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Money and Banking (Intellectual Capitalism Part 3)

There are a lot of misconceptions about money and banking.  Often people either think these are the root of all our problems or the solution to all our problems.  Both seem to believe that once money enters the equation in economics magic happens.  This paper will focus on how money and banking work in a free market and then examine the distortions caused by government manipulation of money and banking.

 

Money

If you examine an economics book on money it will tell you money is a medium of transaction, a store of value, and a unit of account.  Some economist say that money being a medium of exchange is the real function (definition) and the other two functions follow from money’s primary purpose.  I agree and therefore in this paper the definition of money is a medium of exchange.

All sorts of things have served as money including sea shells, tobacco leaves, grain, large immovable stones, tea leaves, cigarettes, silver, gold, paper, and computer bits (entries).  Why money is a useful invention is usually explained by way of an example.  Suppose that you raise cows for a living and you wanted to buy a loaf of bread.  If you tried to trade your cow to the butcher, you would want several hundred loaves of bread in return.  Most of the bread would spoil before you can eat it, so you only want two loaves of bread now.  On top of this, the baker wants chickens not a cow.  Under a bartering system these transaction will not occur, however with the addition of money you can sell your cow to the butcher and he will give you money.  You can then use the money to buy two loaves of bread, which the baker can use the money to buy chickens.

It is likely that money originally grew out of an IOU (I Owe yoU) system.  For instance, in the example above it is possible that once the rancher and the baker agree that the cow is worth 300 loaves of bread, then the baker would give the rancher two loaves of bread and an IOU for 298 loaves of bread.  The rancher intends to present the IOU to the baker every week for his two loaves of bread.  At which time the baker will give him two loaves of bread and an amended (new) IOU.

Unfortunately, the rancher gets sick and needs a doctor.  The doctor agrees to accept the baker’s IOU in payment for his services.  Now the baker’s IOU has acted as medium of exchange, which means it is money.

Money is just a generally accept IOU.  In other words many people will accept it as a general IOU that they can “redeem” from most people.  In the example above the doctor would have to worry that the baker might not make good on his IOU.  Now some people will argue that only paper fiat money is a generalized IOU.  However, even gold is functioning as a generalized IOU.  It is commodity money and as a result may have value in the market separate from its use as an IOU, but the person accepting it as money does not need it as a commodity.  He is planning on trading it with other people for goods and services.  On a deserted island (with no hope of rescue) you could have a ton of gold, but it would useless and you would not be better off with it than without it.  This also shows that wealth is not the same thing as having money.

One of the advantages of this point of view on money as an IOU is that it makes it clear that money is not wealth, even gold. The Spanish Kings and Queens found out this point when they brought back tons, literally, of gold and silver but still ended up going bankrupt.  The gold was not wealth and they spent their gold on things that did not create wealth.  Wealth is the things and knowledge that solve the objective problems of life (inventions).  I added the knowledge part because if you give an aboriginal person living in the Brazilian rain forest a super-computer, or an MRI machine, or even a bulldozer they are not wealthier because they do not know how to use these things (inventions) or even trade them.  Wealth is also about the objective problems of life, the most fundamental ones being air, water, and food.  These are still problems for many people in the third world.  Even in wealthy first world countries people have real objective problems, such as health problems, safety, etc.  It might not be as obvious why cruise control or smart phones solve objective problems, however if you think about it both do.

The idea that money is not wealth is important because it immediately makes the fallacy of Mercantilism apparent, which Adam Smith spent 100s of pages on.  In addition, it makes it clear that we cannot become wealthier by manipulating the money supply.  The only way to become wealthier on a per capita basis is to create new things that are more efficient at solving the objective problems of life or solve new objective problems of life, in other words create new inventions.

People often argue about the differences between money, currency, real money, commodity money, debt money, paper money, and fiat money.  Currency is generally defined as something that is specifically designed to function as money, such as coins.  Commodity money is when the money is a commodity such as silver, gold, grain, or is backed by a commodity.  Now real money can mean several different things, however I am talking about people who argue that only gold (silver) is real money.  By this they seem to mean that gold is a commodity money and all other currencies are to be measured against gold.  All commodity moneys have the advantage that they are more difficult for the government to devalue, however bitcoin also has this feature.  The other point is that gold has a long tradition as a widely recognized money.  This is true but does nothing to enlighten what money is or what its function is.

Fiat money is money that is not backed by a commodity.  Usually it is paper money although more and more it is just electronic entries in a computer and often it is legal tender, which will discuss in more detail shortly.  Paper money is self-explanatory.  Debt money can have several meanings, but usually means the money “created” when a person (entity) takes out a loan.  Many people argue that debt money is evil or somehow costs us interest just to have money.  Since all money is essentially an IOU, all money is created by a debt, i.e., a claim to future goods and services.

 

Proto Banking

Banking and money have been closely linked at least since the Agricultural Revolution about 11,000 year ago.  The Agricultural Revolution was a series of inventions that provided man with access to a huge increase in the number of calories per acre.  As a result, the human population expanded enormously and the territory of humans also expanded.  These excess calories were converted into population increases until the number of calories collected/created by the human population were roughly equivalent to the number necessary to support that population.

The grains that were the major source of these extra calories had to be stored, because the grains ripened all at once.  While the grain was stored, it needed to be protected from water and vermin.  If the grain ran out before the next harvest, people starved to death.  Efficient, effective storage of grains reduced the chances of running out grain before the next harvest.  A centralized grain storage (grain silos) was more effective than econgrowth.smallindividual storage of grains.  When a farmer deposited their grain they received a receipt (clay tablet) for the grain.  Eventually people started to use these receipts to pay for other goods (services).  For instance, if you wanted to buy a chicken instead of going to the grain silo and taking out enough grain to pay for the chicken, you just handed over some of these clay tablets to the owner of the chicken.  In other words these receipts became money.

In ancient Mesopotamia, as long ago as 5000 B.C.E., clay tablets were used to represent beer or grain.[1]  These clay tablets functioned as money.  Gold also started functioning as money about the same time, but was probably only used for large or long distance payments and therefore was not used by average people.[2]  These clay tablets were “created out of thin air” in the vernacular of today.  After a harvest there would be a lot of these clay tablets around and we would say the money supply increased.  As people withdrew grain, the grain bank would redeem these receipts.  We do not know if the “bank” destroyed these clay tablets, which would have been the logical thing to do or if they stored them for the next harvest.  Either way the money supply would shrink until the next harvest.  In fact the number of clay tablets (in circulation) would have shrunk to almost to zero just before the next harvest.  We know this is the case because of evolution.  Population expands until it takes up the available food supply, which is known as the Malthusian Trap.  This means the grain would be almost gone by the time the next harvest rolled around.

If you eliminate money (clay tablets) this does not change the economic situation.  Until the Industrial Revolution people lived on the edge of starvation and it was common for families to have to ration their food and even pick who would get food and who would not.  Because the healthy adults were the only way any of them would survive through the next year, the old, the young, and the sick were the first one’s whose food was cut off.  This is a grim reminder that economics is not just a game, but has real world consequences.

If we replaced the clay tablets with coins (e.g., silver, gold), then the money supply would not go up and down.  However, the price of food (and other goods) would go up and down.  After a harvest the price of food would be cheap and just before the harvest food would be very expensive.  The monetary system would not change the underlying economic situation one bit.

This is what we have learned about money in a free market:

1) Money is a medium of exchange

2) Money is a generalized IOU

3) The money supply can vary in a free market without fractional reserve banking.

4) Many things can function as money and only the market should “decide” what is money.

5) Money is not magic and does not allow magic in economics.

Now we are going to introduce some government (non-free market) distortions to money.  Going back to our clay tablets, someone probably realized that it did not make sense to destroy the clay tablets when people withdrew grain, since they would have to make new clay tablets after the harvest.  The “bank” probably started storing them and this of course led to the temptation of stealing the clay tablets.  Also the government probably decreed that taxes had to be paid in these clay tablets, which was the first step to making them legal tender.

We are going to skip forward to Roman times.  The Roman’s used silver coins as their currency.  The main unit of money was the denarius, which was between the size of a modern nickel and dime and equivalent to a day’s worth of wages for a skilled laborer.[3]  As late as 68 C.E. the silver in a denarius was almost 100%, but then it started to decline.  People balked at using this debased money, however the government declared the new, lower silver coins legal tender.  By 265 C.E. the silver content in coins was down to 0.5%.  Not surprising the Roman Empire suffered huge inflation.  The Roman’s minted so many coins that even today you can buy several Roman coins of standard quality for twenty dollars or so.[4]  For clarity later on I am going to call this “simple inflation”.

An important point here is that legal tender laws are always the first step towards inflation.  The only reason for a government to pass a legal tender law is so that they can “print” money.  In other words, the government is undertaking an endeavor that would get any private citizen throw in jail.  With the end of the Roman Empire legal tender laws and banking died out during the Dark Ages.  Coins were mainly used by the rich during this period.

By the 1700s legal tender laws were being seen again in Europe.  France experimented with legal tender laws, allowing The Mississippi Company in the 1710s to have control over its legal tender with disastrous results.  Supposedly, the French swore off paper money and modern banking for years after this.  Some historians have even argued that this backwardness in France’s finance system was part of why they were beaten by the English.  This is a fascinating story, but beyond the scope of this article.

The British followed suit in 1833 making banknotes issued by the Bank of England (a private bank at the time) legal tender.[5]  The United States had no legal tender laws (after the Constitution) until 1862 during the American Civil War.  The North printed $450,000,000 under this law to help finance the war.  Eventually this law was declared unconstitutional in Hepburn v. Griswold, 75 U.S. 603 (1870).  The Court reasoned that the Constitution allowed the federal government to coin money, but not the power to make paper legal tender.  The government argued that since it had the power to carry out war and the issuance of the legal tender was necessary for carrying on the war, then legal tender laws fell under the “necessary and proper’ clause of the Constitution.  The Court rejected this argument and also pointed to the fact that the Constitution prohibited the states from interfering with contracts.  The Constitution did not specifically, prohibit the federal government from interfering with private contracts, but it would be against the spirit of the Constitution to allow the federal government to do so.  In one of the stranger twists in history, Salmon P. Chase helped push the legal tender legislation through as Lincoln’s Secretary of Treasury, then he was appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and lead a 5-3 decision to declare the law unconstitutional.  Unfortunately, this case was quickly overruled by the Knox v. Lee, 79 U.S. 457 (1871) Supreme Court decision.

Multiple competing bank notes were the norm at that time.  According to the Cato Institute, “the government did not entirely monopolize issuance of notes until 1935, but the laws that made the monopoly possible date from the Civil War.”[6]  Today the legal tender law in the US is 35 USC § 5103 which states:

United States coins and currency (including Federal reserve notes and circulating notes of Federal reserve banks and national banks) are legal tender for all debts, public charges, taxes, and dues. Foreign gold or silver coins are not legal tender for debts.

Legal Tender laws are necessary for government counterfeiting[7] to be successful.  Without legal tender laws, people would quit accepting the money printed by the government.  The key point is that legal tenders are necessary to create inflation.  Any further investigation of money will require that we first examine how banks work.

 

Banking

The first banks in Europe after the Dark Ages were goldsmiths.  Because goldsmiths were working with valuable materials they needed vaults.  Wealthy patrons would often give some of their gold or other valuables to the goldsmith to secure in their vault.  The goldsmith would give the patron a receipt for their gold.  Overtime, just like the clay tablets for grain, people started to trade the receipts instead of taking out gold and paying with the gold.

Some of the customers also started asking for loans.  The goldsmiths wanted to reduce their risk if the customer defaulted on the loan, so they asked for collateral.  Originally, they probably asked for jewelry or other things made of silver and gold, since they knew they could liquidate (sell) these items fairly easily.  The goldsmiths could have given the customer gold out of their gold reserve (capital) and they probably did initially.  Most likely many customers then gave the gold back to the goldsmith and took receipts for the gold.  If the goldsmith’s receipts were trusted enough, they could skip this step and just give the customer receipts.  If the customer failed to pay the loan back, the jewelry (collateral) became the property of the goldsmith.

Or the goldsmiths could have given the borrower gold on deposit from other customers, which is the way most people think of banking working.  In that case then the gold the goldsmith had on hand (deposit) was less than the amount of the receipts outstanding for the gold, which is fractional reserve banking (assuming the goldsmith had no gold capital or the loan(s) were greater than the goldsmith’s gold capital).  Fractional reserve banking is defined as:

a banking system in which only a fraction of bank deposits are backed by actual cash on hand and are available for withdrawal.[8]

Most customers probably deposited the borrowed gold with the goldsmith and took receipts.  Again the goldsmiths probably began to skip the step of giving the borrower actual gold (silver) and just gave them receipts for the gold.  At this point it might appear that the goldsmith is “creating money out of thin air”, however the receipts in this case are backed by the collateral, jewelry in this example.  Actually, all the outstanding receipts are now backed by the gold on hand and the collateral the goldsmith has for loans.

At this point the goldsmith risks all the holders of these receipts asking for their gold and the goldsmith does not have enough gold to fulfill all these demands.  However, the goldsmith does have enough capital to fulfill the demands, because the collateral, jewelry and gold on deposit in this example.  It is likely that initially most of these loans were “callable”, meaning that the goldsmith could demand the borrower pay them back in full (gold or receipts) at any time.  If the borrower paid up, then the goldsmith had no problem paying off the receipts.  If the borrower did not pay up, then goldsmith became the owner of the collateral (jewelry) and could sell it to fully back the receipts.[9]

Eventually the goldsmiths realized it was not only jewelry (gold and silver items) that had value and could act as collateral.  For instance, arable farmland was one of the most valuable assets that people could own for most of history since the Agricultural Revolution.  The goldsmith could not put the farmland in his vault, however he could have a legal claim to the land.  That claim stated that if the borrower did not pay back the loan, then the goldsmith owned the farmland.  Of course it takes longer to liquidate farmland than jewelry and farmland might be more subject to market fluctuations.  As a result, the amount the goldsmith would lend against the farmland was lower than for gold and silver items.

At first goldsmiths probably made loans against farmland that someone owned outright.  Eventually, they figured out that they could make loans on farmland that was being purchased, as long as there was a big enough down payment (the equivalent of loaning less than the value of collateral).  What the goldsmith is doing is securitizing assets other than gold.  When the goldsmiths created receipts for gold and silver deposits they were securitizing gold (and silver).  “Securitize is a pooled group of financial assets that together create a new security”[10] or banknote in this case.  This means that goldsmiths receipts (banknotes) are backed by not only gold deposits but the other assets that they hold as collateral.

This is exactly what a company does when it sells bonds (stock).  The bond is backed by the assets (collateral) of the company.  The bonds are usually very liquid and can be sold or traded in exchange for goods and services, i.e., the bonds are money.

These goldsmiths became fractional reserve banks once they started securitizing assets other than gold.  Fractional reserve banking is an important invention and is created (exists) in a free market.  A fractional reserve bank is doing something analogous to what engineers have done with the telephone system.  The backbone that connects two people together on a phone line does not have the capacity to allow everyone to make a call at the same time.  The engineers know that only a certain fraction of people will normally be on their phones at the same time.  By designing a system to handle this level of usage plus a margin, the cost of the telephone system is reduced.  Of course occasionally, like in the time of an emergency, everyone wants to use their phone at the same time and then you receive a message like ‘all circuits are busy, please try your call again later.’  Another example is the time sharing of resources is done by computers.  Before the 1980s this was done by having a number of computer terminals all connected to one large computer that time shared its resource among these terminals.  This is still done within your computer when it runs multiple programs.  The processing power of the microcontroller is time shared among these programs.

Banks know that only a small number of people will want gold at the same time.  Most of the time people will be happy with banknotes or just accounting entries.  However, if people lose confidence in the bank, then they will all want to withdraw gold (cash) at the same time.  This is called a ‘run on the bank’ and is the same thing as everyone trying to make a telephone call at the same time.  Note that this is a cash flow issue and can happen even to a bank that is profitable.  Usually, banks that were clearly profitable could borrow gold from other banks to weather the run.

When a fractional reserve bank (hereinafter bank) initiates a loan against an asset, let’s say a farm, the bank creates a security (banknotes or an entry in a ledger) equal to the amount of the loan.  In this process it “creates money” equal to the loan.  At one time this might have been done by printing a bunch of banknotes, but now it is an electronic entry in the banks accounting system.  An article entitled “Money Creation in the Modern Economy” published by the Bank of England explains “whenever a bank makes a loan, it simultaneously creates a matching deposit in the borrower’s bank account, thereby creating new money.”[11]  This article also points out that “money creation in practice differs from some popular misconceptions — banks do not act simply as intermediaries, lending out deposits that savers place with them, and nor do they ‘multiply up’ central bank money to create new loans and deposits.”[12]  According to the article, “Money in the Modern Economy: an Introduction”, there are three main sources of money in modern economies, currency, bank deposits (loans by commercial banks) and central bank reserves.[13]  This article also points out that most money in the economy is created by banks initiating loans.  [14]

Some people call this debt money and argue it is bad for the economy.[15]  They imply that this system of money creation requires we pay interest to have money.  First, it is important to point out that this sort of money creation happens in a free market.  Second, the only one paying interest is the person who took out the loan.  In a free market there would also be other forms of money, such as gold, silver, bitcoin etc.

When loans are paid back money is destroyed, just like the case of the clay tablets being destroyed (taken out of circulation) when people turned them in for their grain.  The bank no longer has access to the collateral (e.g., farmland, jewelry, etc.).  As a result, the banknotes (electronic entries) are destroyed.  Note that money is also destroyed if the borrower defaults on the loan.

In a free market (for this discussion most importantly means no legal tender laws and no central bank) banks’ ability to ‘create money’ is limited by the value of the assets used as collateral.[16]  The bank is not creating money, it is securitizing assets and the banks’ ability to create money is then limited to the assets that can be securitized.

If the banks create too many loans that cannot be paid back, then they will tighten their lending standards.  This will result in fewer loans and less money being created.  When the economy is growing banks will fund more loans and create more money.  However, the amount of money in the economy will be proportional to the assets that can be collateralized in the economy.

As a result, in a free market fractional reserve banks do cause variations in the money supply, but do not cause inflation or deflation.  Note that the United States had fractional reserve banks from before the revolution and the United States did not have any periods of inflation.  The banks were constrained in how much money they could create.  Now prices did vary widely sometimes, particularly in times of war.  However it is necessary to separate out the fluctuation in prices due to changes in supply and demand from those due to changes in the quantity of money.  During a war (crop failure) there is an increase in the demand for goods and services, particularly food.  Men are off fighting instead of planting their fields and the war itself often destroys the crops on large tracks of land.  This increase in the price of food will mean that farmland that is not threatened by the war will be more valuable.  As a result, it is likely banks will be willing to lend more money against these farms.  This will result in some increase in the money supply.  However, when the war ends the prices of the farm goods will fall and so will the value of the farmland, which will reduce the number of loans outstanding, reducing the amount of money in the economy.  Averaged out over time money grows at the same rate as the economy and prices are roughly stable.[17]

 

This is what we have learned about banking in a free market:

1) Fractional reserve banking exist in and our an invention of a free market.

2) Fractional reserve banks do create and destroy money, however the amount of money created is proportional to the assets in an economy.  

3) Fractional reserve banks do not cause inflation.

 

(I wanted to include a discussion of central banks, however this article is already too long.  So I will post on central banks and their effects in another article)

[1] Peter Dockrill, This 5,000-year-old artefact shows ancient workers were paid in beer, http://www.sciencealert.com/this-5-000-year-old-clay-tablet-shows-ancient-mesopotamians-were-paid-for-work-in-beer; and

Rachelle Samson, History of money: From clay tablets to legal tenders

History of money: From clay tablets to legal tenders, http://www.versiondaily.com/the-history-of-money-from-clay-tablets-to-legal-tenders/.

[2] Wikipedia, History of money, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_money, accessed 11 November 2016.

[3] Jeff Desjardins, Currency and the Collapse of the Roman Empire, http://money.visualcapitalist.com/currency-and-the-collapse-of-the-roman-empire/, accessed 11 November 2016.

[4] coins  https://www.amazon.com/Lot-10-Uncleaned-Ancient-Bronze/dp/B001BMWATA?SubscriptionId=AKIAIKBZ7IH7LXTW3ARA&&linkCode=xm2&camp=2025&creative=165953&creativeASIN=B001BMWATA&tag=wwwbookcompar-20&ascsubtag=5820b98a48308f0454a513ac

[5] A. Andreades, History of the Bank of England 1640 to 1903, http://socserv2.socsci.mcmaster.ca/econ/ugcm/3ll3/andreades/HistoryBankEngland.pdf,

[6] Schuel, Kurt, Cato Journal, Vol. 20, No. 3 (Winter 2001) p 454.

[7] Counterfeiting in an economic sense is any currency that is not backed by productive or creative effort that someone willing exchanged their creative effort for.  Gold is clearly not counterfeit money, since it requires productive effort to mine gold.  Buy paper money presents a problem.  It takes productive effort to make and print paper, but no one would trade twenty dollars of their effort for someone who printed a twenty dollar bill.  Economic counterfeiting is really a fraud where someone believes the other person has provided value that they did not provide and purposely withheld this fact from the other party.

[8] Fractional Reserve Banking Definition | Investopedia http://www.investopedia.com/terms/f/fractionalreservebanking.asp#ixzz4QUDQvzpR, accessed November 19, 2016.

[9] The collateral is usually worth more than the loan to deal with market fluctuations.  This is why people used to say that a bank would only loan you money if you were already rich.

[10] Securitize Definition | Investopedia http://www.investopedia.com/terms/s/securitize.asp#ixzz4QVLtJy4H, accessed on November 19, 2016.

[11] Michael McLeay, Amar Radia and Ryland Thomas, Money creation in the modern Economy, http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/publications/Documents/quarterlybulletin/2014/qb14q102.pdf, accessed November 19, 2016.

[12] Michael McLeay, Amar Radia and Ryland Thomas, Money creation in the modern Economy, http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/publications/Documents/quarterlybulletin/2014/qb14q102.pdf, accessed November 19, 2016.

[13] Michael McLeay, Amar Radia and Ryland Thomas, Money in the modern economy: an introduction, http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/publications/Documents/quarterlybulletin/2014/qb14q101.pdf, accessed November 19, 2016.

[14] Michael McLeay, Amar Radia and Ryland Thomas, Money in the modern economy: an introduction, http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/publications/Documents/quarterlybulletin/2014/qb14q101.pdf, accessed November 19, 2016.

[15] Debt-Based Money vs. Sovereign Money, http://positivemoney.org/our-proposals/debt-based-money-vs-sovereign-money-infographic/, accessed November 19, 2016.

[16] Credit cards and personal loans may seem to violate this, but a person’s willingness to work is an asset.

[17] JOSH ZUMBRUN, A Brief History of U.S. Inflation Since 1775,  http://blogs.wsj.com/economics/2015/12/14/a-brief-history-of-u-s-inflation-since-1775/, accessed 12/3/2016.

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January 2, 2017 - Posted by | -Economics, -History, Intellectual Capitalism | , , ,

4 Comments »

  1. This covers the first level of fractional reserve banking. But then the bank has the farmer’s deposits to loan to the next guy. That guy then deposits his loan and the bank can loan it out again. I have seen calculations that show with a 10% reserve, the bank can expand the original amount to 9 times that amount. That would seem to add enough money to the supply to have inflationary effects.

    Comment by mspalding | January 3, 2017 | Reply

  2. Disagree with your definition of “money”.

    But heck, everyone is entitled to their own delusion.

    Money is a delusional expectation of receiving value in the future from an unidentified future benefactor and a release of obligation for the person (including corporate personage) who tendered the money thing to you.

    Because money carries a time based add-on factor (interest), over time the future benefactors must deliver more and more value. Until they can’t anymore because the planet is not infinite.

    A trillion here, a trillion there and pretty soon we can’t deliver on the promise because the future value is not present in our real future.

    Party on dudes. And be most excellent to one another. (Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure)

    Comment by step back | January 3, 2017 | Reply

    • Step, Nice to hear from you. You can disagree with my definition of money, but it is the standard definition.

      Comment by dbhalling | January 6, 2017 | Reply

  3. […] article continues from where my article Money and Banking […]

    Pingback by How Central Banks Create Inflation (Intellectual Capitalism Part 4) « State of Innovation | January 16, 2017 | Reply


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