Cartoon in the New Yorker: A gun-toting man with large dark glasses, large hat pulled down, stands in front of a bank teller, who is reading a demand note. It says, “Give me all the money in my account.”
Bernie Madoff showed us how it was done: you induce many investors to invest their money, promising steady above-market returns; and you deliver – at least on paper. When your clients check their accounts, they see that their investments have indeed increased by the promised amount. Anyone who opts to pull out of the game is paid promptly and in full. You can afford to pay because most players stay in, and new players are constantly coming in to replace those who drop out. The players who drop out are simply paid with the money coming in from new recruits. The scheme works until the market turns and many players want their money back at once. Then it’s game over: you have to admit that you don’t have the funds, and you are probably looking at jail time.
A Ponzi scheme is a form of pyramid scheme in which earlier investors are paid with the money of later investors rather than from real profits. The perpetuation of the scheme requires an ever-increasing flow of money from investors in order to keep it going. Charles Ponzi was an engaging Boston ex-convict who defrauded investors out of $6 million in the 1920s by promising them a 400 percent return on redeemed postal reply coupons. When he finally could not pay, the scam earned him ten years in jail; and Bernie Madoff is likely to wind up there as well.
Most people are not involved in illegal Ponzi schemes, but we do keep our money in accounts that are tallied on computer screens rather than in stacks of coins or paper bills. How do we know that when we demand our money from our bank or broker that the funds will be there? The fact that banks are subject to “runs” (recall Northern Rock, Indymac and Washington Mutual) suggests that all may not be as it seems on our online screens. Banks themselves are involved in a sort of Ponzi scheme, one that has been perpetuated for hundreds of years. What distinguishes the legal scheme known as “fractional reserve” lending from the illegal schemes of Bernie Madoff and his ilk is that the bankers’ scheme is protected by government charter and backstopped with government funds. At last count, the Federal Reserve and the U.S. Treasury had committed $8.5 trillion to bailing out the banks from their follies.1 By comparison, M2, the largest measure of the money supply now reported by the Federal Reserve, was just under $8 trillion in December 2008.2 The sheer size of the bailout efforts indicates that the banking scheme has reached its mathematical limits and needs to be superseded by something more sustainable.
Penetrating the Bankers' Ponzi Scheme
What fractional reserve lending is and how it works is summed up in Wikipedia as follows:
“Fractional-reserve banking is the banking practice in which banks keep only a fraction of their deposits in reserve (as cash and other liquid assets) with the choice of lending out the remainder, while maintaining the simultaneous obligation to redeem all deposits immediately upon demand. This practice is universal in modern banking. . . .The nature of fractional-reserve banking is that there is only a fraction of cash reserves available at the bank needed to repay all of the demand deposits and banknotes issued. . . . When Fractional-reserve banking works, it works because:
“1. Over any typical period of time, redemption demands are largely or wholly offset by new deposits or issues of notes. The bank thus needs only to satisfy the excess amount of redemptions.
“2. Only a minority of people will actually choose to withdraw their demand deposits or present their notes for payment at any given time.
“3. People usually keep their funds in the bank for a prolonged period of time.
“4. There are usually enough cash reserves in the bank to handle net redemptions.
“If the net redemption demands are unusually large, the bank will run low on reserves and will be forced to raise new funds from additional borrowings (e.g. by borrowing from the money market or using lines of credit held with other banks), and/or sell assets, to avoid running out of reserves and defaulting on its obligations. If creditors are afraid that the bank is running out of cash, they have an incentive to redeem their deposits as soon as possible, triggering a bank run.”
Like in other Ponzi schemes, bank runs result because the bank does not actually have the funds necessary to meet all its obligations. Peter’s money has been lent to Paul, with the interest income going to the bank. As Elgin Groseclose, Director of the Institute for International Monetary Research, wryly observed in 1934:
“A warehouseman, taking goods deposited with him and devoting them to his own profit, either by use or by loan to another, is guilty of a tort, a conversion of goods for which he is liable in civil, if not in criminal, law. By a casuistry which is now elevated into an economic principle, but which has no defenders outside the realm of banking, a warehouseman who deals in money is subject to a diviner law: the banker is free to use for his private interest and profit the money left in trust. . . . He may even go further. He may create fictitious deposits on his books, which shall rank equally and ratably with actual deposits in any division of assets in case of liquidation.”3
How did the perpetrators of this scheme come to acquire government protection for what might otherwise have landed them in jail? A short history of the evolution of modern-day banking may be instructive.The Evolution of a Government-Sanctioned Ponzi Scheme
What came to be known as fractional reserve lending dates back to the seventeenth century, when trade was conducted primarily in gold and silver coins. How it evolved was described by the Chicago Federal Reserve in a revealing booklet called “Modern Money Mechanics” like this:
“It started with goldsmiths. As early bankers, they initially provided safekeeping services, making a profit from vault storage fees for gold and coins deposited with them. People would redeem their "deposit receipts" whenever they needed gold or coins to purchase something, and physically take the gold or coins to the seller who, in turn, would deposit them for safekeeping, often with the same banker. Everyone soon found that it was a lot easier simply to use the deposit receipts directly as a means of payment. These receipts, which became known as notes, were acceptable as money since whoever held them could go to the banker and exchange them for metallic money.