IMF: Abolish the Debt!

Not exactly; you have to read between the lines a little.

People are talking about this new thing from the IMF, reviving the 1930s-era “Chicago plan” for 100% reserve banking. Red meat for the end-the-Fed crowd. The paper shares a coauthor, Michael Kumhof, with that other notable recent piece of IMF rabble-rousing, on how inequality is responsible for financial crises. Anyway, the Chicago plan. It was the brainchild of Herbert Simon Henry Simons and Irving Fisher:

The key feature of this plan was that it called for the separation of the monetary and credit functions of the banking system, first by requiring 100% backing of deposits by government-issued money, and second by ensuring that the financing of new bank credit can only take place through earnings that have been retained in the form of government-issued money, or through the borrowing of existing government-issued money from non-banks, but not through the creation of new deposits, ex nihilo, by banks.  

Fisher (1936) claimed four major advantages for this plan. First, preventing banks from creating their own funds during credit booms, and then destroying these funds during subsequent contractions, would allow for a much better control of credit cycles, which were perceived to be the major source of business cycle fluctuations. Second, 100% reserve backing would completely eliminate bank runs. Third, allowing the government to issue money directly at zero interest, rather than borrowing that same money from banks at interest, would lead to a reduction in the interest burden on government finances and to a dramatic reduction of (net) government debt, given that irredeemable government-issued money represents equity in the commonwealth rather than debt. Fourth, given that money creation would no longer require the simultaneous creation of mostly private debts on bank balance sheets, the economy could see a dramatic reduction not only of government debt but also of private debt levels.

Kumhof and his coauthor Jaromir Benes run through how such a thing would be implemented today, and then estimate its effects on output and prices in a DSGE model. (I don’t care about that second part.) My opinion: I don’t think this makes sense practically as a practical policy proposal or strategically as a political focal point. But it’s not crazy. I think it’s a useful thought experiment to clarify what we do and don’t need banks for, and I’m glad that some people around Occupy seem to be noticing and talking about it.


Though Kumhof and Benes don’t quite say so, this proposal should really be understood as addressing two distinct and separate problems:

1. Stabilization via monetary policy is constrained by the fact that its traditional tools have less purchase on private credit creation than they are imagined to or they used to, and not just at the ZLB. (As discussed repeatedly on this blog, e.g. these posts and this one.) So if the state wants to continue relying on monetary policy as its main countercyclical tool, we need to think about institutional changes that would strengthen the transmission mechanism.

2. If government liabilities are more liquid than the liabilities of even the biggest banks, as they certainly seem to be, then the banking system plays no function with respect to federal borrowing. The banks that hold federal debt are providing “anti-intermediation” — they are replacing more liquid assets with less liquid ones. In this sense, whatever income banks get from holding federal debt and providing means of payment are pure rents – it would be more efficient for federal liabilities to serve as means of payment directly.

The Chicago plan is the stone that is supposed to kill both these birds. I think it misses both, but in an intellectually productive way. In other words, it’s fun to think about.

The goal of the plan is to, in effect, collapse the categories of inside money, outside money and government debt by eliminating the first and turning the third into the second. Equivalently, it’s an attempt to legislate the economy into functioning the way monetarists (and some MMTers) say it already does, with a fixed money supply set by policy. You could think of it as another intervention in the centuries-old Currency School vs. Banking School debate — except that unlike most Currency School advocates over the past two centuries, Kumhof and Benes acknowledge that the Banking School is right about how existing financial systems operate, and that 100% reserves is not a return to some “natural” arrangement but a radical and far-reaching reform.

Why wouldn’t it work?

On the first goal, improving the reliability of stabilization policy, it’s important to recognize that deposits are not where the action is, and haven’t been for a long time. So 100% reserve backing of deposits is really the smallest piece of this thing. In effect, it’s a proposal to tighten the Fed’s handle on the narrow money supply — M1, in the jargon. but most means of payment in the economy aren’t captured by M1 — they don’t take the form of deposits, and haven’t for a long time. (In this respect things have really changed since 1936.) So it wouldn’t be enough to tighten the rules on deposit creation; you’d have to abolish (or impose the same reserve requirements on) all the other assets that serve as means of payment (and are more or less captured in M2 and formerly in M3), and prevent the financial system from developing new ones.

The proposal does do this, but it’s pretty draconian — under Kumhof and Benes’ plan “there is no lending at all between private agents.” As soon as you relax that restriction, the plan’s advantages in terms of stabilization go away. An absolute legal prohibition on IOUs might please Ezra Pound, but it’s hard to see it playing well among any of the IMF’s other constituencies. And the reality is if anything worse than that, because, as the Islamic world has been finding for 1,400 years now, it is very hard to legally distinguish debt contracts from other kinds of private contracts. So in practice you’d need an almost Soviet level of control over economic activity to realize something like this.

Perhaps I’m exaggerating the practical difficulties faced by the plan, but even if you could overcome them, it would only solve half the problem. The proposal only strengthens contractionary policy, not expansionary policy. It might have prevented the acceleration in credit creation in the 1980s and 1990s, but wouldn’t have done anything to boost credit creation and real activity in the past few years. It’s true that it would prevent the specific dynamic that Fisher (and later Friedman) blamed for the Depression, a positive feedback in a downturn between bank failures and a falling money supply. But that dynamic no longer exists, given deposit insurance and active countercyclical monetary policy, altho I suppose one could imagine it reappearing again in the future…

Part of the issue is whether you think lack of effective demand = lack of nominal effective demand = excess demand for money, by definition. This is the standard New Keynesian view, borrowed from monetarism. In this view a recession necessarily involves an insufficient money supply. But I don’t accept this. And once you accept that recessions involve multiple equilibria or coordination failures, there is no reason to think that increasing the supply of money must logically be a reliable way to get out of one, and lots of empirical evidence that it isn’t.

But even if the “Chicago plan” is not a workable solution to the breakdown of the monetary policy transmission mechanism, it’s a useful exercise. At the least, it calls attention to the fact that there is a breakdown — in a monetarist world, reforming the financial system to allow the central bank to control the money supply would be like legislating the law of gravity. Kumhof and Benes are clear that this proposal is only meaningful because under current arrangements, money is fully endogenous:

The critical feature of our theoretical model is that it exhibits the key function of banks in modern economies, which is not their largely incidental function as financial intermediaries between depositors and borrowers, but rather their central function as creators and destroyers of money. A realistic model needs to reflect the fact that under the present system banks do not have to wait for depositors to appear and make funds available before they can on-lend, or intermediate, those funds. Rather, they create their own funds, deposits, in the act of lending. This fact can be verified in the description of the money creation system in many central bank statements, and it is obvious to anybody who has ever lent money and created the resulting book entries.

(As a footnote tartly notes, that includes Kumhof, a former banker.)

So while the proposal doesn’t describe something you could actually do, it does help illuminate the current system of credit creation, via a sharply contrasting ideal alternative.

How about the second goal, eliminating the value-subtracting activity of banks “financing” government debt? Here I think they are onto something important. Interest is a payment for liquidity, as we’ve known since Keynes. So there is no economic reason for the government to pay interest to financial intermediaries when its own liabilities are the most liquid there are.

The problem here is, it’s not clear why, once you recognize this, you would stop at splitting of the payment system from credit creation. Why doesn’t the state provide means of payment directly? Whatever arguments there were for a state monopoly on money issue presumably don’t go away when money becomes electronic, so why isn’t there a public debit card just like there is federal currency? (This becomes really obvious when you look at the outright scams that happen when private businesses manage EBT cards, etc.) Of course there are people who want private currencies, but they are crazy libertarians. And yet without anyone accepting their arguments, we’ve implicitly gone along with them as the economy has moved toward electronic means of payment — every time you pay with a debit or credit card, some financial parasite takes their cut. The obvious solution is to end the private monopoly on means of payment. (What do want? Postal savings and a public payment system! When do we want them? Now!) Benes and Kumhof don’t go all the way there, but their plan is at least a step in that direction.

There’s a broader point here. Axel Leijonhufvud (among others) suggests that the fundamental reason there is a term premium (and at least part of the reason there is a liquidity premium) is that there is a chronic excess of long-term, illiquid assets in the form of physical capital, because of the technical superiority of roundabout production processes. That is, the time to maturity of the representative asset is longer than the horizon of the typical asset-holder. Thus the “constitutional weakness” (Hicks) at the long end of the credit market.

But if a larger proportion of the private economy’s outside assets are made up of government debt rather than physical capital, (and if a larger proportion of saving is done by institutions rather than households, tho that’s iffier) then this constitutional weakness goes away, and there’s no reason to have anyone collecting a fee for maturity transformation. Ashwin at Macroeconomic Resilience has written some very smart stuff about this.

Banks came into existence, in other words, in a world where most savers had a very high demand for liquidity, and most liabilities were risky and illiquid. So you needed someone to stand between, to intermediate. But today most saving is via institutional investors with long horizons — pensions etc. — or internal to the firm, while a very large proportion of borrowing is by sovereign governments, and so less risky/more liquid than anything banks can issue. In this world there’s no need for intermediaries in the old sense; they’re just rent-collecting parasites. This is not the way the “Chicago plan” is motivated but it seems like a not-bad way of making the point.


Third piece, the transition. How do you go to a 100%-reserve world without a huge contraction of credit and activity? Here their solution is kind of clever. If you look at US nonfinancial debt, they observe, total business and home mortgage debt together come to about $20 trillion, and total government and non-mortgage household debt also come to about $20 trillion. Only the former, which finances investment, is socially productive, they figure. Under the Chicago Plan, banks would need $20 trillion in new reserves to avoid reducing the investment-financing part of their lending. Where do those new reserves come from? By the central bank buying up and extinguishing the other, non-productive half of the debt. It’s the best-credentialed jubilee proposal you’re likely to see.

Of course banks are worse off because half their interest-earning assets are replaced with sterile reserves. But in the logic of the proposal, there’s no social cost to that, since the lost interest income was for value-substracting “anti-intermediation” (my phrase, not theirs) activity; it was the banks’ fee for substituting less liquid for more liquid assets. Strictly speaking,though, this only applies to government debt. It’s not clear what’s supposed to happen with the stuff the non-mortgage household debt was paying for. Some of it, like credit card debt, was incurred just incidentally to making payments, and would no longer be needed in a world with separate payment and credit systems. As for the rest, they don’t say. It would be logical to see it as mostly for essentials that are better provide publicly, financed by continued reserve issuance. But that would be, as somebody said, not just reading between the lines, but off the edge of the page.

Overall, I like it. A lot. Not because I think it’s a good policy proposal or even (probably) a useful focal point for political mobilization. In general, I think that one should avoid, even for rhetorical purposes, the presumption that economic policy is set by a benevolent philosopher-king (an assumption baked into standard macro models). Agreeing on how the banking system “should” function under some more or less implicit set of constraints will not get us a bit closer to a society fit for human beings. But politically, having paper from the IMF suggesting, even in this rather artificial way, that the simplest solution to excessive debt is just to abolish it, has got to be useful in the coming rising of the debtors. Intellectually, meanwhile, what I like about this is that it puts in sharp relief how little the existing financial system can be explained, as it usually is, as the solution to the economic problems of intermediation and liquidity provision. If the functions banks are supposedly performing could be performed much more efficiently and easily without them, then banks must really be for something else.

EDIT: Oh and also, I’ve got to quote this bit:

Any debate on the origins of money is not of merely academic interest, because it leads directly to a debate on the nature of money, which in turn has a critical bearing on arguments as to who should control the issuance of money. … Since the thirteenth century [the] precious-metals-based system has, in Europe, been accompanied, and increasingly supplanted, by the private issuance of bank money, more properly called credit. On the other hand, the historically and anthropologically correct state/institutional story for the origins of money is one of the arguments supporting the government issuance and control of money under the rule of law. In practice this has mainly taken the form of interest-free issuance of notes or coins, although it could equally take the form of electronic deposits. 

There is another issue that tends to get confused with the much more fundamental debate concerning the control over the issuance of money, namely the debate over “real” precious-metals-backed money versus fiat money. … this debate is mostly a diversion, because even during historical regimes based on precious metals the main reason for the high relative value of precious metals was … government fiat and not the intrinsic qualities of the metals.These matters are especially confused in Smith (1776), who takes a primitive commodity view of money… 

The historical debate concerning the nature and control of money is the subject of Zarlenga (2002), a masterful work that traces this debate back to ancient Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome. Like Graeber (2011), he shows that private issuance of money has repeatedly led to major societal problems throughout recorded history, due to usury associated with private debts. Zarlenga does not adopt the common but simplistic definition of usury as the charging of “excessive interest”, but rather as “taking something for nothing” through the calculated misuse of a nation’s money system for private gain.

This is a really smart passage for a bunch of reasons. But what I really like about it is that it vindicates my position in the great Graeber debate on about three different levels. Take that, Mike Beggs!