Monday, March 01, 2010

Was it caused by fractional reserve banking? Not really.

Almost a year ago, I wrote an entry in my parallel environmental blog entitled Why capitalism must expand - whatever the environmental consequences. Rather surprisingly, yesterday I received a comment, from Jerry Fox, an American engineer and blogger. His comment ran as follows:

Capitalism supported by fractional reserve banking and the artificial support of governmental bailouts does require constant expansion both to pay off the inherent interest and to delay the inflationary effects of the money supply. I hope that you are not trying to lump the great system of free enterprise which has helped to make America the envy of the world, being linked to a Constitutionally maintained money supply, to this travesty that has come to be called "Capitalism". Under the former, there is no need for constant expansion to support a healthy thriving economy along with proper concern for any environmental issues.
I repeat Jerry’s comment here because it is equally relevant to a point I have recently been considering. There is a striking difference between the diagnoses and remedies offered by American and non-American bloggers and other commentators, which, quite by chance, Jerry’s comments expresses very well.

Here is my reply, which is equally relevant to this blog:
Thanks for your comment, Jerry. I sympathise strongly with the view that fractional reserve banking has played a terrible role in the current crisis, and my impression from tracking a number of American blogs is that this is widely held to blame for the crisis as a whole. However, I remain sceptical of the idea that this is a distinct phenomenon from capitalism proper, for two reasons.

Firstly, fractional reserve banking has been a feature of financial capitalism ever since the first capitalist banks came into existence – far earlier than the fist Europeans arrived in the Americas, let alone anything specific to the US economy or constitution. It is simply a matter of risk management: although I don’t have enough reserves to cover all my commitments, I take a chance that all the chickens won’t come home to roost at the same time. And by and large this has proved a good and familiar bet – to the point where one of Shakespeare’s best known tragedies, The Merchant of Venice, which was first performed around 1596-1597, depends entirely on a situation in which this bet on fractional reserves fails.

And it was essentially the recurring failure of this bet that led to regulations specifying exactly how much reserves were required for various kinds of transaction. In other words, there was no pure capitalist system with non-fractional reserves, which was then polluted by the creation of fractional reserve banking. Rather, capitalism was always a system of fractional reserve banking, which governments, sick the regular crises, eventually normalised with formal requirements for banking licenses, specified capital requirements, the 1933 Glass-Steagal Act, and so on.

As I understand it, the issue with the recent collapses was two-fold. When markets have been massively aligned (as they were, for many reasons, over the last few years), a boom that had looked fantastic turned into a bust proved that it was all just a fantasy, because everything went up and down at once. But even more importantly, the problem with many speculations (it’s hard to describe credit default swaps as investments) was that they were not required to be backed by any reserves at all. I have seen of what would have been a large enough reserve to cover most defaults and so forestall this crisis, and none of them were very different from the standard fractional reserve requirements for more conventional loans and obligations.

You can blame a number of technical features for this – the rise of ‘mark to market’ accounting, for example. In my own view, a more profound explanation lies in the process of systematic deregulation. This seems to have been a pretty universal phenomenon – certainly rife in London, where the absence of effective capital requirements made it the most popular financial centre in the world. Other centres tended to be more reserved (as it were) than London and the various US exchanges, but unfortunately they are collectively large enough to push the planet into a financial nosedive.

So fractional reserve banking played a role in the current crisis, but primarily because it did not extend to the specific types of transaction that actually brought the system down. Not much to do with the corruption of free enterprise or Constitutionally-protected monetary system.

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