Monday, June 20, 2011
Much has been said about both the moral hazard of banks being bailed out and people bailing out of mortgages. The major question raised was, Would this ‘bailout’ contagion infect the integrity of our economic and political system? But far more interesting and much less discussed are the mechanics of modern banking and their moral implications.
During the housing boom trillions were loaned out in mortgages creating a housing bubble and the eventual collapse of the financial markets. But where did all that money come from? The vast majority of people think that banks borrow money from the Fed or depositors at one rate, lend it at another and make a spread. This concept is completely false. Banks create money, loan it out, make their margin through compound interest, and destroy the same money that they created as it is paid back.
The Mechanics of Fractional Reserve Banking
The mechanics of modern banking are opaque, misunderstood and arguably dishonest. Modern fiat money, the dollar, euro, yen etc are all based on debt. For every dollar in existence, there is somewhere an IOU for the same amount. This is best illustrated with an example of a typical mortgage.
Imagine Jack wants to buy Jill’s house for $100,000 and he has no money to buy it so he goes to his local bank and asks for a mortgage which is approved. The bank will ask Jack for a promissory note, an IOU, for the $100,000 and once he signs it, they open an account in which they create from nothing $100,000 for Jack in exchange for his IOU. That $100,000 is a liability for the bank, their asset is the IOU. The bank just ‘created’ $100,000 which is backed by the good faith of Jack to pay it back as well as the deed to the house he bought. Now the bank loans that money to Jack, with compound interest. The interest is the fee the bank charges for monetizing the debt. Jill would not have wanted an IOU from Jack for the 100K, so the bank did him the service of converting his IOU into dollars, and for this service they charge him interest. As Jack pays down his mortgage principal, the value of the IOU will be drawn down as well, until all the money ‘created’ is destroyed, and the IOU is worthless.
The money never existed before Jack signed his IOU. It was created entirely and only as an expression of his promissory note. All car loans, student loans and personal loans are created in this way, and it is the exclusive right of banks and the Fed to create money, except for coinage which is handled by the Federal Government. Banks are restricted as to how much money they can create by the amount they have on reserve with the Fed. The formula is complex, but, for simplicity's sake, it is around 10 times as much as they have on reserve, (actually more). If the bank has 1 million dollars on reserve with the Fed, for which they are now paid interest, they can create and loan out about 10 million dollars. Banks are paid for the privilege of creating and leasing money. This is our modern, fractional reserve banking system.
How does this differ from how other things that are borrowed or leased? When a house is leased, the owner must buy the house, then rent it, forfeiting his capital in exchange for an asset, the house. The typical return on residential real estate is about 5%, anything with a return of 10% would be snapped up in an instant. So how much do banks make when they loan their ‘created’ money out? Let’s assume Jack has been a good boy, and gets a fixed rate loan of 5% on his $100,000 mortgage for a period of 10 years. The bank is obligated to leave $10,000 in reserve, or 10% of the amount loaned out, but they do not give up the money, and they are now paid interest on it, so the bank now has no borrowing cost, only an opportunity cost. The return on the bank’s $10,000 is Jack’s compound interest payments of 5% on $100,000, or $5,000, a neat 50% return on their money. As he pays off the principal, the banks also frees up the corresponding amount in reserves, so the margin stays the same. On a 20% interest credit card with an outstanding balance of $10,000, the bank is holding $1,000 in reserve on which it is making 200% a year. Of course the bank has salaries to pay, rent, administration fees, marketing etc. but it is, nonetheless, a very lucrative business model.
What is special about banks that allows them such profitability? First, what is money? Money is two things: a store of wealth, and a means of exchange. Many would define money as human labor. Let’s say Jack is a truck driver and makes $50,000 a year, (very close to median US household income). Jack has recently married, bought a house and become a good boy and doesn’t pitter his money away anymore on wine and women, he now saves $1,000 every month, about one week's work for Jack and the average American family (before taxes). When he asks his bank how much they will pay him on his saving account, they say 1%. This seems legitimate to Jack, since they loaned him $100,000 at 5%. In fact, it seems like a very low margin to him as he assumes that the banks are loaning the money that other people like Jack have on deposit. Banks do not loan out deposits, deposits are used for reserves.
For Jack to earn $100,000 would take him two years of driving a truck, for which he would be paid by a bank a few thousand dollars in interest a year. For a bank, however, $100,000 is created digitally in miliseconds, and they are paid $5,000 a year in interest and if the borrower defaults, the bank will foreclose on the house with the full force of the law. Jack drove a truck for 2 years to make 100k, it is a store of value of his work, but what did the bank do in exchange for the interest on the 100k they loaned Jack?
Money is human labor transferred to a store of value, like dollars, euros, gold or silver. For example, when someone pays $30 for a kilo of fish, they are not paying for the fish in the ocean, they are paying for it on their plate. The difference between a happy fish swimming in the deep blue sea and a grilled halibut glistening before you is human effort. All other businesses that want to get a return on an asset must first buy the asset with money earned through work. This is not the case for banks. They earn interest on something they don't create.
In fact, a Minnesota Judge, Martin V. Mahoney, and a jury threw out a foreclosure on defendant Jerome Daly for just that reason. Daly argued that the there was no consideration in the contract between himself and the First National Bank of Montgomery. Consideration means both parties must give up something for there to be a contract. For example, if Jack offers to paint Jill’s apartment for free, there is no contract between them. If Jack bails on his offer to paint, Jill cannot sue him. Judge Mahoney ruled the bank gave up nothing in the contract. They created the money out of thin air hence they did not commit anything to the contract; there was no consideration and the bank could not foreclose.
For everyone except banks, money is an expression of human labor, creativitity, or even luck. But for banks, money is something they simply 'create' in exchange for IOU's. What Jack works ten years to pay back should not have the same value as what the bank created in the blink of an eye. They are two different things, yet they are treated as one.