing, or Gold convertibility. In a series of Lectures on Behavioural Economics he used an innovative computer simulation tool to model the dynamic behaviour of stocks and flows of money and credit in an economy. His simulations use double-entry book-keeping to keep accounts and differential equations to represent financial transactions. The key difference between his model and the conventional DSGE (Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium) models used by Bernanke, Krugman, & co. - is the lack of any assumption of "equilibrium" in financial flows.

I think Austrian economists need to take this demonstration by Prof. Keen very seriously. Although Austrians unabashedly support free-markets and libertarian ideas, they demand application of the full force of the law in preventing Fractional Reserve Banking;  which they consider fraud. Some of them go as far as asking the State to force the use of Gold as money. There is a lot of distance between this position and the laissez-faire ethos that guides the free market philosophy they claim to represent. Their approach places an enormous amount of power in the hands of the State instead of relying on private mechanisms to "create money and regulate the value thereof".

I whole-heartedly endorse the idea that free-markets must be allowed to make their own choice of money; and that today's government-mandated "fiat" paper-money systems exacerbate the business cycle that they claim to regulate. 

I whole-heartedly endorse the view that that central bank intervention in activities such as Open Market Operations  & Quantitative Easing constitute blatant "price-fixing" of the interest rate - i.e. market price of money. 

As Keith Wiener correctly pointed out, the LIBOR scandal (wherein a few large banks quoted a low number for the inter-bank lending rate) is small potatoes compared to the massive daily manipulation of the interest-rate markets by people such as Mervyn King, the very central banker who claimed to be outraged by LIBOR manipulation! This appearance of hypocrisy is further reinforced by new reports that key central bankers at the BoE and NY Fed know about LIBOR-manipulation all-along, and did nothing.


Keith said...

Hi Arvind,

You invited me to comment in a note you left on my own blog So here are a few thoughts.

Overall, I think this is a pretty good piece (though I would break it up into several shorter pieces on each of the various topics you treat herein).

I am not sure that "output gap" is different from many other notions that modern economics casually uses. How would it be measured? If 100,000 men have been trained in residential construction and residential construction goes from boom to bust, is their potential to build even more unneeded houses considered a gap? Or must we assume that there is something else they could do and then measure that they are not doing it?

The more the Fed lowers interest rates, the more it increases the burden on those who are stuck with higher rates such as corporations that issued bonds. I just published a paper discussing this phenomenon.

The fact that consumption is an "engine of GDP growth" is a damning indictment of GDP which is inherently a bad measurement.

I agree that Krugman's ideas are without merit. All of then. That said, the idea of a "jubilee" for consumers is equally bad. What is to happen to bank balance sheets if consumers are allowed to default? This is what we think of as "money"! You deposit money in a bank and they lend it out, often to consumers. If consumers default en masse, that will wipe out the banks for sure and maybe the currency as well!

I have written several pieces on fractional reserve banking and duration mismatch including a few going back and forth in public with Mish. I agree, the idea of banning banks from fractional reserve lending, i.e. lending, would collapse the economy.

I propose a roadmap out of the current crisis in a unique proposal that I think is the only way out:

I think you're close on Real Bills but I could suggest further reading. Antal Fekete has published a number of pieces on this and I think he explains the mechanics as well as the theory.

Keith said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Martin said...

I have no degree in economics, and you will surely demolish my points, but atleast I'll try to make myself clear.

Why does it seem like youwant a debt-runned economy? Debt creates low-flexibility in case of drastic changes. Isn't a capital based economy to prefer?

I am a libertarian against the coercion of currency, but your whole article seems like you think and envision a 100% debt soaked econmy in a private market. Which I do not think will happen at all, especially since interest-rates are bound to rise once price-control over credit and debit is released and the markets decide the rates.

I have no problem with your thoughts on IOU's, of course people should be able to accept such if they want. Though I think gold-banks or 100% reserve banking banks will be highly favored in the consumer economy; Steady prices and guaranteed value.

I might not make much sense, but try to bear with me (also I do not have english as my mothertongue), but my main critique/question is; Isn't the austrian thought on the fractional reserve banking that you shouldn't print money without having value to back it? If it's gold, silver, or IOU's, why is there any difference between what we subjectively value goods, when one of the core principles of libertarianism is that value is intristically subjective? Where does we draw the line between fraud and creative banking?

Arvind Damarla said...

Martin - agree with you that a debt-backed currency is NOT desirable. However, in any free market economy credit notes WILL inevitably dominate the monetary circulation.

To your point about 100% Reserve Banking, I would like to point that all of these notes in circulation should be CONVERTIBLE to capital, but not necessarily BACKED by Gold in the bank vaults.

The key concept to understand is that Gold is the difference between MONEY, CURRENCY and CAPITAL.

CAPITAL is anything of value - land, income, Gold, Silver, Iron, Copper, Cows, Salt, etc.

MONEY is the YARDSTICK with which you measure the worth of capital, and Gold makes a very good MONEY.

Finally, CURRENCY is what is generally acceptable as a form of payment. CURRENCY derives its value by being backed by CAPITAL.

Arvind Damarla said...

Keith, thanks for the comments.

Steve Keen's idea of a debt-jubilee does not involve loan-forgiveness by banks. it involves the Fed writing cheques to tax-payers, with the condition that if you have any debts, you are required to pay them down first.

This is a "rescue" for mortgage-customers who have been saddled with "counterfeit-credit" during the housing boom.

Banks will be required to accept capital repayments without penalty and forgo future earnings on the "counterfeit-credit".

Tax-payers who were "wise" and did not participate in the housing boom will receive a nice cash bonus for their foresight.

All this extra cash "consumer bailout" money can be trickled-in month-by-month and tapered out. Even then, it will inevitably kick-start an inflationary cycle.

That inflation would provide the Fed with the perfect opportunity to drain its balance sheet and return to more "normal" levels, and allow rates to return to market-determined levels across the yield curve.

Finally, the government need not continue its huge deficit spending to prop-up the economy, and will be able to rein in the deficit to more normal levels.

Following this - you idea of issuing Gold Bonds would make sense as the bonds will be issued at market-determined interest rates, not the current suppressed rates.

sowmyam said...

Ahem.. ...a grad of Socialist India's IIT now an ardent student of Austrian tells that something is amiss...dont kick away the ladder

Clint Ballinger said...

Nice to see attention to Keen's enlightening work. I am trying to unify various views (from Austrian to MMT to "Full Reservers", the latter who are often actually worried about private credit-money creation really) over here Clint Ballinger: On good urbanism, sane economics, & problems in the social sciences