Fractional reserve banking (FRB) is fraudulent. It should be prosecuted as a crime rather than accepted as normal practice under current banking laws. Any society that respects property rights and the rule of law would not allow it. For those unfamiliar with the term fractional reserve banking or not quite confident of its complete meaning, let’s cover some basics.
What Is Fractional Reserve Banking?
All financial transactions must be settled ultimately by an exchange of standard money, otherwise known as “reserves”. Reserves in the US are composed of federal reserve notes (good old paper money in your wallet, piggy bank, retailers’ cash register tills, or bank vaults) plus reserve account balances held by banks at their local Federal Reserve Bank that may be exchanged for federal reserve notes on demand. The important point is that reserves are not the same thing as the money supply. The money supply is composed of the cash outside bank vaults plus demand (checking) accounts at banks. A financial transaction is not complete until reserves are exchanged. For example, accepting a check from your neighbor for selling him your used car is not final settlement, because reserves have not yet been exchanged. The check might bounce. Or the bank upon which the check is drawn might become insolvent ; i.e., it does not have and cannot raise the reserves with which to pay you, the check’s payee, even though the bank balance of the payor, your neighbor, was at least as large as the check.
Most people assume that their money held at banks can always be exchanged for reserves, but such is not the case. Under a fractional reserve banking system banks are not required to keep one hundred percent reserves. Rather, they keep a fraction of their obligation to you in reserve (thus, the name “fractional reserve banking” system), under the assumption that not all depositors will want their money back at the same time.
How can this be? If you deposit a dollar into your account at the bank, isn’t the bank required to keep that dollar in its vault or at its own reserve account at its local Federal Reserve Bank? The short answer is NO! The bank is allowed to lend most of that money to someone else and keep only a fraction in reserve in order to satisfy your withdrawal request! This is fraud. Through the lending process the bank has created money out of thin air. It is not backed by one hundred percent by reserves. If too many depositors demand their money at the same time, the bank would not be able to satisfy all withdrawal requests. It would not have sufficient reserves to do so. It’s as simple as that. Any other commercial business that accepted your property with the promise to return it to you and then lent that property to someone else would be guilty of fraud. But banks are allowed to do just this! Hard to believe, isn’t it!
Some present the argument that FRB should continue, because the depositor should have the freedom to take the risk that, if the bank should fail, his money might not be returned to him upon demand or perhaps not at all. But the ethical issue is not about the depositor’s choice but the payee’s risk in accepting a check drawn on an FRB bank. The depositor may have sufficient funds in his bank account, but the bank itself might not have sufficient reserves to honor the check. How is the payee to know? It is against the law in most states for a payor to knowingly pass a check that exceeds the funds in his bank account. Why then do we accept as part and parcel of the fractional reserve banking system that the bank itself is not required to hold sufficient reserves to honor all its obligations?
FRB Gives Rise to Regulation and Government Money Printing
Volumes of bank regulation, armies of bank regulators, and government money printing have arisen because banks are allowed the privilege of fractional reserve banking. Bank runs were common occurrences before the federal government forced all banks into its deposit guarantee program (the FDIC), itself a fractional reserve institution in that it has a mere fraction of the reserves to honor the vast deposit balances of American banks. During the so-called subprime lending crisis of 2008, so many banks failed that the FDIC itself ran out of reserves (which it had obtained via mandatory premiums from the banks) and had to be bailed out by the Federal Reserve Bank itself, which resorted to the time honored practiced of all counterfeiters by creating reserves out of thin air.
Bank regulation, enforced by the above mentioned armies of regulators (surely you did not think the government would have just ONE regulatory agency for banks!), attempts to do the impossible, to wit, prevent bank loan losses. FRB expands the money supply, which itself causes disruption to the structure of production, an unsustainable boom, and the inevitable crash. This so-called business cycle is not some sort of inevitable consequence of normal business exuberance or lack thereof, but is caused by FRB credit expansion by banks, a phenomenon well explained by Austrian school economists and labeled by them as the Austrian Business Cycle Theory (ABCT).
In the absence of fractional reserve banking, the banks would not be able to expand credit beyond the funds actually saved by its depositors. (Wouldn’t that be something!) There could be no disruption to the structure of production; thus, there would be no need for bank regulations or regulators. All funds placed in demand accounts would be secured one hundred percent by reserves. Depositors who wished to earn interest on excess saved funds would open savings/investment accounts with the banks or some other institution specially formed for profitable investment of the public’s savings. These investment accounts would not be insured by anything other than the banker’s capital account and his reputation for sound lending. Loan losses would be borne by the banker to the extent of his capital account and then the savings fund itself. Naturally, the depositor’s demand funds would be completely secured by the bank’s reserves. Only the funds placed in the bank’s savings/investment accounts would be at risk. Bankers with poor lending acumen would find themselves quickly out of business rather than receiving bailout money from the government. Such bailout money itself comes from Federal Reserve money printing, which itself exacerbates the boom/bust business cycle!
Ending fractional reserve banking would restore the rule of law to the banking system, end the need for expensive and harmful bank regulation, and eliminate the boom/bust business cycle. Bank demand deposits would be backed one hundred percent by reserves, which any competent local auditor could verify at little expense. Banks found in violation of this law would be seized by state authorities and the officers charged with a crime – the crime of counterfeiting. Unnecessary bank regulatory agencies would be shut down, because they would have nothing to do.
This reform to the banking system is so simple that it will be opposed by all the parasitic government agencies now promising to prevent something that they themselves cause; i.e., the boom/ bust business cycle and bank losses that harm depositors and cripple the economy. Nevertheless, let us pursue this reform with all the confidence and courage of Ludwig von Mises that we are doing the right thing and will not be deterred.
The Mystery of Banking, by Murray N. Rothbard
The Austrian Theory of the Trade Cycle and Other Essays, by Richard M. Ebeling
The Essential von Mises, by Murray N. Rothbard