Over at Punto de Vista Economico Nicolas Cachanosky has a very enlightening post on the debate hosted by the Online Library of Liberty about Ludwig von Mises’ Theory of Money and Credit that I posted about earlier. The whole thing is worth reading, as well as Nicolas’ various essays on the topic (here and here for example).

In this post I’m going to go further than I did the last post. I am going to claim that there might actually might be room for a reconciliation in the debate over the convergence to 100-percent reserves in free banking. That is, with a small concession one-hundred-percenteers might be able to salvage the idea that competition among free banks would lead to something close enough to a reserve ratio of 100%. This position was argued by Antoine Gentier in his 2003 book “Economie Bancaire: Essai sur les effets de la concurrence et de la réglementation sur le financement du crédit,” but you might also find it elsewhere in English. A short version of the argument is present in Gentier’s forthcoming paper in English in the JEEH.

He argues that in practice both positions are very close to another, because in the end what matters is not a snapshot or an average of reserve ratios, but the marginal reserve ratio. Indeed, “[p]ast money creation is not the main problem because it has already disrupted the economy by changing relative prices. The main problem relies in the ability of the banking system to create new currency now, and further distort the structure of production.” Over the period studied by Gentier (2003), and myself with Gentier (unpublished), while competing banks’ reserve ratio was very low, their marginal reserve ratio was close to 100%. Because of the phenomenon of adverse clearing, competing banks of issue are incapable of wildly expanding their circulation of banknotes. If they did they would be quickly drained of specie, much like was the case of the Ayr Bank in free banking era Scotland (See White 1995, 27-29). This is something Mises agrees to. It means that free banks could not create credit “out of thin air” like it is sometimes claimed, but had to do it almost entirely through accumulation of prior savings. This is one of the reasons that free banks have very high capitalization levels. At the margin, reserve ratios in free banking would indeed be “up very high and possibly close to 100 percent,” to use the words of Hummel.

White, L. H. 1995. Free Banking in Britain: Theory, Experience, and Debate, 1800-1845. 2nd ed. London: The Institute of Economics A ffairs.

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