ifo Schnelldienst 16/2018, August 23, 2018. PDF.
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).
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.
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).