More on Fractional Reserves and Austrian Economics

449px-Bank_vault_1901Robert Batemarco addresses the more flamboyantly wrong portions of John Tamny’s recent anti-Austrian Forbes article in  Tuesday’s Mises Daily. Now, even Mike Shedlock of Mish’s Global Economic Trend Analysis avers that “Tamny proves he does not understand AE or fractional reserve lending.” Mish makes what should be some obvious points right off the bat (but which aren’t obvious to Tamny):

Point by Point Look

Tamny: “It’s well known that some Austrians have a major problem with ‘fractional reserve banking’ whereby banks pay for liabilities (deposits) by virtue of turning those liabilities into assets (interest paying loans). Instead, they borrow money from depositors seeking a return on their savings, and who don’t need access to their savings right away, only to lend the money borrowed to individuals who do need it right away. The profits come from borrowing at one rate of interest, then lending longer term at a higher rate.”

Mish: With that single paragraph Tamny proves he does not understand AE or fractional reserve lending. In fact, he makes it clear he is clueless as to where the money banks lend even comes from. AE has no beef against lending. Rather, AE does object to money being created out of thin air for lending.

I don’t care, nor does AE care if 100% of deposits are lent out, as long as three conditions are met: 1) Money is not created into existence by the loan 2) Money is not lent out for terms longer than the bank has access to the money 3) Depositors who lend money to the banks for interest are the ones who pay the price should there be a default on the loans.

In regards to point number three, it should be implicitly understood that the higher the interest banks pay for deposits, the greater the risk the banks (and depositors) must take to achieve that return. If it blows up, depositors, not innocent bystanders should pay the price.

Tamny: “Banks aren’t in business, nor could they remain in business if they simply warehoused money.”

Mish: Is there a need for warehousing? Even if the answer is no (which it isn’t), Tamny clearly fails to understand AE does not preclude lending. AE only precludes fraudulent lending.

Tamny: To many Austrians, this non-coerced act of exchange between consenting individuals is a fraud, and needs to be treated as such by the state. The Austrians want government to restrain what they deem a violation of property rights.

Mish: No! The problem of property rights comes into play multiple ways. Let’s go through some examples.

1. Banks take a deposit, say a CD that pays interest for 5 years. Then the bank lends the money for 30 years. That’s as fraudulent as me leasing a home for 5 years and issuing a 15 year sublease on my lease.

2. Checking accounts are known in the industry as “demand deposit accounts”. Money is supposed to be available on demand. It isn’t. In 1994 Greenspan allowed sweeps, whereby banks can nightly “sweep” all money from checking accounts into savings accounts, unbeknownst to the depositor, so the money could be lent out. Money people think is there for safekeeping isn’t there at all. The Fed recently stopped reporting of sweeps

Sound fraudulent to you? It does to me.

It’s fraudulent even if people agree to it in obscure hard to understand legalese. Why? Because it’s as fraudulent as lending out 100 tons of grain when only 20 tons are in the warehouse, whether or not the owner of the 20 tons of grain signs an OK for lending out 100 tons.

Shedlock becomes less clear and more vague when he gets into the money multiplier, and for that it’s perhaps best to stick to Batemarco:

The notion of the money multiplier is by no means uniquely Austrian. I learned it forty years ago from the Paul Samuelson textbook and from the Fed publication Modern Money Mechanics. It is also the centerpiece of the monetary system chapter of virtually every textbook right up to Paul Krugman’s most recent edition. Indeed, the nature of the process is one of the most uncontroversial propositions in economics — a good definition of an uncontroversial economic proposition being one on which both Murray Rothbard and Paul Krugman are in substantive agreement. Indeed, if there were no money multiplier, one would be at a loss to explain why, until QE1 in 2008, M1 was a 1.6 times size of the monetary base, having historically been even higher. Nor would the required reserve ratio, a tool of monetary policy that became too powerful to be used after 1937, have any effect on the money supply in the absence of the money multiplier effect.

What is controversial about the money multiplier is not its existence, but whether or not it creates distortions in the economy. The distortions introduced into the economy by fractional reserve banking, and to an even greater extent by central banking, comprise the central element of Austrian business cycle theory. The basic idea is that the creation of money (which is also credit, since that new money is loaned into existence) increases the supply of loanable funds and lowers market interest rates without increasing the supply of voluntary saving. This misleads investors into believing that more resources have been made available by savers for investment projects than actually have been made available. Thus, projects are started on too big a scale since many investors try to exercise a claim on the same productive resources. In so doing, they will bid up the resource prices, slashing the profitability of many of these investment projects. This is the real goods sector counterpart of bank runs in the monetary sector. Since there is no real goods sector counterpart to deposit insurance, firms will run short of the resources necessary to profitably complete their investment projects, exposing them as malinvestments and turning boom to bust.

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