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The Cobden Survey

In June, 2010 the Cobden Centre in London released a report on "Public Attitudes on Banking," based on a questionnaire to which 2000 Britons responded. The findings of that report have since been offered, both by the Cobden Centre itself and by others, as proof that many people today believe that banks store rather than lend money surrendered to them in exchange for deposits payable on demand.

This week, for instance, a blogger named James Miller (whose article appears as well at Mises.ca and ZeroHedge, among other sites) wrote:

[U]sually depositors don’t fully realize that their funds are not really there in whole. In a 2010 study commissioned by The Cobden Center, it was found that 74% of U.K. residents polled believed they were the legal owners of their banking deposits. And while 61% answered that they wouldn’t mind if their money was used for additional lending, 67% responded that they wanted convenient access to what they saw as their money. Whether or not one regards fractional reserve banking as a clear case of fraud, it seems that a good portion of the public is wrongly informed on the mechanics of modern day banking.

But as even a careful reading of Miller's own summary of it should make clear, whatever else the Cobden survey may demonstrate, it most certainly does not demonstrate that most depositors think that the money they hand over to banks sits in the banks' vaults (or perhaps in those of a central bank) until some or all of it is either withdrawn or transferred to specific others by order of the original depositors.

Unless the questions they pose are chosen very carefully, survey results can easily mislead, and are indeed sometimes designed precisely with that end in mind. That isn't to say that the Cobden survey was intended to mislead–I am in fact inclined to believe that it wasn't. But it misleads nonetheless, thanks to the utter ambiguity of several of the questions it poses.

Consider the first survey question: "Why do you keep some of your money in a current account?" 15% of respondents answered "For safekeeping" and 67% answered "For convenient access," while only 10% answered "Because it earns interest." The predominance of the first two replies over the third might appear to suggest that most people suppose that their money is being stored. But the responses may be just as readily interpreted to mean that they consider fractionally-backed deposits to be both more convenient and safer than cash kept on one's person, at home, or in a cash register. Indeed, in these days of deposit insurance, it is hard to see why anyone concerned with safety, even exclusive of other considerations, would hesitate to prefer a fully-insured demand deposit balance to cash, while being perfectly indifferent to the dangers stemming from the lending of "their" deposits.

In reply to the survey's second question, "Who do you think owns the money in your current account(s)?", 74% answered "The account holder," while only 8% said "The bank." Another 20% answered, "Both the bank and the account holder." Proof that many British bank depositors don't know what their banks are about? Hardly. The responses instead prove nothing more than that the question posed can be interpreted in two different ways, depending on the meaning given to the word "money." Cobden Centre types, steeped in Austrian monetary economics, may insist that "money" ought to mean what others call "base" or "high-powered" money; but the fact remains that for most people, including most economists, a fractionally-backed bank deposit or note is itself "money." The latter, more common usage is implicit in standard working measures of national money stocks such as M1, M2, and so forth.

So, who owns the "money" in someone's current account? Well, it is in fact owned by the account holder, or by the bankers, or by both depending on how money is defined. If "money" is taken to mean "base money," than when someone accepts a demand-deposit credit from a banker in exchange for "money," that person surrenders ownership of the "money" to the banker, while becoming the owner of a deposit credit–a claim against the bank–of the same nominal value as the surrendered sum. But now suppose that by "money" we mean money in the broader sense, including demandable bankers' IOUs. By this definition, of course, the depositor continues to "own" the deposited sum, because instead of merely surrendering ownership to "money" he must now be understood to have merely exchanged one kind of money for another. The banker now owns the surrendered base money, while the depositor owns broad money consisting of a redeemable deposit balance. It thus follows that all of the respondents to the survey question, including the 2% who said "I don't know," may have been perfectly well informed of what their banks were up to, differing only in their interpretation of the question, or in the extent to which they were (understandably) baffled by it.

The survey's third question is equally ill-posed. It asks respondents to say what percentage of their current accounts is (1) held as reserves; (2) lent; (3) used to speculate on financial derivatives. That 66% answered "I don't know" is surprising only because one would expect the percentage replying so to such a question, calling as it does for a specific magnitude of which even many expert economists must have been unaware, while posing as alternatives two possibilities that are not in fact mutually exclusive (money might be simultaneously "lent" and "used to speculate on financial derivatives"), to have been closer to 100! The response proves, in any event, that at least two-thirds of those surveyed were not convinced that their "deposits" were fully backed by reserves.

Oddly, we are not given (as we are with regard to the other questions) a breakdown of the other responses to question 3, and so cannot say more than this. But it is at least possible that none of the 2000 respondents actually believed that his or her current account was backed 100% by reserves. If anything, the fact that we are not told what percentage of those surveyed answered this key question in accordance with the presuppositions of the anti-FR crowd ought to lead one to suspect that the percentage was in fact very low. Survey question 4, however, asks respondents to indicate "how they feel" about their banks making loans using current account deposits, and finds that 33% think the practice wrong because "they have not given [their bankers] permission to do so." Thus support appears to be given to the upper-bound ignorance quotient of 2/3.

But here once again the question is ill-conceived, not to be sure because it is ambiguous, but because it is what survey designers call a "suggestive" question, and as such one that nudges respondents in a particular direction. The question, in full as it appears in the report, reads as follows:

You may or may not have been previously aware that banks lend out some of the money deposited within current accounts by their customers to fund loans [sic]. Which of the following best describes how do [sic] you feel about the fact that your bank lends out some of the money in your account as loans [sic]?

The subtle, implicit suggestion here, perhaps unintended, is that banks are not systematically informing their customers about what they do (so that customers "may or may not" be aware of it), and that their conduct is such as might be expected to arouse some definite "feelings" among those customers.

If you doubt that the manner in which the question is posed favors the most-frequently offered response–that is, if you doubt that the question is such as tends to favor expressions of dismay regarding what bankers' regard as business as usual–imagine getting the following message in your voicemail, where the words indicated by **** are inaudible: "Hello. You may not be aware of it, but **** has been **** your ****. How do you feel about that?" Forced to say either "fine" or otherwise, I venture to guess that you'd admit that such a message leaves you "feeling" like someone who has been decidedly, albeit mysteriously, snookered.

Addendum (August 4 at 5:05PM): I had not bothered to comment on the Cobden survey's fifth and final question, because I found it so loopy that I hardly knew where to begin. I ought to have observed, nonetheless, that 26% of those surveyed responded to it by choosing, of several alternatives, the one that said "We should ensure that banks keep reserves equal to 100% of deposits." Would the respondents have made the same choice had the response in question been lengthened by adding the words "while allowing them to collect from us annual fees of somewhere between 5% and 10% of our average balances"? Unless Cobden redoes the survey, I suppose we'll never know.