Fractional Reserve Banking and "Austrian" Business Cycles, Part III

fractional reserve banking, reserve requirements, Austrian economics, business cycle theory, Federal Reserve
fractional reserve banking, reserve requirements, Austrian economics, business cycle theory, Federal Reserve
Image by Emory Willard Smith, University of Nevada, Las Vegas Libraries

In the first of this series of posts, I explained that the mere presence of fractional-reserve banks itself has little bearing on an economy's rate of money growth, which mainly depends on the growth rate of its stock of basic (commodity or fiat) money. The one exception to this rule, I said, consists of episodes in which growth in an economy's money stock, defined broadly to include the public's holdings of readily-redeemable bank IOUs as well as its holdings of basic money, is due in whole or in part to a decline in bank reserve ratios

In a second post, I pointed out that, while falling bank reserve ratios might in theory be to blame for business booms, a look at some of the more notorious booms shows that they did not in fact coincide with any substantial decline in bank reserve ratios.

In this third and final post, I complete my critique of the "Fractional Reserves lead to Austrian Business Cycles" (FR=ABC) thesis, by showing that, when fractional-reserve banking system reserve ratios do decline, the decline doesn't necessarily result in a malinvestment boom.

Causes of Changed Bank Reserve Ratios

That historic booms haven't typically been fueled by falling bank reserve ratios, meaning ratios of commercial bank reserves to commercial bank demand deposits and notes, doesn't mean that those ratios never decline. In fact they may decline for several reasons. But when they do change, commercial bank reserve ratios usually change gradually rather than rapidly. In contrast central banks, and fiat-money issuing central banks especially, can and sometimes do occasionally expand their balance sheets quite rapidly, if not to a dramatic extent. It's for this reason that monetary booms are more likely to be fueled by central bank credit operations than by commercial banks' decision to "skimp" more than usual on reserves.

There are, however, some exceptions to the rule that reserve ratios tend to change only gradually. One of these stems from government regulations, changes in which can lead to reserve ratio changes that are both more substantial and more sudden. Thus in the U.S. during the 1990s changes to minimum bank reserve requirements and the manner of their enforcement led to a considerable decline in actual bank reserve ratios. In contrast, the Federal Reserve's decision to begin paying interest on bank reserves starting in October 2008, followed by its various rounds of Quantitative Easing, caused bank reserve ratios to increase dramatically.

The other exception concerns cases in which fractional reserve banking is just developing. Obviously as that happens a switch from 100-percent reserves, or its equivalent, to some considerably lower fraction, might take place over a relatively short time span. In England during the last half of the 17th century, for example, the rise first of the goldsmith banks and then of the Bank of England led to a considerable reduction in the demand for monetary gold, its place being taken by a combination of paper notes and readily redeemable deposits.

Yet even that revolutionary change involved a less rapid increase in the role of fiduciary media, with even less significant cyclical implications, than one might first suppose, for several reasons. First, only a relatively small number of persons dealt with banks at first: for the vast majority of people, "money" still meant nothing other than copper and silver coins, plus (for the relatively well-heeled) the occasional gold guinea. Second, bank reserve ratios remained fairly high at first — the best estimates put them at around 30 percent or so — declining only gradually from that relatively high level. Finally, the fact that the change was as yet limited to England and one or two other economies meant that, instead of resulting in any substantial change England's money stock, level of spending, or price level, it led to a largely contemporaneous outflow of now-surplus gold to the rest of the world. By allowing paper to stand in for specie, in other words, England was able to export that much more precious metal. The same thing occurred in Scotland over the course of the next century, only to a considerably greater degree thanks to the greater freedom enjoyed by Scotland's banks. It was that development that caused Adam Smith to wax eloquent on the Scottish banking system's contribution to Scottish economic growth.

Eventually, however, any fractional-reserve banking system tends to settle into a relatively "mature" state, after which, barring changes to government regulations, bank reserve ratios are likely to decline only gradually, if they decline at all, in response to numerous factors including improvements in settlement arrangements, economies of scale, and changes in the liquidity or marketability of banks' non-reserve assets.

For this reason it's perfectly absurd to treat the relatively rapid expansion of fiduciary media in a fractional-reserve banking system that's just taking root as illustrating tendencies present within established fractional-reserve banking systems. Yet that's just what some proponents of 100-percent banking appear to do. For example, in a relatively recent blog Robert Murphy serves-up the following "standard story of fractional reserve banking":

Starting originally from a position of 100% reserve banking on demand deposits, the commercial banks look at all of their customers’ deposits of gold in their vaults, and take 80% of them, and lend them out into the community. This pushes down interest rates. But the original rich depositors don’t alter their behavior. Somebody who had planned on spending 8 of his 10 gold coins still does that. So aggregate consumption in the community doesn’t drop. Therefore, to the extent that the sudden drop in interest rates induces new investment projects that wouldn’t have occurred otherwise, there is an unsustainable boom that must eventually end in a bust.

Let pass Murphy's unfounded — and by now repeatedly-refuted — suggestion that fractional reserve banking started out with bankers' lending customers' deposits without the customers knowing it. And forget as well, for the moment, that any banker who funds loans using deposits that the original depositors themselves intend to spend immediately will go bust in short order. The awkward fact remains that, once a fractional-reserve banking system is established, it cannot go on being established again and again, but instead settles down to a relatively stable reserve ratio. So instead of explaining how fractional reserve banking can give rise to recurring business cycles, the story Murphy offers is one that accounts for only a single, never to be repeated fractional-reserve based cyclical event.

Desirable and Undesirable Reserve Ratio Changes

Finally, a declining banking system reserve ratio doesn't necessarily imply excessive money creation, lending, or bank maturity mismatching. That's because, notwithstanding what Murphy and others claim, competing commercial banks generally can't create money, or loans, out of thin air. Instead, their capacity to lend, like that of other intermediaries, depends crucially on their success at getting members of the public to hold on to their IOUs. The more IOUs bankers' customers are willing to hold on to, and the fewer they choose to cash in, the more the bankers can afford to lend. If, on the other hand, instead of holding onto a bank's IOUs, the bank's customers all decide to spend them at once, the bank will go under, and will do so even if its ordinary customers never stage a run on it. All of this goes for the readily redeemable bank IOUs that make up the stock of bank-supplied money no less than for IOUs of other sorts. In other words, contrary to what Robert Murphy suggests in his passage quoted above, it matters a great deal to any banker whether or not persons who have exchanged basic money for his bank's redeemable IOUs plan to go on spending, thereby cashing (or causing other banks to cash) those IOUs,  or not.

Furthermore, as I show in part II of my book on free banking, in a free or relatively free banking system, meaning one in which there are no legal reserve requirements and banks are free to issue their own circulating currency, bank reserve ratios will tend to change mainly in response to changes in the public's demand to hold on to bank-money balances. When people choose to increase their holdings of (or put off spending) bank deposits or notes or both, the banks can profitably "stretch" their reserves further, making them support a correspondingly higher quantity of unbacked ("fiduciary") bank money. If, on the other hand, people choose to reduce their holdings of bank money by trying to spend them more aggressively, the banks will be compelled to restrict their lending and raise their reserve ratios. The stock of bank-created money will, in other words, tend to adjust so as to offset opposite changes in money's velocity, thereby stabilizing the product of the two.

This last result, far from implying a means by which fractional-reserve banks might fuel business cycles, suggests on the contrary that the equilibrium reserve ratio changes in a free banking system can actually help to avoid such cycles. For according to Friedrich Hayek's writings of the 1930s, in which he develops his theory of the business cycle most fully, avoiding such cycles is a matter of maintaining, not a constant money stock (M), but a constant "total money stream" (MV).

Voluntary and Involuntary Saving

Hayek's view is, of course, distinct from the views of Ludwig von Mises, Murray Rothbard, and many other Austrian critics of fractional reserve banking. It is, on the other hand, consistent with that of another great Austrian economist, Fritz Machlup, whose discussion of the proper limits of bank credit expansion, as presented in Chapter 12 of his excellent book, The Stock Market, Credit, and Capital Accumulation is, IMHO, the best treatment of the subject, Austrian or otherwise.

Hayek's view is also more intuitively appealing. For the Austrian theory of the business cycle attributes unsustainable booms to occasions when bank-financed investment exceeds voluntary saving. Such booms are unsustainable because the unnaturally low interest rates with which they're associated inevitably give way to higher ones consistent with the public's voluntary willingness to save. But why should rates rise? They rise because lending in excess of voluntary savings means adding more to the "total money stream" than savers take out of that stream. Eventually that increased money stream will serve to bid up prices. Higher prices in turn boost the demand for loans, pushing interest rates back up. The increase in rates brings the boom to an end, launching the "bust" stage of the cycle.

If, in contrast, banks lend more only to the extent that doing so compensates for the public's attempts to accumulate balances of bank money, the money stream remains constant. Consequently the increase in bank lending doesn't result in any general increase in the demand for or prices of goods. There is, in this case, no tendency for either the demand for credit or interest rates to increase. Instead of being self-reversing, the investment "boom," if it can be called such, is sustainable in principle. That is, it can go on for as long as the increased demand for fiduciary media persists, and perhaps forever.

As I'm not saying anything here that I haven't said before, I have a pretty darn good idea what sort of counterarguments to anticipate. Among others I expect to see claims to the effect that people who hold onto balances of bank money (or fiduciary media or "money substitutes" or whatever one wishes to call bank -issued IOUs that serve as regularly-accepted means of exchange) are not "really" engaged in acts of voluntary saving, because they might choose to part with those balances at any time, or because a bank deposit balance or banknote is "neither a present nor a future good," or something alone these lines.

Balderdash. To "save" is merely to refrain from spending one's earnings; and one can save by holding on or adding to a bank deposit balance or redeemable banknote no less than by holding on to or accumulating Treasury bonds. That persons who choose to save by accumulating demand deposits do not commit themselves to saving any definite amount for any definite length of time does not make their decision to save any less real: so long as they hold on to bank-issued IOUs, they are devoting a quantity of savings precisely equal to the value of those IOUs to the banks that have them on their books.

In other words, as Murray Rothbard himself might have put it — though he certainly never did so with regard to the case at hand — peoples' willingness to hold bank-issued IOUs reveals their "demonstrated preference" for not spending, that is, for saving, where "demonstrated preference" refers to the ("praxeological") insight that, regardless of what some outside expert might claim, peoples' actual acts of choice supply the only real proof of what they desire or don't desire.  According to that insight,  as long as someone holds a bank balance or IOU — and no matter how fleetingly — he must desire the balance or IOU rather than anything else that he might have for it, or any part of it. That is, he desires to be a creditor to the bank against which he holds the balance or IOU.

And so long as banks expand their lending in accord with their customers'  willingness to save by holding their IOUs, and no more, while contracting it as their customers' willingness to direct their savings to them subsides, the banks' lending will not contribute to business cycles, Austrian or otherwise.

Of course, real-world monetary systems don't always conform to the ideal sort of banking system I've described, issuing more fiduciary media only to the extent that the public's real demand for such media has itself increased. While  free banking systems of the sort I theorize about in my book tend to approximate this ideal, real world systems can and sometimes do create credit in excess of the public's voluntary savings, occasionally without, though (as we've seen) most often with, the help of accommodative central banks. But that's no reason to condemn fractional reserve banking. Instead it's a reason for delving more deeply into the circumstances that sometimes allow banking and monetary systems to promote business cycles.

In other words, instead of repeating the facile cliché that fractional reserve banking causes business cycles, or condemning fiduciary media tout court, Austrian economists who want to put a stop to such cycles, and to do so without undermining beneficial bank undertakings, should inquire into the factors that sometimes cause banks to create more fiduciary media than their customers either want or need.