A demand has arisen in some quarters that I explain what exactly I find objectionable in Rothbard’s article criticising Fractional Reserve Banking. I don’t want to spoonfeed my readers, so I will point out the paragraph where all his errors are concentrated. Readers are invited to point out specific errors:
Let’s see how the fractional reserve process works, in the absence of a central bank. I set up a Rothbard Bank, and invest $1,000 of cash (whether gold or government paper does not matter here). Then I “lend out” $10,000 to someone, either for consumer spending or to invest in his business. How can I “lend out” far more than I have? Ahh, that’s the magic of the “fraction” in the fractional reserve. I simply open up a checking account of $10,000 which I am happy to lend to Mr. Jones. Why does Jones borrow from me? Well, for one thing, I can charge a lower rate of interest than savers would. I don’t have to save up the money myself, but simply can counterfeit it out of thin air. (In the nineteenth century, I would have been able to issue bank notes, but the Federal Reserve now monopolizes note issues.) Since demand deposits at the Rothbard Bank function as equivalent to cash, the nation’s money supply has just, by magic, increased by $10,000. The inflationary, counterfeiting process is under way.
The nineteenth-century English economist Thomas Tooke correctly stated that “free trade in banking is tantamount to free trade in swindling.” But under freedom, and without government support, there are some severe hitches in this counterfeiting process, or in what has been termed “free banking.” First: why should anyone trust me? Why should anyone accept the checking deposits of the Rothbard Bank? But second, even if I were trusted, and I were able to con my way into the trust of the gullible, there is another severe problem, caused by the fact that the banking system is competitive, with free entry into the field. After all, the Rothbard Bank is limited in its clientele. After Jones borrows checking deposits from me, he is going to spend it. Why else pay money for a loan? Sooner or later, the money he spends, whether for a vacation, or for expanding his business, will be spent on the goods or services of clients of some other bank, say the Rockwell Bank. The Rockwell Bank is not particularly interested in holding checking accounts on my bank; it wants reserves so that it can pyramid its own counterfeiting on top of cash reserves. And so if, to make the case simple, the Rockwell Bank gets a $10,000 check on the Rothbard Bank, it is going to demand cash so that it can do some inflationary counterfeit-pyramiding of its own. But, I, of course, can’t pay the $10,000, so I’m finished. Bankrupt. Found out. By rights, I should be in jail as an embezzler, but at least my phoney checking deposits and I are out of the game, and out of the money supply.
Hence, under free competition, and without government support and enforcement, there will only be limited scope for fractional-reserve counterfeiting. Banks could form cartels to prop each other up, but generally cartels on the market don’t work well without government enforcement, without the government cracking down on competitors who insist on busting the cartel, in this case, forcing competing banks to pay up.