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Endogenous money and fully reserved banking

After the Great Depression broke out, American economist Irving Fischer championed a view of the financial system now called “endogenous money“, which sees each person in the economy as a creator of credit. Viewing the economy through this lens leads to a number of conclusions that are at odds with economic orthodoxy, particularly regarding the ability to generate a credit accelerator by adding reserves to the financial system. The endogenous money view also has some interesting things to say about the role of fractional reserve banking as a credit accelerator, which is where I want to focus here.

Endogenous Money

Let me lay out the endogenous money view in layman’s terms here. In a credit-less society, production would always be consumed out of current or saved income. If I grow wheat, I might have the capacity to produce 10 bushels of wheat. But, if only 8 bushels are needed, I am only going to make 8. Sure, I could produce 10 bushels of wheat, consume 8 and stockpile 2 as inventory. But, those two bushels would eventually have to be consumed later or they would go bad. The point is that, in a credit-less society, if you wanted to buy those two bushels of wheat, you would need to do so out of accumulated income and savings.

If, on the other hand, I accept an IOU from you for the two bushels, I have effectively increased my production by 25% and can continue to do so as long as our credit arrangement is in place. That’s what the credit accelerator is all about. Credit effectively increases production. So, credit is very important to the degree it is driven by the desire of individuals and firms to consume now in anticipation of future profit or savings that today’s consumption facilitates. If you run a business, you can borrow today with an IOU in order to innovate, increase efficiency and production a lot more than if that credit didn’t exist. Economic growth is highly dependent on credit growth then because credit adds directly to current production. And long-term economic growth is therefore highly dependent on properly allocated credit decisions since you may or may not successfully innovate and increase efficiency and production with the credit you receive. So that’s credit.

The crux of endogenous money is that the economy is credit demand driven and not credit supply driven. What that means is that we are all economic agents who individually increase real economic activity simply by demanding more money credit. You and I individually have the ability to increase economic growth simply by asking for and receiving a loan on credit. Thinking about this in terms of the real economy instead of the financial economy makes this clear. In the original example I gave, I had the capacity to produce more but the demand for that production was limited by current and saved income. If you gave me an IOU to pay for additional production, I could produce it and instantly we would have greater economic growth simply because of your demand for credit.

Now I could sell your IOU to someone else to pay for goods and services if your word is good. That IOU is money – and I can use it to buy things. Notice that the supply of credit in the form of accumulated savings had nothing to do with anything that happened. No accumulated savings is necessary for this to happen; the credit itself creates the money. That’s endogenous money.

The Financial System of Endogenous Money

Thinking about this in terms of the financial system, it becomes clear then that the loanable funds model of the world in which banks act as intermediaries between people with accumulated savings and people who want or need credit is fatally flawed because the accumulated savings is not necessary for a credit transaction to occur. In the financial world, loans create deposits, just as in the example above your IOU became money as soon as our credit arrangement was made.

The big difference between the example above and today’s world is that for the United States, we live in a US dollar currency area in which the US government is the monopoly issuer of legal tender, requiring anyone that pays taxes to expunge that tax liability in US dollars or face imprisonment for not doing so. That means that the government’s credit is “good” in that it issues IOUs in the only acceptable form of payment and tax in its jurisdiction.

And let’s remember that if money is endogenous, then bank reserves are the effect and not the cause of the demand for credit. Simply put, when thinking about the financial system, banks are never reserve-constrained. They may be capital constrained but they are not reserve-constrained. Reserves really don’t matter except as a vehicle for a monopoly supplier of those reserves (i.e. the central bank) to hit an interest rate target.

The Financial Crisis and Endogenous Money

What does all of this mean in the context of today’s financial crisis? See here for the last discussion on this at Credit Writedowns. Here are the most salient points on the crisis that come to my mind:

  • Monetarily sovereign governments cannot go broke involuntarily. I think, first and foremost, we have to think about the difference between a currency user like Greece and a currency issuer like the United States because even well-respected economists like Ben Bernanke make irresponsible statements conflating the issues that Greece faces with the ones that the US faces.  The fact is the US only has liabilities in a currency it creates. It can’t default involuntarily on those liabilities since it can simply create more IOUs to replace the IOUs that fall due.
  • Central banks control short-term rates AND dictate the term structure. We know that central banks set short-term interest rates by controlling the loan rate for overnight money, called the Fed Funds rate in the US. But the important thing to note is that this has a controlling influence on the term structure of interest rates as well. Long-term interest rates are a series of future short-term interest rates. And since bond market participants know that the Fed controls short-term rates, long-term rates predominantly reflect market participants expectations of future short-term rates, with a bit of margin for risk and the preference for short-term IOUs over longer-term ones.
  • The currency is the release valve for currency revulsion. Clearly, an entity that manufacturers an increasing number of IOUs can find that those IOUs lose value in the minds of their counterparties or the general public. It’s no different for sovereign governments. Yes, the fact that you and I can only transact and must also pay a tax liability only using one of those government IOUs gives that IOU value. But, others abroad, who don’t have those constraints, will value those IOUs less, if their quantity increases enough. Put simply, holders of the government’s IOUs will develop currency revulsion and the result will be a depreciated currency and inflation, but not increased interest rates since the central bank has controlling influence on interest rates in its currency area as outlined in the paragraph above.
  • The central bank’s adding bank reserves is not inherently inflationary. This means quantitative easing is not inherently inflationary except to the degree it changes private portfolio preferences or impacts commodity price inflation. The notion that adding reserves is inflationary because bank reserves provide the kindling for loans is the tail waging dog thinking of economic orthodoxy. You and I know that’s not true at all since money is endogenously determined by our collective demand for credit at prevailing interest rates. The central bank, as a monopoly supplier of reserves, is interested in controlling price i.e. the overnight rate of money and the interest rate term structure that results from this. Basic economics tells you that a monopolist which controls price cannot control quantity. In the context of the central bank and endogenous money, this simply means that the central bank must supply the banking system with all the reserves it requires to meet credit demand of credit worthy borrowers at the specific reserve requirement ratio and interest rate the central bank has set. Of course, the central bank can always change reserve requirements or overnight rates as it chooses. However, a central bank would be unable to control the interest rate for overnight money unless it supplied all of the reserves demanded by the financial system. The reason so many excess reserves are piling up is that central banks are manufacturing more reserves than are warranted by the demand for credit.

Fully Reserved Banking and Endogenous Money

That’s why I keep banging on about the demand for credit by creditworthy borrowers. Clearly, uncreditworthy borrowers – or the borrowers that financial institutions fear are uncreditworthy – have an infinite demand for credit because that credit can supply them with a limitless capacity for current consumption. However, banks remain solvent by supplying credit only to those entities which can repay their IOUs or by selling the IOUs on to less discriminating creditors. Eventually, the uncreditworthy default and their credit is then cut off, turning the credit accelerator into a credit decelerator. That’s what this financial crisis is all about. And economists and policy makers are looking for ways to stop the credit deceleration process from occurring and to stop this kind of crisis from re-occuring.

One way some economists believe we can stop this kind of crisis from happening is to move to a fully reserved banking system.  In such a system, the full amount of liabilities are held in reserve as cash or highly liquid assets. The benefit of this kind of system is that it limits the number of banks that can fail from a lack of liquidity. Now clearly banks in a fully-reserved system could still fail because banks could still grant credit to enough borrowers that defaulted to cause a huge hole to open up in the bank’s balance sheet and precipitate a bank run. But, the thinking here is that bank runs would be more limited in nature since other banks would be fully reserved. The need for a lender of last resort would be diminished if banks were not at as great a risk of failure due to liquidity crises.

Nonetheless, it is clear that financial institutions like Lehman, HBOS, Anglo Irish, or Bankia would have failed without government intervention given the size of the holes in their balance sheets. Moreover, it is also clear that in each of these cases, other banks of a similarly precarious capital position would have suffered bank runs without intervention because they had the same or similar lending profiles. But I think the point still stands that more cash and liquid assets would certainly make bank runs somewhat less problematic. The first problem is that getting from here to there would be onerous. It would mean a huge downshift in credit availability, a credit decelerator worse than the Great Depression.  The second problem of course is that it would reduce the profitability of banking and restrict credit growth in the future.

Or would it? Another argument in favour of fully reserved banking upon which endogenous money has implications is the argument that fractional-reserve banking increases the money supply. The theory relies on the loanable funds view in which the amount of reserves is the crucial variable for whether credit is created. But we know that is not the case.

Let’s take the existing financial system in which the central bank targets interest rates. In this example, I am a creditworthy borrower and I approach US Wells First City Bank of America for a loan. US Wells First City (UWFC for short) is fully reserved as required by law. So when I come to the bank for a loan, it doesn’t actually have the reserves to make me a loan. Under the theoretical view of credit being restricted by fully reserving, I wouldn’t get the loan. But, of course, that’s not how it works in the real world. In the real world, UWFC would simply borrow the reserves from another bank or from the Fed and stay fully reserved. The Fed would add reserves to the system as demanded by financial institutions in aggregate in order to maintain its interest rate peg.

Let’s take a 100% gold-backed fully reserved financial system as an example of how endogenous money would work. In this example, again I am a creditworthy borrower who approaches UWFC for a loan. UWFC doesn’t have the reserves to deal with this transaction. But because gold is a fully financialised commodity that is bought and sold, it is pretty easy for UWFC to buy gold on the spot market in order to increase its reserves or to borrow the reserves from another bank the way that banks borrow US dollar reserves now. And what would happen if UWFC bought or borrowed reserves.The price of the reserves would increase. That is to say the price of gold would increase by enough to increase the existing value of reserves in the financial system to accommodate the new loan. UWFC would be fully reserved as the price of its existing gold reserves would rise enough for it to make the loan to me and maintain its fully reserve status.

So, a fully reserved banking system, even one backed by gold, doesn’t actually reduce credit growth because money is endogenous. The financial system is simply the mechanism used to facilitate easy transfer of money and credit. If money is endogenous, then reserves in any financial system will always expand to meet the demand for credit. Fully reserving the banking system will not change this.

My conclusion here is that the notion that the central bank is solely responsible for the financial crisis, general capital misallocation or the credit and business cycle generally is patently false.  Yes, central banks aided and abetted the crisis. I would go as far as to say, interest rate policy was a principal cause of the crisis by encouraging excess cedit growth and capital misallocation. My personal view is that central banks should be severely circumscribed in their policy actions beyond their role as lender of last resort. However, evidence from 19th century US financial history supports the notion that the absence of a lender of last resort made things considerably worse in the fractional reserve banking system of that time. Moreover, it should be clear that, because money is endogenous, fully-reserved banking is no panacea. The credit cycle is a natural part of any advanced economic system, all of which use credit. “Ending the Fed” will not end the credit cycle. But it will create unnecessary systemic risk by eliminating the lender of last resort. 

About 

Edward Harrison is the founder of Credit Writedowns and a former career diplomat, investment banker and technology executive with over twenty years of business experience. He is also a regular economic and financial commentator on BBC World News, CNBC Television, Business News Network, CBC, Fox Television and RT Television. He speaks six languages and reads another five, skills he uses to provide a more global perspective. Edward holds an MBA in Finance from Columbia University and a BA in Economics from Dartmouth College. Edward also writes a premium financial newsletter. Sign up here for a free trial.

13 Comments

  1. Dave Holden says:

    Great Post. Whether Keen is correct on all the failings of neoclassical economics or not, endogenous money seems to be a clear elephant in the room to their thinking.

    On full reserve banking it’s food for thought, I’m still to make my mind up.

    One thing that puzzles me is the government set interest rate, if the US or Japan were to want to increase their interest rate, for example to end the distortions permanent zero creates, I presume the size of their debt would mean the cost of its servicing would sky rocket. They can of course print to service this increase, isn’t there therefore a tension between their ability to increase rates and their need to print an enormous amount of money?

    • Your point about the US and Japan is valid. The reason I call the Fed’s zero interest rate policy ‘permanent zero’ is exactly this. Once you move to zero, it creates all sorts of problems that make moving away from the zero rate difficult, foremost amongst them the increase in debt service costs. So I think of ZIRP as permanent as opposed to temporary, as it has been in Japan. The only way out of this without a wrenching deflation is some sort of currency depreciation.

      As to reserves, consider this:

      There is always a susceptibility to bank runs irrespective of whether a bank has deposits that are 100% backed by reserves. The essence of a bank run is that depositors fear that they will not be able to get their money back for whatever reason. And in today’s system of fractional reserves, if enough people believe this and start to pull deposits, then the bank has to sell good and liquid assets to meet deposits.

      What is true under fractional reserves is also true in a fully reserved system. The run creates a self-fulfilling prophesy because balance sheet assets decline in value as they are sold to meet deposit withdrawals. When these assets decline in value, capital is impaired. And when capital is impaired, the bank becomes more risky and even more susceptible to a run. At some point, the bank runs out of capital and reserves and fails as asset values decline – even under a fully reserved system. Hence the self fulfilling nature of a bank run. Nothing about fully reserving a banks deposits negates these effects. Full reserving only diminishes the psychological impact of panic in the same way deposit insurance does, by making a credible guarantee to the depositor she will get her money and thus forestalling a bank run.

      Moreover, bank runs occur at the nadir of a business cycle when malinvestment is all around and credit writedowns are proceeding at a heavy clip. In that environment, it is much easier for any institution, whether fully-reserved or not, to fall short of capital and trigger an outflow of deposits – an outflow that could require selling assets and yet more writedowns.

      If a bank sells assets into a panic/bank run, other liquid assets of the same type on the bank’s balance sheet will decline in value to reflect the firesale price of the asset sold to pay for deposit withdrawals. By definition this means the bank is no longer fully reserved and must sell other assets on its balance sheet to become fully reserved. The fact that the bank MUST be fully reserved dictates that a firesale/panic in liquid assets creates contagion into other asset classes because the bank must sell these other assets to maintain its reserves.

      Bottom line: There is no way around the lender of last resort to stop panics and bank runs. 100% reserves is a form of OVER-regulation that is designed to give confidence to depositors. Fully reserving does NOT fully remove the spectre of liquidity-induced bank failure from a bank run. Bank runs can still happen. And banks can still fail under a fully reserved system. In fact, the fully reserved nature of the system guarantees contagion if a panic in liquid assets were to occur.

      • Dave Holden says:

        On the first point that’s why I would like MMTers to talk much more about the mechanisms for inflation, price structure and currency value. Rather than in the first instance banging on about how governments can never become insolvent in something they print.

        On the full reserve banking point, you bring to fore something that wasn’t really much on my radar as a current argument for full reserve banking, i.e. prevention of bank runs. I’ve always thought proponents of things like the gold standard and full reserve banking are mainly motivated by their belief it would bring more “honesty” to the monetary system. your point about it still being affected by the endogenous nature of money is therefore a good one.

        However, I’ve always seen full reserve banking in the context of the positive money proposal, but they propose taking money creation out of the hands of private banks and putting it in the hands of a semi independent central bank. That said, if someone right now gave me god like powers and asked if I would like positive money’s proposals implemented in full I would say no. For the simple reason I dislike “grand schemes”. Often they can be very persuasive in addressing the parameter space of a problem, but particular in the sphere of economics and politics it’s the knock on affects to the unseen parameter space that can be much more important.

        More pragmatically, the best I hope for is more sensible regulation of credit creation. I continue to believe one of the most important blog posts I’ve read since taking an interest in the causes of the GFC is the one by Golem XIV on the regulatory capture in the assessment of risk weighted assets.

        http://www.golemxiv.co.uk/2012/03/propaganda-wars-our-version-toxic-bloom-of-lies/

        We really need better rules on credit creation, I’ve little doubt this would lead to lower GDP growth but I think it would be more sustainable.

  2. Charles says:

    “If money is endogenous, then reserves in any financial system will always expand to meet the demand for credit.”

    This isn’t true. In your example of the 100% gold backed system, reserves are limted are limited by gold, but you assume that “UWFC would be fully reserved as the price of its existing gold reserves would rise enough for it to make the loan to me …”. That’s just an assumption, not an argument.

    But even if gold did increase in value sufficient to cover the loan, then everything else in this gold backed system will do too. So, UWFC’s liabilities will have increased along with their assets. This leaves it no excess reserves to cover the loan as you assume.

    In your other scenario, where banks are fully reserved and those reserves are supplied by the Fed, reserves will only expand to meet the demand for credit to the extent that the Fed wants it to (which isn’t necessarily always).

    • Not true. The liabilities are deposits and they do not increase because the price of gold increases. Also, the Fed must supply the reserves to hit the interest rate target. So it either supplies the reserves or raises rates to keep the reserves from increasing. As it has a rate target, it always supplies the reserves. And that IS the way it works in the US and in EVERY modern industrialised nation.

      • Charles says:

        What does “gold backed system” mean then? If you mean that the dollar is linked to gold, then deposits certainly will increase in value if gold does.

        If you are describing a “fully reserved gold backed system” where the dollar is not linked to gold, then it’s not worth discussing. Such a system would be totally unworkable so doesn’t demonstrate anything.

        As for the non-gold system, as you say, it’s the way the system works now. But as I said, that certainly doesn’t mean that it always has to work that way,so to say that “reserves in any financial system will always expand to meet the demand for credit” is false. You’re simply describing how the system works now and then assuming that it will “always” work that way.

  3. Joel says:

    Excellent post and your arguments are well thought out and easy for a layman like me to follow.

    I must say that I miss these sorts of pieces since you went to a subscription model. I can’t blame you for that decision, but thank you for making this one available to all.

  4. What should do FED when inflation and unemployment will rise together?

    Ho differentiate credyt worthy borrower from not credit worthy borrower during false boom created by FED delivering reserves to the system or banks creating credits by lowering their reserves.

    US governmet will not go broke if it makes their citizens go broke by endogenous unemployment and endogenous inflation.

    I wonder if you will publish my posts or not?