Fractional reserve banking


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Fractional-reserve banking is the practice whereby a bank retains only a portion of its customers’ deposits as readily available reserves from which to satisfy demands for withdrawals. Reserves are held at the bank as currency or held as deposits in the bank’s accounts at the central bank. The remainder of customer-deposited funds is used to fund investments or loans that the bank makes to other customers.[citation needed] Most of these loaned funds are later redeposited into banks, allowing further lending. Because bank deposits are usually considered money in their own right, fractional-reserve banking permits the money supply to grow to a multiple (called the money multiplier) of the underlying reserves of base money originally created by the central bank.

To mitigate the risks of bank runs (when a large proportion of depositors seek withdrawal of their demand deposits at the same time) or, when problems are extreme and widespread, systemic crises, the governments of most countries regulate and oversee commercial banks, provide deposit insurance and act as lender of last resort to commercial banks. In most countries, the central bank (or other monetary authority) regulates bank credit creation, imposing reserve requirements and other capital adequacy ratios. This limits the amount of money creation that occurs in the commercial banking system, and helps ensure that banks have enough funds to meet the demand for withdrawals.

Fractional-reserve banking is the current form of banking in all countries worldwide.

How it works

In most legal systems, a bank deposit is not a bailment. In other words, the funds deposited are no longer the property of the customer. The funds become the property of the bank, and the customer in turn receives an asset called a deposit account (a checking or savings account). That deposit account is a liability of the bank on the bank’s books and on its balance sheet. Because the bank is authorized by law to create credit up to an amount equal to a multiple of the amount of its reserves, the bank’s reserves on hand to satisfy payment of deposit liabilities amounts to only a fraction of the total amount which the bank is obligated to pay in satisfaction of its demand deposits.

Fractional-reserve banking ordinarily functions smoothly. Relatively few depositors demand payment at any given time, and banks maintain a buffer of reserves to cover depositors’ cash withdrawals and other demands for funds. However, during a bank run or a generalized financial crisis, demands for withdrawal can exceed the bank’s funding buffer, and the bank will be forced to raise additional reserves to avoid defaulting on its obligations. A bank can raise funds from additional borrowings (e.g., by borrowing in the interbank lending market or from the central bank), by selling assets, or by calling in short-term loans. If creditors are afraid that the bank is running out of reserves or is insolvent, they have an incentive to redeem their deposits as soon as possible before other depositors access the remaining reserves. Thus the fear of a bank run can actually precipitate the crisis.

Many of the practices of contemporary bank regulation and central banking, including centralized clearing of payments, central bank lending to member banks, regulatory auditing, and government-administered deposit insurance, are designed to prevent the occurrence of such bank runs.

Economic function

Fractional-reserve banking allows banks to loan out funds deposited into demand deposits. Banks can thus offer demand accounts, which provide immediate liquidity to depositors, and also provide longer-term loans to borrowers, and act as financial intermediaries for those funds. Less liquid forms of deposit (such as time deposits) or riskier classes of financial assets (such as equities or long-term bonds) may lock up a depositor’s wealth for a period of time, making it unavailable for use on demand. This “borrowing short, lending long,” or maturity transformation function of fractional-reserve banking is a role that many economists consider to be an important function of the commercial banking system.

Additionally, according to macroeconomic theory, a well-regulated fractional-reserve bank system also benefits the economy by providing regulators with powerful tools for influencing the money supply and interest rates. Many economists believe that these should be adjusted by the government to promote macroeconomic stability.

Modern central banking allows banks to practice fractional-reserve banking with inter-bank business transactions with a reduced risk of bankruptcy. The process of fractional-reserve banking expands the money supply of the economy but also increases the risk that a bank cannot meet its depositor withdrawals.

Money creation process

There are two types of money in a fractional-reserve banking system operating with a central bank:
Central bank money: money created or adopted by the central bank regardless of its form – precious metals, commodity certificates, banknotes, coins, electronic money loaned to commercial banks, or anything else the central bank chooses as its form of money
Commercial bank money: demand deposits in the commercial banking system; sometimes referred to as “chequebook money”

When a deposit of central bank money is made at a commercial bank, the central bank money is removed from circulation and added to the commercial banks’ reserves (it is no longer counted as part of M1 money supply). Simultaneously, an equal amount of new commercial bank money is created in the form of bank deposits. When a loan is made by the commercial bank (which keeps only a fraction of the central bank money as reserves), using the central bank money from the commercial bank’s reserves, the m1 money supply expands by the size of the loan. This process is called “deposit multiplication”.
Example of deposit multiplication

The table below displays the relending model of how loans are funded and how the money supply is affected. It also shows how central bank money is used to create commercial bank money from an initial deposit of $100 of central bank money. In the example, the initial deposit is lent out 10 times with a fractional-reserve rate of 20% to ultimately create $500 of commercial bank money (it is important to note that the 20% reserve rate used here is for ease of illustration, actual reserve requirements are usually a lot lower, for example around 3% in the USA and UK). Each successive bank involved in this process creates new commercial bank money on a diminishing portion of the original deposit of central bank money. This is because banks only lend out a portion of the central bank money deposited, in order to fulfill reserve requirements and to ensure that they always have enough reserves on hand to meet normal transaction demands.

The relending model begins when an initial $100 deposit of central bank money is made into Bank A. Bank A takes 20 percent of it, or $20, and sets it aside as reserves, and then loans out the remaining 80 percent, or $80. At this point, the money supply actually totals $180, not $100, because the bank has loaned out $80 of the central bank money, kept $20 of central bank money in reserve (not part of the money supply), and substituted a newly created $100 IOU claim for the depositor that acts equivalently to and can be implicitly redeemed for central bank money (the depositor can transfer it to another account, write a check on it, demand his cash back, etc.). These claims by depositors on banks are termed demand deposits or commercial bank money and are simply recorded in a bank’s accounts as a liability (specifically, an IOU to the depositor). From a depositor’s perspective, commercial bank money is equivalent to central bank money – it is impossible to tell the two forms of money apart unless a bank run occurs.

At this point in the relending model, Bank A now only has $20 of central bank money on its books. The loan recipient is holding $80 in central bank money, but he soon spends the $80. The receiver of that $80 then deposits it into Bank B. Bank B is now in the same situation as Bank A started with, except it has a deposit of $80 of central bank money instead of $100. Similar to Bank A, Bank B sets aside 20 percent of that $80, or $16, as reserves and lends out the remaining $64, increasing money supply by $64. As the process continues, more commercial bank money is created. To simplify the table, a different bank is used for each deposit. In the real world, the money a bank lends may end up in the same bank so that it then has more money to lend out.


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