From The Economist review of Martin Wolf’s new book “The Shifts and the Shocks: What We’ve Learned–and Have Still to Learn–from the Financial Crisis”:
To make finance safer, Mr Wolf suggests replacing a fractional reserve banking system, which takes in deposits and lends most of them out in longer-term loans, with a system of “narrow banking”, where deposits must be backed by government bonds. To sustain demand without relying on dangerous asset bubbles, he proposes permanent “helicopter money”, where governments run deficits that are financed by the central bank. For a man of the mainstream, this is brave stuff.
Fractional reserve banking is inherently unstable and responsible for many of the problems in our economic system, but abandoning it completely in favor of “narrow banking”, where deposits are fully-backed by government bonds, seems unnecessary. Increasing Tier 1 capital requirements to 10 percent of total exposure, from the current 3 to 5 percent, should provide a sufficient buffer to withstand most financial shocks. Rapid expansion of credit during an asset bubble would be difficult, with high capital requirements forcing banks to be more selective in their lending. Even more so if supplemented by central bank monetary policy to counteract rapid deposit growth.
Read more at A Prominent Financial Columnist Is Calling For Radical Reforms To The Global Economy | Business Insider.
By Atif Mian and Amir Sufi quote from The Chicago Plan (1933-1939) of which Irving Fisher was a strong supporter:
“A chief loose screw in our present American money and banking system is the requirement of only fractional reserves behind demand deposits. Fractional reserves give our thousands of commercial banks power to increase or decrease the volume of our circulating medium [money] by increasing or decreasing bank loans and investments. The banks thus exercise what has always, and justly, been considered a prerogative of sovereign power. As each bank exercises this power independently without any centralized control, the resulting changes in the volume of the circulating medium are largely haphazard. This situation is a most important factor in booms and depressions.”
Read more at 100% Reserve Banking — The History | House of Debt.
There is growing interest in this IMF Working Paper by Jaromir Benes and Michael Kumhof which discusses removing the role of monetary creation from fractional-reserve banks and assigning it to Treasury. Here is a brief abstract:
At the height of the Great Depression a number of leading U.S. economists advanced a proposal for monetary reform that became known as the Chicago Plan. It envisaged the separation of the monetary and credit functions of the banking system, by requiring 100% reserve backing for deposits. Irving Fisher (1936) claimed the following advantages for this plan: (1) Much better control of a major source of business cycle fluctuations, sudden increases and contractions of bank credit and of the supply of bank-created money. (2) Complete elimination of bank runs. (3) Dramatic reduction of the (net) public debt. (4) Dramatic reduction of private debt, as money creation no longer requires simultaneous debt creation. We study these claims by embedding a comprehensive and carefully calibrated model of the banking system in a DSGE model of the U.S. economy. We find support for all four of Fisher’s claims. Furthermore, output gains approach 10 percent, and steady state inflation can drop to zero without posing problems for the conduct of monetary policy…..
I believe that Fisher is right in targeting fractional-reserve banks as a major cause of instability in capitalist systems, facilitating rapid expansion of credit during booms, inevitably followed by rapid contraction during the bust. To introduce a system such as the Chicago Plan would risk an abrupt shock to the monetary system, but gradual increase of bank capital, leverage and reserve ratios could achieve the same eventual end without any noticeable side-effects.
via The Chicago Plan Revisited (pdf)
Hat tip to Ambrose Evans-Pritchard at The Telegraph.
The threat of too-big-to-fail banks has not diminished. The combined assets of the 6 largest US banks is bigger now than in 2008. Simon Johnson, Professor of Entrepreneurship at M.I.T. Sloan School of Management, writes:
A growing number of serious-minded politicians are starting to support the point made by Jon Huntsman, the former governor of Utah and a Republican presidential candidate in the recent primaries: global megabanks have become government-sponsored enterprises; their scale does not result from any kind of market process, but is rather the result of a vast state subsidy scheme.
…..Serious people on the right and on the left are reassessing if we really need our largest banks to be so large and so highly leveraged (i.e., with so much debt relative to their equity). The arguments in favor of keeping the global megabanks and allowing them to grow are very weak or nonexistent.
The big banks will vigorously defend any attempt to break them up and they have deep pockets. It would be far more effective and politically achievable to raise reserve requirements, lifting capital ratios and reducing leverage to the point that large and small institutions alike are no longer a threat to the economy. Even if we adopt a two-tier approach, with higher ratios for institutions above a certain size.
We need to remember that a fractional-reserve banking system is not an essential requirement of the capitalist system. All that is needed is an efficient intermediary between investors and borrowers. Equity-funded banks proved effective in funding Germany’s industrialization prior to WW1. Islamic banks today follow similar principles. Over-dependence on deposits is the primary cause of our current instability.
via Simon Johnson: Why Are the Big Banks Suddenly Afraid? – NYTimes.com.
“You can’t borrow yourself out of debt any more than drink yourself sober.”
Bill Still on the on-going debt problem and the solution proposed by L. Frank Baum in the Wizard of Oz.
Comment:~ The solution proposed is not a magic bullet. Money printed by Treasury, whether in the form of banknotes (“scrip”) or tally sticks, is still Treasury debt; Treasury effectively borrows when the currency is issued in payment and settles when the notes are presented in payment of taxes. It also debases the currency, though not as fast as debt created by the banks. This video serves as a reminder that we still have not solved the global debt problem — merely postponed the inevitable by issuing further debt.