Originally, I was going to write a post on the recent volatility of gold prices and what this means for gold standard advocates. Pondering the subject, I became more interested in what this means for free banking advocates, specifically those who think that gold (or similar commodity monies) would be the primary backing asset. Since paper notes are circulated in place of gold, the relative scarcity of gold is no longer an advantage in constraining the money supply. From here, it’s not a big jump to come to the conclusion that gold loses some of its purpose. If what matters is limiting fiduciary expansion, the choice of backing assets broadens, because the bank only needs a capital reserve to make good the liabilities that its circulating banknotes represent. Many people, incorrectly, assume that it’s the “backing” that decides the sustainability of a currency. It’s not, what give sustainability are the institutions of banking.
To see my particular angle of approach, let’s quickly look at this hypothetical history of banking in hypothetical Ruritania. After some time, gold emerges as the principal medium of exchange, and people begin depositing their gold coins at specialized businesses, or money warehouses. Not only is this for safety, but these warehouses also preform the function of financial intermediaries, settling debts on net and in bulk. In place of actual gold coin, people trade with redeemable warehouse receipts. At first, any lending by part of these warehouses comes from their own retained earnings, and not the deposits of their customers. Over time, though, these firms begin loaning their customers’ deposits, as they realize that some fraction of total liabilities aren’t redeemed at any given point in time. This system slowly becomes more sophisticated, as standards are developed and new types of promissory notes are introduced Ruritanian banks eventually begin circulating the banknotes we’re most familiar with — imagine U.S. dollars redeemable for gold at your local bank branch. Gold is relegated to a reserve asset used to settle interbank clearings (when bank A goes to bank B with a large stack of B’s notes and redeems them).
Bank notes, or inside money, are circulating in place of gold coin, meaning they essentially become just as good as the commodity money they’re substituting for. To keep things simple, let’s assume that all notes trade at par (a $1 bill is worth the full amount of the assets it represents). It’s the circulation of these notes that forms part of the process of competitive price formation, so any change in the quantity of bank notes will affect prices. In this banking system, changes in the quantity of bank notes are bound to occur. The substitution of inside money for gold is essentially an act of abandoning a relatively rigid money for a much more elastic one. If banks wanted to, they could print an unlimited number of bank notes — well, until Ruritania ran out of trees (or until the saw and paper mills decided to stop working because hyperinflation had caused the pricing process to break down). This seemingly presents a dilemma.
The main argument against central banking is precisely that this state of affairs makes it too easy for a monopoly to exploit the elasticity of the currency. But, free banking doesn’t suffer from the same problem. To paraphrase Douglass North, free banking is a case of being able to conquer ourselves once we conquered nature — we gradually make the uncertain more certain. As competition in banking increases, rival bank notes (assumed to be imperfect substitutes) will circulate in competition with each other. Banks will accept rival notes to accommodate their customers, but will then take them to rival banks for redemption. This makes for a relatively fast feedback mechanism for each bank to gauge the health of its balance sheet. An increase in the number of returning notes will force a bank to constrain loans, perhaps borrowing in the short-term to temporarily shore up its assets (waiting for loans to be repaid). Even a competitive banking system of this type is bound to suffer periodic instability, but the institutions also get more complex over time. For example, specialized banks, or clearinghouses, may arise that deal solely with the inter-bank clearing process. Ultimately, these can act as central banks of sorts, loaning to banks in times of temporary distress. Banks would have to conform to certain standards to be eligible for aid.
Usually, when we think of a commodity standard we consider one of its qualities to be the physical scarcity of the commodity, like gold. But, in reality, society decided that the relative inelasticity of gold was too costly, so it adopted the more elastic system of inside money circulation. But, in doing so it abandoned one of the most important safeguards against inflation. What took their place were certain institutions, such as competitive banking. What this means to gold standard advocates is that they should stop advocating the gold standard and instead ask for competitive banking. Any gold standard that’s left unconstrained will eventually evolve into the more modern system of money substitute. The natural qualities of gold are therefore irrelevant. What matters are the institutions developed to not only take the place of these qualities, but to do the job in a superior way. Even a full reserve banking system has to develop institutions to constrain the elasticity of inside money.
One final point. In our hypothetical world of free banking, gold is relegated to the task of paying net debts through the inter-bank clearing process. Why couldn’t alternative assets take the place of gold? A bank could transfer ownership of another asset, such as a securitized loan portfolio. One thing that decides the quality of an asset, though, is its information sensitivity. An asset that varies in value is going to be more information sensitive, because the counterparty is going to have to track changes in price. For example, a $1,000 securitized loan portfolio with a 90 percent repayment probability may, at first, be valued at $900 by the counterparty (.9 × $1,000). As it turns out, this asset is volatile, with default probability fluctuating between 10 and 30 percent. If a bank is is using volatile assets as a capital reserve, then there will be a relatively greater likelihood that this bank is going to be unable to make good of all short-term liabilities (if the value of its “backing assets” falls). The banknotes of these banks are going to be circulating at less than par. Competitive pressures are going to force them out of business, and customers are going to choose more stable currencies. Another consideration is liquidity. Counterparties, or rival banks, are hardly going to want to be repaid in relatively illiquid assets. The advantage of gold as a backing asset is that it’s relatively information insensitive (if the money supply is constrained enough) and it’s relatively liquid. But, there are a broad range of assets, and new assets are likely to be developed over time, so we can’t discount the possibility of other assets being mixed with, or replacing, gold.
As I write above, it seems to me that what I argue here is true whether you advocate for a free fractional reserve or full reserve banking system. If inside money is circulating in place of outside money, what matters is constraining the supply of inside money. Banks can still choose amongst different backing assets, but even full reservists are interested in constraining money supply volatility. Ultimately, the end goals of the two approaches aren’t too different. Fractional reservists look to competition as a means of developing means of restricting excess money creation. Full reservists look to legal constraints, or some simply claim that a competitive banking system would be forced to full reserves because of instabilities allegedly inherent in fractional reserve banking. Whatever the case, what matters are the institutions, not gold.