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Archive for the ‘Gold standard’ Category

Article originally published in GoldMoney Research (15th May 2012)

Improving the banking system

Governments grant central banks a monopoly on the creation of hard currency. At the same time, we ordinarily make transactions with other means of payment supplied by commercial banks. This is possible because in our monetary system commercial banks are able to create so-called bank money. These means of payment consist of different banks’ deposits that can be used with cheques, bank transfers, credit or debit cards and direct billings, which make our lives much easier as we do not have to hold or carry bank notes or coins to make ordinary transactions.

However, commercial banks are not free to issue their own currency. Bank money has to be denominated in the currency issued by the national central bank and the banks are legally required to redeem their sight deposits in the currency of the central bank at any time. However, the need to back any single deposit of their clients does not necessarily mean that the bank is keeping all our money in their vaults at all times. According to current regulations, they just have to keep a tiny fraction of it. This is the legal reserve ratio. In the eurozone this is 2% of banks’ total deposits; and for this reason we call it a fractional reserve monetary system. This system allows for easy expansion of the money supply, but it also involves a significant risk: that of bank runs caused when depositors all try to take their money out of banks at once.

Banks started to operate under a fractional reserve system in the early modern era, when it started dawning on them that in ordinary times, few clients actually asked for the money kept on deposit. So they started to lend part of it out. By doing so, new deposits were created and hence new means of payments. Consequently, banks increased their balance sheets as well as their profits quite substantially, as the costs of backing their new deposits were much lower than the earnings coming form the new loans. Since the mid to late 19th century, with the expansion and development of modern banking, banks were able to offer these new means of payment more efficiently – which did not require the use of paper notes or coins. As a result, banks realised that their clients needed less and less physical currency, which resulted again in a reduction in reserve ratios.

But during the 19th century the gold standard regime – championed by the British Empire – was an effective means to limit monetary expansion, both from central banks and commercial banks, as they still had to keep gold in reserve to back their issuance of money and credit. However, with the abandonment of the classical gold standard during the First World War, banks no longer needed to keep valuable assets in their vaults as the new reserve money of the economy was the notes of the central bank; which, in theory, could be expanded overnight with no tangible costs. This new system, in combination with the running of purely discretional monetary rules, resulted in excessive money creation and, finally, in more inflation and output instability in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Consequently, fractional reserve systems based on fiat currency tend to over-issue money unless strictly controlled by the central bank, or by the emergence of free competition in money. With the former, the central bank commits to a sound monetary rule focused on maintaining the purchasing power of money. Under this rule, both the central bank and the commercial banks are able to create means of payments but are subject to restrictions.

As sight deposits are redeemable at very short notice, banks could be required to fully back all their sight deposits with an equivalent amount of notes. Hence, the reserve ratio would amount to 100% of all sight deposits. Under this regulation, banks could only create new means of payment by lending the money kept in their time or savings deposits. It would result in a more stable monetary system but at the cost of having a less developed banking system, and thus a much smaller money supply.

In my view we do not have to go all the way towards a 100% reserve ratio to preserve the stability of the monetary system, while allowing for the development of the banking system. The gold standard seen in Britain and other countries during the 19th century is a good example of a self-correcting monetary system that nonetheless operated on a fractional reserve basis.

However it is achieved though, greater recourse to preserving the purchasing power of money would go a long way to improving our current monetary system.

Juan Castañeda

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Gold standard under a competitive market scenario: a debate

 

Gold standard has been often claimed to be the liberal panacea as regard to monetary regimes. I myself believed it for quite a long time.  However,  the study of monetary history in a broader and longer perspective has made me change my mind on this question. In relation to the gold standard, Milton Friedman (1) made a very interesting critique from a liberal perspective in the paper presented at the Mont Pelerin Society in 1961. His work, “Real Versus Pseudo Gold Standards” is a true challenge for all those who beleive that the classical gold standard was (and still is) a panacea. As Friedman remarked, it is difficult for a pro free-market economy to put the label of “liberal” to a monetary regime in which the State fixed the price of one specific good (in this case, the covertibility rate between the bank notes and the gold held by the central bank). In his view, the belief of the classical gold standard as part of the main liberal body of theories is the result of the traditional involvement of the State in the monetary field; as a result, we cannot even think of a monetary system in which the price of gold were not determined by the State, but by the competitive dynamic of different issuers of bank money and money holders themselves.

And this is the sort of the debate that I introduced in the last meetting of the “ANR DAMIN” Project (coordinated by Prof. Georges Depeyrot, CNRS, Paris), entitled Silver Monetary Depreciation and International Relations, hold in Paris last January. It was an extraordinary  meeting with experts and very good colleagues in the area of contemporary monetary history; and my proposal to talk about a competitive gold standard monetary system was received with some surprise at first. Then, once the question was properly set and introduced, we did develop a very interesting debate on the feasability of a monetary regime not necesarilly monopolised by the State; one in which, different issuers of paper money, backed with gold, were able to compete to provide the best means of payment. Under this system, as Friedman masterly stated, there is no need to claim for a fixed priced for gold, as its price will vary in the market everyday according to its demand and supply(ies).

Let me clarify that, even though under the control of the State, I do take the classical gold standard as a stable monetary system, with a remarkable record of long term price stability and economic growth from 1870 to 1914. And this is much more the case in light of the much more discretionary monetary regimes  that we have experienced since the abandonment of the gold standard in the last century; under purely fiat monetary systems, we have seen during the so-called “Keynesian years” how money supply was taken as another tool in the hands of the policy-makers to finance excessive and recurrent fiscal deficits, with the expected and undesirable results in terms of higher and more volatile inflation, and thus more uncertainty in the markets.

The debate can be found in the following link: http://www.anr-damin.net/spip.php?article31#outil_sommaire_1

(please, go to the last Saturday video, “Final Debate of the Round Table”; the debate on this question is in the middle of the recording)

Juan Castañeda

(1) I am grateful to Prof. Pedro Schwartz for his suggestion to read it several years ago.

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