MORE THAN ONE WAY TO RECLAIM THE POWER TO CREATE MONEY: An Open Letter to the American Monetary Institute, August 28, 2009
Sirs: This is in response to the entry posted on your American Monetary Institute blog on August 16, 2009, which references my articles on a state-owned bank solution to the credit crisis. I was disappointed to read that you thought my proposal was “an insult to humanity,” as the idea was actually drawn from the AMI’s book The Lost Science of Money. I do quite a bit of writing and speaking, and I always follow your lead in saying the ideal monetary model is that established in Benjamin Franklin’s colony of Pennsylvania, which not only spent but lent money into the economy, through its own publicly-owned bank. The Lost Science of Money calls it “Pennsylvania’s Superior Money System.” On pages 370-71, your book quotes Pennsylvania Governor William Keith, who wrote of the province’s founding of a publicly-owned bank:
“It is inconceivable to think what a prodigious good effect immediately ensued on all the affairs of that province . . . . The poor middling people who had any lands or houses to pledge, borrowed from the loan office, and paid off their usurious creditors. The few rich men who had before this [quit] the trade – except that of usury – were obliged to build ships, and launch out again into trade.”
It is submitted that our proposals aim for the same thing – reclaiming the money power for the people themselves. We would just get there by different routes. My public bank would create credit on its books, lend it, and charge interest on it. You would have a public entity create money and lend it to private banks at interest, which would then lend it to consumers and businesses at interest. The private banks in your scheme would no doubt tack their interest costs onto the interest charged to the end borrowers, since banks are in the business of making a profit, and that is the only way they could make a profit in your system. My proposal would just eliminate the profits to the private banker middlemen. Banking would become a non-profit public service, with the interest returned to the public purse.
You maintain that publicly-owned banks are “mainly a distraction from genuine reform of the system, as encapsulated in the proposed American Monetary Act.” Indeed, much in that Act is excellent; but it would leave the determination of how much credit is available in the economy to a central planning board, when the money supply needs to be flexible, expanding and contracting organically in response to the needs of trade. The American Monetary Act gives the final word on the money supply to the Secretary of the Treasury, under the guidance of an independent monetary board. Today, that would be Timothy Geithner. Trusting Timothy Geithner to determine the day to day credit needs of the country would be the equivalent of trusting the Russian Soviet to accurately determine how many size 9 shoes its population needed. When the pot of available funds decreed by the Treasurer ran out, creditworthy borrowers would be turned away, and the economy would falter.
Ready credit is what makes an economy run smoothly, and its availability should not be subject to the whims of a political body. Credit-money is created when creditworthy borrowers take out loans. Banks merely “monetize” the borrowers’ promise to repay. As The Lost Science of Money makes clear, “money” is not a commodity but is created by legal agreement. Credit-money is created when the “full faith and credit” of the community is advanced to the borrower. The function of the banker is just to oversee the agreement, acting as the middleman who advances the funds and collects them back. Publicly-owned banks are the most efficient and cost-effective way to get ready credit into the economy. They are not a temporary stopgap measure, any more than the land bank of the colony of Pennsylvania was.
You have divided your objections to state-owned banks into two groups, “moral” and “technical,” with separate numbering for each. I will follow your numbering in addressing these points.
1. You state that for a public bank to engage in “fractional reserve” lending – that is, to create credit on its books – is immoral. That appears to me to be a mischaracterization of the problem. What is immoral is the private creation of money. Both our proposals are attempting to overcome that flaw. I am just suggesting that publicly-owned banks are the most direct and practical means to that end. Congress is now owned by Wall Street, as Congressmen themselves are complaining. States, on the other hand, still have some autonomy.
2. You state that banks cannot create credit on their books but can make loans only against 90-95% of their deposits. This is no longer true. Federal Reserve data establishes that the reserve requirement is now essentially obsolete. For a detailed discussion, see Jake Towne, “Yes, Virginia, There Are No Reserve Requirements (Part 2),” August 12, 2009, establishing that “reserve requirements are effectively not in existence and easily avoided by accounting tricks in the U.S. banking system.” See also Eric deCarbonnel, “US Banks Operating Without Reserve Requirements” (March 29, 2009), stating, “Although, under current regulations, all depository institutions are required to maintain reserves against transaction (checking) deposits, the reality is they don’t.” Both articles are supported with Federal Reserve data.
What limits bank lending today is chiefly the capital requirement, and states are in a far better position to meet that requirement than private banks are. Banks must have Tier 1 capital equal to 4% of loans and other risk-weighted assets, and they must have combined Tier 1 plus Tier 2 capital of 8% of risk-weighted assets. Tier 2 capital includes several things, but the most interesting here is the appreciated value of unencumbered real assets. For a private bank, that typically means only the building that houses it; but a state has buildings, prisons, parks, etc. peppered all over the state. It has a HUGE asset base, so it basically does not have to worry about Tier 2 capital at all.
That just leaves Tier 1 capital, which is essentially the bank’s own money. For a private bank, that generally means the capital contributed by shareholders and the interest earned on loans. Again, a state has a huge amount of money of its own. A friendly regulator could count the state’s whole revenue base as Tier 1 capital. But let’s say that the state wants to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s by actually setting aside enough Tier 1 capital to please the regulators. At 4%, $1 billion would be enough to create $25 billion in credit – virtually enough to meet California’s $26 billion budget deficit in one fell swoop. You say that this would just be a loan, which has to be paid back; but that is not necessarily the case. The state owns the bank, so it can roll the loan over as long as needed; and the interest returns to its own coffers, so the loan is essentially interest-free. The federal government has been rolling over its debt since the days of Andrew Jackson. For a state to create interest-free money on its books and roll the loans over indefinitely produces the same result you wish to achieve – an interest-free government-issued money supply. In both our schemes, the government gets the money interest-free, while private borrowers get it with an interest charge attached.
You say that only the federal government, not the states, can create money under the Constitution; but this is not true. The Constitution forbids states only to issue “bills of credit,” which has been interpreted to mean paper money. U.S. Supreme Court case law holds that a state can own a bank, and that the banknotes issued by the bank are not the sorts of “bills of credit” forbidden to the states by the Constitution. Banks no longer issue banknotes, but the principle still holds: bank-created money is not forbidden to governments any more than to private banks. We know that private banks create money. In fact, they create virtually all of our money. The ownership of the bank will not affect the bank’s ability to create credit on its books. Rather, it will just achieve our mutually desired end of transferring the power to create money from private to public control.
3. “The problem is being misidentified as interest,” you maintain, “when the problem is debt.” You argue that all money could be created interest-free by the government, just as coins are today; and that this would save the taxpayers money. I totally agree with that: Congress should issue money outright. That was the model followed in the colony of Pennsylvania, which we agree was the ideal model. Congress should create not just coins but paper dollar bills and accounting entry money. But that is a completely different issue from consumer credit or debt. You are not proposing to eliminate banks that charge interest to borrowers; you would just tack an extra interest charge on by making banks borrow from the government as the ultimate creator of credit. Under my proposed system, as in yours, the government would be the ultimate issuer of credit; but with a bank that was state-owned, the extra interest drawn off by private banker middlemen would be eliminated.
1. You state that “no bank’s an island . . . If the other banks aren’t lending, a State-run bank wouldn’t be able to lend either.” Today, the other banks are not lending because they are not able to meet the capital requirement for additional loans; and this is because the “shadow lenders” have disappeared – the investors who were taking loans off their books, making room for more loans. A state-owned bank would have huge capital and deposit bases and a clean set of books, and therefore would have a huge capacity for lending as and where needed. It would not be dependent on other banks to meet its reserve requirement, which as noted above is now essentially obsolete.
2. You caution about following the model of the Bank of North Dakota, which you warn is playing with fire because it is not FDIC insured and could be subject to a bank run. In fact, the FDIC is now broke – literally. Its own funds offer little if any protection. In a few months it will have to start borrowing from the government. If the banks were owned by the government in the first place, this problem would have been obviated.
3. You say that a state bank would take deposits away from other banks, reducing the lending ability of those banks. However, the overall credit capacity of the system would not be reduced; the business would just move to the state-owned bank, as well it should if the latter can provide superior service at cheaper rates. The State of California has $17.6 billion in demand deposits and NOW deposits, which could be moved at will; and most of the banks it has them at actually turned down California’s request to honor its IOUs. Some of those banks got taxpayer bailout money specifically to keep credit flowing to the states and consumers, an obligation they have clearly failed to fulfill. California owes them nothing and has every right to remove its deposits from those banks into its own. That is free-market capitalism. More than that, it is a matter of survival. Why should we be feeding parasitic out-of-state banks that aren’t helping us in return? The Bank of North Dakota was set up in exactly those circumstances: the farmers were losing their farms to the Wall Street bankers, so they set up their own credit system to escape the Wall Street maelstrom — and it worked, brilliantly well.
4. You state that the meager benefits of forming a state-owned bank would not be worth the costs. However, you are looking at a very limited range of benefits. Let’s consider again California. With its enormous capital base, California could generate enormous amounts of credit, which could be used to refinance its existing debt; and since the state would own the bank, it would pocket the interest. California pays $5 billion yearly in interest alone — as much as some states’ whole budgets. Just that savings would make a state-owned bank worth the trouble; but a state-owned bank could serve more purposes than that. It could eliminate the cost of borrowing for income-generating projects such as infrastructure, low-cost housing, and alternative energy development. On average, interest has been calculated to compose 50% of the cost of every project. Moreover, the state wouldn’t have to scramble around looking for a loan when it needed one, knuckling under to inflated interest rates. On the question of costs, today a bank can be set up on the Internet, without even the cost of a physical building.
5. You suggest that negotiating better terms with existing banks would be more cost-effective than setting up a new bank. Again, you are overestimating the costs and underestimating the potential benefits of a state-owned bank.
6. You write, “We citizens have only so much energy and time to devote to changing our world for the better. Diverting good people into nonsense condemns us to continue suffering unnecessarily. This time of crisis must be used for real reform, not diversions.” I agree with that. The economy is in an emergency state. We cannot afford to wait for a Congress that has been captured by the same private money-creating monopoly from which we are trying to free ourselves.
Your plan represents a far more radical diversion from the status quo than mine and is therefore a harder sell to make to basically clueless politicians. A state-owned bank has already been operating very successfully for 90 years in one pioneer state, and following that model would require doing nothing different from what banks do now. How can regulators object, when we’ll be satisfying all their requirements? In fact, the shift will seem so minor that its significance is liable to be missed. Even committed monetary reformers like yourselves have apparently missed its implications and potential. Through state-owned banks that create money on their books, we can achieve what Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and William Jennings Bryan all aimed to achieve: a publicly-created money supply issued by the people for the people.