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OpEdNews Op Eds    H1'ed 12/30/08

Borrowing from Peter to Pay Paul: The Wall Street Ponzi Scheme Called Fractional Reserve Banking

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“Then, bankers discovered that they could make loans merely by giving their promises to pay, or bank notes, to borrowers. In this way, banks began to create money. More notes could be issued than the gold and coin on hand because only a portion of the notes outstanding would be presented for payment at any one time. Enough metallic money had to be kept on hand, of course, to redeem whatever volume of notes was presented for payment.

“Transaction deposits are the modern counterpart of bank notes. It was a small step from printing notes to making book entries crediting deposits of borrowers, which the borrowers in turn could ‘spend’ by writing checks, thereby ‘printing’ their own money.”

If a landlord had rented the same house to five people at one time and pocketed the money, he would quickly have been jailed for fraud. But the bankers had devised a system in which they traded, not things of value, but paper receipts for them. It was called “fractional reserve” lending because the gold held in reserve was a mere fraction of the banknotes it supported. The scheme worked as long as only a few people came for their gold at one time; but investors would periodically get suspicious and all demand their gold back at once. There would then be a run on the bank and it would have to close its doors. This cycle of booms and busts went on throughout the nineteenth century, culminating in a particularly bad bank panic in 1907. The public became convinced that the country needed a central banking system to stop future panics, overcoming strong congressional opposition to any bill allowing the nation’s money to be issued by a private central bank controlled by Wall Street. The Federal Reserve Act creating such a “bankers’ bank” was passed in 1913. Robert Owens, a co-author of the Act, later testified before Congress that the banking industry had conspired to create a series of financial panics in order to rouse the people to demand “reforms” that served the interests of the financiers.4

Despite this powerful official backstop, however, the greatest bank run in history occurred only twenty years later, in 1933. President Roosevelt then took the dollar off the gold standard domestically, and Federal Reserve officials resolved to prevent further bank runs after that by flooding the banking system with “liquidity” (money created as debt to banks) whenever the banking Ponzi scheme came up short.

“Too Big to Fail”: The Government Provides the Ultimate Backstop

When these steps too proved insufficient to keep the banking scheme going, the government itself stepped up to the plate, providing bailout money directly from the taxpayers. The concept that some banks were “too big to fail” came in at the end of the 1980s, when the Savings and Loans collapsed and Citibank lost 50 percent of its share price. Negotiations were conducted behind closed doors, and “too big to fail” became standard policy. Bank risk was effectively nationalized: banks were now protected by the government from loss regardless of risk-taking or bad management.

There are limits, however, to the amount of support even the government’s deep pocket can provide. In the past two decades, the bankers’ lending scheme has been kept going by an even more speculative scheme known as “derivatives.” This is a complex subject that has been explored in other articles, but the bottom line is that more dollars are now owed in the derivatives casino than exist on the planet. (See Ellen Brown, “It’s the Derivatives, Stupid!” and “Credit Default Swaps: Derivative Disaster Du Jour,” www.webofdebt.com/articles.)  Attempting to fill the derivatives black hole with taxpayer money must inevitably be at the expense of other essential programs, such as Social Security and Medicare.

Interestingly, Social Security and Medicare themselves are in some sense Ponzi schemes, since earlier retirees collect their benefits from the contributions of later workers. These programs, too, may soon be facing bankruptcy, in this case because their mathematical models failed to account for a huge wave of Baby Boomers who would linger longer than previous generations and demand expensive drugs and care through their senior years, and because the fund money has have been drawn on by the government for other purposes. The question here is, should the government be backstopping private banks that have mismanaged their investment portfolios at the expense of workers contractually entitled to a decent retirement from a fund they have paid into all their working lives? The answer, of course, is no; but there may be a way that the government could do both. If it were to nationalize the banking system completely – if the government were to assume not just the banks’ losses but their profits, oversight and control – it might have the funds both to maintain Social Security and Medicare and to provide a sustainable credit mechanism for the whole economy.

Replacing Private with Public Credit

Readily available credit has made America “the land of opportunity” ever since the days of the American colonists. What has transformed this credit system into a Ponzi scheme that must continually be propped up with bailout money is that the credit power has been turned over to private parties who always require more money back than they create in the first place. Benjamin Franklin reportedly explained this defect in the eighteenth century. When the directors of the Bank of England asked what was responsible for the booming economy of the young colonies, Franklin explained that the colonial governments issued their own money, which they both lent and spent into the economy:

“In the Colonies, we issue our own paper money. It is called ‘Colonial Scrip.’ We issue it in proper proportion to make the goods pass easily from the producers to the consumers. In this manner, creating ourselves our own paper money, we control its purchasing power and we have no interest to pay to no one. You see, a legitimate government can both spend and lend money into circulation, while banks can only lend significant amounts of their promissory bank notes, for they can neither give away nor spend but a tiny fraction of the money the people need. Thus, when your bankers here in England place money in circulation, there is always a debt principal to be returned and usury to be paid. The result is that you have always too little credit in circulation to give the workers full employment. You do not have too many workers, you have too little money in circulation, and that which circulates, all bears the endless burden of unpayable debt and usury.”

In an article titled “A Monetary System for the New Millennium,” Canadian money reform advocate Roger Langrick explains his concept in contemporary terms. He begins by illustrating the mathematical impossibility inherent in a system of bank-created money lent at interest:

“[I]magine the first bank which prints and lends out $100. For its efforts it asks for the borrower to return $110 in one year; that is it asks for 10% interest. Unwittingly, or maybe wittingly, the bank has created a mathematically impossible situation. The only way in which the borrower can return 110 of the bank’s notes is if the bank prints, and lends, $10 more at 10% interest . . . . The result of creating 100 and demanding 110 in return, is that the collective borrowers of a nation are forever chasing a phantom which can never be caught; the mythical $10 that were never created. The debt in fact is unrepayable. Each time $100 is created for the nation, the nation’s overall indebtedness to the system is increased by $110. The only solution at present is increased borrowing to cover the principal plus the interest of what has been borrowed.”

The better solution, says Langrick, is to allow the government to issue enough new debt-free dollars to cover the interest charges not created by the banks as loans:

“Instead of taxes, government would be empowered to create money for its own expenses up to the balance of the debt shortfall. Thus, if the banking industry created $100 in a year, the government would create $10 which it would use for its own expenses. Abraham Lincoln used this successfully when he created $500 million of ‘greenbacks’ to fight the Civil War.”

National Credit from a Truly National Banking System

In Langrick’s example, a private banking industry pockets the interest, which must be replaced every year by a 10 percent issue of new Greenbacks; but there is another possibility. The loans could be advanced by the government itself. The interest would then return to the government and could be spent back into the economy in a circular flow, without the need to continually issue more money to cover the interest shortfall.

The fractional reserve Ponzi scheme is bankrupt, and the banks engaged in it, rather than being bailed out by its victims, need to be put into a bankruptcy reorganization under the FDIC. The FDIC then has the recognized option of wiping their books clean and taking the banks’ stock in return for getting them up and running again. This would make them truly “national” banks, which could dispense “the full faith and credit of the United States” as a public utility. A truly national banking system could revive the economy with the sort of money only governments can issue – debt-free legal tender. The money would be debt-free to the government, while for the private sector, it would be freely available for borrowing at a modest interest by qualified applicants. A government-owned bank would not need to rob from Peter to advance credit to Paul. “Credit” is just an accounting tool – an advance against future profits, or the “monetization” (turning into cash) of the borrower’s promise to repay. As British commentator Ron Morrison observed in a provocative 2004 article titled “Keynes Without Debt”:

“[Today] bank credit supplies virtually all our everyday means of exchange, and this brings into sharp focus the simple fact that modern money is no longer constrained by outmoded intrinsic values. It is pure fiat [enforced by law] and simply a glorified accounting system. . . . Modern monetary reform is about displacing the current economic paradigm of ‘what can be afforded’ with ‘what we have the capacity to undertake.’”5

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Ellen Brown is an attorney, founder of the Public Banking Institute, and author of twelve books including the best-selling WEB OF DEBT. In THE PUBLIC BANK SOLUTION, her latest book, she explores successful public banking models historically and (more...)
 

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