Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Don't 'bank' on that econ textbook

If I had a dollar for every time an economist says something wrong about the modern economy, I'd be able to buy up an entire economics department (a-la Koch brothers).

In many of my previous posts in this blog, I've detailed how economists chronically misunderstand debt, deficits, interest rates, inflation, and trade. But so far I've ignored what is probably the biggest gaping hole of knowledge in the economics profession: the retail banking system. There is almost a laughable difference between the way economists explain banking, and the way that people who actually work in banking know how the system operates.

Economists remain wedded to very outdated, stylized views of banking that ceased to exist a long time ago. The overly simplistic money multiplier is perhaps the most inaccurate of these views. You've probably heard an economist describe banks as special kinds of private businesses that take money from savers/depositors, and recycle that money back into the economy through lending. This is called 'fractional reserve banking', which, like competent leadership of the Washington Redskins, has not existed for decades.

Banks have a very important role in the US economy. The government has empowered them with the ability to make loans based on creditworthiness and public need. In the simplest terms, modern US banks are credit allocation utilities, and serve as our conduits into the federal government's payment system.  Our modern economy would not exist without either of these facilities, especially the payments system. If you have ever used cash, check, debit, or ACH to acquire a good or service, then you have used the federal government's payment system. This payment system consists of wires between banks, which allows the deposits of difference banks to clear at par (face value). For example, if a customer of Bank A writes a $100 check to a customer of Bank B, then $100 is debited from Bank A's dollar account at the Federal Reserve, and credited to Bank B's dollar account at the Federal Reserve. Just like we have tubes and wires for water, sewer, cable, phone and internet, banks are tubes and wires for money. And just as competition among utilities leads to bad outcomes (duplicative infrastructure and poor service), competition among bankers for lower and lower lending standards leads to other bad outcomes (financial crises).

When it comes to lending, this is the arrangement: The federal government allows licensed banks to create an infinite amount of money out of thin air, and charge interest on it. The federal government also allows the liabilities created by individual banks to clear at par with each other, via the interbank payment system (Fedwire), and insures these liabilities (through the FDIC). Depending on the temperament of the bankers, and the state of the economy, banking can be a very easy and profitable enterprise. For example, in the old days of basic S&L banking, people used to joke about the "3-5-3 rule." Bankers would take in deposits at 3% interest, make mortgages at 5% interest, and be on the golf course by 3pm.

In exchange for these privileges, banks have to comply with the regulations that the federal government writes for them. These regulations can be roughly grouped into three categories: prudential (protecting the safety and soundness of the banks themselves), consumer protection (protects consumers from being ripped off by banks, mainly through disclosure requirements), and a group of rules called the 'Bank Secrecy Act', which prevent money laundering, and allow government agencies to monitor and track potential terrorists.

When a US bank makes a loan, the loan officer simply keystrokes a new deposit into an account. So when banks lend, they create their own liabilities, which themselves are not US dollars. This bank money is denominated in US dollars, and is cleared by US dollars, but it is not US dollars. This is crucial to understanding the banking system. Only the US government can create a US dollar, which is its own distinct liability. Banks cannot create US dollars, since dollars are not their liabilities. Banks create bank money, which are their own liabilities. So while bank lending does create new money, it does not create new US dollars. Only deficit spending from the US federal government can create new US dollars. Therefore, the amount of US dollars in the world does not change as the result of bank lending. When a bank orders cash to fill its ATM, its dollar account at the Federal Reserve is debited by the same amount of cash as it receives. The size of this Federal Reserve account is not affected by lending. This is the same account that is used to maintain reserve requirements and make payments to other banks on behalf customers.

For example, if you get a $250,000 home loan at Wells Fargo, you receive $250,000 in your Wells Fargo checking account. This money is your asset, and the bank's liability. In exchange, the bank creates the mortgage, which is their asset and your liability. This is called dual-entry accounting, and is the best way to understand modern banking. When you pay off the mortgage, this process happens in reverse. The deposits created by the loan are destroyed, and the mortgage disappears. Both your and the bank's liability vanish once the mortgage is paid off in full.

Banks are not part of the private sector, since they could not exist without the Federal Reserve System and deposit insurance provided by the FDIC (to say nothing about how the Fed and Treasury rescued the banking system in 1933, 1991, and  2008/9 -plus every time the FDIC puts a failing bank into conservatorship). Banks also do not recycle your deposits into loans. In modern times, banks are infinitely funded, and only rely on deposits as one source of liquidity. This bloody brilliant paper and a video from the Bank of England (the central bank of the UK) confirms exactly what I am saying here.

As members of the Federal Reserve System, banks can always get the reserves they need to meet reserve requirements, from the federal funds market, the discount window, or overdrafts. Since the Fed itself mandates these reserve requirements, the Fed also always provides the reserves necessary for these requirements to be met. Since we are no longer under a gold standard, the Fed does not have to worry about its liabilities (reserves/dollars) being called in for gold, and can therefore flexibly create/lend these reserves as necessary to meet the requirements it imposes. As the requirer and monopoly issuer of these reserves, the Fed always provides them in infinite amounts, but at certain and variable prices which are voted on by the Federal Open Market Committee. This price of these reserves is what people usually refer to as 'interest rates.'

Note that reserve requirements are entirely different from capital requirements. Reserve requirements are about setting monetary policy. Capital requirements are prudential measures intended to maintain the safety and soundness of the banking system.

At its core, retail banking is a simple activity, with best practices that are well known and established. Like other utilities, it should be a boring and marginally profitable enterprise. The US used to have such a simple, sound banking system in the five decades after the Great Depression. Then, when a fever of deregulation took over in the 1980's, banking was unleashed into the wild, rapacious, and highly profitable business of rent extraction that it is today.

If you've reached the end of this blog, congratulations! You now have a better understanding of the banking system than many economists. Now feel free to use that overpriced textbook as kindling or to even out a wobbly chair.

1 comment:

Jose Guilherme said...

Good points; however this particular sentence is not correct:

"When a US bank makes a loan, the loan officer simply keystrokes a new deposit into an account, and reports that amount to the Federal Reserve, thereby triggering that amount of parallel Banking Reserves registered by the Fed."

New bank lending does not affect the balance sheet of the Fed. It just expands the commercial bank's balance sheet.