Arianna Huffington just posted an article on the Huffington Post that has sparked a remarkable wave of interest, evoking nearly 5,000 comments in less than a week. Called "Move Your Money," the article maintains that we can get credit flowing again on Main Street by moving our money out of the Wall Street behemoths and into our local community banks. This solution has been suggested before, but Arianna added the very appealing draw of a video clip featuring Jimmy Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life. In the holiday season, we are all hungry for a glimpse of that wonderful movie that used to be a mainstay of Christmas, showing daily throughout the holidays. The copyright holders have suddenly gotten very Scrooge-like and are allowing it to be shown only once a year on NBC. Whatever their motives, Wall Street no doubt approves of this restriction, since the movie continually reminded viewers of the potentially villainous nature of Big Banking.
Pulling our money out of Wall Street and putting it into our local community banks is an idea with definite popular appeal. Unfortunately, however, this move alone won't be sufficient to strengthen the small banks. Community banks lack capital money that belongs to the bank -- and the deposits of customers don't count as capital. Rather, they represent liabilities of the bank, since the money has to be available for the depositors on demand. Bank "capital" is the money paid in by investors plus accumulated retained earnings. It is the net worth of the bank, or assets minus liabilities. Lending ability is limited by a bank's assets, not its deposits; and today, investors willing to build up the asset base of small community banks are scarce, due to the banks' increasing propensity to go bankrupt.
It's a Wonderful Life actually illustrated the weakness of local community banking without major capital backup. George Bailey's bank was a savings and loan, which lent out the deposits of its customers. It "borrowed short and lent long," meaning it took in short-term deposits and made long-term mortgage loans with them. When the customers panicked and all came for their deposits at once, the money was not to be had. George's neighbors and family saved the day by raiding their cookie jars, but that miracle cannot be counted on outside Hollywood.
The savings and loan model collapsed completely in the 1980s. Since then, all banks have been allowed to create credit as needed just by writing it as loans on their books, a system called "fractional reserve" lending. Banks can do this up to a certain limit, which used to be capped by a "reserve requirement" of 10%. That meant the bank had to have on hand a sum equal to 10% of its deposits, either in its vault as cash or in the bank's reserve account at its local Federal Reserve bank. But many exceptions were carved out of the rule, and the banks devised ways to get around it.