Tuesday, February 01, 2005

How Banks Create Money

Everyone understands that banks EARN money by charging interest and fees on the money they loan. To get the money they loan, banks entice people to deposit money with the bank and receive interest from the bank on the funds they deposit to their accounts. A bank's earnings then become the difference between what they earn in interest on the loans they make to borrowers and what they have to pay in interest to their depositors.

Banks also CREATE money. As was explained above banks can earn money from the interest charged on loans made with the funds people deposit. In addition to loaning funds deposited, banks can also create new money and loan this out. For the purposes of this economics class we are not interested in how the banks EARN money from the loans they make. In this sense they are no different from any other business and not worth a chapter in the text. Gas stations make money by buying a gallon of gasoline from a wholesale supplier and selling it to a consumer. If a gas station had a way of buying ONE GALLON of gasoline from the wholesale supplier and transforming it into TEN GALLONS of gasoline to sell to the customer that would warrant a chapter in the boo!.

But, unlike gas stations, banks do have the ability to literally create the product they sell almost out of thin air. By creating new money, banks have a major effect on the economy. Creating additional money means people have greater ability to spend and this increases aggregate demand and economic activity.

Banks have basically two types of accounts:

TIME DEPOSITS - which are various types of savings accounts including certificates of deposit (CDs). For our purposes the significance of these accounts is the fact that they require the depositor to leave the funds at the bank for a certain period of time. Certificates of Deposit actually specify the time period and if the depositor withdraws the funds prior to the expiration date they are charged a stiff penalty (often 10% or more). Regular savings accounts usually allow the depositor to withdraw the funds at any time but, legally (and it is stated in the fine print which no one bothers to read) the bank can require 30 or more days written notice of intent to withdraw the funds. While this 30 day notice rule is not enforced now days (but it is still enforceable should the bank have a need to) the bank does require that the depositor make a trip to the bank during normal business hours to withdraw the money. This, plus the fact that most people's reason for having a SAVINGS account is to SAVE money, means that savings depositors tend to let the money sit in the bank for long periods of time. This money can thus be safely lent out knowing that the depositor will not withdraw it before the loan is repaid (if I deposit $10,000 in a one year CD and someone walks in behind me and borrows that $10,000 for one year the bank knows that the funds are due back the same day that my CD expires so the funds go from me to the bank, then to the borrower who returns them in one year at which point I return to get my money back - the bank collects 10% [$1000] from the borrower, pays me my 3% [$300] and pockets the difference [$700] as profit).

DEMAND DEPOSITS - these are the second type of account and are also called checking accounts. A DEMAND deposit is an account in which the depositor can get their money back ON DEMAND at any time. The depositor simply walks into the bank and presents a check and the money is turned over IMMEDIATELY - the bank cannot refuse or delay the request. To make it even more convenient, the depositor can simply write a check and the person receiving the check has the right to go to that bank and DEMAND the funds in full immediately. Loaning these funds is riskier since the loan is usually made for a specified period of time while the deposit can be withdrawn at any time.

Close to 1,000 years of experience has taught us two things:

FIRST: People who deposit money into a checking account tend to pay for things by writing checks rather than by going to the bank to get their money and then making the payment - thus the depositors themselves rarely withdraw cash from their accounts.

SECOND: Merchants and others who receive the checks usually prefer to deposit the checks to their own checking accounts (which are often at the same bank) rather than present them for cash.
Given the above two facts, it is apparent that, despite the fact that the funds can legally be withdrawn at any time on demand, money deposited into demand deposits or checking accounts is actually more stable (in the sense of staying in the bank) than time deposits since people frequently do withdraw funds from savings when the time is up.

This fact allows the bank to, on the one hand, promise to pay the depositor, on demand, the contents of the account and at the same time loan the funds to another. Since I am writing checks against my account (spending the money) while at the same time someone else has borrowed the funds in my account and is spending that money the bank has in effect increased the amount of money in circulation by enabling two people (the depositor and the borrower) to spend the same funds at the same time.

But the money creation does not stop here. When you go to the bank to borrow the money that I deposited, the bank does not give you cash. Instead, the bank deposits the funds into your checking account (or opens an account for you and deposits the funds into it). The money stays in the vault while the bank's books show the funds in two peoples' accounts. Now both of us can write checks and the bank can be reasonably certain that the recipients of our checks will deposit them rather than ask for cash so the funds will never leave the vault.

Since the money deposited or credited to the borrower's checking account is no more likely to have to be paid out in cash than the money credited to the original depositor's account, that too can be safely loaned out. So now we have $10,000 cash sitting in the vault which was deposited by me and credited to my checking account. We also have $10,000 (forget about reserves for the moment) credited to borrower 1's checking account (which is the same $10,000 cash that I deposited) and the bank now re-loans the $10,000 in borrower 1's account to borrower 2. We now have three people, each able to write up to $10,000 in checks (so up to $30,000 worth of checks can be written) but only $10,000 in cash with which the bank can honor its pledge to pay on demand any and all checks presented from those three accounts. So long as people keep depositing their checks there is no problem, but if everyone decides they want cash the bank will be unable to honor them and will fail.

The customer's like this situation because checking accounts provide the convenience of cash but are safer (if my checkbook is lost or stolen I can put out the word not to accept my checks - but if my cash is lost or stolen there is no way anyone can identify my stolen bills) and less bulky as I can carry one million dollars in my checking account with ease but would need a suitcase to carry that much cash (if we used gold, as they did originally, rather than paper money the carrying problem is even greater).

Banks like the situation because they are able to keep make multiple loans (earning interest and fees on each one) from the same deposit.

From the economy's point of view the banks are creating money. Since checks are widely accepted in lieu of cash, then issuing multiple checking accounts backed by the same cash deposit, the bank is allowing that money to be spent multiple times. In the example above, there was $10,000 in actual cash but three people could spend that same cash thereby converting the $10,000 in cash to $30,000 worth of spending.

In the past banks, not governments, PRINTED paper money. Governments issued currency in the form of gold (and sometimes silver) coins. The U.S. Constitution gives the U.S. Government a monopoly on COINING money (i.e., only the Federal Government can legally mint coins to be used as money) which is a traditional right of governments. Anyone can print and issue paper money. Printing your own money is legal - COPYING someone else's money is illegal and is called forgery. If I make copies of U.S. $20 bills with Andrew Jackson's picture that is forgery and I can go to jail. If I print $20 Nugent Bucks with my picture on them that is perfectly legal (and worthless unless I can find some sucker to accept them).

Prior to checking accounts, banks would accept deposits of gold and issue receipts that could be redeemed for the gold. The receipts could be given to someone else to be redeemed - if I brought a cow from one of you I could pay for it with the receipt for my gold at the bank rather than going to the bank for the gold. When banks realized (about 600 or 700 years ago) that people left the gold in the bank and just circulated the receipts they began making loans against the gold by issuing more receipts. Eventually they simply began issuing standard bills (money they printed) which promised to pay, on demand, in gold. For every deposit of actual gold they found that they could print ten or fifteen times that amount in paper money to be loaned out. This was the start of FRACTIONAL RESERVE BANKING or the practice of backing up the money printed by banks or, now days, the checking accounts issued by the bank, with gold (or U.S. currency now days) that is worth only a fraction of the value of the paper money or checking accounts the bank issues.

Since people do occasionally ask for cash (or gold in the past), prudence (and now days the LAW) requires that banks not lend out 100% of their deposits, but maintain some in reserve to honor the few requests they get for actual cash. Today banks could probably get away with keeping about 10% as a reserve but the law requires a higher amount (currently about 18%) in order to give the system a greater margin for error.

It is the reserve requirement that prevents the banks from re-lending the funds indefinitely. When the bank takes a deposit it can only re-lend 82% of the amount (keeping the other 18% in reserve). Putting the 82% into the new borrower's checking account gives them the opportunity to lend it again but they can only lend 82% of that account (which was 82% of the original deposit). As you can see, each new round of lending gets smaller and smaller until eventually no additional loans can be made against the original deposit.

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