The Fractional-Reserve Banking Question

by: Bob Murphy

Austrian economics is superior to Marxism in every respect, and this includes internal, sectarian squabbles. When we Austrians feel the time is ripe for another bloodletting – it keeps us strong by thinning the herd once in a while – we argue over fractional-reserve banking.

If you have never had the pleasure of watching such fireworks, I point you to Joe Salerno’s recent blog post; it has enough links to bring you up to speed. In the present article, I want to walk through a simple example to make sure everyone understands exactly why some of us think fractional-reserve banking is just plain weird.

Of course, weirdness is not proof of dubiousness, let alone fraud, but bankers who engage in fractional-reserve banking really do “create money out of thin air” in a sense that I think many commentators don’t fully appreciate. I offer this article to at least clarify what the ostensible problem is.

A Simple Example

Suppose a teenager, Bill, is rummaging in the attic and finds $1,000 in physical currency in an old chest. Bill is ecstatic and runs to the local bank, where he opens a checking account and deposits the green pieces of paper.

Under a 100-percent-reserve banking system, this would be the end of the story. In the act of making the deposit, Bill’s currency holdings would fall by $1,000, while his checkbook balance would rise by $1,000. Putting the money in the bank wouldn’t affect the total amount of money in the economy.

However, in our current system, Bill’s bank would see a new profit opportunity. After the bank put the $1,000 of paper currency into its vault, its reserves would be that much higher, while its outstanding deposit liabilities would have risen by $1,000 as well (in the form of Bill’s new checking account). But since banks in the United States are subject only to a reserve requirement of (approximately) 10 percent, the bank would have new excess reserves of $900. If it found a suitable borrower, the bank would have the legal ability to grant a new loan for this amount.

Suppose the bank found such a borrower, Sally, and charged her 5-percent interest for a 12-month loan. Assuming she paid off the loan in a timely manner, here is what the bank’s balance sheet would look like at various stages in the process:

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