While Ben Hur is trying to flood the system with even more Debt, there are alternative ways of running the Economy. As with all systems, there are pros and cons, but maybe something in the middle would work. Irving Fisher’s 100% Money, A Summary;
In the United States, as in a few other countries, most of our bills are paid by check—not by money passing from hand to hand.
When a person draws a check, he draws it against what he calls “the money I have in the bank” as shown by his deposit balance on the stub of his check book. The sum of all such balances, on all such stubs in the whole country, i.e. all checking deposits, or what we ordinarily think of as the “money” lying on deposit in banks and subject to check, constitutes the chief circulating medium of the United States. This I propose to call “check¬book money” as distinct from actual cash or ”pocket-book money.” Pocket-book money is the more basic of the two. It is visible and tangible; check-book money is not. Its claim to be money and to pass as if it were real money is derived from the belief that it “represents” real money and can be converted into real money on demand by “cashing” a check.
But the chief practical difference between check-book money and pocket-book money is that the latter is bearer money, good in anybody’s hands, whereas check-book money requires the special per¬mission of the payee in order to pass.
In 1926, a representative year before the great depression, the total check-book money of the peo¬ple of the United States, according to one estimate, was 22 billion dollars, whereas, outside of the banks and the United States Treasury, the pocket-book money—that is, the actual physical bearer money in the people’s pockets and in the tills of merchants —amounted, all told, to less than 4 billion dollars. Both together made the total circulating medium of the country, in the hands of the public, 26 billion dollars, 4 billions circulating by hand and 22 by check.
Many people imagine that check-book money is really money and really in the bank. Of course, this is far from true.
What, then, is this mysterious check-book money which we mistakenly call our “money in the bank”? It is simply the bank’s promise to furnish money to its depositors when asked. Behind the 22 billions of checking deposits in 1926, the banks held only some 3 billions in actual money. The re¬maining 19 billions were assets other than money—assets such as the promissory notes of borrowers and assets such as Government bonds and corporation bonds.
In ordinary times, as for instance in 1926, the 3 billions of money were enough to enable the banks to furnish any depositor all the money or “cash” he asked for. But if all the depositors had demanded cash at one and the same time, the banks, though they could have gotten together a certain amount of cash by selling their other assets, could not have gotten enough; for there was not enough cash in the entire country to make up the 22 billions. And if all the depositors had demanded gold at the same time, there would not have been enough gold in the whole world.
Between 1926 and 1929, the total circulating medium increased slightly—from about 26 to about 27 billions, 23 billions being check-book money and 4 billions, pocket-book money.
On the other hand, between 1929 and 1933, check-book money shrank to 15 billions which, with 5 billions of actual money in pockets and tills, made, in all, 20 billions of circulating medium, in¬stead of 27, as in 1929. The increase from 26 to 27 billions was inflation; and the decrease from 27 to 2 0 billions was deflation.
The boom and depression since 1926 are largely epitomized by these three figures (in billions of dollars)—26, 27, 20—for the three years 1926, 1929, 1933.
These changes in the quantity of money were somewhat aggravated by like changes in velocity. In 1932 and 1933, for instance, not only was the circulating medium small, but its circulation was slow—even to the extent of widespread hoarding.
If we assume that the quantities of circulating medium for 1929 and 1933 were respectively 27 and 20 billions and that its turnover for those years was respectively 30 and 20, the total circulation mold be, for 1929, 27 x 30 = over 800 billion collars and, for 1933, 20 x 20 = 400 billion dollars.
The changes in quantity were chiefly in the de¬posits. The three figures for the check-book money were, as stated, 22, 23, 15; those for the pocket-book money were 4, 4, 5. An essential part of this depression has been the shrinkage from the 23 to the 15 billion in check-book money, that is, the wiping out of 8 billions of dollars of the nation’s chief circulating medium which we all need as a common highway for business.
The shrinkage of 8 billions in the nation’s check¬-book money reflects the increase of 1 billion (i.e. from 4 to 5) in pocket-book money. The public withdrew this billion of cash from the banks and the banks, to provide it, had to destroy the 8 billions of credit.
This loss, or destruction, of 8 billions of check¬-book money has been realized by few and seldom mentioned. There would have been big newspaper headlines if 8 thousand miles out of every 23 thou¬sand miles of railway had been destroyed. Yet such a disaster would have been a small one compared with the destruction of 8 billions out of 23 billions of our main monetary highway. That destruction of 8 billion dollars of what the public counted on as their money was the chief sinister fact in the depression from which followed the two chief trage¬dies, unemployment and bankruptcies.
The public was forced to sacrifice 8 billion dol¬lars out of 23 billions of the main circulating me¬dium which would not have been sacrificed had the 100% system been in use. And, in that case, as we shall see in Chapter VII, there would have been no great depression.
This destruction of check-book money was not something natural and inevitable; it was due to a faulty system.
Under our present system, the banks create and destroy check-book money by granting, or calling, loans. When a bank grants me a $1,000 loan, and so adds $1,000 to my checking deposit, that $1,000 of “money I have in the bank” is new. It was freshly manufactured by the bank out of my loan and written by pen and ink on the stub of my check book and on the books of the bank.
As already noted, except for these pen and ink records, this “money” has no real physical existence. When later I repay the bank that $1,000, I take it out of my checking deposit, and that much circu¬lating medium is destroyed on the stub of my check book and on the books of the bank. That is, it dis-appears altogether.
Thus our national circulating medium is now at the mercy of loan transactions of banks; and our thousands of checking banks are, in effect, so many irresponsible private mints.
What makes the trouble is the fact that the bank lends not money but merely a promise to furnish money on demand—money it does not possess. The banks can build upon their meager cash reserves an inverted pyramid of such “credits,” that is, check¬book money, the volume of which can be inflated and deflated.
It is obvious that such a top-heavy system is dangerous—dangerous to depositors, dangerous to the banks, and above all dangerous to the millions of “innocent bystanders,” the general public. In particular, when deflation results, the public is de¬prived of part of its essential circulating medium through which goods change hands.
There is little practical difference between per¬mitting banks to issue these book credits which perform monetary service, and permitting them to issue paper currency as they did during the “wild cat bank note” period. It is essentially the same un¬sound practice.
Deposits are the modern equivalent of bank notes. But deposits may be created and destroyed invisibly, whereas bank notes have to be printed and cremated. If eight billion bank notes had been cremated between 1929 and 1933, the fact could scarcely have been overlooked.
As the system of checking accounts, or check¬book money, based chiefly on loans, spreads from the few countries now using it to the whole world, all its dangers will grow greater. As a consequence, future booms and depressions threaten to be worse than those of the past, unless the system is changed.
The dangers and other defects of the present sys¬tem will be discussed at length in later chapters. But only a few sentences are needed to outline the proposed remedy, which is this:
Let the Government, through an especially cre¬ated “Currency Commission,” turn into cash enough of the assets of every commercial bank to increase the cash reserve of each bank up to 100% of its checking deposits. In other words, let the Government, through the Currency Commission, issue this money, and, with it, buy some of the bonds, notes, or other assets of the bank or lend it to the banks on those assets as security.1 Then all check-book money would have actual money— pocket-book money—behind it.
This new money (Commission Currency, or United States notes), would merely give an all-cash backing for the checking deposits and would, of itself, neither increase nor decrease the total circu¬lating medium of the country. A bank which pre-viously had $100,000,000 of deposits subject to check with only $10,000,000 of cash behind them (along with $90,000,000 in securities) would send these $90,000,000 of securities to the Currency Commission in return for $90,000,000 more cash, thus bringing its total cash reserve up to $100,000,000, or 100% of the deposits.
After this substitution of actual money for se¬curities had been completed, the bank would be required to maintain permanently a cash reserve of 100% against its demand deposits. In other words, the demand deposits would literally be deposits, consisting of cash held in trust for the depositor.
Thus, the new money would, in effect, be tied up by the 100% reserve requirement.
The checking deposit department of the bank would become a mere storage warehouse for bearer money belonging to its depositors and would be given a separate corporate existence as a Check Bank. There would then be no practical distinction between the checking deposits and the reserve. The “money I have in the bank,” as recorded on the stub of my check book, would literally be money and literally be in the bank (or near at hand). The bank’s deposits could rise to $125,000,000 only if its cash also rose to $125,000,000, i. e. by depositors depositing $25,000,000 more cash, that is, taking that much out of their pockets or tills and putting it into the bank. And if deposits shrank it would mean that depositors withdrew some of their stored-up money, that is, taking it out of the bank and putting it into their pockets or tills. In neither case would there be any change in the total.
So far as this change to the 100% system would deprive the bank of earning assets and require it to substitute an increased amount of non-earning cash, the bank would be reimbursed through a service charge made to its depositors—or otherwise (as detailed in Chapter IX).
The resulting advantages to the public would in¬clude the following:
1. There would be practically no more runs on commercial banks;
because 100% of the depositors’ money would always be in the bank (or available) awaiting their orders. In practice, less money would be withdrawn than now; we all know of the frightened depositor who shouted to the bank teller, “If you haven’t got my money, I want it; if you have, I don’t.”
2. There would be far fewer bank failures;
because the important creditors of a com¬mercial bank who would be most likely to make it fail are its depositors, and these depositors would be 100% provided for.
3. The interest-bearing Government debt would be substantially reduced;
because a great part of the outstanding bonds of the Government would be taken over from the banks by the Currency Commission (representing the Govern¬ment).
4. Our Monetary System would be simplified;
because there would be no longer any es¬sential difference between pocket-book money and check-book money. All of our circulating medium, one hundred per cent of it, would be actual money.
5. Banking would be simplified;
at present, there is a confusion of owner¬ship. When money is deposited in a check¬ing account, the depositor still thinks of that money as his, though legally it is the bank’s. The depositor owns no money in the bank; he is merely a creditor of the bank as a private corporation. Most of the “mystery” of banking would disappear as soon as a bank was no longer allowed to lend out money deposited by its customers, while, at the same time, these depositors were using that money as their money by drawing checks against it. “Mr. Dooley,” the Will Rogers of his day, brought out the absurdity of this double use of money on demand deposit when he called a banker “a man who takes care of your money by lending it out to his friends.”
In the future there would be a sharp distinction between checking deposits and savings deposits. Money put into a check¬ing account would belong to the depositor, like any other safety deposit and would bear no interest. Money put into a savings account would have the same status as it has now. It would belong unequivocally to the bank. In exchange for this money the bank would give the right to repayment with interest, but no checking privilege. The savings depositor has simply bought an investment like an interest-bearing bond, and this investment would not re¬quire 100% cash behind it, any more than any other investment such as a bond or share of stock.
The reserve requirements for savings deposits need not necessarily be affected by the new system for checking deposits (al¬though a strengthening of these require¬ments is desirable).
6. Great inflations and deflations would be elim¬inated; because banks would be deprived of their present power virtually to mint check¬book money and to destroy it; that is, making loans would not inflate our circu¬lating medium and calling loans would not deflate it. The volume of the checking deposits would not be affected any more than when any other sort of loans increased or decreased. These deposits would be part of the total actual money of the nation, and this total could not be affected by be¬ing lent from one person to another.
Even if depositors should withdraw all deposits at once, or should pay all their loans at once, or should default on all of them at once, the nation’s volume of money would not be affected thereby. It would merely be redistributed. Its total would be controlled by its sole issuer—the Currency Commission (which could also be given powers to deal with hoarding and velocity, if desired).
7. Booms and depressions would be greatly mitigated; because these are largely due to inflation and deflation.
8. Banker-management of industry would almost cease; because only in depressions can industries in general fall into the hands of bankers.
Of these eight advantages, the first two would apply chiefly to America, the land of bank runs and bank failures. The other six would apply to all countries having check-deposit banking. Advan¬tages “6? and “7? are by far the most important, i. e. the cessation of inflation and deflation of our circulating medium and so the mitigation of booms and depressions in general and the elimination of great booms and depressions in particular.
Naturally, a new idea, or one which seems new, like this of a 100% system of money and banking, must and should run the gauntlet of criticism.
The questions which seem most likely to be asked by those who will have doubts about the 100% system are:
1. Would not the transition to the 100% system —the buying up of the assets with new money—immediately increase the circulating medium of the country and increase it greatly?
Not by a single dollar. It would merely make check-book money and pocket-book money completely interconvertible; char.es existing circulating deposits of imaginary money into circulating deposits of real money.
After the transition (and after the pre¬scribed degree of reflation had been reached), the Currency Commission could increase the quantity of money by buying bonds, and could decrease it by selling, being restricted in each case by the obligation to maintain the prescribed price level or value of the dollar with reasonable accuracy.
But it is worth noting that the maintenance of 100% reserve and the maintenance of a stable price level are distinct; either could, conceivably, exist without the other.
2. Would there be any valuable assets “behind” the new money?
The day after the adoption of the 100% system there would be behind the new money transferable by check the very same assets— mostly government bonds—which had been behind the check-book money the day before, although these bonds would now be in the possession of the Currency Commission.
The idea is traditional that all money and deposits must have a “backing” in securities to serve as a safeguard against reckless infla¬tion. Under the present system (which, for contrast, we are to call the “10% system”), whenever the depositor fears that his deposit cannot be paid in actual pocket-book money, the bank can (theoretically) sell the securi¬ties for money and use the money to pay the panicky depositor. Very well; under the 100% system there would be precisely the same backing in securities and the same possibility of selling the securities; but in addition there would be the credit of the United States Gov¬ernment. Finally, there would be no panicky depositor, fearful lest he could not convert his deposits into cash.
3. Would not the gold standard be lost?
No more than it is lost already! And no less. The position of gold could be exactly what it is now, its price to be fixed by the Government and its use to be confined chiefly to settling international balances.
Furthermore, a return to the kind of gold standard we had prior to 1933 could, if de¬sired, be just as easily accomplished under the 100% system as now; in fact, under the 100% system, there would be a much better chance that the old-style gold standard, if restored, would operate as it was intended.
4. How would the banks get any money to lend?
Just as they usually do now, namely: (1) from their own money (their capital) ; (2) from the money received from customers and put into savings accounts (not subject to check); and (3) from the money repaid on maturing loans.
In the long run, there would probably be much more money lent; for there would be more savings created and so available for lending. But such an expansion of loans—a normal expansion generated by savings— would not necessarily involve any increase of money in circulation.
The only new limitation on bank loans would be a wholesome one; namely, that no money could be lent unless there was money to lend; that is, the banks could no longer overlendingby manufacturing money out of thin air so as to cause inflation and a boom.
Besides the above three sources of loan funds (bank capital, savings, and repayments) , it would be possible for the Currency Commission to create new money and pass it on to the banks by buying more bonds. But this additional money would be limited by the fundamental requirement of preventing a rise of prices above the prescribed level, as measured by a suitable index number.
5. Would not the bankers be injured?
On the contrary,
(a) they would share in the general benefits to the country resulting from a sounder mon¬etary system and a returned prosperity; in particular they would receive larger savings deposits;
(b) they would be reimbursed (by service charges or otherwise) for any loss of profits through tying up large reserves;
(c) they would be almost entirely freed from risk of future bank runs and failures.
The bankers will not soon forget what they suffered from their mob race for liquidity in 1931-33—each for himself and the devil take the hindmost. Such a mob movement would be impossible under the 100% system; for a 100% liquidity would be assured at all times and for each bank separately and independ¬ently of other banks.
6. Would the plan be a nationalization of money and banking?
Of money, yes; of banking, no.
The 100% proposal is the opposite of radical. What it asks, in principle, is a return from the present extraordinary a nd ruinous system of lending the same money 8 or 10 times over, to the conservative safety-deposit system of the old gold-mints, before they began lending out improperly that was entrusted to them for safekeeping. It vas this abuse of trust which, after being accepted is standard practice, evolved into modern deposit banking. From the standpoint of public policy it is still an abuse, no longer an abuse of trust but an abuse of the loan and deposit functions.
England effected a reform and a partial return to the goldsmiths’ system when, nearly a century ago, the Bank Act was passed, requiring a 100% reserve for all Bank of England notes issued he-yond a certain minimum (as well as for the notes of all other note-issuing banks then existing).
Professor Frank D. Graham of Princeton, in a statement favoring the 100% money plan, says of President Adams that he “denounced the issuance of private bank notes as a fraud upon the public. He was supported in this view by all conservative opinion of his time.”
Finally, why continue virtually to farm out to the banks for nothing a prerogative of Govern¬ment? That prerogative is denned as follows in the Constitution of the United States (Article I, Sec¬tion 8): “The Congress shall have power … to coin money [and] regulate the value thereof.” Virtually, if not literally, every checking bank corns money; and these banks, as a whole, regulate, control, or influence the value of all money.
Apologists for the present monetary system can¬not justly claim that, under, the mob rule of thou¬sands of little private mints, the system has worked well. If it had worked well, we would not recently have lost 8 billions out of 23 billions of our check¬book money.
If our bankers wish to retain the strictly bank¬ing function—loaning—which they can perform better than the Government, they should be ready to give back the strictly monetary function which they cannot perform as well as the Government. If they will see this and, for once, say “yes” instead of “no” to what may seem to them a new proposal, there will probably be no other important oppo¬sition.
1 In practice, this could be mostly “credit” on the books of the Commission, as very little tangible money would be called for—-less even than at present so long as the Currency Com¬mission stood ready to supply it on request.