by Doug Casey, Casey Research:
Justin’s note: Earlier this year, Fed Chair Janet Yellen explained how she doesn’t think we’ll have another financial crisis “in our lifetimes.” It’s a crazy idea. After all, it feels like the U.S. is long overdue for a major crisis. Below, Doug Casey shares his take on this. It’s one of the most important discussions we’ve had all year.
Justin: Doug, I know you disagree with Yellen. But I’m wondering why she would even say this? Has she lost her mind?
Doug: Listening to the silly woman say that made me think we’re truly living in Bizarro World. It’s identical in tone to what stock junkies said in 1999 just before the tech bubble burst. She’s going to go down in history as the modern equivalent of Irving Fisher, who said “we’ve reached a permanent plateau of prosperity,” in 1929, just before the Great Depression started.
I don’t care that some university gave her a Ph.D., and some politicians made her Fed Chair, possibly the second most powerful person in the world. She’s ignorant of economics, ignorant of history, and clearly has no judgment about what she says for the record.
Why would she say such a thing? I guess because since she really believes throwing trillions of dollars at the banking system will create prosperity. It started with the $750 billion bailout at the beginning of the last crisis. They’ve since thrown another $4 trillion at the financial system.
All of that money has flowed into the banking system. So, the banking system has a lot of liquidity at the moment, and she thinks that means the economy is going to be fine.
Justin: Hasn’t all that liquidity made the banking system safer?
Doug: No. The whole banking system is screwed-up and unstable. It’s a gigantic accident waiting to happen.
People forgot that we now have a fractional reserve banking system. It’s very different from a classical banking system. I suspect not one person in 1,000 understands the difference…
Modern banking emerged from the goldsmithing trade of the Middle Ages. Being a goldsmith required a working inventory of precious metal, and managing that inventory profitably required expertise in buying and selling metal and storing it securely. Those capacities segued easily into the business of lending and borrowing gold, which is to say the business of lending and borrowing money.
Most people today are only dimly aware that until the early 1930s, gold coins were used in everyday commerce by the general public. In addition, gold backed most national currencies at a fixed rate of convertibility. Banks were just another business—nothing special. They were distinguished from other enterprises only by the fact they stored, lent, and borrowed gold coins, not as a sideline but as a primary business. Bankers had become goldsmiths without the hammers.
Bank deposits, until quite recently, fell strictly into two classes, depending on the preference of the depositor and the terms offered by banks: time deposits, and demand deposits. Although the distinction between them has been lost in recent years, respecting the difference is a critical element of sound banking practice.
Justin: Can you explain the difference between a time deposit and demand deposit?
Doug: Sure. With a time deposit—a savings account, in essence—a customer contracts to leave his money with the banker for a specified period. In return, he receives a specified fee (interest) for his risk, for his inconvenience, and as consideration for allowing the banker the use of the depositor’s money. The banker, secure in knowing he has a specific amount of gold for a specific amount of time, is able to lend it; he’ll do so at an interest rate high enough to cover expenses (including the interest promised to the depositor), fund a loan-loss reserve, and if all goes according to plan, make a profit.
A time deposit entails a commitment by both parties. The depositor is locked in until the due date. How could a sound banker promise to give a time depositor his money back on demand and without penalty when he’s planning to lend it out?
In the business of accepting time deposits, a banker is a dealer in credit, acting as an intermediary between lenders and borrowers. To avoid loss, bankers customarily preferred to lend on productive assets, whose earnings offered assurance that the borrower could cover the interest as it came due. And they were willing to lend only a fraction of the value of a pledged asset, to ensure a margin of safety for the principal. And only for a limited time—such as against the harvest of a crop or the sale of an inventory. And finally, only to people of known good character—the first line of defense against fraud. Long-term loans were the province of bond syndicators.
That’s time deposits.
Justin: And what about demand deposits?
Doug: Demand deposits were a completely different matter.
Demand deposits were so called because, unlike time deposits, they were payable to the customer on demand. These are the basis of checking accounts. The banker doesn’t pay interest on the money, because he supposedly never has the use of it; to the contrary, he necessarily charged the depositor a fee for:
Assuming the responsibility of keeping the money safe, available for immediate withdrawal, and…
Administering the transfer of the money if the depositor so chooses, by either writing a check or passing along a warehouse receipt that represents the gold on deposit.
An honest banker should no more lend out demand deposit money than Allied Van and Storage should lend out the furniture you’ve paid it to store. The warehouse receipts for gold were called banknotes. When a government issued them, they were called currency. Gold bullion, gold coinage, banknotes, and currency together constituted the society’s supply of transaction media. But its amount was strictly limited by the amount of gold actually available to people.
Sound principles of banking are identical to sound principles of warehousing any kind of merchandise—whether it’s autos, potatoes, or books. Or money. There’s nothing mysterious about sound banking. But banking all over the world has been fundamentally unsound since government-sponsored central banks came to dominate the financial system.
Central banks are a linchpin of today’s world financial system. By purchasing government debt, banks can allow the state—for a while—to finance its activities without taxation. On the surface, this appears to be a “free lunch.” But it’s actually quite pernicious and is the engine of currency debasement.
Central banks may seem like a permanent part of the cosmic landscape, but in fact they are a recent invention. The U.S. Federal Reserve, for instance, didn’t exist before 1913.
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