The Death of Banks and the Future of Money
Banks are something between dinosaurs and vampires.
One thing is now clear to even the most casual observer: banks are not capitalist businesses. In their present incarnation they have little to do with the free market and no place in it. They are constantly oscillating between two positions:
One moment, they are a state protectorate, in desperate need of support from the state printing press or unlimited taxpayer funds, as, in the absence of such support, we are supposedly faced with the dreaded social fallout of complete financial collapse.
The next moment they are a convenient tool for state policy, simply to be fed with ample bank reserves and enticed with low interest rates to create yet more cheap credit and help manufacture some artificial growth spurt.
Either the banks are the permanent welfare queens of the fiat money systems, or convenient policy levers for the macro-economic central planners. In any case, this is certainly not how a capitalist business should look.
Central banks and modern fiat money banks are quite simply a blot on the capitalist system. In order for capitalism to operate smoothly they will ultimately have to be removed. I believe that the underlying logic of capitalism will work in that direction. Trying to ‘reform’ the present system is a waste of time and energy. It is particularly unbecoming for libertarians as they run the risk of getting infected with the strains of statism that run through the system. Let’s replace this system with something better. With a market-based monetary system.
When and how exactly the present system will end, nobody can say. I believe we are in the final inning. Around the world, all major central banks have now established zero or near-zero interest rates and are using their own balance sheets in a desperate attempt to avoid their highly geared banking systems from contracting or potentially collapsing. If you think that this is all just temporary and that it will be smoothly unwound when the economy finally ‘recovers’, then you are probably on some strong medication, or have been listening for too long to the mainstream economists who are, in the majority, happy to function as apologists for the present system.
I still believe that chances are we will, at some point, get the full throttle, foot-on-the pedal monetary overkill, the ultimate Ueber-QE that will push the system over the edge. This will be the moment when central bankers discover — and discover the hard way — that their ability to print their fiat money may well be unlimited but that the public’s confidence in this fiat money certainly is not. The whole system will blow up in some hyperinflationary fireball, which has been the end of most previous experiments with complete fiat money systems. They ended with a voluntary return to commodity money before the public had lost complete faith in the system. And the prospect for a voluntary and official return to a gold standard seems slim at present. However, this is not the topic of this essay.
The future of money
I am often asked what will come next after the present system collapsed? Will we have to go back to barter? — No. Obviously, a modern capitalist economy needs a functioning monetary system. My hope is that from the ashes of the current system a new monetary system arises that is entirely private and not run by states — and that does not have the unholy state-bank alliance at its core, an alliance that exists in opposition to everything that the free market stands for.
Nobody can say what this new system will look like precisely. Its shape and features will ultimately be decided by the market. In this field, as in others, there are few limits to human inventiveness and ingenuity. But we can already make a few conceptual points about such a system, and we should contemplate working on such a system now while the old system is in its death throes.
A private gold ‘standard’…
Free market monetary systems, in which the supply of money is outside political control, are likely to be systems in which money proper is a commodity of limited and fairly inelastic supply. It seems improbable that a completely free market would grant any private entity the right to produce (paper or electronic) money at will and without limit. The present system is unusual in this respect and it is evidently not a free market solution. Neither is it sustainable.
The obvious candidates are gold and silver, which have functioned as money for thousands of years. We could envision a modern system at whose centre are private companies that offer gold and silver storage, probably in a variety of jurisdictions (Zurich, London, Hong Kong, Vancouver).
Around this core of stored monetary metal a financial system is built that uses the latest information and payment technology to facilitate the easy, secure and cheap transfer of ownership in this base money between whoever chooses to participate in this system (Yes, there would be credit cards and wire transfers, and internet or mobile phone payments. There would, however, be no FOMC meetings, no Bank of England governor writing letters to the Chancellor, and no monetary policy!).
Are these gold and silver storage companies banks? — Well, they could become banks. In fact, this is how our present banking system started out. But there are important differences about which I will say a few things later. In any case this would be hard, international, private and apolitical money. This would be capitalist money.
Another solution would be private virtual money, such as Bitcoin.
Bitcoin is immaterial money, internet money. It is software.
Bitcoin can be thought of as a cryptographic commodity. Individual Bitcoins can be created through a process that is called ‘mining’. It involves considerable computing power, and the complex algorithm at the core of Bitcoin makes the creation of additional Bitcons more difficult (and thus more expensive) the more Bitcoins are already in existence. The overall supply of Bitcoins is limited to 21 million units. Again, this is fixed by the algorithm at the core of it, which cannot be altered.
Thus, creating Bitcoin money is entirely private but not costless and not unlimited. Most people will, of course, never ‘mine’ Bitcoins, just as under the gold standard most people didn’t mine gold. People will acquire Bitcoins through trade, by exchanging goods and services for Bitcoins, then using the Bitcoins for other transactions.
Bitcoin is hard money. Its supply is inelastic and not under the control of any issuing authority. It is international and truly capitalist ‘money’ — of course this assumes that the public is willing to use it as money.
There are naturally a number of questions surrounding Bitcoin that cannot be covered in this essay: Is it safe? Can the algorithm be changed or corrupted and Bitcoins thus be counterfeited? Are the virtual “wallets” in which the Bitcoins are stored safe? — These are questions for the computer security expert or cryptographer, and I am neither. My argument is conceptual. My goal is not to analyze Bitcoin as such but to speculate on the consequences of a virtual commodity currency, which I consider feasible in principle, and I simply assume — for the sake of the argument — that Bitcoin is already the solution. Whether that is indeed the case, I cannot say. And it is — again — for the market to decide.
There is one question for the economist, however: Could Bitcoin become widely accepted as money? Would this not contradict Mises’ regression theorem, which states that no form of money can come into existence as a ready medium of exchange; that whatever the monetary substance (or non-substance), it must have had some other commodity-use prior to its first use as money.
My counterargument here is the following: the analogy is to the banknote, which started life not as a commodity but as a payment device, i.e. a claim on money proper which was gold or silver at the time. Banknotes were initially used as a more convenient way to transfer ownership in gold or silver. Once banknotes circulated widely and were generally accepted as media of exchange in trade, the gold-backing could be dropped and banknotes still circulated as money. They had become money in their own right.
Similarly, Bitcoin can be thought off, initially, as payment technology, as a cheap and convenient device to transfer ownership in state paper money. (Bitcoins can presently be exchanged for paper money at various exchanges.) But as the supply of Bitcoins is restricted while the supply of state paper money constantly expands, the exchange-value of Bitcoins is bound to go up. And at some stage, Bitcoin could begin to trade as money proper.
A monetary system built on hard, international and apolitical money, whether in form of a private gold-system or Bitcoin, would be a truly capitalist system, a system that facilitates the free and voluntary exchange between private individuals and corporations within and across borders, a system that is stable and outside of political control. It would have many advantages for the money user but there would be little role for present-day banks, which goes to show to what extent banks have become a creature of the present state-fiat money system and all its inconsistencies.
Banks profit from money creation
Banks conduct fractional-reserve banking (FRB). That means they take deposits that are supposed to be safe and liquid and therefore pay the depositor little interest, and use them to fund loans that are illiquid and risky and thus pay the bank high interest. Through the process of fractional-reserve banking, banks expand the supply of money in the economy; they become money producers, which is, of course, profitable.
Many mainstream economists welcome FRB as a way to expand money and credit and ‘stimulate’ extra growth.But as the Currency School in Britain in the 19th century and in particular the Austrian School under Mises and Hayek in the early 20th century have argued convincingly (and as I explain in detail in Paper Money Collapse — The Folly of Elastic Money and the Coming Monetary) this process is not only risky for the individual banks it is destabilizing for the overall economy. It must cause boom-bust cycles.
I have to make clear: banks could conduct FRB even on the basis of a private system of gold-money or Bitcoin. However, in the absence of a backstop by way of a central bank that functions as a lender-of-last resort, the scope for FRB would be very limited. It would be too dangerous for banks to lower their reserve ratios (at least to fairly low levels) as that would increase the risk of a bank-run.
I am sometimes told that I am too critical of the central banks and the state, and that I should direct my ire toward the ‘greedy’ ‘private’ banks, for it is the ‘private’ banks that create all the money out there through FRB. Of course, they do. But FRB is only possible on the scale it has been conducted over recent decades because the banks are supported — and even actively encouraged — in their FRB activities by a lender-of-last resort central bank.
In particular as the central bank today has full and unlimited control over fiat money bank reserves. Under a system of hard money (gold or Bitcoin [whose total quantity is set — ed.]), even if the banks themselves started their own lender-of-last resort central bank, that entity could not create more gold reserves or Bitcoin reserves and thus provide unlimited support to the banks.
FRB is particularly unlikely to develop in a Bitcoin economy, as there is no need for a depository, for safe-keeping and storage services, and for any services that involve the transfer of the monetary system’s raw material (be it gold or state paper tickets) into other, more convenient forms of media of exchange, such as electronic money that can facilitate transactions over great distances.
The owner of Bitcoin has an account that is similar to his email account. He manages it himself and he stores his Bitcoin himself. And Bitcoin is money that is already readily usable for any transaction, anywhere in the world, simply via the internet. The bank as intermediary is being bypassed. The Bitcoin user takes direct control of his money. He can access his Bitcoins everywhere, simply via the SIM card in his smartphone.
The tremendous growth in FRB was made possible by the difficulty of transacting securely over long distances with physical gold or physical paper tickets. This created a powerful incentive to place the physical money with banks, and once the physical money was in the banks it became ‘reserves’ to be used for the creation of additional monetary assets.
Channeling true savings into investment is very important, but remember that FRB is something entirely different. It involves the creation of money and credit without any real, voluntary saving to back it. FRB is not only not needed, it is destabilizing for the overall economy. Under gold standard conditions, it created business cycles. Under the system of unlimited fiat money and lender-of-last-resort central banks, it created the super-cycle, which is now in its painful endgame.