Private Issue of Money — the Root of Our Monetary Problem?
In a comment posted under an article by my friend Jerry Bowyer (Where’s the Hyperinflation?), “ps61penn62prin64” writes that “private currency monetary systems… are doomed to fail the interest of American citizens.”
Bowyer’s article discusses the sizeable increase in the money supply generated by the Fed, and how this has — or has not — affected the inflation rate. Bowyer concludes that although inflation has not manifested itself because of Fed action, it will. This is because the Fed has “an almost unlimited capacity to produce syrup [i.e., base money] and pump it at high pressure into the system. And they want to do so. They want more money in circulation, because their Keynesian models tell them that easy money is the answer to our economic stagnation.”
This view of our monetary system is based on the notion that we have a fractional-reserve system. Which we do, but only in the most formalistic sense. For all practical purposes, our system is not tied to some base money, manipulated by the Fed, allowing it to stretch and shrink the money supply at will. The Fed does not have this unlimited power — if it did, we’d have been toast (Weimar Germany, anyone?) long ago. If this were true, how do we explain our current struggle, which is a low-interest-rate, low-inflation environment?
But let’s now address the issue raised by ps61penn62prin64, as to whether the private issue of currency is the problem.
Right up front, I will state that the state-sanctioned private issue of money, such as is provided for by the Federal Reserve system, by no means need be a problem. Indeed, it is simply a function of “the common law right to borrow” (as Hammond pointed out in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Banks and Politics in America, published in 1957). In such a system, banks take a position front and center, as “experts in futurity” to use John R. Commons’ pregnant phrase, converting property into liquidity. This is not banks loaning depositors’ state-issued money; this is banks loaning money of their own creation. It is not the Jimmy Stewart, but the James Steuart form of banking.
This being so, the banks are creating representations, symbols, of property holdings, and it is these symbols that form the money supply. These symbols, these representations, only reflect a deeper reality — the reality of the issuing agents’ (i.e., banks’) balance sheets.The problems we face are thus not problems of liquidity, but of solvency. Our problems are not that there is not enough liquidity, as in the days of the gold standard, nor that there is too much liquidity. Our problems revolve around solvency: that the assets on the books of banks (and this holds for the “shadow banking system” as well) do not match up with the liabilities.
When this happens, we have a freeze-up of credit, as banks only become concerned with restoring balance sheets rather than engaging in fresh lending. This is why we are dealing not with an inflation problem but rather with a disinflation problem.
Originally the Constitution authorized only Congress to create and manage money, in the form of coinage. Coinage is the preeminent form of state-created money. Coinage had always been the prerogative of the state. But with the shift toward a commodity-based money system during the 18th century, power over coinage and over money had been passing out of the hands of the state and into the hands of the bankers. The regime of coinage was already on its last legs at the time of the Constitution’s ratification. My forthcoming book will discuss this transformation in detail.
Hence, the Constitution was outdated already at the time of ratification. It did not address the issue of banks. Hammonds’ book details the debate surrounding this issue as it developed during the early Republic, as the pros and cons of banks’ private money were discussed. The principle was finally accepted in terms of fractional-reserve — banks were only creating money substitutes, and were under the obligation to provide real money — specie — whenever asked.
We labored under this system for a long time. But when we threw off the gold standard, we threw off fractional reserve banking. Our banking system is now asset-based, not reserve-based. It is a system of state-sanctioned, yet market-driven, money. There is nothing wrong with that, in principle. In practice, it can be problematic. The problems mainly come about because we don’t understand it, and act in terms of faulty understanding. Especially when governments get in on the action. Then the liquidity bias, fomented by our faulty understanding, gives government room for its misplaced Keynesianism. And we discover once again that the problem had nothing to do with liquidity, but rather with solvency.
And so we need to look at other things than the Fed’s production of “syrup” if we want to understand what is going on with inflation rates, interest rates, and thus the economic fundamentals that determine how are economic lives are to be lived.
We need to go from Jimmy Stewart to James Steuart.
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