Central Bankers Are Losing Faith in Their Own Alchemy
Mervyn King is the British Ben Bernanke. An eminent academic economist, who now teaches both at New York University and the London School of Economics, King was from 2003 to 2013 Governor of the Bank of England. In short, he is a very big deal. Remarkably, in The End of Alchemy he frequently sounds like Murray Rothbard.
King identifies a basic problem in the banking system that has again and again led to financial crisis. “The idea that paper money could replace intrinsically valuable gold and precious metals, and that banks could take secure short-term deposits and transform them into long-term risky investments came into its own with the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth century. It was both revolutionary and immensely seductive. It was in fact financial alchemy — the creation of extraordinary financial powers that defy reality and common sense. Pursuit of this monetary elixir has brought a series of economic disasters — from hyperinflation to banking collapses.”
How exactly is this alchemy supposed to work? “People believed in alchemy because, so it was argued, depositors would never all choose to withdraw their money at the same time. If depositors’ requirements to make payments or obtain liquidity were, when averaged over a large number of depositors, a predictable flow, then deposits could provide a reliable source of long-term funding. But if a sizable group of depositors were to withdraw funds at the same time, the bank would be forced either to demand immediate repayment of the loans it had made, … or to default on the claims of depositors.” Readers of Rothbard’s What Has Government Done to Our Money? will recognize a familiar theme.
Many have sought to salvage the alchemy of banking by resorting to a central bank. By acting as a lender of last resort, a central bank can bail out banks in need of funds to satisfy anxious depositors and thus avert the danger of a bank run. The alchemy of transforming deposits into investments can now proceed.
Though he was one of the world’s leading central bankers, King finds fault with this “solution.” A local bank can be rescued by getting money from the central bank, but the process generates new problems. Thomas Hankey, a nineteenth-century Governor of the Bank of England, pointed out some of these in response to Walter Bagehot, the classic defender of the central bank as the lender of last resort:
[i]f banks came to rely on the Bank of England to bail them out when in difficulty, then they would take excessive risks and abandon “sound principles of banking.” They would run down their liquid assets, relying instead on cheap central bank insurance — and that is exactly what happened before the recent  crisis. The provision of insurance without a proper charge is an incentive to take excessive risks — in modern jargon, it creates “moral hazard.”
Given the dangers of financial alchemy, what should we do about it? Again, King strikes a Rothbardian note. He writes with great sympathy for one hundred percent reserve banking.
Even though the degree of alchemy of the banking system was much less fifty or more years ago than it is today, it is interesting that many of the most distinguished economists of the first half of the twentieth century believed in forcing banks to hold sufficient liquid assets to back 100 percent of their deposits. They recommended ending the system of “fractional reserve banking,” under which banks create deposits to finance risky lending and so have insufficient safe cash reserves to back their deposits.
Like Rothbard, King calls attention to the insights of the nineteenth-century Jacksonian William Leggett. King cites an article of 1834 in which Leggett said:
Let the [current] law be repealed; let a law be substituted, requiring simply that any person entering into banking business shall be required to lodge with some officer designated in the law, real estate, or other approved security, to the full amount of the notes which he might desire to issue.
King may to an extent resemble Rothbard; but unfortunately he is not Rothbard; and alert readers will have caught an important difference between King’s idea of one hundred percent reserve banking and Rothbard’s. King’s notion, unlike Rothbard’s, still allows banks to expand the money supply. The “liquid assets” need not be identical with the deposits: they need only be easily convertible into money should the need arise to do so.
King’s own plan to “end the alchemy” allows for substantial monetary expansion. He calls his idea the “pawnbroker for all seasons (PFAS)” approach. This is a form of “liquidity” insurance. Banks would have to put up in advance as collateral with the central bank some of their assets. This would act as a “form of mandatory insurance so that in the event of a crisis a central bank would be free to lend on terms already agreed.” So long as the insurance had been paid, though, the central bank would still bail the bank out in a crisis by giving it more money. Contrast this with the plan suggested in the quotation from Leggett, in which if a bank could not redeem its notes, depositors could proceed directly against the bank’s assets. This allows no monetary expansion; and Rothbard’s plan is of course more restrictive still.
Having come so close to Rothbard, why does King shrink from the final step? Why does he still allow room for monetary expansion? He fears deflation.
Sharp changes in the balance between the demand for and supply of liquidity can cause havoc in the economy. The key advantage of man-made money is that its supply can be increased or decreased rapidly in response to a sudden change in demand. Such an ability is a virtue, not a vice, of paper or electronic money. … The ability to expand the supply of money in times of crisis is essential to avoid a depression.
But if the demand for liquidity suddenly increases, when the monetary stock is constant, cannot falling prices for goods satisfy the demand? King, here following Keynes, is skeptical. “Wage and price flexibility does help to coordinate plans when all the markets relevant to future decisions exist. But in practice they do not, and in those circumstances cuts in wages and prices may lower incomes without stimulating current demand.” Prices may keep falling indefinitely.
Other possibilities of coordination failure also trouble King, and underlying them is an important argument. Following Frank Knight, he distinguishes between risk and uncertainty.
Risk concerns events, like your house catching fire, where it is possible to define precisely the nature of that future outcome and to assign a probability to the occurrence of the event based on past experience. … Uncertainty, by contrast, concerns events where it is not possible to define, or even imagine, all possible future outcomes, and to which probabilities cannot therefore be assigned.
We live in a world of radical uncertainty, and thus we cannot be sure that relying on market prices to adjust to changes in the demand to hold money suffices to avert catastrophe. It is for this reason that resort to monetary expansion sometimes is needed.
This argument moves altogether too fast. It does not follow from the fact that Knightian uncertainty prevails widely that one must take seriously the possibility that prices and wages would fall indefinitely. In a situation of uncertainty, we cannot, by hypothesis, calculate probabilities; but this does not require that we take outlandish possibilities as likely occurrences that must be averted by the government. Some reason needs to be given for supposing that prices will continue to fall indefinitely. Why would entrepreneurs not be able to correct the situation, without resorting to monetary expansion? We are not faced with a dichotomy between exact mathematical calculation, in the style of an Arrow-Debreu equilibrium, and blind groping in the dark.
King himself acknowledges that in the American depression of 1920 to 1921, no resort to the government was needed.
The striking fact is that throughout the episode there was no active stabilization policy by the government or central bank, and prices moved in a violent fashion. It was, in the words of James Grant, the Wall Street financial journalist and writer, “the depression that cured itself.”
It is encouraging that King cites the Austrian economist James Grant, but he draws from his work an insufficient message. “The key lesson from the experience of 1920–21 is that it is a mistake to think of all recessions as having similar causes and requiring similar remedies.” In view of the manifold invidious consequences, fully acknowledged by King, of government intervention, should we not rather emphasize the need to rely on the unhampered market? King nevertheless merits praise for coming close, in his own way, to many Austrian insights.