- On money creation.
- Some misconceptions.
- Why money is less special than commonly thought.
On his blog, John Cochrane argues that banks could, and should be 100% equity financed. His points are:
(1) There are plenty of safe assets—government debt—out there and banks do not need to “create” additional safe assets—deposits.
I share this view partly. First, I don’t know what amount of safe assets are sufficient from a social point of view. Second, I don’t consider government debt to be a safe asset. Third, debt has safety and liquidity properties. The question is not only whether assets/liabilities provide sufficient safety but also whether they serve as means of payment in the same way that base money and deposits do. The key question then is: Do we need inside money? I don’t think that macroeconomics has a convincing answer to this question at this point. But I note that some preeminent macroeconomists (NK) argue that banks can create means of payment better than some governments. If this is true then John’s first argument partly misses the point (although he addresses a related point later).
In spite of these reservations, I share John’s view that in the aggregate, safety cannot be created by means of financial intermediation. Projects and claims to future tax revenue generate returns. The financial system can slice and distribute these returns in different ways (creating safer claims by rendering other claims less safe) but it cannot create safety in the aggregate.
(2) Households and firms no longer need assets (i.e., liabilities of financial institutions) with a fixed nominal value in order to make payments.
I agree. As John writes:
In the past, the only way that a security could be “liquid” is if it promised a fixed payment. You couldn’t walk in to a drugstore in 1935, or 1965, and trade an S&P500 index share for a candy bar. Now you can. (And as soon as it is cleared by blockchain, it will be even faster and cheaper than credit cards.) There is no reason your debit card cannot be linked to an asset whose value floats over time.
(3) If society really needs more “safe” claims such claims can be created on banks rather than in banks. As John writes:
Let the banks issue 100% equity. Then, let most of that equity be held by a mutual fund, ETF, or bank holding company, and let those issue deposits, long term debt, and a small amount of additional equity. Now I have “transformed” risky assets into riskfree debt via leverage. But the leverage is outside the bank.
I agree. In an article (2013) I have described a proposal by BIS economists that relies on equity financed banks and levered bank holding companies to help solve the too-big-to-fail problem.
(4) Why should less “safe” bank liabilities lead to a credit crunch?
I share John’s puzzlement with the often heard claim that fewer bank deposits would go hand in hand with less credit. I believe that this claim mostly reflects confusion about the interplay between national saving and investment on the one hand, and bank balance sheets on the other. There is no mechanical link between the two but of course, there are many indirect links.
All in all, I am as skeptical as John about the view that bank created money obviously is important. I think that bank created money has some useful roles to play but they are more subtle. At the same time, I believe that bank created money is likely to stay with us even if it is not socially useful. Proposals to ban inside money therefore are unlikely to succeed (see my writing on Vollgeld).
- The Vollgeld initiative may point to a problem but it does not propose a viable solution.
- Even with Vollgeld, the time consistency friction with its Too-Big-To-Fail implication would persist.
- A more flexible, liberal approach appears more promising.
- It would give the general public a choice between holding deposits and reserves.
- Financial institutions and central banks around the world are pushing in that direction.
In: Thomas Moser, Carlos Lenz, Marcel Savioz and Dirk Niepelt, editorial committee, Monetary Economic Issues Today, Festschrift in Honour of Ernst Baltensperger, Swiss National Bank/Orell Füssli, Zürich, June 2017. PDF of draft.
The sovereign money initiative (Vollgeldinitiative) seeks to gain greater control over the money and credit supply, to increase financial stability and to achieve a fairer distribution of seigniorage income. The initiative’s suggested approach – a ban on active money creation – is inefficient and may even prove ineffective, as it fails to address the core problems. A variant of the initiative, which would allow the public access to electronic central bank money on a voluntary basis, would offer greater benefit at lower cost.
The Swiss Federal Council requests that
Parliament recommend to the people and the cantons rejection of the popular initiative “For crisis-resistant money: end fractional-reserve banking (Vollgeld initiative)”, without a counterproposal.
The Federal Council doubts that ending fractional-reserve banking would strengthen financial stability. It sees major risks for the Swiss National Bank’s credibility and for financial intermediation.
On a new website, Aleksander Berentsen rejects the Swiss Vollgeld initiative. As an alternative, he suggests the Swiss National Bank should offer transaction accounts for everybody, in line with proposals I have made earlier (see here (2016), here (2015), here (2015)).
- Vollgeld seems attractive because it decouples the supply of money from intermediation. By enabling everyone to use legal tender for electronic payments, electronic base money would satisfy a need.
- Vollgeld would prevent bank runs, at least partly; render deposit insurance unnecessary and reduce moral hazard; could help stabilize the credit cycle; and would redistribute seignorage to the central bank.
- But these objectives can be obtained with less intrusive means.
- Moreover, a Vollgeld system would be hard to enforce. Banks and their clients would establish new means of payment to circumvent the regulation. And in times of crisis, the central bank would feel obliged to provide liquidity assistance and bail outs.
- The central problem is not that private money is used for transactions; it rather is that the money’s users rely on the central bank to guarantee the substitutability of private money and base money. In a democracy, the central bank cannot credibly let large parts of the payment system go under.
- A sudden, forceful change of regime does not offer a credible way out of this trap.
- But letting the general public access central bank reserves without abolishing private money from one day to the other may open a path towards a new arrangement where the public learns to distinguish between private and base money and where only the latter is publicly guaranteed.
The Federal Council dismisses the popular initiative to implement a Vollgeld regime—the “Swiss Chicago plan.” The Council argues that the proposal to abolish inside money creation runs counter to the government’s financial stability strategy and might undermine credit creation as well as trust in the Swiss Franc.
The Economist reports as well:
As the central bank issued more money, the government points out, its liabilities (cash) would rise without any increase in its assets. This, the government fears, would undermine confidence in the value of money. … There would need to be heavy-handed rules to make sure that banks did not create “money-like” instruments. … Finance, a huge part of the Swiss economy, would be turned inside-out, with unpredictable but probably expensive consequences. … The government also points out that the initiative only guards against one particular form of financial instability.
In his recent book Geld aus dem Nichts (Money out of Nothing), Mathias Binswanger discusses the role of banks in creating money, and money’s role in affecting the macro economy. The book is written for a non specialist audience and the arguments are often quite loose.
In the first part of the book, Binswanger describes how money mostly is created by commercial rather than central banks.
Part II provides a nice historical overview. Binswanger describes the origins of modern banking with goldsmiths first storing gold for their merchant clients, then lending some of the stored gold to third parties, and finally issuing more “receipts” than what corresponds to the gold deposits they actually accepted. From there, he argues, it was a small step to state licensed national banks like the Bank of England. On p. 120 Binswanger describes how minimum reserve requirements got out of fashion, not least because they suffered from circumvention when they were binding.
Part III lacks precision and is misguided (see also pp. 30 or 66). It covers the link between money creation and growth but confuses national accounting concepts and their relation to money and credit. Clearly, growth can occur without credit (think of an economy with just one agent to see this most directly) but Binswanger seems to dispute this point, in line with earlier writings by his father. A “model” on p. 144 does not help to clarify his views because it is orthogonal to the argument. Binswanger criticizes mainstream economics for refusing to accept the presence of long-run links between money and growth but this critique remains vain. Part IV deals with money creation and its effect on financial markets.
Part V, on reform, is sensible. Binswanger rejects proposals to move (back) to the gold standard or a 100%-money regime (or, essentially equivalent, “positive money”). His arguments against the Swiss “Vollgeld” initiative resonate with points I made here and elsewhere, including the point that it would be difficult to enforce a “Vollgeld” regime (see also p. 122). Binswanger criticizes the “Vollgeld” initiative’s vagueness concerning actual implementation of monetary policy. He ends with more limited, rather standard proposals (relating to regulation, monetary policy objectives and capital requirements) to address problems in financial markets.
A group of Swiss citizens lobbying for monetary reform has succeeded: after collecting more than 100,000 signatures a referendum will have to be held in the next years. In the ballot, Swiss citizens will vote on no more or less than the future of the monetary system in Switzerland.
According to the group’s proposal inside-money creation by banks will eventually be prohibited. Deposit claims vis-a-vis commercial banks would be transformed into claims vis-a-vis the central bank and deposit liabilities of commercial banks would be transformed into liabilities of those banks vis-a-vis the central bank. Within a certain time span, commercial banks would have to repay those liabilities. Moreover, they would be prohibited from ever creating deposits again—that is, all money should be base money.
Update: Discussion by Alex Tabarrok in a marginal revolution post.
Iceland is considering fundamental monetary reform. A report (PDF) by Frosti Sigurjónsson, Member of Parliament, discusses problems under the current fractional reserve system as well as possible alternatives. The report was commissioned by the prime minister (website of the Prime Minister’s office).
The report argues that the Central Bank of Iceland lost control over the money supply. Commercial banks lent pro-cyclically; they effectively forced the Central Bank to provide base money when needed; the Central Bank’s interest rate policy didn’t suffice to keep the growth of broad monetary aggregates in check; money creation by commercial banks shifted seignorage revenue from the Central Bank to commercial banks; and the deposit insurance accompanying the fractional reserve system encouraged risky lending, distorted competition and gave way to taxpayer funded bailouts when systemic banks collapsed.
The report discusses the Sovereign Money proposal (Fischer 1930s; Huber and Robertson 2000; Dyson and Jackson 2013) according to which all physical and electronic money is created by the Central Bank; commercial banks administer transaction payments and serve as intermediaries; new money is brought into circulation by way of transfers from the Central Bank to the Treasury; and the Central Bank may also lend funds to commercial banks which in turn lend these funds to businesses.
The report recommends that either the Central Bank proactively enforces credit controls or, preferably, that money power is secured with the state owned Central Bank (p. 17). The report recommends to commission a feasibility study of the implementation of the Sovereign Money proposal in Iceland.
Concerning the Sovereign Money proposal, I remain favorable as far as the analysis of the problem is concerned but rather skeptical regarding the proposed solution. In particular, I remain very skeptical as to whether a Sovereign Money regime could be enforced at all. I have previously described and evaluated the Swiss version of the Sovereign Money proposal—the “Vollgeldinitiative.” And I have made an alternative proposal for monetary reform (see also here).
On June 3, 2014 the Swiss group “Monetäre Modernisierung” (monetary modernisation) started to collect signatures with the aim to force a national referendum on changes to the Swiss constitution. (The group needs to collect 100,000 signatures within an 18 month period in order to succeed.) The referendum would put the “Vollgeldinitiative” (sovereign money initiative) to vote, an initiative that seeks to fundamentally change Switzerland’s monetary system. The group “Monetäre Modernisierung” is part of a broader international movement with partner groups in the UK, the European Union and the US.
According to the proposal, deposit claims vis-a-vis commercial banks would be transformed into claims vis-a-vis the central bank and deposit liabilities of commercial banks would be transformed into liabilities of those banks vis-a-vis the central bank. Within a certain time span, commercial banks would have to repay those liabilities. Moreover, they would be prohibited from ever creating deposits again—that is, all money should be base money. The proposal envisions the Swiss National Bank to bring new base money into circulation by transferring reserves to the treasury, allowing the government to partly finance its expenditures by means of “original seignorage,” or to citizens. The Swiss National Bank could also lend reserves to banks, against interest, to accommodate fluctuations in money demand. (The resulting interest seignorage would add to government revenues as well.) The initiative aims at a complete separation between money and debt; accordingly, base money would be booked as equity in the central bank’s balance sheet rather than debt.
The proposal goes further than Irving Fisher’s 100% money plan and other proposals for full-reserve banking (and narrow banking) where banks are required to keep the full amount of deposited funds in cash/reserves (or very liquid, safe assets). Under the “Vollgeldinitiative,” the amount of deposited funds does not only have to be kept in cash/reserves but deposits are abolished altogether.
Some background information (in German):
- The text of the proposed constitutional amendment, with explanations.
- Background paper by one of the intellectual father’s of the initiative, Joseph Huber. He explains that the name “Vollgeld” is the short form of “voll gültiges gesetzliches Zahlungsmittel,” or legally speaking, “unbeschränktes gesetzliches Zahlungsmittel.”
Some quotes from the Q&A section on the technical implementation of the proposed reform (in German):
Die Girokonten der Kunden werden aus der Bankenbilanz herausgelöst und separat als Vollgeldkonten geführt. Die Guthaben auf den Girokonten bleiben eins zu eins bestehen, werden Vollgeld und somit zu gesetzlichen Zahlungsmitteln gleich Münzen und Banknoten. Ab dann ist nur noch die Nationalbank autorisiert Zahlungsmittel zu schöpfen. Dadurch geschieht mit dem unbaren Giralgeld heute das gleiche wie vor hundert Jahren mit den Banknoten. …
Das bisherige Banken-Giralgeld wird von Gesetzes wegen zu Vollgeld umdeklariert. Liesse man es dabei bewenden, kämen die Banken mit einem Schlag in den Besitz von Vollgeld, obwohl sie nicht das (neue) Vollgeld, sondern nur das (alte) Giralgeld geschaffen haben. Deshalb übernimmt die Nationalbank im Moment der Umstellung alle bisherigen Giralgeld-Verbindlichkeiten der Banken und verpflichtet sich damit, den Bankkunden anstelle von Bankengiralgeld Vollgeld auszuzahlen. Diese Auszahlung erfolgt sofort, damit die umlaufende Geldmenge nicht vermindert wird, und sie erfolgt auf Geldkonten ausserhalb der Bankbilanz, also auf Konten, auf die die Bank keinen Zugriff mehr hat. Für die Bankkunden ist diese Umstellung äusserst relevant: Sie sind jetzt im persönlichen Besitz von gesetzlichem Zahlungsmittel in der Höhe der bisherigen Sichtkonten, die vor der Umstellung blosse Geldversprechen auf Konten der Bank, aber kein Geld waren. …
Nach der Vollgeld-Umstellung gibt es nur noch Nationalbank-Geld. Das elektronische Geld ist genauso vollwertiges Geld wie heute Münzen und Banknoten. Das heisst, die Vollgeld-Zahlungsverkehrskonten der Kunden befinden sich dann nicht mehr in der Bilanz der Banken, sondern diese werden von Banken wie heute Wertpapierdepots verwaltet. Das Geld auf dem Konto gehört nur dem Kunden, wie das Bargeld im Tresor, und ist nicht mehr wie heute, eine Forderung an die Bank. So hat auch der Zahlungsverkehr nichts mehr mit Forderungen und Verpflichtungen zwischen den Banken zu tun, weshalb das heute übliche Banken-Clearing unnötig wird. Wenn ein Kunde eine Überweisung an einen Kunden tätigt, wird einfach Vollgeld von einem Konto auf das andere transferiert. Es passiert dann das, was fast alle Menschen heute meinen, was bei einer Überweisung geschieht.
Diese direkte digitale Übertragung von Vollgeld vereinfacht den Zahlungsverkehr, da die bisherige komplizierte Verrechnung von Forderungen und Verbindlichkeiten zwischen den Banken und eventueller Ausgleich mit Nationalbank-Guthaben entfällt. Statt dessen können Überweisungen sofort ausgeführt und gebucht werden, genauso wie heute der Kauf von Aktien und Wertpapieren. Die bisherige Wartezeit von mehreren Tagen, bis das Geld ankommt, entfällt. Nach wenigen Minuten wird man den Geldeingang auf dem Konto sehen können.
I discuss the initiative here.
- A 100% money regime reduces the risk of credit bubbles, but requires more and better fine-tuning by the central bank.
- Central banks can already implement higher reserve requirements. If the fact that they don’t reflects policy failure, then the 100% money proposal risks handing more power to one source of the problem.
- A 100% money regime increases financial stability, at least temporarily, but it forces banks to find new sources of funding and lowers the interest rate for depositors, which is fine.
- If lender of last resort support by the central bank occurs at too low interest rates then seignorage revenues are privatised and costs socialised under the current regime. Moving to a 100% money regime would help but so would simple Pigouvian taxation.
- How can a 100% money regime be enforced if market participants end up coordinating to use other securities than deposits as means of payment?
- More stable deposits in a 100% money regime do not imply a more stable banking system unless other regulation is imposed that completely prevents “maturity transformation.”
- Aggregate liquidity cannot be created out of nothing, with or without deposit insurance.
- Societies have to take a stand on whether they want to guarantee broader monetary aggregates than base money. If so, the cost of the guarantee should be privatised. Problems arise if societies pretend not to provide such guarantees but central banks nevertheless feel obliged to step in ex post and market participants are aware of that fact ex ante; bad, self-fulfilling equilibria are the consequence.
- Commitment on the part of policy makers is key; it requires independent central bankers and regulators.