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Playing Games with the 2nd B.U.S.

by George Selgin September 24th, 2011 1:56 pm

In case anyone wonders why I haven't posted for a while, it's because I'm supposed to be working on my Little Fed Book. I say "supposed to be" because it isn't the actual writing of that book that’s kept me from posting here. It’s the writer's block that’s had me in its grip, as it does for a while each time I’m supposed to start a big project.

This time ‘round part of the problem is that I decided to begin by writing about an episode concerning which I knew relatively little: the story of the Second Bank of the United States. Once that was out of the way, I figured, the rest would be downhill. I hadn’t reckoned on the slogging it would take to get elevated in the first place.

I knew the basics well enough from teaching them: the post-1811 state banking boom and subsequent suspensions; the calls for a new Federal bank to see to a quick resumption of specie payments and to supply a "uniform" paper currency; Jackson’s famous veto aimed at foiling its supporters’ attempt to renew the Bank's charter; and the subsequent "Bank War" in which Jackson and Biddle traded blows aimed in the one case at assuring the Bank's demise and in the other at undermining the Bank’s opponents by making their actions appear responsible for plunging the country into a depression. I also knew where to look for evidence concerning the Bank’s actual conduct. But the more I studied those sources, the more I realized that I needed a better framework by which to understand the Bank’s relations with state-chartered banks. In particular, I needed to better understand why its relations with Northeastern banks tended to differ from those with banks elsewhere, as well as why its conduct toward other banks changed over time.

When, while straightening up the mess in my office (my favorite writer’s-block therapy), I happened to come across a paper I wrote in grad school called “A Game Theory Illustration of Bank Competition,” it occurred to me that game theory might be a good way to come to terms with the Second B.U.S. In the paper I represented the banking “game” as one in which a player might choose either to cooperate with a rival by accumulating or reissuing the rival’s notes, or to defect by returning those notes for redemption in specie. When the players are equally privileged, the payoffs are symmetrical. Moreover, because mixed strategies (that is, those in which one bank cooperates while the other defects) involve persistent reserve gains by the defecting bank, and persistent losses by the cooperative “sucker,” the payoffs are those of a Prisoner’s Dilemma. All-around defection is therefore the unique Nash Equilibrium:

The banks end up, in other words, taking part in the routine (say, daily) exchange and settlement of claims, including checks as well as notes, with specie alone being treated as a reserve asset. The system’s capacity for expansion will then depend solely on the available stock of specie reserves and what banks determine to be their optimal specie reserve ratios.

To appreciate the strategies employed by the second Bank, it helps to first consider the situation faced by a “pure” currency monopolist, meaning a bank that enjoys an irrevocable, exclusive privilege of issuing paper money. Because the public ordinarily finds paper more convenient than gold, the privileged bank’s monopoly causes other banks to treat its notes and other claims against it that are readily convertible into its notes as superior substitutes, in “normal” times at least, to specie. The relative payoffs to the less privileged bank or banks for cooperating versus defecting are then more or less the reverse of those for the game involving equal rivals, giving rise to a mixed-strategy Nash Equilibrium in which the less privileged banks hold and reissue the privileged bank’s notes, perhaps even lodging their specie with it, while it nevertheless continues to redeem any items it collects from them:

In what ways did the situation confronting the Second Bank of the United States differ from that faced by our “pure” currency monopolist? First of all the Bank’s charter, rather than granting it irrevocable privileges, was to lapse after two decades unless renewed by a Congressional vote. That meant that the Bank had to take into account the political consequences of its actions, including the possibility that, by making life difficult for state banks, it might discourage legislators in the affected states from voting for its renewal. Concern about renewal prospects would incline the Bank to assign lower payoffs for defection than those a pure monopolist might anticipate. This change alone might suffice to give rise to a cooperative Nash Equilibrium, that is, one in which the state and Federal banks elect to “live and let live”:

Second, the Bank’s privileges did not include an outright currency monopoly. Instead they consisted mainly of its status as a government depository, together with its ability to establish branches anywhere, which allowed its notes to command the same value everywhere, and therefore to be uniquely useful in interstate commerce. The notes of state chartered banks, in contrast, tended to be discounted as they traveled beyond their place of issue.

State banks thus had some incentive for retaining and reissuing the Second Bank’s notes instead of redeeming them, just as in the pure monopolist case; but the strength of this incentive differed in different parts of the country. In particular, northeastern banks tended to treat B.U.S. notes as relatively poor substitutes for specie, which they were frequently called upon to supply for international transactions (and, starting in 1818, for Suffolk Bank settlements), while banks elsewhere tended to treat them as good substitutes, which (so long as they traded at par) could be readily employed to offset the (typically adverse) flow of trade with the northeast. Forbearance by the B.U.S. toward northeastern banks would therefore have made a “sucker” of it. Consequently a non-cooperative “hard money” equilibrium tended to be prevail between the Bank and northeastern state banks, while a cooperative “soft money” equilibrium tended to prevail elsewhere:

And so things went during the Bank’s first years, with its non-northeastern branches playing “live and let live” with neighboring state banks, and generously expanding their own lending, and its northeastern ones aggressively redeeming local notes, and having local banks redeem theirs just as aggressively.

Murray Rothbard offers an excellent summary of the situation in The Panic of 1819. Before the panic, Rothbard observes, the Bank on the whole served

as an expansionary, rather than as a limiting force. The expansionary attitude of the Bank was encouraged by the Treasury, which wanted the Bank to accept and use the various state bank notes in which the Treasury received its revenue, particularly its receipts from [western] public land sales… In New England, on the other hand, both the private banks and the branches of the Bank of the United States pursued a conservative policy.

The catch was that things simply couldn’t go on this way for very long. The general expansion led to rising U.S. prices, which eventually worsened the trade deficit, increasing the demand for specie, especially in the northeast. Also, because the Bank’s various branches were collectively responsible for receiving and redeeming its notes, regardless of where the notes came from, and with no arrangements for any eventual inter-branch reckoning, the Bank’s northeastern branches found themselves hemorrhaging reserves. Eventually specie was commanding a premium even relative to B.U.S. notes, reflecting the public’s doubts concerning its continuing ability to meet demands placed upon it.

At last the Bank of the United States had no choice but to take steps to stem its reserve losses, which it did by calling on its non-northeastern branches to abandon their live-and-let-live policy toward state banks while aggressively contracting their own lending. It was this inevitable reversal of the Bank’s politically-motivated policy of forbearance--a reversal that would continue under Biddle's presidency--that triggered the Panic of 1819.

Apologists for central banks like to portray them as conservative institutions that serve to keep other ("commercial") banks on tight leashes; and although central banking doctrine was hardly developed at the time, the same thinking played a prominent part in the decision to establish a new federal bank in 1816. But though the new B.U.S. was certainly capable of being a conservative presence that would help to rein-in reckless state banks, in practice the Bank followed the state banks' lead, behaving conservatively only where state banks were themselves already inclined to be conservative, while fostering expansion elsewhere. The events leading to the Panic of 1819 suggest that competition among co-equal banks was both a sufficient and a necessary condition for the avoidance of excessive bank lending. The presence of a privileged federal bank, in contrast, appears to have been neither sufficient nor necessary. That presence was, on the other hand, uniquely responsible for the extent of excessive expansion that ultimately occurred. In light of such considerations the Panic of 1819 deserves to be regarded as the United States' first central-bank inspired financial crisis.


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El Free Banking

by George Selgin September 23rd, 2011 10:48 am

It seems that the Spanish edition of Theory of Free Banking, published as La Libertad De Emisión Del Dinero Bancario, is now available from Unión Editorial. Pass it on!

And yes, I am working on a real post.


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The Euro's Problems

by Larry White September 14th, 2011 5:02 pm

Back in July I posted an excerpt here of a talk I had given on the flaws in the euro. The complete version of my talk on the problems of the euro is now available as an Economic Bulletin from the American Institute for Economic Research.


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The Free Competition in Currency Act of 2011

by Larry White September 13th, 2011 6:11 pm

Below is the written version of the testimony I gave this afternoon before the House or Representatives subcommittee chaired by Rep. Ron Paul. Q&A followed--when a transcript becomes available, I'll post the link here. The text of the Act I spoke about, which is quite brief, is here. UPDATE: Audio/video of today's hearing is here.

STATEMENT ON HR 1098 THE FREE COMPETITION IN CURRENCY ACT OF 2011 SEPTEMBER 13, 2011
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Lawrence H. White
Professor of Economics, George Mason University

House Committee on Financial Services
Subcommittee on Domestic Monetary Policy and Technology

Thank you for the opportunity to discuss my views on HR 1098, the Free Competition in Currency Act of 2011 (hereafter “the Act”). As an economist specializing in monetary systems I have studied and written for many years about the role of free competition in currency. Indeed the second book of my three books on the topic, published in 1989 by New York University Press, was entitled Competition and Currency.

The benefits of currency competition
It is widely understood that competition among private enterprises gives us technological improvements in all kinds of products, delivering higher quality at lower cost. For example, the competition of FedEx and UPS with the US Postal Service in package delivery has been of great benefit to American consumers. Currency users also benefits from competition. My research indicates that currency has been better provided by competing private enterprises than by government monopoly. For example, private gold and silver mints during the American gold rushes provided trustworthy coins until they were suppressed by legislation. Scientific appraisals have found that the privately minted coins were produced even more precisely than the coins of the US Mint. Private bank-issued currency was the most popular form of money around the world until government-sponsored central banks, with few exceptions, gained exclusive note-issuing privileges.

We do not rely on the Treasury or the Federal Reserve, but rather private financial institutions, to provide our checking accounts, credit cards, and traveler’s checks. The consumer benefits from the competition in payment services among banks. Consumers would likewise benefit from free and fair competition among coin issuers. Although Federal Reserve Notes and Treasury coins should of course be protected from counterfeiting, there is no good case for them to enjoy monopoly privileges in the market for currency.

HR 1098 would give currency competition a chance. It would not remove the Federal Reserve from the currency market, but it would give the Fed a stronger incentive to deliver the kind of trustworthy money that consumers want. The dollar already faces salutary international competition from gold, silver, the euro, the Swiss Franc, and other stores of value. HR 1098 would allow salutary domestic competition between the Federal Reserve Note and other media of exchange. The Fed will have little to fear from competition so long as it provides the highest quality product on the market. Continuing to ban competition from the domestic US currency market, or keeping it at a legal disadvantage, limits the options of American consumers who use money, to their disadvantage.

What sort of competition might we see if currency were free from legislated restrictions? Here is one example. In 1998 a non-profit organization launched the “American Liberty Currency,” a private silver-based currency intended to compete with Federal Reserve currency. In the year 2000 I wrote an article about the project, entitled “A Competitor for the Fed?,” published by The Foundation for Economic Education’s magazine The Freeman (vol. 50, July 2000). I was skeptical that the project would attract many users, absent high inflation in the dollar. But I noted then, and I reiterate today, that in a high-inflation environment “silver-backed currency with widespread acceptance would provide a useful alternative to the Federal Reserve’s product. Then, if you don’t like the way the federal government manages (or mismanages) the value of the fiat dollar, you aren’t limited to complaining. You can switch to the private alternative.” If double-digit inflation should unfortunately return to the United States, then the American public, as I wrote, would “find a very practical advantage in a silver-backed alternative to the free-falling Federal Reserve note.”

The Act offers three reforms. I will comment on them in turn.

Section 2 of the Act repeals 31 USC, §5103, which presently declares that “US coins and currency (including Federal Reserve notes …) are legal tender for all debts, public charges, taxes, and dues.”

What are the likely economic consequences of removing legal tender status from US Treasury coins and Federal Reserve notes? The immediate consequences would be minimal. New forms of currency will not be introduced into the market any faster than the public is prepared to accept them. The longer-run consequence will be to enable a more level playing field for competition in the issue of currency.

Legal tender status is more limited in its scope than is sometimes believed. That Federal Reserve notes and Treasure coins have “legal tender” status does not mean that they are the only legal way to pay. Any seller or creditor may (of course) voluntarily accept payment by transfer of bank-account balances, that is, by ordinary bank check, debit-card transfer, direct deposit, or wire transfer. Traveler’s checks or cashier’s checks may be accepted. The seller or creditor may even accept foreign currency or barter. Measured by dollar volume, payments in Federal Reserve notes or coin are a tiny share of all final payments in the United States (less than 20% of consumer payments, nearly 0% of business-to-business and financial payments). The great bulk of payments are electronic transfers of non-legal-tender bank balances.

Nor does legal-tender status mean that acceptance is mandatory when offered at a point of sale in a spot transaction. Large-denomination Federal Reserve notes are refused at many points of sale, and lawfully so. Vending machines refuse pennies. Mail-order sellers may refuse cash of any denomination. Millions of legal-tender one-dollar coins are piling up in the Federal Reserve’s vault in Baltimore because nobody wants them.

Legal tender relates to the discharge of debts. The phrase “Legal tender for all debts” in 31 USC, §5103, quoted above, means that if Smith owes Jones $125, then Smith’s offering Jones $125 in US coins or Federal Reserve notes legally extinguishes the debt, even if Jones would prefer payment in some other form (say, a check). In other words, the creditor is barred from refusing payment in legal tender notes or coins.

There is already an important exception, however. Debts in gold-clause contracts, made since 1977, are not unilaterally discharged by offer of US coin or Federal Reserve notes. 31 U.S.C. §5118(d)(2) reads: “An obligation issued containing a gold clause or governed by a gold clause is discharged on payment (dollar for dollar) in United States coin or currency that is legal tender at the time of payment. This paragraph does not apply to an obligation issued after October 27, 1977.” [emphasis added] That is, the holder of a gold-clause bond is free to insist on receiving payments in gold, or in an amount of dollars indexed to the price of gold, whichever the bond contract specifies.

Removing legal-tender status from US Treasury coins and Federal Reserve notes generally, as Section 2 of the Act does, essentially broadens the gold-clause exception to allow contractual obligations to specify payment in, or indexed to, any medium that is an alternative to Treasury coins and Federal Reserve notes. It opens the competition not just to private checks and banknotes, but also to gold units, silver units, units of foreign currency, Consumer Price Index bundles, wholesale commodity bundles, Bitcoins, and whatever else a lender and a borrower might agree upon. If they prefer a unit for denominating their debt contract other than the Fed or Treasury dollar, they would be free to write a specifically enforceable contract in the unit of their choice.

Hand-to-hand currency does not need legal tender status to make it circulate easily. In jurisdictions where private commercial banks may issue circulating currency notes or “banknotes” (found today in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Hong Kong), banknotes have the same legal status as checks. That is, they do not have legal tender status. Any creditor might refuse them if he preferred to be paid in another medium. (In Scotland and Northern Ireland, only pound sterling coins are legal tender.) I have spent a fair amount of time in Northern Ireland, visiting the Finance Department at the Queen’s University of Belfast, and have observed the circulation of banknotes there first-hand. There are four private banks that issue notes, and all of their notes are universally accepted. Legal tender status is clearly not necessary to have currency that circulates widely and is commonly accepted for payment of debts. Currency notes do not need legal tender status any more than credit cards, checks, debit cards, or traveler’s checks.

Section 3 of the Act rules out federal or state taxes on precious-metal coins, whether minted by a foreign government or by a private firm. This section would allow precious-metal coins to compete with the US Treasury’s token coins (made of base metals, and denominated in fiat US dollars) without tax disadvantages (sales taxes on acquisition and capital gains taxes on holding, from which Federal Reserve Notes are exempt), and thereby a level playing field for competition among monetary standards.


Section 4 of the Act repeals Title 18 §486 (relating to uttering or passing coins of gold, silver, or other metal) and §489 (making or possessing likeness of coins).

Section 486 is a relic of the Civil War, part of an effort to bolster the use of the wartime paper “greenback” currency by banning competition from the private gold coins I previously mentioned. The repeal of §486, combined with the previous section, would allow silver and gold coins to compete with the Treasury and the Fed on a level playing field.

I previously mentioned the American Liberty Currency project. The mover of that project, Bernard von Not Haus, was convicted in March 2011 of violating §486, and presently awaits sentencing, for the victimless crime of producing one-ounce silver coins, of original design, that he hoped would compete with the Federal Reserve’s currency. Regarding this case I commend to your attention the article by Seth Lipsky, “When Private Money Becomes a Felony Offense,” Wall St. Journal, 31 March 2011.

The repeal of §486 would avoid a repeat of the injustice done to Mr. von Not Haus. I share Mr. Lipky’s view that “it’s a loser’s game to suppress private money that is sound in order to protect government-issued money that is unsound.”

Title 18 §489 of current law outlaws making or possessing “any token, disk, or device in the likeness or similitude as to design, color, or the inscription thereon of any of the coins of the United States or of any foreign country issued as money, either under the authority of the United States or under the authority of any foreign government”. Von NotHaus was also charged with violating this section. In my view §489 is redundant at best and over-reaching at worst. It is redundant at best because if there is any fraudulent intent in making or passing such a device, it is already outlawed under §485, which bans the counterfeiting of US coins. To outlaw “likeness or similitude as to design, color, or the inscription” [emphasis added] in cases where it is not counterfeiting and has no fraudulent intent, is far too sweeping. Taken literally, §489 outlaws all commemorative silver medallions—and if you go on eBay, you’ll find that there are thousands of them for sale—because it says that you are in violation of the law if you make or own any disk that merely has a color similar to that of a US quarter.

Conclusion
Competition in general creates incentives to provide a high quality product by taking business away from low-quality producers. Competition in currency is a practical idea that offers sizable benefits to the public when the quality of the incumbent currency becomes doubtful. In particular, US citizens would benefit from freedom of choice among monetary alternatives though the removal of current legal restrictions and obstacles against currencies that could compete with Federal Reserve Notes and US Treasury coins. HR 1098 would give currency competition a chance.


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Taxation of banks

by Kurt Schuler September 5th, 2011 10:26 pm

Banks present a tempting target for taxation because that’s where the money is. As with other forms of corporate taxation, though, who pays the tax to the government and who ultimately pays it can be two different things. This point is both so elementary and so important that if you hear somebody claim that the solution to raising more government revenue is to tax corporations rather than people, you can dismiss him as an ignoramus. Failing to understand it shows an inability to do what the economist Thomas Sowell calls “thinking beyond Step 1.” Step 1 is the levying of the tax. The further steps, which involve thinking about what happens next, are what Sowell considers to be the essence of the economic way of thinking.

Somebody, literally some body, has to pay the tax. That somebody is a combination of the customers, employees, suppliers, and shareholders of the corporation. A tax on bank profits, for instance, reduces the amount that banks can pay to depositors, bank tellers, furniture makers who supply bank offices, shareholders, etc.

If you don’t find the argument convincing, think about a tax on gasoline. The gasoline does not pay the tax because it is inanimate. Oil companies collect the tax, but the people who pay most of it are drivers, every time they fill up the tank. Or think about a property tax. As anyone who owns a house knows, the property itself does not pay the tax; the property owner does. If he rents out the property, it becomes a charge he tries to recover from renters.

There are only three logical reasons to tax corporations. One is that because of the way the tax code is written, some income that would otherwise be taxed as individual income escapes taxation by being sheltered by the corporate form. In that case, the best way to address the problem is to reform the tax code. The second reason to tax corporations is that it is more efficient, since there are many fewer corporations than there are individual taxpayers. Before the rise of the welfare state, this reason might have made sense. To generate the huge amounts of money necessary to run the welfare state, though, governments create tax collection agencies to keep tabs on the finances of millions of individuals. The final reason to tax corporations is to hide the effects from people who can’t reason beyond Step 1. I think this is the dominant reason for taxing corporations, including banks.


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Is Fractional-Reserve Banking Inflationary?

by George Selgin September 2nd, 2011 10:51 am

(This is another piece originally written for the now-defunct Free Market News Network. Although the piece is mainly aimed at "Rothbardian" claims to the effect that fractional-reserve banking is inflationary, advocates of free-banking are sometimes also guilty of exaggerating the influence of banking-industry structure on inflation, as some do, for instance, by suggesting that bank deregulation alone will serve to combat inflation. Generally speaking, an economy's rate of inflation is mainly a function, not of the reserve ratios kept by its banks or of whether banking is a free or heavily regulated industry, but of the nature of it's base money regime.)

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Certain economists of the Austrian School, and followers of Murray Rothbard especially, oppose fractional reserve banking for at least three reasons. They claim that banks resorting to it defraud people, that they bring about business cycles, and that their activities cause inflation. This article addresses the last claim only: I hope to discuss the others separately.

The “Rothbardians,” as I’ll refer to them, recognize two distinct meanings of the word “inflation.” One meaning—which they prefer—defines it as any increase in the nominal stock of money, including fractionally-backed bank deposits and notes (which they, following Ludwig von Mises, prefer to call “money substitutes”). The other, which is in common use today, defines it as any ongoing increase in the general level of prices, that is, as a positive rate of change in one or more broad price indexes, such as the CPI. In calling fractional reserve banking “inflationary” Rothbardians often seem to have the latter, more conventional definition of inflation in mind, and my arguments are mainly aimed at responding to their complaint so interpreted. However, in doing so, I also hope to clarify the extent to which fractional reserve banking does or doesn’t promote “inflation” in the less conventional and more strictly Rothbardian sense of encouraging growth in the (broad) money stock.

Perhaps the simplest way to assess the price-level consequences of fractional reserve banking is to first imagine an economy in which such banking is prohibited, as many Rothbardians insist it ought to be. Such an economy would admit 100-percent reserve or “warehouse” banks only. To simplify the comparison further, let’s assume that all exchanges are conducted using warehouse bank certificates: in other words, the reserve medium itself—let’s assume it’s gold—doesn’t circulate. The price level adjusts so as to equate the supply of and demand for gold, including bank reserves.

Assuming fixed levels of demand for both money and non-monetary gold, there can be no inflation in this system, in either sense of the term, so long as the gold stock also remains unchanged. That stock could increase, however, as a result of gold mining. For the sake of argument, though, let’s assume that available gold mines have all been exhausted, and that no new discoveries are forthcoming. By assuming that available gold is not consumed—in the sense of being gradually used up—by industry, we can rule out deflation as well.

Suppose next that fractional reserve banking is legalized and that, Rothbardian warnings notwithstanding, it becomes so popular that all the old warehouse banks embrace it. Will inflation result? Of course it will—but only for a time. As fractionally-backed notes (or deposit credits) take the place of their 100-percent reserve predecessors, the demand for monetary gold, and hence the demand for gold in general, declines, causing the value of gold to decline with it. Because prices are expressed in terms of an (unchanged) gold unit, the price level has to rise. But as the demand for gold doesn’t drop to zero—banks still hold some reserves, and there is still a non-monetary demand for gold—the price level eventually reaches a new equilibrium. All this assumes, by the way, that the switch to fractional reserves is worldwide: if the switch was limited to a single, small country, then banks in that country would export their unneeded gold reserves to the rest of the world, and worldwide price level changes would be negligible.

The overall extent of the increase in prices, and of the underlying expansion of fractionally-backed bank money, will depend on the reserve ratio banks settle on. The lower the ratio, the higher the rise in prices. But whatever the ratio turns out to be, the system will eventually reach a point at which inflation ceases. The move to fractional reserves results, in other words, in a permanent, once-and-for-all price level change, but not in any permanent change in the inflation rate.

What’s to keep the banks from further reducing their reserve ratios? The answer is that, so long as they all compete on an equal footing, as in a free banking system, each will be inclined to routinely return claims, such as checks or banknotes, received from rival banks. The uncertain flow of such interbank “clearings” generates a demand for reserves for settlement, which (in the presence of positive costs of default) will vary with the volume of outstanding bank liabilities, even if bank customers never bother to withdraw gold. Although optimal reserve ratios are unlikely to remain perfectly constant over time, and may decline gradually as more efficient settlement procedures are discovered, for the most part the rate of inflation under an established and mature fractional reserve arrangement is unlikely to differ substantially from the rate that would prevail under 100-percent reserves.

Admittedly this conclusion depends on the assumption of an unchanged real demand for money. If the demand for money grows over time, as it does in most healthy economies, that growth will in fact have different implications for inflation under the two regimes. Yet it still won’t promote inflation in either case. On the contrary: in the 100-percent reserve case, growth in money demand must cause prices to decline at a roughly corresponding rate (“roughly” because there may be some shifting of available gold from non-monetary employments to bank reserves). Under fractional-reserve banking, in contrast, there will be greater scope for monetary expansion, depending on how free banks are from legal impediments. Under free banking, for example, banks can “stretch” their reserves somewhat as the demand for money increases, provided that the increase takes the form of a fallen velocity of money. This happens because the fall in velocity translates, ceteris paribus, into a fall in both the volume of bank clearings and the demand for reserves. In other words, in the presence of economic growth, a free fractional-reserve banking system, although it won’t promote inflation, will be somewhat less deflationary than a 100-percent reserve system.

If fractional reserve banking isn’t to blame for inflation, what is? Inflation could break out because of new precious-metal discoveries, or cheaper means for extracting metal from existing mines. Experience suggests, though, that metal-driven inflations aren’t likely to be serious. The California gold rush, for instance, barely caused a blip in most measures of the price level (the monetary expansion it sponsored was quickly overtaken by offsetting growth in money demand). Likewise, the so-called “price revolution” of the 16th century—a quadrupling of European prices that was at least partly due to the inflow of gold and silver from the New World—translated into an average annual inflation rate of below two percent. Of course even normal gold production will tend, other things equal, to raise prices, but industrial consumption and secular growth in money demand will have the opposite effect. In the long-run, if history is any guide, these forces will tend to cancel out—and will do so whether banks hold fractional reserves or not.

Responsibility for really serious inflations belongs, with only rare exceptions, to central banks, and especially to central banks (or other government agencies) that issue irredeemable fiat money. The monopoly privileges central banks enjoy, and their monopolies of paper currency in particular, give them much greater powers of monetary expansion than ordinary commercial banks enjoy, by freeing them from the discipline of routine clearing and settlement. Because other banks are denied the right to issue their own notes, they treat central bank notes as reserve assets—and will tend to do so even under a gold standard. The central bank is then free to expand—and to encourage other banks to expand with it—until inflation proceeds to a point where gold can be had more cheaply by cashing in its notes than by buying it in the open market. A central bank that issues inconvertible fiat money can, of course, expand without running into any material checks. It is no coincidence that all of the world’s great inflations have taken place in fiat money regimes.

The claim that fractional reserve banking as such is inflationary is unfortunate, not merely because it is theoretically as well as factually wrong, but also because it diverts attention away from central banks and government authorities—the real culprits behind any serious inflation—while pointing a finger at ordinary commercial bankers, who are at most guilty of making use of new reserves that central bankers generate. In this way Rothbardians unwittingly give credence to central bankers’ claim that inflation isn’t their fault: that its cause rests in private-market developments that they—“inflation fighters” all—are doing their utmost to combat.

So it’s time to dump the rhetoric linking inflation to fractional reserves. Fractional-reserve banking may have its drawbacks, but a tendency to fuel inflation isn’t one of them, and the chief beneficiaries of claims to the contrary are none other than the world’s central bankers and their apologists.