The Fractional Backing of Money

Let’s say that the Federal Reserve, as usual, decides that it wants to expand the money supply. The Federal Reserve decides to go into the market (called the “open market”) and purchase an asset. It doesn’t really matter what asset it buys; the important point is that it writes out a check. The Fed could, if it wanted to, buy any asset it wished, including corporate stocks, buildings, or foreign currency. In practice, it almost always buys U.S. government securities.

Let’s assume that the Fed buys $10,000,000 of U.S. Treasury bills from some “approved” government bond dealer (a small group), say Shearson, Lehman on Wall Street. The Fed writes out a check for $10,000,000, which it gives to Shearson, Lehman in exchange for $10,000,000 in U.S. securities. Where does the Fed get the $10,000,000 to pay Shearson, Lehman? It creates the money out of thin air. Shearson, Lehman can do only one thing with the check: deposit it in its checking account at a commercial bank, say Chase Manhattan. The “money supply” of the country has already increased by $10,000,000; no one else’s checking account has decreased at all. There has been a net increase of $10,000,000.

But this is only the beginning of the inflationary, counterfeiting process. For Chase Manhattan is delighted to get a check on the Fed, and rushes down to deposit it in its own checking account at the Fed, which now increases by $10,000,000. But this checking account constitutes the “reserves” of the banks, which have now increased across the nation by $10,000,000. But this means that Chase Manhattan can create deposits based on these reserves, and that, as checks and reserves seep out to other banks (much as the Rothbard Bank deposits did), each one can add its inflationary mite, until the banking system as a whole has increased its demand deposits by $100,000,000, ten times the original purchase of assets by the Fed. The banking system is allowed to keep reserves amounting to 10 percent of its deposits, which means that the “money multiplier”–the amount of deposits the banks can expand on top of reserves–is 10. A purchase of assets of $10 million by the Fed has generated very quickly a tenfold, $100,000,000 increase in the money supply of the banking system as a whole.

Interestingly, all economists agree on the mechanics of this process even though they of course disagree sharply on the moral or economic evaluation of that process. But unfortunately, the general public, not inducted into the mysteries of banking, still persists in thinking that their money remains “in the bank.”

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