The basics of banking

Somebody has questioned how it is that banks can/should make their profits on the spread between deposits and loans.  Sometimes, when we are familiar with a subject we ass u me that everyone understands all the basics.

In the jargon of economics banks are financial intermediaries which means they are the facilitator between people who have money to lend and those who want to borrow.  People with money they don’t want to spend immediately can deposit that money in a bank.  The bankers then lends that money to somebody who has an use for it.

Bankers charges interest on the loan.  Some of that money is paid as interest on the deposit and the balance, the difference between the two interest rates, is the spread with which the banker pays his expenses and takes his profit.  It is very similar to the retailer who purchases goods wholesale and marks them up to sell at a retail price.

DooFi_PiggybankThat is the core business of banking.  Boring.  However there are a couple of additional factors which make banking  very important and very risky.

The first is that banks operate under the fractional reserve principle which means they are required to keep a percentage of deposits as cash or in a form which is immediately available.  This is just in case many people want their deposits returned at the same time.  Loans cannot always be called in quickly.  A “run” on the bank has to be most bankers worst nightmare.  I believe all bankers would lie about the financial health of their banks  to try to prevent a run.

I try to avoid dealing with bank loans staff but a couple of times I have asked how it feels to be creating money.  They cannot believe they are creating money in making loans but to those who have studied economics of money and banking that is what they do.  The process is explained  in the essay “LETS got to market: Dealing with the economic crisis.”  I figure the process is a Ponzi scheme and responsible for a lot of economic evils.  It also gives bankers a great deal of power.  Because banks create money it makes them so essential for the economy they cannot be allowed to fail.

The second complication is that making loans is a risky business in that borrowers are not always able to repay their loan.

This can be a problem for the economy as a whole  because if the banks have to write off  a large quantity of their outstanding loans,  the money supply can drop quickly and without money the exchange of goods and services stops.

Risk also  makes it easy for bankers to take for themselves some huge profits.  The general rule is that the longer the term of a loan or deposit the higher the interest rate charged or paid  because the risk is higher.  Prudent banking requires bankers to match the terms of their loans and deposits so that a loan for five  years is matched with a deposit that is committed for five years.  Thus the depositor gets more interest because he/she is carrying more risk.  In an ideal world the spread will be the same for all time periods.

But bankers can make huge profits by financing long-term loans upon which they receive a high interest rate with short-term deposits upon which they pay low-interest rates.  This way they increase the spread and take the rewards of the  higher risk.  This  tactic increases the risk as interest rates can go up above the returns from the loan or depositors may decide to withdraw their money.  I know of a Canadian financial institution that purchased some government bonds (made a loan) at ten percent.  Management expected interest rates to go down so that the interest received would be greater than what they had to pay on deposits – a nice profit,  This was just before interest rates went up to 19 percent and for a while the loses were considerable for the size of the institution.  Just before the financial crisis of 1907/08  at least some of the Wall Street banks were financing long-term sub-prime mortgages with low-cost overnight deposits.  As it became apparent a housing crisis was in the making the depositors stop renewing their deposits.

Of course when risk becomes reality and banks are faced with huge loses they are so important they cannot be allowed to fail and taxpayers end up paying for the risk.

So there you have it.  Prudent banking is simple and boring.  Breaking the basic rules brings in huge profits and ends with a major crisis.

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A Chicago plan for reforming banks

This week I came across a couple of articles about the Chicago  Plan for reforming banks and I like it because it proposes changing the way in which we create money and gets rid of the evils of fractional reserve money.

This plan was proposed in the 1930s by some economists from  Chicago and suggests banks be reorganized into two separate identities.  One type of bank would only accept deposits which would be kept 100 per cent with a central bank.  This type of bank would probably have to charge fees for looking after the deposits but they would be safe (except from inflation which would probably be less of a problem – or haircuts.)  No more fear of bank runs.

bankThe second type of bank would be a financial intermediary in that it would make loans based on 100 per cent equity deposits of its customers.  As all deposits would be equity, customers would know there are risks of a loan not being repaid.

As most, if not all,  bankers would see immediately, this would be the end of outrageous Wall Street profits.  Under the current system bankers make huge profits by taking for themselves  the premiums from risky loans but when the risk becomes reality somebody else takes the losses because the money creation feature of banks makes them too important to fail.  People putting money into a loan making business would know the risks and expect the returns to compensate.  The end of fractional reserve money creation would also do away with the leverage which allows bankers the profits from creating money on which they charge interest.

According to the Chicago Plan governments would create the money supply at zero interest.  This would be good in that interest charges would not be built into money creation thereby  reducing the potential for inflation.       My concern is that governments make decisions for political rather than economic reasons.  To me a national LETS (local exchange trading system)  would be preferable way to create money because the amount of money in use would depend upon the collective decisions of individuals.  For the sake of price  stability it is essential that the money supply should be flexible up and down.

When I wrote my essay “LETS go to market: Dealing with the economic crisis” I didn’t put a lot of thought into how to organize banking with a national LETS money system.  I didn’t know it then but the creators of the Chicago plan had already done that.

High deposit interest rates – a warning sign

When shopping most of us want to get the most we can for our money and that applies to the interest on our savings accounts.

However, a word of warning.  Sometimes when financial intermediaries are having problems they try to hang on by offering a higher interest rate on deposits.  This attracts more deposits which may help in the short-term but   reduces their margin between the cost of deposits and what they can charge for loans.  This only  adds  to their problems.

money_back_stickerThere have been cases of financial institutions doing this but it wasn’t enough to save them.  Some people who thought they were being smart, including some municipal treasurers, have been caught.  While some deposits are covered by deposit insurance it is probably better to stay away from troubled banks.  These days the interest rates being paid on savings are so low that most of us are probably just as well off to go with safety rather than returns.

This note was prompted by this article about some Canadians who are looking for the best returns on their savings.  I don’t want to say that every firm offering a higher interest rate is in trouble, but it can be a warning sign.  At least ask questions.

Bank gambling with long-term loans and short-term deposits

Turning short-term deposits into long-term loans is one of the main reasons banks exist, enabling customers to have the comfort of deposits that can be withdrawn at any time together with the certainty of mortgages that might last for 25 years.

This statement from a columnist in The Economist  contradicts what I always thought was prudent bank policy – that the time term of a loan should be matched by a deposit of an equal time term.  To mismatch these terms is to use other people’s money to gamble on which way interest rates are going to move.

I know of a Canadian financial institution that purchased a pile of government bonds at ten percent expecting interest rates to go down in which case the deal would have been profitable.  This was just before interest rates went up to 19 percent and this business lost a pile of money as it had to pay a lot more on short-term deposits than it received on its long-term bonds.

This was an extreme case but with the current economic instability we should probably be asking banks to publish information about how the time-terms of their deposits and loans are matched.  Banks should make their profits on the spread between deposits and loans.

 

If you liked this post your are invited to comment, press the like button and/or click  one of the share buttons. If you disagree you are invited to say why in a comment.  While I like the idea of sharing this platform, my personality is such that I don’t reply to many comments.

Running at banks

Today’s issue of The Economist has an article fears of bank runs in Europe.

Runs on banks are such serious things that you cannot expect any banker to tell the truth when his bank is threatened.    A large enough run would also impact a country’s money supply and that has to be a concern for all of us.

If a bank is unable to refund its deposits it is probably because its loans have gone bad.  It could also be because the banker has made some bad bets such as  on interest rate movements.

There is so much debt around that most of it, especially that of governments, will never be repaid.  The best that can be done is to keep rolling it over.  There is a high probability that eventually a lot of people are going to lose their savings either from bankruptcy or inflation.

Deposit insurance schemes can protect against small problems – the banker who makes a bad bet on interest rates – but I’m not sure they can protect against the general widespread debt problem we now face.

According to the article one suggestion for Europe is greater financial integration.  This could delay the crisis but would probably bring everyone down at the same time.

 

The risks of being a lender

Here in Canada we are going into RRSP marketing season. RRSP stands for Registered Retirement Savings Plan.  If you put savings into one of these plans you don’t have to pay income tax on it.  It is taxed when withdrawn, presumably when your income is less and you pay a lower tax rate.

This might be a good time to think out what happens when you make a bank deposit or give somebody a loan.

Money is a tool, or a lubricant,  to facilitate the exchange of goods and services.  It gives one purchasing power.  When you have money you can use it to purchase goods or the labor of another person or persons.

When you hand over some of your money to another person (or institution) you are transferring that purchasing power.  When you give it to a financial intermediary, i.e. a bank, that institution passes on your purchasing power, probably along with that of other people.  This gives the final borrower a larger amount of purchasing power and the ability to undertake  larger projects than any ne person could do by himself.

All this is done in the expectation that the final borrower will make enough profit to repay the loan with interest.

The industry which promotes this process likes to promise depositors fantastic returns.  However, there are two things that can go wrong.

First the final borrower may go bankrupt or not make as much money as planned or not enough to cover principle, interest and commissions.  In this case the original owner of the purchasing power will take a “haircut”.

The second problem is inflation.  A depositor may get his/her money and interest back but if there has been inflation the purchasing power of that money will be proportionately less.

During the years of prosperity with everything going up these problems have not been serious.  As we go into recession things may be different.

What about loans to government in the form of bond purchases? The same thing applies except that governments don’t expect to make profits on their spending.  If their huge borrowings are to ever be repaid it will have to be out of taxation and user fees or reduced by inflation.

During the hyperinflation in Europe following the first world war a lot of holders of government bonds lost their savings.  It appears the current holders of Greek government bonds are going to take a substantial “haircut”.

I still think the best investment these days is a market garden.

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