Ed. Note – you can read Part I of Prechter’s guest article on the history of the Fed here.
Money, Credit and the Federal Reserve Banking System
Conquer the Crash, Chapter 10
By Robert Prechter
… Let’s attempt to define what gives the dollar objective value. As we will see in the next section, the dollar is “backed” primarily by government bonds, which are promises to pay dollars. So today, the dollar is a promise backed by a promise to pay an identical promise. What is the nature of each promise? If the Treasury will not give you anything tangible for your dollar, then the dollar is a promise to pay nothing. The Treasury should have no trouble keeping this promise.
In Chapter 9 [of Conquer the Crash], I called the dollar “money.” By the definition given there, it is. I used that definition and explanation because it makes the whole picture comprehensible. But the truth is that since the dollar is backed by debt, it is actually a credit, not money. It is a credit against what the government owes, denoted in dollars and backed by nothing. So although we may use the term “money” in referring to dollars, there is no longer any real money in the U.S. financial system; there is nothing but credit and debt.
As you can see, defining the dollar, and therefore the terms money, credit, inflation and deflation, today is a challenge, to say the least. Despite that challenge, we can still use these terms because people’s minds have conferred meaning and value upon these ethereal concepts.
Understanding this fact, we will now proceed with a discussion of how money and credit expand in today’s financial system.
How the Federal Reserve System Manufactures Money
Over the years, the Federal Reserve Bank has transferred purchasing power from all other dollar holders primarily to the U.S. Treasury by a complex series of machinations. The U.S. Treasury borrows money by selling bonds in the open market. The Fed is said to “buy” the Treasury’s bonds from banks and other financial institutions, but in actuality, it is allowed by law simply to fabricate a new checking account for the seller in exchange for the bonds. It holds the Treasury’s bonds as assets against — as “backing” for — that new money. Now the seller is whole (he was just a middleman), the Fed has the bonds, and the Treasury has the new money.
This transactional train is a long route to a simple alchemy (called “monetizing” the debt) in which the Fed turns government bonds into money. The net result is as if the government had simply fabricated its own checking account, although it pays the Fed a portion of the bonds’ interest for providing the service surreptitiously. To date (1st edition of Prechter’s Conquer the Crash was published in 2002 — Ed.), the Fed has monetized about $600 billion worth of Treasury obligations. This process expands the supply of money.
In 1980, Congress gave the Fed the legal authority to monetize any agency’s debt. In other words, it can exchange the bonds of a government, bank or other institution for a checking account denominated in dollars. This mechanism gives the President, through the Treasury, a mechanism for “bailing out” debt-troubled governments, banks or other institutions that can no longer get financing anywhere else. Such decisions are made for political reasons, and the Fed can go along or refuse, at least as the relationship currently stands. Today, the Fed has about $36 billion worth of foreign debt on its books. The power to grant or refuse such largesse is unprecedented.
Each new Fed account denominated in dollars is new money, but contrary to common inference, it is not new value. The new account has value, but that value comes from a reduction in the value of all other outstanding accounts denominated in dollars. That reduction takes place as the favored institution spends the newly credited dollars, driving up the dollar-denominated demand for goods and thus their prices. All other dollar holders still hold the same number of dollars, but now there are more dollars in circulation, and each one purchases less in the way of goods and services. The old dollars lose value to the extent that the new account gains value.
The net result is a transfer of value to the receiver’s account from those of all other dollar holders. This fact is not readily obvious because the unit of account throughout the financial system does not change even though its value changes.
It is important to understand exactly what the Fed has the power to do in this context: It has legal permission to transfer wealth from dollar savers to certain debtors without the permission of the savers. The effect on the money supply is exactly the same as if the money had been counterfeited and slipped into circulation.
In the old days, governments would inflate the money supply by diluting their coins with base metal or printing notes directly. Now the same old game is much less obvious. On the other hand, there is also far more to it. This section has described the Fed’s secondary role. The Fed’s main occupation is not creating money but facilitating credit. This crucial difference will eventually bring us to why deflation is possible.
How the Federal Reserve Has Encouraged the Growth of Credit
Congress authorized the Fed not only to create money for the government but also to “smooth out” the economy by manipulating credit (which also happens to be a re-election tool for incumbents). Politics being what they are, this manipulation has been almost exclusively in the direction of making credit easy to obtain. The Fed used to make more credit available to the banking system by monetizing federal debt, that is, by creating money. Under the structure of our “fractional reserve” system, banks were authorized to employ that new money as “reserves” against which they could make new loans. Thus, new money meant new credit.
It meant a lot of new credit because banks were allowed by regulation to lend out 90 percent of their deposits, which meant that banks had to keep 10 percent of deposits on hand (“in reserve”) to cover withdrawals. When the Fed increased a bank’s reserves, that bank could lend 90 percent of those new dollars. Those dollars, in turn, would make their way to other banks as new deposits. Those other banks could lend 90 percent of those deposits, and so on. The expansion of reserves and deposits throughout the banking system this way is called the “multiplier effect.” This process expanded the supply of credit well beyond the supply of money.
Because of competition from money market funds, banks began using fancy financial manipulation to get around reserve requirements. In the early 1990s, the Federal Reserve Board under Chairman Alan Greenspan took a controversial step and removed banks’ reserve requirements almost entirely. To do so, it first lowered to zero the reserve requirement on all accounts other than checking accounts. Then it let banks pretend that they have almost no checking account balances by allowing them to “sweep” those deposits into various savings accounts and money market funds at the end of each business day. Magically, when monitors check the banks’ balances at night, they find the value of checking accounts artificially understated by hundreds of billions of dollars. The net result is that banks today conveniently meet their nominally required reserves (currently about $45b.) with the cash in their vaults that they need to hold for everyday transactions anyway. [1st edition of Prechter’s Conquer the Crash was published in 2002 — Ed.]
By this change in regulation, the Fed essentially removed itself from the businesses of requiring banks to hold reserves and of manipulating the level of those reserves. This move took place during a recession and while S&P earnings per share were undergoing their biggest drop since the 1940s. The temporary cure for that economic contraction was the ultimate in “easy money.”
We still have a fractional reserve system on the books, but we do not have one in actuality. Now banks can lend out virtually all of their deposits. In fact, they can lend out more than all of their deposits, because banks’ parent companies can issue stock, bonds, commercial paper or any financial instrument and lend the proceeds to their subsidiary banks, upon which assets the banks can make new loans. In other words, to a limited degree, banks can arrange to create their own new money for lending purposes.
Today, U.S. banks have extended 25 percent more total credit than they have in total deposits ($5.4 trillion vs. $4.3 trillion). Since all banks do not engage in this practice, others must be quite aggressive at it. For more on this theme, see Chapter 19 [of Conquer the Crash].
Recall that when banks lend money, it gets deposited in other banks, which can lend it out again. Without a reserve requirement, the multiplier effect is no longer restricted to ten times deposits; it is virtually unlimited. Every new dollar deposited can be lent over and over throughout the system: A deposit becomes a loan becomes a deposit becomes a loan, and so on.
As you can see, the fiat money system has encouraged inflation via both money creation and the expansion of credit. This dual growth has been the monetary engine of the historic uptrend of stock prices in wave (V) from 1932. The stupendous growth in bank credit since 1975 (see graphs in Chapter 11) has provided the monetary fuel for its final advance, wave V. The effective elimination of reserve requirements a decade ago extended that trend to one of historic proportion.
The Net Effect of Monetization
Although the Fed has almost wholly withdrawn from the role of holding book-entry reserves for banks, it has not retired its holdings of Treasury bonds. Because the Fed is legally bound to back its notes (greenback currency) with government securities, today almost all of the Fed’s Treasury bond assets are held as reserves against a nearly equal dollar value of Federal Reserve notes in circulation around the world. Thus, the net result of the Fed’s 89 years of money inflating is that the Fed has turned $600 billion worth of U.S. Treasury and foreign obligations into Federal Reserve notes.
Today the Fed’s production of currency is passive, in response to orders from domestic and foreign banks, which in turn respond to demand from the public. Under current policy, banks must pay for that currency with any remaining reserve balances. If they don’t have any, they borrow to cover the cost and pay back that loan as they collect interest on their own loans. Thus, as things stand, the Fed no longer considers itself in the business of “printing money” for the government. Rather, it facilitates the expansion of credit to satisfy the lending policies of government and banks.
If banks and the Treasury were to become strapped for cash in a monetary crisis, policies could change. The unencumbered production of banknotes could become deliberate Fed or government policy, as we have seen happen in other countries throughout history. At this point, there is no indication that the Fed has entertained any such policy. Nevertheless, Chapters 13 and 22 address this possibility.
Do you want to really understand the Fed? Then keep reading this free eBook, “Understanding the Fed“, as soon as you become a free member of Club EWI.
Ed. note: I am an Elliott Wave International subscriber and affiliate.