Is Fractional Reserve Banking Ethical -Part IV: The Defense of Fractional Reserve Banking

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Part I: Click here.

Part II: Click here.

Part III: Click here.

It is quite clear at this point that followers of Austrian economics view Fractional Reserve Banking as nothing more than a Ponzi Scheme. However, proponents of the Free Banking School (arguably an outgrowth of the Austrian School) believe that this practice is legitimate providing there isn’t any government interference in banking. Even the uninitiated observer will admit that this contingency is a highly unrealistic one. In the modern era, banking continues to be a heavily regulated industry. Free Bankers may have a relatively cogent ethical argument from a theoretical standpoint. After all, it is the responsibility of a mentally competent adult to be aware of the terms of service for any product or service they choose to receive. Ignoring the fine is not an exculpatory factor. Either from a legal standpoint or from an ethical perspective. Also, to be conceptually consistent one should scrutinize multi-level marketing schemes. Such a business model mirrors similarities to Fractional Reserve Banking. Hence why opponents liken it to a Ponzi scheme or pyramid scam.

Argument #1: It Isn’t Fraud.

From the Free Banking perspective, Fractional Reserve Banking is not a fraud. If the banking establishment makes it clear that the services provided constitute Fractional Reserve Banking, then the arrangement is legitimate. This is because the terms of the contract were not violated (p. 87). It would be problematic to present your services as 100 percent reserve banking if it encompasses the practices of the Fractional Reserve System. Fraud would entail a misrepresentation of the bank’s services. 

Taking any measures to prohibit this system of banking is antithetical to the principle of individual freedom. Any such interference would  be obstructing an existing contract between consenting parties. Doing nothing more than disturbing the economic liberty of freedom of contract, which is a pillar of private property rights (p. 87). Individuals who oppose the practice find the freedom of contract argument to be farfetched as few patrons have a firm comprehension of what Fractional Reserve banking entails (p. 88). The naivete of the consumer does not sully the legitimacy of the arrangement. Even Murray Rothbard himself has stated that historically banks have rarely retained a 100 percent reserve system (p.88). Why? Most likely because the banks clients preferred a Fractional Reserve system. If customers prefer an interest payment on their savings versus a maintenance fee for warehousing, so be it (p.88). The market for banking services has responded accordingly.

Circling back to the issue of misrepresentation of services, even the hardline naysayers believe that such a banking system could be admissible under certain conditions. Most notably if there was the further elucidation of the specific details of fractional reserve services. A long-standing concern of economists such as Hans Hermann Hoppe and Walter Block being that such ambiguity makes the practice fraudulent. Creates categorical confusions between money and fiduciary media (p.20-28). Professor Block asserts that the redemption requirements need to be clarified to set aside the concerns of fraud (p. 89). Whereas Block’s counterpart Hoppe stresses that banking institutions should present a warning regarding the suspension of redemption. He analogizes this precautionary courtesy to an option clause. Unfortunately, this concern does not comport with the facts of history. As is evident by the Scottish period of Free-Banking in which specie payment was suspended for decades (p. 89-90).

Another argument that grapples with the question of whether FRB is fraudulent pertains to the ability of the banks to fulfill redemption obligations. Keeping low percentages of reserves on hand turns money redemption into a gamble. However, this concern is inconsequential. Historically even in the absence of government intervention few banks have failed to fulfill any redemption obligations to patrons (p.90). For one, solvent banks are not prone to bank runs. Even in the event, a solvent bank runs out of currency, they can issue an option clause to temporarily suspending redemption. Resolving the issue through contractual channels (p. 91).

Argument #2- The Concerns Over Third-Party Effects Are Not Substantial

The most salient third-party effect or “spill-over effect” confronting the practice of Fractional Reserve Banking is a decreased likelihood of successful redemption. Obviously, in a Fractional Reserve Banking system, the more money that is lent out the fewer reserves the bank will have on-hand. Resulting in adverse consequences for the individual demanding to withdraw money from their account. It should be noted that the depositor agrees to this argument upon opening a bank account. Therefore, by signing on the dotted line of the terms and services of the bank, they choose to assume the risk (p. 93). Despite the risks, bank patrons continue to bank with these institutions. Alone based upon the Rothbardian theory of Demonstrated Preference the individual bankers must benefit from this arrangement. After weighing the benefits concerning the costs (p.93). 

The spill-over effects of Fractional Reserve Banking are not solely confined to banking transactions. The practice has also been claimed to create other distortions throughout the economy. Through how loans are funded it compromises some say the credit structure is compromised. It should be noted that the risks are somewhat minimal. If anything it aides the economy by providing a larger stock of capital (p.94). The issue with this criticism is that much of the instability in the economy comes from the intervention of central banks and governments and not Fractional Reserve Banking. This form of banking is not prone to instability or “cylindrical over-expansion”(p.94). These claims underestimate the fact that the amount of “nominal money” issued offsets the “.. changes in the velocity of money..”. Fractional Reserve banking works to alleviate the disequilibrium and “ business cycle consequences”. Hoppe and the company also assert that any injection of fiduciary media will ultimately result in a business cycle. However, if the increase in fiduciary media is matched by demand a disequilibrium will not arise (p.101-103).

Argument #3: The Popularity of Fractional Reserve Banking.

The popularity of Fractional Reserve Banking is another factor to contend with. Banking customers have demonstrated their preference for FRB. Historically, few banks have remained a 100 percent reserve system. However, customers continued to do business with these institutions (p.95). Contributing to this popularity has been the incentive of banks paying interest on deposits versus requiring a warehousing fee (p.95). Banking patrons also held faith that their bank had sufficient funds to fulfill withdrawal demands. Bank runs were generally triggered by other factors signally insolvency to bank clients. Countries such as the United States with greater propensities towards bank insolvency tend to have many protective laws shielding the banks from market pressures (p.95-96). It should also be noted that back in the 1800s when banking legislation was being discussed in the press the banking system was openly described as a fractional reserve system (p.96). Not only fully informing the average constituent of the details of the Fractional Reserve system, even with this knowledge doing little to dampen its prevalence (p.96).

The use of Fractional Reserve Banking has never been compulsory. There has never been any laws or penalties compelling banking in the United States to levitate towards this specific banking system (p.97). Patrons voluntarily assume the risk of engaging in this variety of banking for the trade-off of being rewarded with an interest payment (p.97). The argument that clients are unwittingly tricked into patronizing an illusory form of banking is dismantled by the fact that banks compete for business. Nothing is stopping an enterprising individual from persuasively selling 100 percent reserve services (p.97).

Is Fractional Reserve Banking Ethical- Part I- An Introduction

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Introduction:

The norms of modern banking are something that most of us take for granted. Few ever question the inner mechanics of such transactions we engage in daily. However, banking has been steeped in a fog of mystery due to complex operations and seldomly failing to fulfill any obligated services. Beyond questioning the functions or internal workings of modern banking even fewer people recognize that most people are participating in a fractional reserve banking system. In a random survey of average people, you will be hard-pressed to find anyone aware of what fractional reserve banking entails nor any intimate understanding of its implications. That is to be excepted considering this is a niche area of expertise that is truly the domain of an economist, banking/ financial specialist. This assumption relieves us of any responsibility to cultivate a better understanding of these systems. After all, this is best left to the experts. How do we know whether there any inherent risks associated with fraction reserve banking? Do we just assume that due to the fact it is the most common banking system that it is the most effective and secure? Better yet, is it even a moral system of banking, or is deceptive by design and tantamount to fraud?

Over the past several decades, a controversy has been brewing among monetary economists concerning fractional reserve banking, Modern economic theorists of the Austrian School who are generally hard money advocates, find fractional reserve banking to illegitimate to its core. Equating it fraud and perceiving it to be antithetical to a free market in money. Whereas free-banking (an economic school that is arguably an outgrowth of the Austrian School) do not see fractional reserve bank as immoral. Rather, such institutions could not only ethically co-exist with 100 % reserve banks but also flourish. Any ethically questionable operations were the byproduct of government intervention and mutually exclusive from the banking practice (p.8). While their Austrian counterparts insist that the practice not only supports the monetary objectives of the state but owes its existence to the state (p.9, p.15-17).In this series of essays, we will examine the ethical arguments for and against fractional reserve banking. To present an unbiased account of the controversy.

What is Fractional Reserve Banking?

Before we can embark upon discussing the ethics of fractional reserve banking is important that we define what it is. On a high level, fractional reserve banking is a system in which banks are required to only hold a fraction of money deposited as reserves. This is done to enable banks to make loans. The recipient of the loan receives a transfer of deposited money upfront which they are expected to pay interest on. The bank customer who deposited the money that was lent out theoretically will receive the money-back in their account with sustained interest. This is done to expand the economy through “freeing capital for lending”. This is done without the depositor relinquishing their claim to this money. Effectively creating more money titles than physical money held on reserve at the bank (p.3)  The foundation of this banking system is fastened to the assumption that most customers with savings accounts will not simultaneously withdraw all of their savings at once. Otherwise, this could lead to what is known as a bank run. A phenomenon where the bank as completely depletes their liquid reserves. Since they are only mandated to hold a relatively small portion of reserves on hand.

Reserve requirements typically hovering around 10 % (presumably applicable to central banks).  Most reserve requirements are contingent on the bank’s size. Banks holding less than $15.2 Million in reserves are exempt from maintaining reserve minimums. The requirement of 10% reserves is applicable to banks holding over $100.2 million in deposits. Per the Garn-St Germain Act  banks are free from any reserve requirements for their first $2 million held. This legislation was initially passed by the Regan administration as a means of relieving pressure on banks as the federal reserve significantly increased interest rates. Banking institutions that hold excess reserves or amounts of deposited money above reserve requirements are entitled to interest payments. Under the Financial Services Regulatory Relief Act of 2006, these interest payments are allocated by the Federal Reserve.

As mentioned above fractional reserve banks issue more money titles than currency on hand. Through this process, they engage in form of indirect “money” creation. The loan itself treats the money titles as being equally as valid as actual currency notes. When the loan is issued the bank “credits” the borrower’s account with an amount equal to the loan, mimicking a transfer of physical cash. The methodology of money creation on the part of fractional-reserve banks has been distilled down to a science. Guided by the money multiplier principle. This concept broadly describes how “.. initial deposit leads to a greater final increase in the total money supply”.  More specifically how much commercial bank money ( demand deposits that can be utilized for credit and debit purposes, basically your residual after reserve requirements) using a defined unit of central bank money. Central bank money is any medium of exchange that these institutions acknowledge as being money. The correct proportion of “money” creation is determined by the below equation:

m=1/R

M=  Money Multiplier, R= Reserve Requirement