by George Reisman
As you all know, we are in a severe economic downturn. The official unemployment rate now exceeds 10 percent and according to many observers is actually substantially higher. Within the last year or so, our financial system has been rocked to its foundations. The collapse of the housing bubble and the numerous defaults and bankruptcies connected with it brought down major financial institutions, such as Bear-Stearns, Lehman Brothers, and Merrill Lynch. It also brought down numerous small and medium-sized banks and threatened to bring down even such banking giants as Citigroup and Bank of America. The Dow Jones stock average fell from a high of 14,000 to about 6,500. Important retailers such as CompUSA, Circuit City, Mervyns, and Linens 'N Things went under, as did countless small businesses throughout the country. Practically every shopping mall gives testimony to the severity of the downturn in the form of vacant stores.
The collapse of the housing bubble and the massive losses and mounting unemployment that have resulted from it have unleashed a veritable firestorm of hostility against capitalism, in the conviction that it is capitalism and its economic freedom that are responsible. It is now generally taken for granted that any solution for the downturn requires massive new government intervention, to curb, control, or abolish this or that aspect of capitalism and its alleged evil.
Reflecting this view, in an effort to avoid financial collapse, the government's response was the enactment of an $800 billion "stimulus package" designed to boost spending throughout the economic system, and the pouring of more than $1.1 trillion of new and additional reserves into the banking system, along with the direct investment of capital in the country's most important banks and in major automobile firms, in order to prevent them from failing.
As a result of its so-called "investments," the government now owns a majority interest in the common stock of General Motors, once the flagship company of capitalism. There have been important extensions of government control over the economic system in other areas as well. For example, the stimulus package contains substantial funding for new bureaucracies to control healthcare and energy production.
The new and additional bank reserves, moreover, are not only massive, but almost all of them are excess reserves. Excess reserves are the reserves available to the banks for the making of new and additional loans, i.e., for new and additional credit expansion. They are the difference between the reserves the banks actually hold and the reserves they are required to hold by law or government regulation.
To gauge the significance of today's excess reserves, one should consider that total bank reserves as recently as July of 2008 were on the order of just $45 billion, and excess reserves were less than $2 billion. Those $45 billion of reserves supported a total of checking deposits in one form or another on the order of $6 trillion (a sum that included traditional checking deposits, so-called "sweep accounts," money-market mutual-fund accounts, and money-market deposit accounts insofar as checks could be written against them). That was a ratio of checking deposits to reserves in excess of 100 to 1, or equivalently, a fractional reserve of less than 1 percent.
Today, of the $1.1 trillion-plus of total reserves, all but approximately $62 billion of required reserves, are excess reserves. As of the week of November 4, excess reserves were $1.06 trillion.
Fortunately, for the time being at least, the banks are afraid to lend very much of this sum, but the potential is clearly there for a massive new credit expansion and corresponding increase in the quantity of money. Recognition of this potential is reflected in the current surge in the price of precious metals. Indeed, since $1.06 trillion of new and additional excess reserves are more than 22 times as large as the $45 billion of reserves that were sufficient not so long ago to support $6 trillion of checking deposits, they might potentially support checking deposits in excess of $132 trillion. In effect, what has happened is that our recent brush with massive deflation has turned out to be an occasion for a massive inflationary fueling period in the effort to avoid that deflation.
Inflation and Deflation: Credit Expansion and Malinvestment
The title of my talk, of course, is "A Pro-Free-Market Program for Economic Recovery." What this entails changes as the government adds new and additional measures that create new and additional problems. If I were giving this talk a year ago, my discussion would have been weighted somewhat more heavily toward deflation and somewhat less heavily toward inflation than is the case today.
A fundamental fact is that our present monetary system is characterized both by irredeemable paper money, i.e., fiat money, and by credit expansion. There is no limit to the quantity of fiat money that can be created. This is the foundation for potentially limitless inflation and the ultimate destruction of the paper money, when the point is reached that it loses value so fast that no one will accept it any longer.
The fact that our monetary system is also characterized by credit expansion is what creates the potential for massive deflation — for deflation to the point of wiping out the far greater part of the money supply, which in the conditions of the last centuries has been brought into existence through the mechanism of credit expansion.
Credit expansion is what underlay the housing bubble, and before that, the stock market bubble, and before that a long series of other booms and busts, running through the Great Depression of 1929 that followed the stock market boom of the 1920s, through the 19th and 18th Centuries all the way back to the Mississippi Bubble of 1719, and perhaps even further back.
Credit expansion is the lending out of money created virtually out of thin air. It is money manufactured by the banking system, always with at least the implicit sanction of the government, which chooses not to outlaw the practice. Since 1913, credit expansion in this country has proceeded not only with the sanction but also with the approval, and active encouragement of the Federal Reserve System, which, as I've shown, is now desperately trying to reignite the process as the means of recovering from the current downturn.
The new and additional money is created by the banking system through the lending out of funds placed on deposit with it by its customers and still held by those customers in the form of checking accounts of one kind or another. The customers can continue to spend those checking deposits themselves, simply by writing checks or using other, similar methods of transferring their balances to others.
But now, at the same time, those to whom the banks have lent in this way also have money. To illustrate the process, imagine that Mr. X deposits $1,000 of currency in his checking account. He retains the ability to spend his $1,000 by means of writing checks. From his point of view, he has not reduced the money he owns any more than if he had exchanged $1,000 in hundred-dollar bills for $1,000 in fifty-dollar bills, or vice versa. He has merely changed the form in which he continues to hold the exact same quantity of money.
But now imagine that Mr. X's bank takes, say, $900 of the currency that he has deposited and lends it to Mr. Y. Mr. Y now possess $900 of spendable money in addition to the $1,000 that Mr. X continues to possess. In other words, the quantity of money in the economic system has been increased by $900. Mr. Y's loan has been financed by the creation of new and additional money virtually out of thin air. This is the nature and meaning of credit expansion.
Now, nothing of substance is changed, if instead of lending currency to Mr. Y, Mr. X's bank creates a new and additional checking deposit for Mr. Y in the amount of $900. (This, in fact, is the way credit expansion usually occurs in present-day conditions.) There will once again be $900 of new and additional money. There will be altogether $1,900 of money resting on a foundation merely of the $1,000 of currency deposited by Mr. X.
The $1,000 of currency that Mr. X's bank holds is its reserve. If Mr. Y deposits his currency or check in another bank, it is the banking system that now has $1,000 of reserves and $1,900 of checking deposits. On the foundation of these reserves, it can create still more money and use it in the further expansion of credit. Indeed, as we have seen, the process of credit expansion is capable of creating checking deposits more than 100 times as large as the reserves that support them.
Credit expansion makes it possible to understand what caused the housing bubble and its collapse. From January of 2001 to December of 2007, credit expansion took place in excess of $2 trillion. This new and additional money made available in the loan market drove down interest rates, including, very prominently, interest rates on home mortgages. Since the interest rate on a mortgage is a major factor determining the cost of homeownership, lower mortgage interest rates greatly encouraged buying houses.
This artificially increased demand for houses, made possible by credit expansion, soon began to raise the prices of houses, and as the new and additional money kept pouring into the housing market, home prices continued to rise. This went on long enough to convince many people that the mere buying and selling of houses was a way to make a good living. On this basis, the demand for houses increased yet further, and finally a point was reached where the median-priced home was no longer affordable by anyone whose income was not far in excess of the median income, i.e., only by a relatively few percent of families.
In the middle of 2004, the Federal Reserve became alarmed about the situation and its implications for rising prices in general, and over the next two years progressively increased its Federal Funds interest rate from 1 percent to 5.25 percent. This rise in the Federal Funds rate signified a reduction in the flow of new and additional excess reserves into the banking system and thus its ability to make new and additional loans. This served to prick the housing bubble.
But before its end, perhaps as much as a trillion and a half dollars or more of credit expansion and its newly created money had been channeled into the housing market. Once the basis of high and rising home prices had been removed, home prices began to fall, leaving large numbers of borrowers with homes worth less than they had paid for them and with mortgages they could not meet.
The investments in housing represented a classic case of what Mises calls "malinvestment," i.e., the wasteful investment of capital in inherently uneconomic ventures. The malinvestment in housing was on a scale comparable to the credit expansion that had created it, i.e., about $2 trillion or more. That's about how much was lost in the housing market. When the money capital created by credit expansion was wiped out, the lending, investment spending, employment, and consumer spending that depended on that capital were also wiped out.
And, particularly important, as vast numbers of home buyers defaulted on their mortgages, the mounting losses on mortgage loans increasingly wiped out the capital of banks and other financial institutions, setting the stage for their failure.
The current plight of the economic system is the result of credit expansion and the malinvestment it engenders. Capital in physical terms is the physical assets of business firms. It is their plant and equipment and inventories and work in progress. As Mises never tired of pointing out, capital goods cannot be created by credit expansion. All that credit expansion can do is change their employment and shift them into lines where their employment results in losses. The empty stores and idle factories around the country are very much the result of the loss of the capital squandered in malinvestment in housing.
Other Consequences of Credit Expansion
The plight of the economic system is also the result of other consequences of credit expansion, namely, the encouragement it gives to high debt and dangerous leverage. This is the result of the fact that while credit expansion drives down market interest rates, the spending of the new and additional funds it represents serves to drive up business sales revenues and what the old classical economists called the rate of profit. This combination makes borrowing appear highly profitable and greatly encourages it. Individuals and business firms take on more and more debt relative to their equity. They expect borrowing to multiply their gains.
In addition, credit expansion is responsible for many business firms operating with lower cash holdings relative to the scale of their economic activity, in many cases, dangerously low cash holdings. Many businessmen develop the attitude, why hold cash when credit expansion makes it possible to borrow easily and profitably? Instead, invest the money.
"Why hold cash when credit expansion makes it possible to borrow easily and profitably? Instead, invest the money."
Thus, when credit expansion finally gives way to the recognition of vast malinvestments and the accompanying loss of huge sums of capital, the economic system is also mired in debt and deficient in cash. Thus, it is poised to fall like a house of cards, in a vast cascade of failures and bankruptcies, first and foremost, bank failures.
The Road to Recovery
The road to recovery from our economic downturn can be understood only in the light of knowledge of credit expansion and its consequences. The nature of credit expansion and its consequences imply the nature of the cure.
The prevailing — Keynesian — view on how to recover from our downturn totally ignores credit expansion and its effects. It believes that all that counts is "spending," practically any kind of spending. Just get the spending going and economic activity will follow, the Keynesians believe.
This conception of things, which underlies the support for "stimulus packages" and anything else that will increase consumer spending, is mistaken. It rests on a fundamental misconception. It ignores the fact that the fundamental problem is not insufficient spending, but insufficient capital due to the losses caused by malinvestment. It ignores the further facts that credit expansion has brought about excessive debt and, however counterintuitive this may seem, insufficient cash. Too little capital, too much debt, and not enough cash are the problems that countless business firms are facing today as a result of the credit expansion that generated the housing bubble.
Just as a reminder: the way that credit expansion brings about a situation of too little cash while itself constituting a flood of cash is that it makes it appear profitable to invest every last dollar of cash in the expectation of being able easily and profitably to borrow whatever cash may be needed.
What this discussion implies is that an essential requirement of economic recovery is that the widespread problems in the balance sheets of business firms must be fixed. Business firms need more capital, less debt, and more cash. When they achieve that, business confidence will be restored.
Ironically what could achieve at least less debt and more cash in the hands of business, and thus actually do some significant good is if when people received government "stimulus" money, they did not spend very much of it, or, better still, any of it at all. To the extent that all people did with money coming from the government was pay down debt and hold more cash, they would be engaged in a process of undoing some of the major damage done by credit expansion. They would be reducing their burden of debt and increasing their liquidity, thereby increasing their security against the threat of insolvency. Such behavior, of course, would be regarded by Keynesians as constituting a failure of their policies, because in their eyes, all that counts is consumer spending.
The 100-Percent Reserve
The most important single step on the road to economic recovery is the establishment of a 100-percent reserve system against checking deposits. Ideally, the 100-percent reserve would be in gold. And that's ultimately what we should aim at, for all of the reasons Rothbard explained. But even a 100-percent reserve in paper would do the job of totally preventing all future credit expansion and, equally important, all declines in the money supply.
(Because the 100-percent gold reserve standard is the long-run ideal of advocates of sound money, I cannot help but feel a sense of great satisfaction in the fact that a major step toward its achievement is what turns out to be urgently needed as a matter of sound current economic policy.)
In the simplest terms, to establish a 100-percent-reserve system in terms of paper, the government would simply print up enough additional paper currency so that when added to the paper currency the banks already have, every last dollar of their checking deposits would be covered by such currency. (Strictly speaking, a significant part, and for some months now the far greater part, of the reserves of the banks are not in actual currency but in checking deposits with the Federal Reserve. For the sake of simplicity, however, we can think of the checking deposits held by the banks with the Federal Reserve as a denomination of currency, since, for the banks, they are fully as interchangeable with currency as $50 bills are with $100 bills and vice versa.)
To illustrate the process of achieving a 100-percent reserve, imagine that total checking deposits are $3 trillion. In that case, the Fed would give the banks new and additional reserves that when added to their existing reserves would bring them up to $3 trillion. Through various programs, such as purchasing bad assets, the Fed has in fact already brought the total reserves of the banks up to over a trillion dollars, but almost all of those reserves, as we've seen, are excess reserves, a ready foundation for a massive new credit expansion, since excess reserves can be lent out.
What my example implies is adding to the $1.1 trillion of reserves the banking system now has, a further $1.9 trillion and making all $3 trillion of reserves required reserves. This would mean that the banks could not engage in any lending of these reserves and thus would be unable to finance credit expansion or any increase in the supply of checking deposits on the strength of them. The money supply in the hands of the public and spendable in the economic system would thus not be increased. That would happen only if and to the extent that the 100-percent reserve principle were breached.
Under a 100-percent reserve, checking depositors could simultaneously all demand their full balances in cash and the banks would be able to pay them all. Depositors' demand for cash would not create a problem and no amount of losses by the banks on their loans and investments would prevent them from honoring their checking deposits immediately and in full. Thus the checking deposit component of the money supply could not fall and nor, of course could its other component, which is the paper money in the hands of the public, usually described as the currency component. Thus, there could simply be no deflation of the money supply. And, as I've said, because all reserves would be required reserves, there would simply be no reserves whatever available for lending out, and thus no credit expansion whatever. The expression "killing two birds with one stone" could not have a better application.
"The most important single step on the road to economic recovery is the establishment of a 100-percent reserve system against checking deposits."
In a addition, a significant byproduct of a 100-percent reserve system would be that the FDIC would no longer serve any purpose and thus could be abolished.
Now an essential prerequisite of the 100-percent reserve is knowing the size of checking deposits, so that it will be known how much the 100-percent reserve needs to cover. At present, when one allows for such things as "sweep accounts," money-market mutual funds, and money-market deposit accounts, the magnitude to which the 100-percent reserve would apply can plausibly be argued to range from about $1.5 trillion to $8 trillion. It is very solidly $1.5 trillion, but does in fact range up to $8 trillion in that checks can be written on the additional sums involved, at least from time to time and for some large minimum amount.
To clearly establish the magnitude of checking deposits, bank depositors should be asked if their intention is to hold money in the bank, ready for their immediate use and transfer to others, or to lend money to the bank. In the first case, their funds would be in a checking account, against which the bank would have to hold a 100-percent reserve. In the second case, their funds would be in a savings account, against which the bank could hold whatever lesser reserve it considered necessary. In this case, the bank's customers could not spend the funds they had deposited until they withdrew them from the bank.
As I've said, the long-run goal in connection with the 100-percent reserve would be ultimately to convert it to a 100-percent gold reserve system. At that time, following the ideas of Rothbard further, the gold reserve of the Fed would be priced high enough to equal the currency and checking deposits of the country and be physically turned over to the individual citizens and the banks in exchange for all outstanding Federal Reserve money. The Fed would then be abolished. But this is a distinct and much later step in pro-free-market reform.
The 100-Percent Reserve and New Bank Capital
It should be realized that a major consequence of the establishment of a 100-percent-reserve system could be a corresponding enlargement of the capital of the banking system and thus an ability to cover even very great losses and thereby avoid such things as government bank bailouts and takeovers.
Consider the balance sheet of an imaginary bank. It's got checking deposit liabilities of $100. Initially, it has assets of $105, which implies that on the liabilities side of its balance sheet it has capital of $5 in addition to its checking deposit liabilities of $100.
Now unfortunately, malinvestment has resulted in a loss of $20 in the banks' assets, in the part of its assets consisting of loans and investments. As a result, its total assets are reduced from $105 to $85 and its capital is completely wiped out and becomes negative in the amount of $15.
However, on its asset side the bank still has some cash reserve, say, $10. If $90 of new and additional reserves were added to these $10, to bring the bank's reserves up to 100-percent equality with its checking deposits, the bank's asset total would also be increased by $90. This $90 increase on the bank's asset side would have to be matched by a $90 increase on its liabilities side, specifically by a $90 increase in its capital. Its capital would go from minus $15 to plus $75.
Applying this to the banking system as a whole in transitioning to a 100-percent reserve, we can see that the creation of such a vast amount of new bank capital would be entailed as easily to overcome whatever losses the banks might have suffered in their loans and investments.
As explained, if checking deposits were $3 trillion, the Fed would give the banks new and additional reserves that when added to their existing reserves would bring them up to $3 trillion. If this had been done in September of 2008, bringing reserves up to $3 trillion would have required adding $2.955 trillion of new and additional reserves to the $45 billion or so of reserves the banks already had. This vast addition on the asset side of the banks' balance sheets would have implied an equivalent addition to the banks' capital on the liabilities side. No matter how bad the banks' assets were, I think it's virtually certain that an additional sum of this size would have been far more than sufficient to cover all the losses that the banks had incurred in their bad loans and investments. Their capital would have ended up being increased to the extent that the additional reserves exceeded the losses in assets under the head of loans and investments.
The government's bailout program of stock purchases in the banks would have been avoided, along with all of its subsequent interference in matters of bank management.
Now, as we've seen, in fact the Fed has already supplied a vast amount of reserves, about $1.1 trillion, to the banks through various programs, such as purchasing bad assets. If the 100-percent reserve principle were adopted now, many or most of those assets could be taken back, and the programs that created them cancelled.
Thus, what I've shown here is how transitioning to a 100-percent reserve would guarantee the prevention both of new credit expansion and of deflation of the money supply. It could also provide additional capital to the banking system on a scale almost certainly far more than sufficient to place it on a financially sound footing. To avoid what would otherwise likely be an excessive windfall to the banks, it would be possible to match a more or less considerable part of the increase in their assets provided by the creation of additional reserves, with the creation of a liability of the banks to their depositors, perhaps in the form of some kind of mutual-fund accounts. Thus, the newly created reserves might provide a financial benefit to the banks' depositors as well as to the banks.
Of course, a 100-percent reserve system in which the reserves are fiat money does not address the problem of preventing inflation of the fiat money. It would still be possible for the government to inflate the fiat money without restraint. That is why it is necessary to have gold in the monetary system, serving as a restraint on the amount of currency and reserves.
Thus, an important ancillary measure in connection with the transition to a 100-percent paper-reserve system would be for the government to demonstrate a serious intent to move to a gold standard. Obliging the Federal Reserve to carry out a program of regular and substantial gold bullion purchases might accomplish this. In any event, it would be an essential prerequisite for someday achieving gold reserves sufficient to make possible the establishment of a 100-percent-reserve gold system. Along the way, this measure should lead to the day when purchases of gold bullion were the only source of increases in the supply of currency and reserves.
Establishing the Freedom of Wage Rates to Fall
Along with stabilizing the financial system through the adoption of a 100-pecent reserve, it's absolutely essential to establish the freedom of wage rates and prices to fall. This is what is required to eliminate mass unemployment. Whatever the level of spending in the economic system may be, it is sufficient to buy as much additional labor and products as is required for everyone to be employed and producing as much as he can.
Nothing could be more obvious if one thinks about it. Assume, as is the case today, that there is 10 percent unemployment, with only 9 workers working for every 10 who are able and willing to work. The same total expenditure of money that today employs only 9 workers would be able to employ 10 workers, if the average wage per worker were 10 percent less. At nine-tenths the wage, the same total amount of wages is sufficient to employ ten-ninths the number of workers. It's a question of simple arithmetic: 1 divided by 9/10 equals 10/9.
(Obviously, this is an overall, average result. In reality, some wage rates would need to fall by less than 10 percent and others by more than 10 percent.)
Of course, total wage payments are not fixed in stone. They can change. And in response to a fall in wage rates to their equilibrium level, to eliminate mass unemployment, they would increase. This is because prior to their fall, investment expenditures have been postponed, awaiting their fall. Once that fall occurs, those investment expenditures take place.
Finally, with debt levels sufficiently reduced and cash holdings sufficiently high, and thus business confidence restored, there is no reason to believe that a fall in wage rates could abort the process of recovery as the result of already employed workers earning less and thus spending less before new and additional workers were hired. The cash reserves and financial strength of business firms would enable them easily to ride out any such situation. And thus mass unemployment would simply be eliminated.
What stops wage rates from falling, what makes it actually illegal for them to fall, and which thus perpetuates mass unemployment, is the underlying pervasive influence of the Marxian exploitation theory. That doctrine is responsible for the existence of such things as minimum-wage laws and coercive labor unions and their above-market wage scales.
The most important fundamental requirement for achieving a free market in labor is the total refutation of the exploitation theory and its complete discrediting in public opinion. Such a refutation will show that it is not government and labor unions that raise real wages but businessmen and capitalists, and that essentially, all that unions do is cause unemployment and a lower productivity of labor and thus prices that are higher relative to wage rates. This knowledge is what is required to make possible the repeal of minimum-wage and pro-union legislation and thus achieve the fall in wage rates that will eliminate mass unemployment
In summation, my pro-free-market program for economic recovery is a provisional 100-percent-paper-money-reserve system applied to checking deposits, accompanied by a demonstrable commitment to ultimately achieving a 100-percent-gold reserve system. The 100-percent reserve in paper would put an end to all further credit expansion and at the same time make the money supply incapable of being deflated. Its establishment would also greatly increase the capital of the banking system. It would do so by more than enough to cover all the losses on loans and investments incurred in the aftermath of the collapse of the housing bubble and thus make possible the elimination of government ownership of common stock in banks and its interference in bank management. What it would not do is control the increase in paper currency and paper-currency reserves. That will require a 100-percent gold reserve system.
Finally, the freedom of wage rates and prices to fall must be established through the repeal of pro-union and minimum-wage legislation, and more fundamentally, the education of the public concerning the errors of the Marxian exploitation theory and their replacement with actual knowledge of what determines wages and the general standard of living. To say the least, this will certainly not be an easy agenda to follow, inasmuch as it must begin in the midst of a Marxist occupation of our nation's capital.