A Convert: Winterspeak and the Public Purpose Of Banking

Over on Winterspeak, I found another convert.

….a bank should be required to keep all loans it makes on its books until maturity.

In under six hundred words he provides a solution to a great deal of the problem. I’ve extended this basic line of reasoning to explain WHY banking should be run this way, WHY the public should and must insure banks, and WHY we can provide redistribution using these institutions, and HOW to look at government differently. But then I’m trying to solve the broader problem.

To determine how we must govern, we must agree on what life we desire. To agree on that life we must understand what kind of creatures we are. These two statements are as old as philosophy itself. However, these ancient questions are formulated with an assumption about our power of decision making: we may not be able to make decisions with out the institutions that help us do so.

The civic republican tradition of political participation assumes we can make such judgements, or that we need only philosophical knowledge or religious tradition to do so. When, at some level of complexity we cannot sense the data with which to make these decisions in any possible way.

I’ve included the article here in it’s entirety for posterity.

Winterspeak
The Public Purpose Of Banking
THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 12, 2009

The Public Purpose of Banking
While Lloyd Blankfein claims bankers are worth Billions, even as they destroy Trillions, it’s worth taking a look at what the public purpose of banking is. Chicago economists, sit back down, the public purpose of banking is not to enrich their shareholders any more than the public purpose of pharmaceutical companies is. Capitalism works by enriching owners as they compete to provide some value to customers. So, what is the value that banks deliver to their customers?

First, what is a bank? My definition is simple and goes to the heart of their public purpose: a bank is an entity that has a reserve account at the Fed. That is it. If you have a reserve account at the Fed, it means you can lend unconstrained by your reserve balance. Briefly, this is how it works:

1. You make a loan. This debits your reserve account, and you credit a receivable account.
2. The loan gets deposited, which credits that reserve account, and credits a liability. Note how the loan created the deposit, not the other way around.
3. If the loan and the deposit are made at the same institution, that institution has no net change to its reserve levels. If the loan and deposit were made at different institutions, then the institution short reserves borrows what it needs from the institution long reserves overnight. That’s it.

If you or I make a loan, we cannot use the reserve credit that the corresponding deposit creates to top up our own reserve levels. Thus this clear, operational difference between banks and non-banks.

Ultimately, the Govt creates all reserves, so why not just have the Govt make loans directly? Because we do not want the Government to make credit decisions, they are too likely to dole out money to politically connected constituencies, while starving worthwhile, but unconnected borrowers. You can see this today, as banks and unions get Billions, while shop keepers, dry cleaners, manufacturers, and restauranteurs shutter their businesses and go on the dole. An institution that makes loans it knows will not be paid back is not making loans at all, it is making gifts, and the operational bankruptcy of the FHA is a great example of this in action. Many adjectives come to mind: corrupt, wasteful, abominable, unfair, fraudulent, etc. This is the opposite of Responsible Governance. Barry, we really expected more.

So, to keep responsible lending, we put private capital infront of public capital and ask that private capital take the first loss on loans it makes which turn out to be bad. Ultimately, taxpayer money is there as backup, but it should not be directing investment. We call this institutional arrangement a “bank”.

This simple sensible construct is utterly lost on policy makers and the commentariat alike. For banking to do the job it is meant to do (ie. make loans that will be paid back), a bank should be required to keep all loans it makes on its books until maturity. It should be forbidden to participate in any secondary markets, in any way. It should not run a prop trading desk. It should not sell insurance. It should not have a fee-for-service business. It should simply conduct its own credit analysis, make loans, and service them. And in return for providing this public purpose, a bank shall have a reserve account at the Fed.


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