The Unadulterated Gold Standard Part III (Features)

In Part I , we looked at the period prior to and during the time of what we now call the Classical Gold Standard.  It should be underscored that it worked pretty darned well.  Under this standard, the United States produced more wealth at a faster pace than any other country before, or since.  There were problems; such as laws to fix prices, and regulations to force banks to buy government bonds, but they were not an essential property of the gold standard.

In Part II , we went through the era of heavy-handed intrusion by governments all over the world, central planning by central banks, and some of the destructive consequences of their actions including the destabilized interest rate, foreign exchange rates, the Triffin dilemma with an irredeemable paper reserve currency, and the inevitable gold default by the US government which occurred in 1971.

Part III is longer and more technical, as we consider the key features of the unadulterated gold standard.  It could be briefly stated as a free market in money, credit, interest, discount, and banking.  Another way of saying it is that there would be no confusion of money (i.e. gold) and credit (i.e. paper).  Both play their role, and neither is banished from the monetary system.

 

 

There would be no central bank with its “experts” to dictate the rate of interest and no “lender of last resort”.  There would be no Securities Act, no deposit insurance, no armies of banking regulators, and definitely no bailouts or “too big to fail banks”.  The government would have little role in the monetary system, save to catch criminals and enforce contracts.

As mentioned in Part I, people would enjoy the right to own gold coins, or deposit them in a bank if they wish.  We propose the radical idea that the government should have no more involvement in specifying the contents of the gold coin than it does specifying the contents of the software that runs a web server.  And this is for the same reason: the market is far better at determining what people need and far better at adapting to changing needs.

In 1792, metallurgy was primitive.  To accommodate 18th century gold refiners, the purity of the gold coin was set at around 90% pure gold (interestingly the Half Eagle had a slightly different purity than the Eagle though exactly half the pure gold content).  Today, much higher purities can easily be produced, along with much smaller coins (see http://keithweiner.posterous.com/pieces-of-50).  We also have plastic sleeves today, to eliminate wear and tear on pure gold coins, which are quite soft.

If the government had fixed a mandatory computer standard in the early 1980’s (some governments considered it at the time), we would still be using floppy disks, we would not have folders, and most of us would not be using any kind of computer at all, as they were not user friendly.  When something is fixed in law, it is no longer possible to innovate.  Instead, companies lobby the government for changes in the law to benefit them at the expense of everyone else.  No good ever comes of this.

We propose the radical idea that one should not need permission to walk down the street, to open a bank, or to engage in any other activity.  Without banking permits, licenses, charters, and franchises, the door is not open to the game played by many states in the 19th century.

“To operate a bank in our state, you must use some of your depositors’ funds to buy the bonds sold by our state.  In return, we will protect you from competition by not allowing out-of-state banks to operate here.”

Most banks felt that was a good trade-off, at least until they collapsed due to risk concentration and defaults on state government bonds.

State and federal government bonds are an important issue.  We will leave the question of whether and when government borrowing is appropriate to a discussion of fiscal policy.  There is an important monetary policy that must be addressed.  Government bonds must not be treated as money.  They must not become the base of the monetary system (as they are today).  If a bank wants to buy a bond, including a government bond, that is a decision that should be made by the bank’s management.

An important and related principle is that bonds (private or government) must not be “paid off” by the issuance of new bonds!  Legitimate credit is obtained to finance a productive project.  The financing should match the reasonable estimate of the useful life of the project, and the full cost must be amortized over this life.  If the project continues to generate returns after it is amortized, there is little downside in such a conservative estimate (though it obviously makes the investor case less attractive).

On the other hand, if the plant bought by the bond is all used up before the bond is paid off, then the entrepreneur made a grave error: he did not adequately deduct depreciation from his cash flows and now he is stuck with a remaining debt but no cash flow with which to pay it off.  Issuing another bond to pay off the first just extends the time of reckoning, and makes it worse.  Fully paying debt before incurring more debt enforces a kind of integrity that is almost impossible to imagine today.

With few very limited and special exceptions, a bank should never borrow short and lend long.  This is when a bank lends a demand deposit, or similarly lends a time deposit for longer than its duration.  A bank should scrupulously match its assets to its liabilities.  If a bank wants to buy stocks, real estate, or tulips, it should not be forcibly prevented, even though these are bad assets with which to back deposits.  The same applies to duration mismatch.

Banks must use their best judgment in making investment decisions.  However, the job of monetary scientists is to bellow from the rooftops that borrowing short to lend long will inevitably collapse, like all pyramid schemes (see the author’s paper: Duration Mismatch Will Always Fail)

There should be no price-fixing laws.  Just as the price of a bushel of wheat or a laptop computer needs to be set in the market, so should the price of silver and the price of credit.  If the market chooses to employ silver as money in addition to gold, then the price of silver must be free to move with the needs of the markets.  It was the attempt to fix the price, starting in 1792 that caused many of the early problems.  While “de jure” the US was on a bimetallic standard, we noted in Part I that “de facto” it was on a silver standard.  Undervalued gold was either hoarded or exported.  After 1834, silver was undervalued and the situation reversed.  Worse yet, each time the price-fixing regime was altered, there was an enormous transfer of wealth from one class of people to another.

Similarly, if the market chooses to adopt rough diamonds, copper, or “bitcoins” then there should be no law and no regulation to prevent it (though we do not expect any of these things to be monetized) and no law or regulation to fix their prices either.

If a bank takes deposits and issues paper notes, then those notes are subject to the constant due diligence and validation of everyone in the market to whom they are offered.  If a spread opens up between Bank A’s one-ounce silver note and the one-ounce silver coin (i.e. the note trades at a discount to the coin) then the market is trying to say something.

What if an electrical circuit keeps blowing its fuse?  It is dangerous to replace the fuse with a copper penny.  It masks the problem temporarily, and encourages you to plug in more electrical appliances, until the circuit overheats and set the house on fire.  It is similar with a government-set price of paper credit.

A market price for notes and bills is the right idea.  Free participants in the markets can choose between keeping their gold coin at home (hoarding) vs. lending their gold coin to a bank (saving).  It is important to realize that credit begins with the saver, and it must be voluntary, like everything else in a free market.  People have a need to extend credit as explained below, but they will not do so if they do not trust the creditworthiness of the bank.

Before banking, the only way to plan for retirement was to directly convert 5% or 10% of one’s weekly income into wealth by hoarding salt or silver.  Banking makes it much more efficient, because one can indirectly exchange income for wealth while one is working.  Later, one can exchange the wealth for income.  This way, the wealth works for the saver his whole life, and there is no danger of “outliving one’s wealth”, if one spends only the interest.  In contrast, if one is spending one’s capital by dishoarding, one could run out.

No discussion on banking would be complete without addressing the issue of fractional reserves.  Many fundamental misunderstandings exist in this area, including the belief that banks “create money”.  Savers extend credit to the banks who then extend credit to businesses.  The banks can no more be said to be creating money than an electrical wire can be said to be creating energy.

Another error is the idea that two or more people own the same gold coin at the same time.  When one puts gold on deposit, one gives up ownership of the gold.  The depositor does not own the gold any longer.  He owns a credit instrument, a piece of paper with a promise to pay in the future.  So long as the bank does not mismatch the duration of this deposit with the duration of the asset it buys, there is no conflict.

If people want to vault their gold only, perhaps with some payment transfer mechanism, there would be such a warehousing service offered in the market.  But this is not banking.  It’s just vaulting, and most people prefer the convenience of fungibility.  Who wants the problems of a particular vault location and a delay to transfer it elsewhere?  And who wants a negative yield on money just sitting there?

A related error is the claim, often repeated on the Internet, is that a bank takes 1,000 ounces in deposit and then lends 10,000 out.  Poof!  Money has been created—and to add insult to injury, the banks charge interest!  The error here is that of confusing the result of a market process (of many actors) with a single bank action.  If Joe deposits 1,000 ounces of gold, the bank will lend not 10,000 ounces but 900 ounces (assuming a 10% reserve ratio).

Mary the borrower may spend the money to build a new factory.  Jim the contractor who builds it may deposit the 900 ounces in a bank.  The bank may then lend 810 ounces, and so on.  This process works if and only if each borrower spends 100% of the money and if the vendors who earned their money deposit 100% of it, in a time deposit.  Otherwise, the credit (this is credit, not money) simply does not multiply as Rothbard asserts.

This view of money multiplication does not consider time as a variable.  Gold  payable on demand is not the same as gold payable in 30 years.  It will not trade the same in the markets.  The 30-year time deposit or bond will pay interest, have a wide bid-ask spread, and therefore not be accepted in trade for goods or services.

This process involving the decisions of innumerable actors in the free market may have a result that is 10X credit expansion.  But one cannot make a shortcut, presume that it will happen, and then assert that the banks are “swindling.”

If one confuses credit (paper) with money (gold), and one believes that inflation is an “increase in the money supply” (see here for this author’s definition: Inflation – An Expansion in Counterfeit Credit) then one is opposed to any credit expansion and hence any banking.  Without realizing it, one finds oneself advocating for the stagnation of the medieval village, with a blacksmith, cobbler, cooper, and group of subsistence farmers.  Anything larger than a family workshop requires credit.

Credit and credit expansion is a process that has a natural brake in the gold standard when people are free to deposit or withdraw their gold coin.  Each depositor must be satisfied with the return he is getting in exchange for the risk and lack of liquidity for the duration.  If the depositor is unhappy with the bank’s (or bond market’s) offer, he can withdraw his gold.

This trade-off between hoarding the gold coin and depositing it in the bank sets the floor under the rate of interest.  Every depositor has his threshold.  If the rate falls (or credit risk rises) sufficiently, and enough depositors at the margin withdraw their gold, then the banking system is deprived of deposits, which drives down the price of the bond which forces the rate of interest up.  This is one half of the mechanism that acts to keep the rate of interest stable.

The ceiling above the interest rate is set by the marginal business.  No business can borrow at a rate higher than its rate of profit.  If the rate ticks above this, the marginal business is the first to buy back its outstanding bonds and sell capital stock (or at least not sell a bond to expand).  Ultimately, the marginal businessman may liquidate and put his money into the bonds of a more productive enterprise.

A stable interest rate is vitally important.  If the rate of interest rises, it is like a wrecking ball swinging into defenseless buildings.  As noted above, each uptick forces marginal businesses to close their operations.  If the rise is protracted, it could really cause the affected country’s industry to be hollowed out.  On the other hand, if the rate falls, the wrecking ball swings to the other side of the street.  The ruins on the first side are not rebuilt.  But now, capital is destroyed through a different and very pernicious process: the burden of each dollar of (existing) debt rises at the same time that the lower rate encourages more borrowing (see: A Falling Interest Rate Destroys Capital).  From 1947 to 1981, the US was afflicted with the rising interest rate disorder.  From 1981 until present, the second stage of the disease has plagued us.

Today, under the paper standard, the rate of interest is volatile.  The need to hedge interest rate risks (and foreign exchange rate risk, something else that does not exist under the gold standard) is the main reason for the massive derivatives market.  In this market for derivatives, which is estimated to be approaching 1 quadrillion dollars (one thousand trillion or one million billion), market participants including businesses and governments seek to buy financial instruments to protect them against adverse changes.  Those who sell such instruments need to hedge as well.  Derivatives are an endless circle of futures, options on futures, options on options, “swaptions”, etc.

The risk cannot be hedged, but it does lead to a small group of large and highly co-dependant banks, who each sell one another exotic derivative products.  Each deems itself perfectly hedged, and yet the system becomes ever more fragile and susceptible to “black swans”.

These big banks are deemed “too big to fail.”  And the label is accurate.  The monetary system would not survive the collapse of JP Morgan, for example.  A default by JPM on tens or perhaps a few hundred trillion of dollars of liabilities would cause many other banks, insurers, pensions, annuities, and employers to become insolvent.  Consequently, second-worst problem is that the government and the central bank will always provide bailouts when necessary.  This, of course, is called “moral hazard” because it encourages JPM management to take ever more risk in pursuit of profits.  Gains belong to JPM, but losses go to the public.

There is something even worse.  Central planners must increasingly plan around the portfolios of these banks.  Any policy that would cause them big losses is non-viable because it would risk a cascade of failures through the financial system, as one “domino” topples another.  This is one reason why the rate of interest keeps falling.  The banks (and the central bank) are “all in” buying long-duration bonds, and if the interest rate started moving up they would all be insolvent.  Also, they are borrowing short to lend long so the central bank accommodates their endless need to “roll” their liabilities when due and give them the benefit of a lower interest payment.

The problems of the irredeemable dollar system are intractable.  Halfway measures, such as proposed by Robert Zoelick of the Bank for International Settlements that the central banks “watch” the gold price will not do.  Ill-considered notions such as turning the IMF into the issuer of a new irredeemable currency won’t work.  Well-meaning gestures such as a gold “backed” currency (price fixing?) might have worked in another era, but with the secular decline in trust, why shouldn’t people just redeem their paper for gold?  One cannot reverse cause and effect, trust and credit.  And that’s what a paper note is based on: trust.

The world needs the unadulterated gold standard, as outlined in this paper, Part III of a series.

In Part IV, we will look at one other key characteristic of the Unadulterated Gold Standard: The Real Bill…


Addendum, by Pater Tenebrarum –

The Question of Defining Money and Fractional Reserve Banking

As we have mentioned on previous occasions, we agree with many, even most of the things Keith writes about above. But there remains a fundamental difference between us when it comes to the definition of money and the question of fractional reserve banking.

It was a major advance in monetary theory, clearing up the major flaw in the old dispute between the Banking and Currency Schools when Ludwig von Mises pointed out in “The Theory of Money and Credit” (1912) that the Peel Act of 1844 had to necessarily fail in its aim to stop boom and bust cycles because it was not recognized by the Currency School that deposit money is also part of the money supply in the broader sense.

When banks engage in fractional reserve banking, they most definitely create additional deposit money literally 'from thin air',  even though the process involves the granting of credit and is in theory reversible (if credit is paid back net, the supply of uncovered money substitutes will shrink; it never happens, but it might happen and it did indeed happen before central banks and fiat money were introduced).

And it is not the case, in our opinion, despite modern-day legal conventions (which are plainly contradicted by centuries of European legal tradition beginning from antiquity), that a demand deposit is a 'loan to the bank' and that the depositor relinquishes his claim to the deposited money. How can it be a 'demand' deposit, available on demand at any moment from the second it was deposited, when the claim to it has been relinquished?

Obviously there must be a clear difference between irregular demand deposits and time deposits (mutuum contracts). It is also not the case that this warehousing function (which does not only include warehousing, but also things like checking and payment services) means that the depositor will get back the exact same coins (or fiat bank notes today, which are modern day standard money) he has deposited. Rather he has the right to demand payment of the tantundem (i.e., coins or banknotes of perfect fungibility and equal value to those deposited) of his irregular demand deposit at any time. The fact of the matter is that even though deposit money is created in the process of credit creation, there is afterward a clear difference between what is 'credit' and what is 'money' (see also the links further below).

We would submit that the current near $9 trillion in money available on demand in demand and savings deposits in the US banking system are indeed 'money'. Only a small fraction of this deposit money consists of 'covered' money substitutes for which bank reserves actually exist. The remainder is money that was created from thin air in the course of fractional reserve banking (i.e., it consists of uncovered money substitutes for which no bank reserves exist), but nonetheless confers on its holders everything money can conferin particular, every cent of this deposit money can be used for the final payment for goods and services on the market hence it is money.

Today the proportion of covered versus uncovered money substitutes has increased sharply, due to the additions to the money supply since the financial crisis having been driven primarily by active inflation on the part of the Federal Reserve rather than by credit creation on the part of the commercial banks. Prior to the crisis, the banking system was levered up at far more than just 10:1 relative to its demand deposit liabilities.

Without the central bank there would have been a deflationary collapse of the money supply back to its standard money basis (in old times, this would have been the actual specie basis). Obviously the higher proportion of 'backing' of deposits in the form of excess bank reserves that exists today is not the result of higher reserve requirements (those remain for all practical purposes near zero); rather it is a result of the fact that when the Fed monetizes debt, it automatically creates bank reserves, which then are found on the liabilities side of its balance sheet. Although these reserves are not money as long as they remain deposited with the Fed, they nonetheless represent the 'cash assets' of commercial banks. The Fed is bound by law to exchange bank reserves into standard money (this is to say, banknotes nowadays) on demand (after which such reserves will become additions to the money supply).

For a more detailed overview of our views and a summary of the legal, ethical, theoretical and historical questions associated with the topic, see the following articles (best read in the order presented below):

 

The Problem of Fractional Reserve Banking, Part 1

The Problem of Fractional Reserve Banking, Part 2

The Problem of Fractional Reserve Banking, Part 3

Money and Credit – There Is A Difference

Quantitative Easing Explained

 

As always, we present all the arguments here and invite readers to make up their own minds on disputed questions.


 

 

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6 Responses to “The Unadulterated Gold Standard Part III (Features)”

  • Murray44:

    Thank you Dr. Weiner and Pater for your interesting and insightful thoughts. Keith, you present a very good case for a free market in banking, currency, interest and trade and then you muck it up with various side issues and predictions. Why not just advocate a free market in banking with no bail outs, no special treatment, no lender of last resort, no legal tender laws and leave it to the market to rein in unsound banking practices? I happen to think that banks that mismatched duration of assets or created deposits (loans) out of thin air wouldn’t be around very long. I do have an observation on the statement that banks under a fractional reserve ratio of 10% would take in 1000 ounces of gold and then lend out 900 ounces and keep 100 in reserve. Why wouldn’t the bank keep the entire 1000 ounces as a reserve and make loans in the amount of 10,000 ounces? It is the same under the law and much easier to execute, and much more profitable. Another quibble I have is when you say that a person making a deposit is giving that coin to the bank and accepting a credit instrument in the name of the bank in return and that as long as the bank does not mismatch the duration of this deposit with the asset that it buys then there is no conflict. Well, the second the bank buys an asset with a demand deposit a duration mismatch is created, and on top of that conflict another conflict will surely arise if the asset the bank buys turns out to be not worth as much as the deposit, surely a real risk. As far as your interest rate musings go, I don’t buy them. If interest rates rise or fall is of little consequence to the overall economy as long as the rate of interest reflects the supply and demand of credit on the free market. Entrepreneurs will function appropriately if not fooled by artificial manipulation of the rate of interest.

  • rodney:

    Each and every time Mr. Weiner makes his claims based on the same inconsistencies. Thus, he jumps to premature and incorrect conclusions.

    He concedes that “a free market in money” is needed, yet he insists that “only gold” is money. He cannot make the thought experiment of considering that the market might choose something else, even if that is deemed unlikely. If we allow that conceptual possibility, we come to different conclusions, namely, as Pater correctly claims, that money is simply “the medium of exchange”. Therefore, demand deposits are part of the money supply as long as they are used as money substitutes.

    He incorrectly claims that the Mises/Rothbard tradition does not distinguish between money and credit. Simply untrue. While we are at it, he is on record saying that Mises defended the quantity theory of money, when in fact both Mises and Rothbard were critical of it. Please Mr. Weiner, do read Human Action before discussing Mises.

    Once again we get the same line: Fractional reserves are not the problem, only “duration mismatch”. This is the worst inconsistency in his argument. What is the lending out of demand deposits (i.e. fractional reserve lending) if not the ultimate duration mismatch?

    Repeating the same things over and over again, with contradictory lines of reasoning every time, only weakens your case.

    • jimmyjames:

      Mary the borrower may spend the money to build a new factory. Jim the contractor who builds it may deposit the 900 ounces in a bank. The bank may then lend 810 ounces, and so on. This process works if and only if each borrower spends 100% of the money and if the vendors who earned their money deposit 100% of it, in a time deposit. Otherwise, the credit (this is credit, not money) simply does not multiply as Rothbard asserts.

      *************
      The exact recipe for malinvestment bubbles to form-with the same old boom/bust cycles we’ve been treated to- whenever FRB is allowed to flourish unchecked-

      • Keith Weiner:

        Jimmy: have you read my paper: http://keithweiner.posterous.com/the-loan-an-exchange-of-wealth-for-income

        I argue the same kind of credit expansion happens without banks. Unless you want to outlaw lending at interest?

        • jimmyjames:

          Keith-I read your link and still contend that what you explained is what causes asset bubbles to form by expanding credit beyond the original deposit base-

          In your example there and above-the same money is being recycled and loaned out far beyond the original real money deposit-the same way it is and has been done today-

          If 1000 ounces is all that was “loaned” to the bank by the original depositor and if they continue to lend out 90% of it every time it comes back into the bank by whoever holds and deposits the money at the time-they are in fact creating spending money out of thin air and it matters not whether the real money ever sees the light of day in its usage-

          Pull out your wallet and count everything spendable that’s in it–cash/credit cards/debit cards including savings and available credit lines-
          All of it will “act” like money if you spend it and so by that example- it is money and it is inflation when it gets injected into the economy and if I spend it and don’t pay it back- it is a balance sheet loss to the bank and when/if the original depositor withdraws his money-the balance sheet loss to the bank is deflation-
          Of course the game can still continue as long as the depositor doesn’t withdraw the real money-but what if he did?
          Well that is what has happened and that is why Bernanke is printing and stuffing banks with cash reserves backed by us peasants-

          It is by the very method of FRB you say is all fine-that asset bubbles form by issuing/inflating spendable “credit money” beyond the base money supply and all we have to do is look at the mess we are in today in order to see that it does not work when the malinvested bubbles explode as they always must-
          Spendable money will always find a home-no matter what form it is in-

    • Keith Weiner:

      Rodney: Gold is money as proven by its highest stocks to flows, and its narrowest bid-ask spread which widens the least as quantity offered or bid rises. I don’t want the government to mandate gold or anything else. If I am wrong, and it turns out that seawater is used as money, I can live with that (and I will bet a shiny gold coin against a torn dollar bill that the market will not choose seawater!) There is no contradiction between insisting on a free market and concluding that one knows what the market will choose, or what the market has in fact chosen and continues to choose even today even under a regime which does not officially acknowledge gold.

      By the way, I have said many times that lending demand deposits is duration mismatch and is illegitimate.

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