FT calls for ban on fractional-reserve banking

Discussion in 'Economics' started by Specterx, Oct 1, 2009.

  1. Sounds a lot like a "moderate Austrian" proposal... that is, everything but the gold standard.


    Why narrow banking alone is not the finance solution

    By Martin Wolf

    Published: September 29 2009 21:11 | Last updated: September 29 2009 21:11

    The FT has a new series on the future of investment. But what, I wonder, is the future of finance itself? Who is confident that the financial system now emerging from the crisis is safer, or better at servicing the public’s needs, than the one that went into it? The answer has to be: few people. The question is how to remedy this dire situation.

    What entered the crisis was, we now know, an ill-managed, irresponsible, highly concentrated and undercapitalised financial sector, riddled with conflicts of interest and benefiting from implicit state guarantees. What is emerging is a slightly better capitalised financial sector, but one even more concentrated and benefiting from explicit state guarantees. This is not progress: it has to mean still more and bigger crises in the years ahead.

    My friend and colleague, John Kay, is aware of these dangers, as readers of his column know well. His answer, laid out in a pamphlet for the London-based Centre for the Study of Financial Innovation, is “narrow banking”*. Mr Kay rejects the notion that regulation can solve the problem created by state-guaranteed finance. Supervision, he notes, is always subject to regulatory capture. Moreover, banks “entered the crisis with capital generally in excess of regulatory requirements. These provisions proved not just inadequate but massively inadequate for the problems faced.” Worse, many of the dangers – notably the growth of off-balance-sheet finance – reflected attempts to circumvent regulation. Regulation, then, has not been the answer, but hitherto has been part of the problem.

    So what is the answer? Division of banking into a “utility” and a “casino” is Mr Kay’s answer. The big idea is that insured deposits should be backed by “genuinely safe liquid assets” – known as 100 per cent reserve banking. In practice, these assets would be government bonds. This is the most rigorous form of narrow banking. But he is not clear on whether he would insist on this. It seems he might accept looser constraints.

    For the sake of clarity, however, let us focus on 100 per cent reserve banking, an idea also discussed in Austrian economics. Is it workable? What might it imply? To answer, we need to understand how we entered our world of credit-based money.

    Suppose someone came up with the following design for the core institutions of our financial system: they would be mainly financed by deposits, redeemable on demand; they would invest in a wide range of often illiquid and opaque assets; they would engage in complex trading activities; but they would have a wafer-thin equity cushion. Surely, people would conclude, this is fraudulent. They would be right. Such a structure can only endure because central banks act as lenders of last resort. The government’s ability to create money is put at the disposal of private interests. Right at the moment, the ability to borrow from the government at zero interest is a licence to print money.

    In practice, however, we have gone much further than this. We have also explicitly guaranteed many deposits and implicitly guaranteed many more liabilities. Indeed, in the crisis, policymakers guaranteed all the liabilities of institutions deemed systemically significant. Today, the core financial institutions are, beyond doubt, a part of the state.

    Mr Kay’s proposal is, in sum, to end the fraud: banks would be forced to hold assets as safe and liquid as their liabilities. We know there are other ways of making a system of fractional-reserve banks relatively safe: a stable domestic oligopoly achieves much the same thing. But that does seem highly regressive.

    Is Mr Kay’s the answer? One obvious objection is that it would impose a massive upheaval in finance. But, given the crisis, such an upheaval is the least we should fear. Another objection (though, to some an advantage) is that, taken to its conclusion, it would eliminate monetary policy. Public debt held by banks would set the money supply.

    A more profound issue is whether a financial system based on narrow banking could allocate capital efficiently.

    Here there are two opposing risks. The first is that the supply of funds to riskier, long-term activities would be greatly reduced if we did adopt narrow banking. Against this, one might argue that, with public sector debt used to back the liabilities of narrow banks, investors would be forced to find other such assets.

    The opposite (and greater) risk is that the fragility of banking would be re-invented, via “quasi-banks”. This is what has just happened, after all, with “shadow banking”. In the end, those entities, too, have been rescued. The big point is that a financial structure characterised by short-term and relatively risk-free liabilities and longer-term and riskier assets is highly profitable, until it collapses, as it is rather likely to do.

    The answer to the second dilemma is to make banking illegal. That is to say, financial intermediaries, other than narrow banks, would have the value of their liabilities dependent on the value of their assets. Where assets could not be valued, there would be matching lock-up periods for liabilities. The great game of short-term borrowing, used to purchase longer-term and risky assets, on wafer-thin equity, would be ruled out. The equity risk would be borne by the funds’ investors. Trading entities would exist. But they would need equity funding.

    Christophe Chamley of Boston University and the Paris School of Economics and Laurence Kotlikoff of Boston University proposed such radical ideas in the FT’s Economists’ Forum on January 27 2009. It is the simplest way I can see of avoiding the danger that narrow banking would shift the risks inherent in such activities elsewhere.

    The most important point is that where we are now is intolerable. Today’s concentrations of state-insured private wealth and power must surely go. At present, the official sector believes tighter regulation, particularly higher capital requirements, can contain these risks. But this is likely to fail. If it does, we will need to be radical. Yet narrow banking would still not be enough. We would need to rule out quasi-banking. Otherwise, we would soon return to the world of fragility and bail-outs. Funds that replace banks would have to pass the risks directly on to the outside investors.

    The authorities will not entertain such radical ideas right now. But the financial system is so inherently fragile that radical reform cannot be pronounced dead. It is only dormant.