Bootleggers and Baptist:L- CBDC

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One of the hot topics in global discourse aside from the Ukraine conflict is research into CBDC (Central Bank Digital Currency). Several countries are researching deploying a CBDC and some have even implemented trial run experiments with centralized digital monies. Back in January, the US Federal Reserve published its CBDC white paper Money and Payments: The U.S. Dollar in the Age of Digital Transformation (2022). Hypothetically, if initiated, the Fed would distribute retail CBDC through private intermediaries (primary dealers). Per George Selgin: “Those private intermediaries would then be responsible for managing customers’ central bank digital currency (CBDC) holdings and payments…”. Allowing the Fed to avoid managing the front-end customer service concerns (something government entities typically handle very poorly) and reallocate this function to private firms.

Baptists:

The overall rhetoric surrounding CBDC has been cautiously optimistic. Especially, when squared against the comparisons made between CBDCs and stablecoins. Federal Reserve Chair, Jerome Powell, has backtracked on his anti-stablecoin stance. Presumably, he still is championing a central bank currency over. Despite the institutional tensions between stablecoins and CBDC, the Fed; could be considered a Dual-Role Actor in the Bootleggers and Baptists (1983); if it is not categorically correct to deem them Baptists. There is a strong possibility that the Federal Reserve and all affiliated employees stand to gain from curbing the success of privately issued digital currencies but also sincerely believe in the virtues of the United States issuing its own. There are several arguments in favor of a government-backed digital currency supported by Fed economists and academics alike. For example, it would make assessing taxes on purchases made with digital currencies easier to determine (p.156). Also, many experts claim that a CBDC would achieve price stability, an attractive feature when you consider the historical volatility of various well-established private cryptocurrencies. It would be easier to combat money laundering and financing for terrorist activities(p.11). Probably one of the more laudable arguments for a CBDC is the argument of financial inclusion for the unbanked (p.157). All of these claims have a moralistic tone, making the Fed and CBDC friendly economists potential Baptists.

Bootleggers:

Labeling Fed officials as the Bootleggers is analogous to shooting-fish-in-a-barrel and makes for linear analysis. Plus, yes, the United States central bank and all of its economists have much to gain through promoting a CBDC; however, it is not entirely evident that they are disinterested in the moral arguments for protecting the public from the purported dangers of a private digital currency and the cause of financial inclusion. But there is a group of beneficiaries that are much less obvious to the superficial observer; hackers. A CBDC would be highly centralized, making it more likely that there could be a single point of failure in a security breach (p.17). Even though the public and permissionless blockchains are only quasi-anonymous on distributed ledgers of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, they are trusted, specifically for these validation channels in the consensus protocol are decentralized. In contrast, a CBDC would need to comply with KYC and AML requirements making it necessary to “…store personal data..” on specific nodes; “… highly likely to be exposed to a single point of failure, which can result in the indirect leakage of personal data..” (p.18). Due to the legal provisions outlined in financial monitoring laws, turns CBDCs into an aggregated database for financial and personal information if improperly designed.

Bootleggers & Baptists: XLV- Baptists, Economists, Careers, & QE

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What is Quantitative Easing?

Quantitative easing (QE) is the controversial and unconventional monetary policy tool first introduced in the United States in 2008 [1]; as a countermeasure to the Great Recession. The practice of Quantitative easing (QE) is where a central bank purchases long-term government securities, corporate bonds, mortgage-backed securities, and other assets from banking institutions with newly created money. The ultimate goal is to boost the money supply encouraging lending in a sluggish economy by lowering interest rates. The Federal Reserve’s strategies for managing interest rates are divided into pre and post-financial crisis eras. Before 2008 how the Federal Reserve maintained interest rates were different (operating under a corridor system). Per the New York Federal Reserve:

Before October 2008, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) communicated the stance of monetary policy by announcing a target for the federal funds rate. The Fed would then use open market operations to make small adjustments to the supply of reserves so that the effective federal funds rate (EFFR) would print close to the target set by the FOMC. This type of implementation regime that relies on reserve scarcity is often referred to as a corridor system (as explained in this article). Under this framework, depository institutions, or banks, were incentivized to hold as few reserves as possible since they did not earn interest on their Fed account balances. Reserve balances that banks held in their Fed accounts added up to a very small amount, as can be seen in the next chart. The banking system operated with aggregate reserve scarcity and relied on the redistribution of reserves in an active interbank market.

Amid a phase of quantitative easing, the Federal Reserve injects massive quantities of money into the economy through large-scale asset purchases on the open market, increasing the risk of interest rates becoming too low. In the post-crisis, the Fed has opted to implement a Floor System, where the central bank pays interest on excess reserves (IOER) for funds held by member banks at the Feder Reserve beyond the mandate reserve requirements. Procedurally assists with stabilizing the interest rate (Fed funds rate) even when the Fed pumps vast amounts of liquidity into the economy. The excess money held by Fed-associated financial institutions acts like an interest rate floor; through paying on IOERs the opportunity cost of holding money is eliminated. Effectively, maintaining the target interest rate. The Fed’s convoluted attempt to skirt the Law of Supply and Demand, the Federal Reserve, nothing more than an attempt to have its cake-and-it-too (avoiding a liquidity trap and concurrently stimulating the loans market).

The Baptists and Economists of QE:

The monetary establishment expresses that QE is a necessary and effective policy instrument. The promoting of this interventionist policy has created fertile ground for Bootlegger and Baptists (1983) coalition dynamics. Much of this pro-QE sentiment is perpetuated by the research of Federal Reserve economists. It is hard to pinpoint clear Baptists in the pro-QE coalition, several parties that benefit from defending the practice.

In some instances, politicians who champion QE could be viewed as Baptists, arguing for it as means of stabilizing the economy. However, politicians stand to benefit from the unorthodox monetary policy in the form of Fiscal QE (coined by George Selgin), directing the money created through QE to non-macro-economic objectives (e.g. funding the Green New Deal through QE). There is the potential of politicians assuming the role of “pure” Bootleggers and Dual Role Actors. But while QE could be used to “achieve” macro stability (full employment, etc.) and other extraneous policy goals, it operates as a double-edged sword. It is important to note that the inflation rate is a metric that matters to the voting public. Inflation has become a focal point in political discourse and is politicized (p.129-163[2]. The next logical possibility for  Baptists would-be journalists. However their position on QE is “mixed”. Some outlets like to diagram the pros and cons, others are outright hostile, and some echo the positive sentiments acting as a mouthpiece for the Fed.

There is one faction in the QE advocacy coalition that unquestionably fits the definition of Bootleggers, the economists employed by the Federal Reserve. In the book Money and the Rule of Law (2021) Boettke, Salter, and Smith detail the numerous incentive problems facing Federal Reserve officials armed with “constrained digression” (CH 3; p.58-94). Pollical pressures asides; there are other reasons why favoring QE would be appealing (p.67-70), but also substantial internal pressures as well. The authors expound upon the impact of “bureaucratic inertia” on the central banks; like any other center of governance, there is a bias towards maintaining the status quo (p.64). After approximately fourteen years and four rounds of QE, the policy has become normalized. Initially, QE was an aberration in American monetary policy [3]. Favoring QE in 2022 is an example of institutional inertia, but not during QE1 (2008).

However, the obtuse and obstinate inflexibility of the sluggish nature of the Fed is far from the most troubling rationale for unwaveringly defending QE. That would manifest itself in the form of promotion opportunities. We need to consider that the Federal Reserve is one of the largest employers of economists in the United States (p.64), urging researchers to conform to internal norms of the Fed. (p.65). One paper that beautifully describes the incentives of the career concerns of Federal Reserve economists was Fifty Shades of QE: Comparing Findings of Central Bankers and Academics (2020; revised 2021). In their NBER paper, Fabo, Oková, Kempf, & Pástor found that central bankers are more likely to describe QE in sanguine terms in their research when compared to unaffiliated academics (p.15). Fabo et al. found that there was some evidence that:

“…One possible mechanism is career concerns. In principle, bank management could make promotion decisions in a way that encourages bank employees to assess the bank’s policies favorably… (p.18).

“… We find that the interaction between the effect on output and Seniority is positive and significant. A one standard deviation increase in Seniority raises the sensitivity of career outcomes to the estimated effect on output by about 50%… (p.21).

“..These could involve concerns about the bank’s reputation and, for very senior researchers, concerns about their reputation. Like career concerns, reputation concerns reflect researchers’ incentives because in both cases, a researcher derives a private benefit from reaching a particular research outcome. We have no evidence on the potential contribution of reputation concerns to our results…” (p.25).

We must not interpret this correlation between the promotion of senior economists and research validating the “positive” effects of QE as these actors intentionally manipulate the results. In the absence of sufficient evidence; making such an assessment is made in bad faith, but there is most likely a third variable connecting these outcomes. For example, Fabo et al. describe the potential of economics who end up working for the Fed having priors that make them more apt to favor interventionist monetary policy (p.4 & 25). They even explore the possibility of researchers inadvertently selecting modeling techniques that would make QE appear to be more effective (p.2 & 17).

Footnotes:

  1. The initial introduction of quantitative easing in the US in 2008 was dubbed QE1. In March 2020, the US Federal Reserve initiated its fourth round of QE (QE4).
  2. In Boom-and-Bust Banking (2012) (ed. David Beckworth), Scott Sumner argues for adjusting monetary policy to  NGDP targeting versus inflation targeting. A stance also advocated by David Beckworth. Sumner explains how inflation targeting is more politically appealing than a Nominal GDP target. After all, inflation is very salient, especially if you are old enough to remember stagflation. Side note, the author of this blog post was born in the late-1980s but is an avid fan of economic history.
  3. The policy of Quantitative easing developed in Japan in the early-2000’s and was subsequently implemented in the United States nearly a decade later.

Time to Restore the Gold Standard- Part V(c): Stability

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However, even if the value of the dollar continues to plummet wouldn’t this pattern be more predictable than the oscillations of a gold-pegged dollar? As mentioned previously, the Federal Reserve does not resolutely adhere to its own monetary rules. These deviations tend to be justified if they are done in the name of maintaining lofty “macroeconomic” targets, such as full employment. Thereby creating distortions that can hamper future investment plans and even anticipated returns on savings. The fact that the cadence in the price level has become more sporadic rather than more predictable (p.7) is a firm indictment of the Federal Reserve’s institutional failure. The common myth that the Great Depression was caused by gold rather than the malfeasance of the Fed is a fallacy that needs to be debunked. The common narrative has been the freely fluctuating value of gold drove the United States into one of the darkest eras of our economic history. To directly indicate that the Great Depression was the byproduct of mistakes (p.4) made our central bank is telling. Unfortunately, the economic calamity of the 1930s was brought on by “… Fed ..not constrained in using those reserves to expand base money, and thus the broader money supply..” (p.5). Once again validating the point that it was an issue in exercising fiscal restraint; the Fed capitulating to the impulse to use money as an instrument of political convenience. It is well noted that raising taxes and cutting welfare programs can be highly unpopular among voters. However, utilizing inflation as a circuitous form of taxation disperses the true costs of government spending, effectively hiding these expenditures from the average voter. It may be the rules of the game that have created past economic turmoil that has been erroneously attributed to gold. In all honesty, making the concept of a rules-based approach to monetary policy questionable at best. In most cases, we cannot trust those tasked with the duties to create and enforce the rules to act in the best interest of the economy. 

The failure of our banking institutions to establish monetary stability is epitomized in the duration of economic downturns and the frequency of banking panics. Yes, economic downturns were more frequent before the Federal Reserve, however, they were shorter in duration. On average approximately seven months long and were “..no more severe..” (p.21). Based upon these facts it is reasonable to infer that the intervention of central banks may only prolong economic depressions. The introduction of the Federal Reserve did little to reduce the frequency of banking panics between 1914-1930 (p.24). The greatest irony being that between 1830-1914 Canada had relatively few bank failures and no reported bank runs (p.27). Not only did Canadian banks hold gold-backed currency this period also overlapped with Canada’s free-banking period. During the 19th century, Canada did not have a central bank (established in 1935) and banking was relatively free of any regulation. Despite this period of Canadian banking history committing the Cardinal sins of having a gold standard and no central bank, the nation enjoyed relative economic stability. This example only further erodes the critiques of the gold standard and claims that central banks are an absolute necessity.

Time to Restore the Gold Standard- Part V(b): Stability

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Even most fiat currency advocates understand this point and attempt to utilize various monetary rules to create some sense of expected steady depreciation of the dollar. The pretense of “stability” is merely an illusion engendered by the rigidity of a rule that limited the amount of inflation allotted per year. The rules-bound approach in the United States permits 2% inflation per year to allow for economic growth. In an attempt to achieve the aims of “full employment” and monetary stability. Few question the fidelity to which the Federal Reserve has adhered to this 2 % annual inflation target. For instance, in 2007 during the nascent period of the economic crisis, the inflation rate was a staggering 4.08%.More than double what is conventionally allotted by the Federal Reserve. Demonstrating that these monetary rules that are meant to maintain the integrity of our money supply are sensitive to exigencies of purported economic calamity. It is well documented that the subprime housing crisis that emerged in 2007 was caused by our governing institutions using the money supply to manipulate interest rates. The prospect of the U.S central bank maintaining the value of our money is marred by the fact they do not consistently abide by these rules. Unfortunately, when it is politically convenient to loosen these parameters of these rules, the Fed does so. Generally, they could not anticipate the emergence of an emergency requiring accommodations in their money management constraints. If the Federal Reserve did unwaveringly adhere to the 2% rule this still is not necessarily the type of stability that should be welcomed. Irrespective of the annual rate of economic growth, this is still at the expense of the purchasing power of the dollar. While the rate of inflation may be predictable, it is a signal that the value of our money will only continue to decrease. The goal of holding any commodity is for the value to increase or remain constant not to wither away to oblivion. 

The instability caused by the Federal Reserve failing to rigidity follow its own monetary rules has consequences that reverberate throughout the economy. Prices function as a source of information to consumers and producers, that even includes those that produce and hold various forms of money. If the Federal Reserve has been augmenting the money supply to lower interest rates this distorts the loans markets for lenders and borrowers. The argument that the short-run instability of gold makes it necessary for state intervention in the money markets, does not hold water. As lenders and borrows can enter into contractual agreements setting interest requirements; even adjust for immediate price-level variances (p.32). Any attempt to manipulate the money supply to encourage consumption does nothing more than to manipulate the integrity of the money supply Only serving to encourage economic actors to engage in malinvestment, arguably creating moral hazard. Not only does lowering interest rates alter the money supply, but it also encourages the individual who could not otherwise afford to borrow money to do so. Despite the fact, the natural interest rate of the loan is unproportionate to their income and necessary expenses. Unfortunately leading may make borrowers inclined to take uncalculated risks created by an illusory interest rate. That invariably is unsustainable and eventually will be forced back to natural rates, regardless of any distortions the market will self-correct.

If the Federal Reserve’s management rules are effective at warding off volatility, we would expect there to be wild variances in the value of gold-backed money in the pre-central banking era. After being confronted with the number it becomes quite evident that the facts do not comport with popular opinion. One only needs to review the dramatic increase in the rate of inflation in the post-gold economy to see the full effect. From the period of the period between 1790 and 1913 a $100 basket of consumer goods only experienced an $8 variance ($108 in 1913) (p.5-6). However, that same basket of goods had reached the cost of $2,422 by 2008(p5-6), demonstrating the hasten pace of dollar depreciation. It is calculated that the overall rate of inflation between 1879 and 1913 was a meager 0.01 % on a classical gold standard. It should be noted that similar numbers are reflected in the 93 years Great Britain retained a freely fluctuating gold standard (p.3). How skeptics can deride the notion of gold-backed money without address the long-run stability is perplexing. The political and economic establishment has effectively become short-sighted through praising immediate stability over enduring integrity. There is a deeper underlying question regarding this disjointed preference, what does it say about our society? Has our propensity for instant gratification become so entrenched in our culture that it has bled into our governing institutions? If our purported “experts” exalt the virtues of instantaneous band-aid measures over long-run functionality, then the answer to this question is self-evident.

Time to Restore the Gold Standard – Part II

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Part I

Many arguments are defending maintaining a monetary regime centered around fiat currency. However, what are some of the justifications for returning to a gold standard? The current money creation operations guided by the Federal Reserve do not serve the best interests of the American people. Even in monetary regimes that utilize constraining rules such as Nominal GDP Targeting, this only limits the amount of percentage of debasement allotted per a specified time frame (typical a year). But this does little more than slow down the accumulated rate of inflation. Although, such a measure is reflective of overall annual economic growth. Despite the fact production has become more efficient, we still experience an increase in nominal prices year over year. The concern is expressed in George Selgin’s monograph Less Than Zero (1997).

Overall, very few people benefit from the inflationary monetary policy enabled by fiat currency. The concerns regarding liquidity and deflation under a gold standard may have some validity. These concerns are not pressing enough to justify a fiat standard. Inflation reduces the incentives to save money, making it an opportunity cost to holding U.S. Dollars in your savings account. At least investing your money in stock, bonds, real estate, or even cryptocurrencies has the potential of positive return. Whereas Dollars only stand to decrease in value. Various talking heads posturing as financial gurus (Dave Ramsey) tell you to save, save, save! Given the current state of modern monetary policy, there is little incentive to do so. Countries such as Japan have implemented negative interest rate policies eviscerating any incentives to save. Under such conditions, even frivolously sinking money into consumer goods and entertainment may serve as a strategy to hedge against inflation.

The core arguments for why we should return to a gold standard include: avoiding inflation, Cantillon Effects, and more stability. The concern of inflation is self-evident, along with Cantillon Effects acting as an abstract form of regressive taxation. The last argument may seem counterintuitive because there is a well-perpetuated myth about the volatility in the value of gold. In the absence of hard constraints, monetary institutions can keep producing money with impunity leading to hyperinflation. Also, if gold is unstable, would Alan Greenspan even attempt to emulate such a standard while heading the Federal Reserve? Unfortunately, his fidelity to this endeavor is questionable.

Bootleggers and Baptists-XVIII- Fiat Currency

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August 15th marks the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Bretton Woods agreement. An economic treaty was forged in July 1944 with delegates from forty-four countries converging upon Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. Effectively establishing a global monetary regime where the U.S. Dollar was the reserve currency and was backed by gold. However, this was not the same gold standard that existed in the classical gold period ending in 1933 (p.1). A quasi-gold standard where government institutions (central banks) held the price of gold at a fixed amount (p.17). In the efforts of creating a “.. fixed currency exchange rate system..”. Even after this thin attempt to revive the gold standard imploded on itself, its vestiges still exist today. Banking institutes such as the IMF and the World Bank were established to manage this fixed exchange rate system.

In August of 1971, President Richard Nixon forever severed the U.S. Dollar from Gold. By abolishing the Bretton Woods system. Terminating gold convertibility of the dollar. Essentially setting the stage for the modern global monetary landscape; a 100 % fiat currency standard. The Nixon administration panicked by the lack of gold reserves to cover various rounds of foreign aid and wartime spending decided to terminate the agreement. Succinctly expressing this coercive declaration in the infamous proclamation “.. We are all Keynesians now..”. Officially signaling the formal death of the gold standard. Even though some commentators and economists view the end of Bretton Woods as more figurative than literal death as it truly died at the end of the classical period of the American gold standard.

It can be stated that the dollar significantly depreciated in its purchasing power since the end of Bretton Woods. The dollar experienced an approximate cumulative rate of inflation of 570.9% since 1971. One U.S. dollar in 2021 is equal to $6.71 dollars in 1971! These numbers are unquestionably jarring. It is easy to see why there has been a renewed interest in re-establishing a gold standard since the 2008 market crash. An initiative that has led to a modern renaissance for Austrian Economics. Also, has lent itself to supporting the activism of the Tea Party movement and the political career of Ron Paul. Despite the spirited rallying of the pro-gold camp, the Federal Reserve still exists. Our currency is still nothing more than monopoly money. That only continues to plummet in value. There are many defenders of a fiat currency standard within the political establishment. Ranging from journalists to the wonkish economists and experts exalting the virtues of stable money and currency liquidity. Much like another policy prescription, there are always silent beneficiaries lurking around the corner.

The Bootleggers and Baptists of Fiat Currency

The Public Choice economist Bruce Yandle provided us with the perfect framework for analyzing the odd couple coalitions of modern monetary policy. That is the powerful lens of the Bootleggers and Baptists paradigm. One-half of the coalition acts as the moralizing agent, providing a normative defense of the policy position. In contrast, the Bootleggers quietly reap the benefits of the policy’s consequences. In terms of maintaining the status quo of fiat currency, the Bootleggers and Baptists should be quite obvious. The Baptists are clearly the commentators, academics, journalists, etc. stressing the benefits of fiat currency. Conversely, emphasizing the dangers of a gold standard. Some of our fiat currency Baptists include several luminaries in the fields of journalism and economics. Including Ezra Klein (former Washington Post editor and co-founder of Vox) and Tyler Cowen (chairman and faculty director of the Mercatus Center) (p.2 & 6) [1]. Both gentlemen are far from the only detractors when it comes to re-establishing a gold standard for currency. However, they are respected and high-profile dissenters. Carefully pointing out some of the potential hazards of implementing a gold standard. Arguments including price stability, liquidity issues, deflation, and rigidity in the money supply to just name a few concerns (p.3-20). All these concerns (regardless of their veracity)[2] could be classified as normative concerns, despite these arguments being functional in nature. Through adopting a monetary policy that would be detrimental to the economy, it would be placing the livelihoods of people globally in jeopardy. This concern for the wellbeing of others could be categorized as an ethical concern, making both individuals and their like-minded cohorts Baptists.

The Bootleggers would clearly be the federal government and all adjoining agencies. If you remember early, I mentioned that the main reason for ending the Bretton Woods agreement was that a gold standard was too rigid. Effectively placing a firm constraint (at least in theory) on government spending. By its very nature, a gold standard is quantitively tighter than a fiat system because you can only print redemption notes corresponding with the number of gold reserves on hand. While not ideal, even a fractional reserve gold standard would operate as a better limitation [3] than a pure fiat currency. Not having flexibility in the money supply keeps government spending in line, preventing the implementation (or expansion) of federal entitlement programs and unnecessary military conflicts. Through lifting this hardline limitation, the federal government is no ability to have ability to spend more money. This means more jobs/ job security for bureaucrats. This also means greater opportunities for various pork-barrel pet projects and other superfluous initiatives. Not to mention more perks for public sector employees.

Yes, the Federal Reserve has implemented various monetary rules to attempt curtailing inflation. One example being Nominal GDP Targeting, set up in an attempt to narrow the risk of inflationary volatility. However, such a policy does little to improve the overall longitudinal currency debasement that has accumulated over the past five decades. An over 500% loss in purchasing power is a shocking figure to come to terms with. Nominal GDP Targeting only slows down this process, it does not prevent it.

Foot Notes

  1. I would have included George Selgin. However, being an exponent Free-Banking, he prefers a centralized monetary system. Selgin has been a longtime critic of the United States returning to a gold standard. Often citing the concern of the inflexibility of the money supply in the event of a supply shock.
  2. Free-Banking co-founder Lawrence H. White demolishes these arguments in his paper of the Cato Institute, Recent Arguments against the Gold Standard (2013).
  3. This claim would hold true providing the proper monetary rules are implemented. For example, having high reserve ratio requirements. Current reserve requirements are dismally lax. Back in 1992, reserve ratio requirements were lowered to 10 percent.

Is Fractional Reserve Banking Ethical Part V: Conclusion and Compromise

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Introduction:

The debate over whether Fractional Reserve Banking is ethical to proceed over approximately a decade (the late 1980s/ early 1990s to the early 2000s). Resulting from subsequent papers repudiating the previous claims over the researchers on the other side of the issue. It should be noted that in these series of retaliatory papers that technical arguments were presented in tandem with ethical justifications for or against this practice. For the sake of brevity, I chose to focus on the ethical considerations of the topic. However, this does not exclude a potential technical comparison of Fractional Reserve Banking in the future. 

To any reader who has never thoroughly examined nor given a second thought to Fractional Reserve Banking, I hope reading this series of essays was illuminating. Fractional Reserve Banking is arguably the most prevalent banking system globally. Yet, something that impacts our lives daily we never think to question its inner mechanics let alone whether it is ethical. The ethics of banking extend beyond whether the patrons are benefiting at the expense of someone else, either through easy access to loans or interest payment on savings. There are potential ramifications to the economy. 

Distortions in the credit market are precisely the impetus for business cycle calamities such as the cataclysmic burst of the Housing Bubble in 2007. Providing loans backed up by fiduciary media is nothing more than a house of cards waiting to fall done. Artificially manipulating factors such as prices, interests, and money supply can only facilitate the misallocation of resources. Such indicators operate as unspoken signals to consumers and entrepreneurs. Due to this fact, these distortions create an illusory image of the loan market and naturally economic agents respond accordingly (p.108). A fact that both George Selgin and Lawrence White are too quick to refute and dismiss (p.102). This carries the implications of defrauding the economy as a whole versus being isolated to the bank’s customers. Even if you are the type to limit all your transactions to precious metals or cryptocurrency, it is worthwhile to read up on this topic.

Summary of Compelling Arguments From the Austrian School:

It is difficult to say whether the Free-Bankers or the Austrians are on the right side of the debate. Both camps provided some truly convincing arguments. The Austrian opposition notes how ownership can only legitimately be taken on by one person and Fractional Reserve Bank obfuscates this immutable law of property ownership. From a contractual standpoint, that the agreements between banks and clients in such an argument are illegitimate. Since the terms are not only unclear to the typical layman but are a categorical misrepresentation. Presenting fiduciary media as actual money. The disingenuous nature of this faulty contract is only compounded by the fact that these claims for money are based upon the banknotes that are not back by currency or specie. Attempting to redeem them for actual currency is analogous to using a deed for a boat and attempt to claim ownership of a house. Also that it is a false analogy to argue that any devaluation of present money caused by the issue of fiduciary media is no different than an increase in the supply of a good due to protection or harvesting. 

This is because the increase in the supply of lumber from harvesting more oak trees is derived from legitimate market processes and in-turn does not seek to directly devalue anyone else’s property. Also, that in no way can Fractional Reserve Banking represent the Demonstrated preference of bank clients. Demonstrated preference can only be expressed with one’s property. Fractional Reserve Banking by its very nature disrupts this relationship.

Summary of Compelling Free-Banking Arguments:

The Free-Bankers also bring up some compelling moral defenses in favor of Fractional Reserve Banking. They are even bold enough to directly claim the practice is not fraudulent. Through a banking client electing to accept the terms of service regardless of their understanding, the contract is still valid. It would be one thing if these banks purported to practice 100 percent reserve banking, but function as a Fractional Reserve institution. These contracts are formulated between consenting adults, it would be antithetical to the principle of individual freedom to prohibit such arrangements. The real trouble comes from government interference. One only needs to look at the large array of protections awarded to backs through the FDCI to see the true culprit in shielding unsavory banking practices from insolvency or litigation. Also, the ignorance or the naiveté of the consumer is not a reasonable justification for banning a product or service. Even though the risk of a bank run is present, it is a relatively rare occurrence from a historical standpoint. If faced with a potential bank run the bank can issue an option clause suspending redemption, solving the issue through valid contractual recourse. Speaking of redeeming bank deposits. A customer assumes the risk of not being able to redeem money when they agree to open an FRB account. They assume the risk. In turn, for the opportunity cost of having their liquid money held and the potential risk of a bank run/ insolvency, they receive an interest payment. Overall, patrons must prefer Fractional Reserve systems to 100 percent reserve banking. There have never been any governmental decrees in modern history that all banking must be done via a Fractional Reserve System. Despite its flaws, ultimately, the people prefer being paid interest payments versus having to pay warehousing fees.

Can There Be a Compromise?

There are certain aspects of both arguments that appear to be flawed. The Free-Bankers are too lackadaisical when it comes to distortions in the credit structure enabled by Fractional Reserve Banking. The Austrians to some extent seem too rigid in their interpretation of property ownership. Under many of their arguments likening the practice to a Ponzi scheme. Yet, to be conceptually consistent would not these same economists also take issue with multi-level-marketing? Then again it could also be counter-argued that MLM schemes and Fractional Reserve Banking while present similar confusions, property rights have much greater degree clarity in MLM arraignments.

Back in 2000, the economist Jorg Guido Hulsmann wrote an article in the Independent Review refuting the Fractional Reserve practice of creating “money”. Hulsmann (see page 108) much like his anarcho-capitalist counterparts Hoppe and Block are opposed to government intervention. If FRB is morally and technically flawed how can we address the issue of it short-comings without introducing state involvement? In this twenty-year-old article, Hulsmann presents a summary of points previously made by Hoppe and Block that would alleviate some of the issues relating to the categorical confusion. It should be noted that Hulsmann in that these suggestions for informal rules and norms of banking presume no state involvement in banking. Also, the author details the intimate relationship between the FRB and the government. Going so far as to refer to it as a “handmaiden” of government (p.108). Making it easy to infer that Hulsmann believes that the intertangled marriage between Fractional Reserve Banking and government is an unbreakable bond. However, let’s take these suggested conditions as theoretical and contingent upon a banking system free of regulation. See his suggestions below:

“…Fractional reserve banks would have to use a different language than they commonly use because words such as “deposit” are deceptive. They would have to make it clear that money “deposited” with them is, in fact, a credit of unspecified duration. And the “banknotes” they issue would have to be presented not as money titles but as some sort of very liquid IOUs..”

            “..On the “FR notes,” one would have to find a promissory note of the following type:

 The FR Bank promises the holder of this note to try to redeem it out of its gold reserves. Because FR notes are not 100 percent covered by gold presently in our bank, in case we cannot redeem, the following rules apply. . . .  (p.108)”

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 II: Contract Theory and the Naysayers

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See Part I: Click.

Introduction to Part II:

The key arguments against fractional reserve banking being a moral system came from a 1998 paper co-authored by Austrian economists Hans Hermann Hoppe, Jorg Guido Hulsmann, and Walter Block. The white paper entitled Against Fiduciary Media was a response to a previous paper written by George Selgin and Lawrence H. White. Hoppe at al. crafted a repudiation against  Selgin and White’s 1996 paper In Defense of Fiduciary Media or, We are Not Devo(lutionists), We are Misesians. In which both scholars provide a normative and positive defense of fractional reserve banking. Even utilizing Murray Rothbard’s Title-transfer Theory of Contract to defend the practice. However, this application of the Rothbardian contract theory did not sit well with Hoppe and the company. All being devoted and unwavering followers of Rothbard believed that Selgin and White’s interpretation of Title-Transfer Theory of Contract to be incorrect. Making their justification of fractional reserve banking on grounds of contract theory to be inherently flawed. It is worth noting that Hoppe was a direct protégé of Murray Rothbard and even owed his career and position teaching at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas to the late Austrian economist.

Rothbard’s  Title-Transfer Theory of Contract:

Before claims that Selgin and White did not faithfully adhere to or misinterpreted Title-Transfer theory, it is important to thoroughly explain this concept. A reader without a firm comprehension of this idea cannot adequately determine if free-banking proponents of fractional reserve banking suffer from profound confusion. The proceeding section will provide a brief overview of this theory. Hereby providing the reader with the requisite background information to justly assess this debate.  

Before diving into Rothbard’s theory, it is important to note his ideological disposition.  Murray Rothbard was the modern father of an ideological subset of libertarianism known as anarcho-capitalism. Rothbard and his followers hold that there should not be limited government, but rather no government. All services and products can be produced by private industry with no necessity for government intervention. This even includes services that have been traditionally provided by the government. This includes defense/security services, law enforcement services, charity, resource management, infrastructure, private legal adjudication, and so on. Rothbardians even go so far as to assert that the government possesses a monopoly on such services. It is imperative to understand this aspect of Rothbard’s political economy and political philosophy. It illustrates the fundamental philosophical precepts that govern his theory of contract.

Rothbardian Contract Theory is expounded upon in his 1982 book The Ethics of Liberty. Rothbard derides that the concept that all contracts in a just society need to be enforced( P.133). He draws a sharp line of delineation between “promised” and “conditional” contingencies in matters of exchange. Per his logic, the utilization of legal channels to enforce a promise is wholly illegitimate. Constitutes the use of government force in a situation in which no property has been transferred. Making it equivalent to state enforcement of morality (p.133-134). The reason why the property needs to be involved for a contract to be valid pertains to the distinction between what is intrinsically alienable and inalienable to the individual. This has to do with the fact that a person cannot alienate their own will or relinquish control of their mind and body to someone else. Humans can quite easily dispense with tangible property, including money (p.135). Due to the fact enforcing a promise is a compulsion because it interferes with the free will of the individual. It is not technically a breach of contract. On the other hand, if the agreement included a transfer of property for non-compliance then it would be another story.

In instances of conditional contracts and agreements, noncompliance is equal to a form of theft.  One salient example Rothbard provides is the circumstances of service providers receiving advanced payment but never providing the service (p.137). For example, if I were to offer to paint your house and I received an advanced payment of $300.00 and never show up your house that is theft. One contractual contingency that can shift a promise to a conditional agreement would be a performance bond clause within the agreement.  For Rothbard’s example, if a movie theater has a meet and greet event with a famous actor, they can put into the agreement a clause where the actor agrees to pay the theater a sum of money for abdicating this obligation (p.137). Since a property can be transferred and not the will of the actor this is an ethically binding agreement. However, failing to fulfill a property-related obligation is not always necessarily deemed as implicit theft. In instances where a creditor provides immunity to a debtor who cannot pay their bill this is legitimate (P.144). Why?  The creditor reserves the right to forgive debts due to the fact they are the ones who transferred their property under the condition of repayment. Please note that this scenario details circumstances in which the credit lent out their funds.

It should be noted that a Rothbardian conception of contractual property rights does not preclude someone from selling off a portion of their property. For example, if I own 100 acres of land in Montana. It is well within my rights to transfer you 5 acres for $20,000.00. Concurrently, retaining my claim on the residual 95 acres of land. This does not mean that mean I in any way still own those 5 acres. Through the sale of this land, I have effectively transferred ownership to you. In turn, I have relinquished by entitlement to the lands sold.

Page 146:

“Another important point: in our title-transfer model, a person should be able to sell not only the full title of ownership to the property but also part of that property, retaining the rest for himself or others to whom he grants or sells that part of the title. Titles, as we have seen above, common-law copyright is justified as the author or publisher selling all rights to his property except the right to resell it.”

How The Free-Banking Argument For Fractional Reserve Banking Violates Contract Theory:

Selgin and White claiming that fractional reserve banking is consistent with Title-Transfer Theory suffer from some blind spots. Blind spots that are fully magnified by Hoppe et al. One of the fundamental chinks in the armor of the Free-Banking argument is that fractional reserve banking inherently violates Title-Transfer Theory. It assumes that two people can own the same piece of property simultaneously (p.21). By the very nature of how fractional reserve banking engages in lending, it creates ambiguity regarding ownership. Through issuing more promissory notes both the bank and the customer assume ownership of the same banknote, which is fraudulent by nature (p.22).  Creating more claims to money against the present supply of money will not create more money (p.22). Rather, will only serve to redistribute the present supply of actual currency from client to client without increasing the amount of money in the vaults (p.22). Effectively creating fiduciary media (money-substitutes issued by a bank that is not backed by gold or paper money) out of thin air without transferring assets or liabilities (p.22). As detailed in Rothbard’s theory, we can sell off a portion of our property. However, we relinquish our own once we transfer it to the party purchasing it.

This illusory arrangement also conflates property with property titles (p.23). Treating and categorizing banknotes( fiduciary media, money claims) as money (physical property). This only enables this fallacy to continue. Keeping in tune with the Austrian tradition the Regression Theorem states that all money had a prior use value (p.34-36). For instance, tobacco and nails at various times in human history have been used as money. Meaning that these banknotes cannot be money in the actual sense, but a claim or title to money. Through this categorical fallacy, the banks can divorce titles from ownership resulting in the redistributive practices of fractional reserve lending (p.23). Even going so far as to promising future entitlement to goods against present goods that may or may not be fulfilled. It would be honest to label these claims to future goods or debt claims, but not a claim to money (p.24).

An inquisitive observer may question why it is dishonest or even outright fraud to categorize future claims to money as money titles or even as money? Hoppe et al. frame this from the standpoint of we cannot claim or transfer ownership from a title to a car for anything but a car and the same applies to money (p.25). If we were using more precise language what banks and customers have truly agreed to is debate claims versus money titles. Per the authors of  Against Fiduciary Media Selgin and White adopted a hyper-subjective interpretation of contracts to side-step this discrepancy (p.26). The misrepresentation engaged in by practitioners of fractional reserve banking extends beyond labels of goods, but to actual quantities as well. By treating fiduciary media as money, it creates the false perception that clients own more than what they truly due on paper. The fabricated money quantities do not reflect the amounts present in the vaults of the bank (p.27). Free-banking proponents may believe that fractional reserve banking isn’t so much the problem, rather government intervention. As long as the withdrawal requests are fulfilled it cannot be tantamount to fraud. However, even without state interference, the transfer practices of fractional reserve banking blur the lines of definitive ownership (p.29). Making the system incompatible with upholding property rights or just contract enforcement.

Gresham’s Law- A Fallacy?

silver round coins on banknote
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Gresham’s Law is seen as one of the many enduring laws of the discipline of economics. Much like the laws of Comparative Advantage, Supply and Demand, and Diminishing Returns. However, is it possible that Gresham’s Law is based upon a misconception? After all, there are several examples of undervalued and overvalued currency simultaneously circulating at the same nominal value. Do these exceptions invalidate Gresham’s Law? Depending on who you ask, yes. However, proponents claim that these outlying examples apply to conditions under which Gresham’s Law is not applicable. Both sides generating formidable arguments.

It should be mentioned that Natural Laws, Laws of Science, etc. tend to be perceived as being fixed. Immutable. Is this an accurate interpretation of such a variety of Laws (economic laws included)? By definition, a scientific law is an enduring observation that has been universally replicated. Contrary to the popular opinion it is not definitive. Meaning that is still subject to some variation and possible exceptions. Whenever a Profession Skateboard performs a particularly daring stunt, we refer to it as “gravity-defying”.  Such a statement does not so much invalidate the Law of Gravity but demonstrates a mild momentary exception. Within seconds of completing the mauver, the skateboarder is pulled back down by the gravitation force of the Earth.

 

It is possible that I am mischaracterizing the exceptions of the Laws of Gravity.  I am far from well versed in physics. I have never taken much interest in it as a field of study.  Even the moon to some extent has gravitational force it is just to a lesser extent than Earth. Making the law exist in a continuum of applicability versus an outright exception. I would surmise the same is applicable to the laws of the social sciences as well.

 

There was a 1986 study published by the Minnesota  Federal Reserve that put into question the veracity of Gresham’s Law. The controversial study was authored by  Christopher A. Sims and Arthur J. Rolnick. Two particularly salient exceptions cited in the article were pertaining to Silver Dollars and Greenbacks in the United States.  In the years between 1792 and 1853, the U.S. Silver Dollar and the Spanish milled Dollar simultaneously circulated at the same face value. The Spanish milled Dollar contained 373.5 grains of pure silver in contrast to the U.S. Silver Dollar only contained 371.25. Making the foreign silver coin heavier and possessing a higher intrinsic value. Despite the fact that Gresham’s law is considered axiomatically true the Spanish Silver Dollar was not driven out of circulation (P.4) [1].

 

The second notable exception to Gresham’s Law referenced in the study was the exchange of Greenbacks. Greenbacks were one of the earliest examples of purely fiat currency in the United States. Which the paper money that was not backed by specie was produced to help fund the Civil War [2]. Per the contingencies of Gresham’s Law, we would assume that the Greenbacks drove currencies backed by gold and silver out of circulation. Some sources did claim that this was the case.  Not so.

 

Did greenbacks drive out specie? Some textbooks claim they did (Prager 1982, p. 32, for example), but Moses, writing in 1892, makes it clear that in the West, despite the presence of greenbacks, gold remained the unit of account and a medium of exchange. He says that a contributor to the San Francisco Daily Herald wrote that greenbacks were also current there, but at a discount (Moses 1892, p. 18): “A writer in this journal, February 16,1863, found very little difficulty arising from the use of legal tender notes; for they had a market value, and most people were ready to receive them at that value.” In the East, it appeared that the money system was reversed. There, according to Moses (1892, p. 15), greenbacks were accepted as the unit of account and specie circulated at a premium. (Sims &Rolnick, 1986, p.5) [3].

 

Both researchers provided expanded upon how such exceptions could occur. They repudiate the claim that they did not cover any true exceptions. As in both instances, the rate of exchange in both examples was not fixed. They rebut this claim by stating that holding a fixed exchange rate is inoperable.  Historically they aren’t any records of mints operating in such a manner. Also, if a mint has a large stock of commodity money offered at a “bargain” for the establishment will either run out of money and either go out of business or change course in coinage policy (page6-7) [4]. Sims and Rolnick also disputed the claim that mints did not fix exchange rates but legal tender laws did. Such laws do not prevent prices from being calculated in “bad” money. Meaning vendors would make a larger profit at the expense of public ignorance of the difference in intrinsic value (Page 7) [5]. Based upon these observations they concluded that the assumed conditions of Gresham’s Law were incorrect. Bad money drives out good money when the transaction costs are significantly high to use good money (Page 9) [6].

 

Naturally, these arguments were not meet without resistance.  Economist George Selgin provides some strong counter-arguments to the 1986 study. Selgin dispels the potential of the exchange rate claim causing naive customers to be duped by vendors. Acceptance of both monies at face value is based upon legal penalties for discriminating between them rather than a personal appraisal. Per Selgin Gresham’s Law only applies if customers and vendors are “legally compelled” to accept overvalued and undervalued money of the same face value. Pertaining to the exception of the Greenback-era in California local authorities refused to enforce federal legal tender laws [7].