Fact and Fiction on Reserve Requirements
In the system we have now, we do use both a reserve restriction and an asset restriction. But, the modern reserve restriction has changed fundamentally, and has nothing to do with the monetarist understanding of reserve restrictions, except in a purely formal sense.
In the day of specie convertibility, reserve restriction had a definite functionality. It served to limit the amount of money subsitutes put into circulation, because by law and custom all such money substitutes had to be convertible into specie on demand. Therefore, the reserve restriction had to do with specie – at the end of the day, banks had to have a certain percentage of specie holdings – reserves – or they would either be shut down or fail. So there were two kinds of money, and reserve restriction had to do with maintaining some ratio between them.
Central banks arose only in response to this specie convertibility arrangement. Bagehot’s Lombard Street describes the process. Banks began depositing their reserves with other banks, big banks, on Wall Street or, in England, at the Bank of England. The latter bank only hesitatingly and with trepidation accepted the responsibility this entailed. For this developing practice led to a gigantic inverted pyramid of money substitutes. Those banks continued to issue money subsitutes against their reserves; but the Bank of England turned around and used these reserves to engage in similar monetary expansion, so that at the end of the day the total amount of specie left to cover all those money substitutes became rather minuscule. This was the problem Bagehot blew the whistle on.
This arrangement of centralized specie reserves only served to facilitate control of the money supply by private bankers. On the face of it, it served the economy by providing the means to generate an elastic money supply far beyond the actual amount of specie available. In practice, it led to dizzying booms and horrendous busts, depending on how specie holdings were manipulated. It also led to the social question, socialism, communism, and the modern labor movement. But that’s another story.
Within that context, one can easily see the rationale of reserve restrictions. They helped keep the generation of money substitutes within some reasonable distance of the original specie of which they were supposed to be the direct representation.
Nowadays, we have no specie convertibility requirement, so reserve restrictions have nothing to do with there being real money on the one hand, and money substitutes on the other. All attempts by monetarists to establish Federal Reserve generated money as in some sense “real” money, in terms of which regular banks issue money “substitutes” like in the old days, are only attempts to maintain the fiction of continuity between this system and that one, and to maintain a centralized control of the money supply like in the days of specie of convertibility. But events have shown that the money supply in the modern banking and monetary system cannot be manipulated like it was in the days of specie convertibility. For this we should be very thankful. In formal terms, the money multiplier is still in effect, but in practice it only serves to set some ultimate limit to lending, a limit that is never reached.
We still have reserve requirements today, and they are useful, but for an entirely different reason than in the days of specie convertibility. In fact, using the same word for today’s reserves and for the reserve banking model of yore, of which our Federal Reserve system is an obsolete example, is an exercise in equivocity. Reserves today have a totally different function than reserves then.
This is because there is no money substitute that has to be kept within some sort of relation to “real” money. The money generated by the banking system is all the same, from the central bank to the bank across the street. Rather, what reserve requirements do is keep banks from running into liquidity problems in making the regular payments to customers and other banks that they need to do to stay in business. A reserve serves as a buffer to absorb losses in the case of loan defaults. With bad loans, a bank is left without payments budgeted to come in, income that was budgeted to cover payments, payments that still have to be made. So reserves help to cover such shortfalls. But the center of gravity in the new system is precisely asset valuation, in order to minimize the negative effects of such defaults. If the collateral base accurately approaches the value of the loan, then a default is not a disaster, for the underlying security is still valuable, and can still be used to cover costs. In the case of the credit crisis, a whole mass of similar assets (foreclosed homes) came on the market at the same time, precipitating a collapse in market value of those assets and thus the book value of securities (mark to market).
In this world, a central bank no longer has any function as a reserve bank. The banking system as a whole can serve as a reserve bank, the one for the other. There is absolutely no need for traditional reserve banking with its money multiplier; the system runs on an entirely different principle. The Federal Reserve could go back to being the government’s banker, which is what public banks usually were before the notion of central banking ever got off the ground. The history of the Bank of England provides the foremost example. Both the first and second Banks of the United States were called into being simply to facilitate the fiscal needs of the federal government. The nascent central banking functionality exercised by Biddle had nothing to do with any “lender of last resort” and any money multiplier function. It was only an attempt to keep banks from overstepping specie reserve requirements – to keep them honest. And they didn’t like it, and got Andrew Jackson to do their dirty work for them. Andrew Jackson was not the champion of the people against the banks, but of the banking interest against Nathan Biddle! But that, too, is another story.