Thursday, September 18, 2008


(Week 8 - Friday, Sept. 18)

In yesterday's column I described how the 15th century goldsmith banker held a minimum quantity, "fractional reserve," of gold in his vaults, relative to the much greater face value of the receipts or claims for that gold that he had issued, to serve as a hedge against not being able to redeem a receipt in a time of unusually high demand (which would signify his operation's bankruptcy). I also asserted that a pseudo version of the goldsmith's method, recreated in our time as the so-called "fractional reserve system," has planted the seeds of the present collapse of the financial sector.

The "fractional reserve system" of the modern banking era operates according to a formula that defines two-levels of money creation, the second being constructed upon the foundation of the first.

Level 1: "High-powered money" is the bankers' term for money created and put into circulation as a result of "borrowing" from the Federal Reserve itself by our Federal government.

Level 2: "Credit money" is money which is created and enters into circulation through the private-bank-loan transaction by which participants in the economy (except the Federal government) "borrow" money from private banks.

Creation of "High-Powered Money":

When the Federal government determines that it needs to "borrow" money, the Treasury Secretary (or his agent) approaches the Fed, and asks for a loan. The Fed agrees to "loan" the money, but requires security (collateral) in the form of bonds offered by the Federal government and signed by the Secretary of the Treasury.

The government prints and delivers the bonds to the Fed in exchange for newly created dollars being credited to its account at the Federal Reserve. These bonds, then, act effectively as "loan contracts" between the government and the Fed. It is critical to note that the Fed created this money out of nothing ("thin air") at the moment it credited the account. In addition, the face value of the bonds (the value printed on their face indicating the amount due the holder upon maturity) is much greater than the amount of money the government "borrowed." This is due to the "interest" charges which accrue from the date the bond is issued to when it is redeemed (paid off).

As the Federal government spends these new funds they end up on-deposit in the bank accounts of those contractors, builders, suppliers, service providers, employees, etc. to whom the money was paid. For purposes of this illustration, let us ignore the relatively small amount that circulates as pocket cash, and assume that all of it winds up on deposit in the banking system.

This new money "borrowed from" (in actuality "created by") the Fed and on-deposit in banks is referred to as "high-powered" money. The total quantity of high-powered money on deposit in the banking system, combined with a number known as the "fractional reserve ratio" mandated by the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, determines how much "credit money" the banking system can create through the bank-loan process. The formula that governs the procedure works basically as follows.

The "Fractional Reserve Ratio":

Let us assume that the "fractional reserve ratio" has been set by theFed at 1/10 (10%). In mathematical terms, this means that the banking system as a whole (The Fed and the private banks it oversees combined) have the potential of creating an amount of money that is the quantity of high-powered money on deposit, times the inverse of the "fractional reserve ratio." If the ratio is 1/10th, this allows the banking system to create overall an amount of money which is a multiple of the inverse of that number (i.e. 1 ÷ 1/10), which equals 10.

Simply put, this means that if borrowing and spending by the Federal government causes a billion dollars of "high-powered money" to be created and put on deposit in the banking system, the private banks can use this billion dollars as a foundation ("fractional reserve") to create another nine billion dollars of new "credit money." The total amount of new money, "high-powered" and "credit," that can be created through this process, is equal to what the Federal government "borrows" and spends into circulation, times ten (in this case, ten billion dollars).

Creation of "Credit Money":

To show how the process unfolds, let us suppose that $10,000 dollars of high-powered money has wound up on deposit in a given bank. The banker at this institution has thereby gained $10,000 dollars in new "reserves" against which he can create new money to "loan" out. The question is, how much can he create?

Since the banker in our example has $10,000 dollars of "reserves" on deposit, he can create up to $9,000 dollars in new money to "loan." Let us suppose that someone comes in and asks for a $9,000 loan, and his application is approved. The banker writes a check for (or electronically credits an account in the amount of) $9,000 dollars, and gives it to the "borrower." According to the way bankers think about this process, the banker in our scenario has just "loaned out" $9,000 dollars, and has, as required, left $1,000 "in reserve" as a hedge against the bank becoming "insolvent" (i.e. going broke).

At first glance, the process described in the above paragraph looks very much like the method the goldsmith banker used to protect his bank from becoming insolvent. Common sense dictated that he keep in reserve in his vaults an amount of gold which represented a reasonable percentage (fractional reserve) of the face value of gold receipts he had issued that were circulating as money in the economy, as a hedge against an unusual level of demand for the redemption of those receipts by his clientele who, overall, had been "loaned" the same gold several times over. Similarly, the rule governing modern banking which requires banks to keep in "reserve" a certain "fraction" of their money when they create loans, would seem to be a common sense measure to provide a margin of insurance against the possibility that the banks might find themselves in the position of not being able to redeem their depositors' accounts for cash at the teller window.

These two scenarios have, upon cursory look, a very similar appearance. If one examines more closely what is really happening, however, it will be found that these respective processes are very different, and have, not similar, but virtually opposite effects. The fractional reserve practice of the goldsmith banker lent a measure of stability to their system, but the so-called "fractional reserve" formula of modern banking is the very source of its chronic instability. In tomorrow's column we will continue with the description of how the "fractional reserve formula" unfolds, and take up the thread of how it is at the root of the collapse in the financial markets at present.

Richard Kotlarz

The complete set of columns from this series is posted at the following websites:


(Week 8 - Thursday, Sept. 18)

The mode of banking now in use is commonly described as "fractional reserve banking." The expression "fractional reserve" is one that is carried forward from an earlier form of the craft known as "goldsmith banking." As applied to modern practice, this expression is a misnomer that effectively obscures any true understanding of how our present monetary system operates, and why it is currently in such distress. To get a clear picture of this, it is first necessary to gain an understanding of what "fractional reserve" originally meant, and then how the concept has been misapplied.

In Europe of the 15th century there were many smiths that worked with gold, and therefore required vaults to securely store this precious material of their craft. Over time citizens and merchants that owned their own gold and used it in trade found the metal to be inconvenient and hazardous to keep in their personal possession. Consequently goldsmiths engaged in the sideline business of storing people's gold in their vaults, and issuing a receipt for the storage.

These receipts began to circulate as a currency with tradable value, as if they were the gold itself, and so became a form of paper money redeemable in gold. As payment the goldsmith charged a percentage of the value of the gold stored.

The goldsmith noticed that under normal circumstances only a very small percentage of his customers at any given time would redeem their receipts (i.e. take possession of their gold). For long periods the great majority of their metal merely gathered dust in his vault. At length it occurred to him that he could write more receipts and offer to "loan" the gold he was entrusted to hold to others, with an "interest" charge attached of course. In actuality he had nothing to loan because the gold already belonged to another customer, but who would know the difference. He could, in effect, profit on gold that he had, in a figurative sense, "created out of thin air."

The key to making this scheme work is that he would need to limit the amount of receipts issued such that the gold that he had on hand would, in the normal course of business, represent at least a certain "fraction" of the face value of the outstanding paper claims against it. This gold on deposit, then, would act as a "fractional reserve" that could be dipped into in the event that he experienced an unusually high demand for redemption at any given time.

The goal of the whole arrangement to the goldsmith was to issue as much "interest-bearing" paper as he dared against the stock of gold in his possession (thereby maximizing his income), while guarding against the possibility that the day might come when he would not be able to redeem with gold a receipt that was presented to him.

At first the scheme was a trade secret. As its workings became an open secret, many people regarded it as simple fraud, but others deemed it a necessary way to get the quantity of medium into circulation that a growing commerce demanded. In any case, the populace was eventually obliged to accept the goldsmiths' methods as the accepted way of doing business, or effectively forego much of its money supply.

By this mechanism the goldsmiths effectively began to operate as "banks-of-issue" (banks that create and issue money), and "fractional reserve banking" was born. The scheme worked well as long as there was not a "run on the bank"; that is, a rush by depositors to redeem their receipts for the gold because they had lost confidence in the institution.

As a sidebar to the goldsmith-banker story, it bears mentioning that this group has borne a great onus in the historical reckonings of many would-be monetary reformers. It is easy to find good reason for that assessment, but the whole story is not so simple. It could be argued that they were in effect coming up with a money–creation mechanism that did in fact put a great deal of currency into circulation in an age when that was sorely needed for its own inherent reasons. They operated in a time when the society itself did not have a sufficient sense of the science of money to create an adequate system in the public sphere where it rightly belongs (the same might be said of the situation with respect to money and banking that we find ourselves in today).

Were the goldsmiths simply a class of scam artists, or were they people who saw an essential need of the society around them and found an innovative way, however imperfect, to meet it? The answer presumably is both, and all degrees in between. They were, after all, people. Many deem the legacy they left behind as threatening the demise of civilization. It could also be argued, however, that had they not initiated such a practice, the evolution of Western society would have been seriously hindered. I leave that question to the reader's judgment.

In tomorrow's column we will begin to examine how a pseudo version of the goldsmith's method, recreated in our time as the "fractional reserve system," has planted the seeds of the present collapse of the financial sector.

Richard Kotlarz

The complete set of columns from this series is posted at the following websites: