Nick Rowe has answered the question in the affirmative. Nick mistakenly believes that I have argued that there cannot be an excess supply of commercial bank money. In fact, I agree with him that there can be an excess supply of commercial bank money, and, for that matter, that there can be an excess demand for commercial bank money. Our disagreement concerns a slightly different, but nonetheless important, question: is there a market mechanism whereby an excess supply of commercial bank money can be withdrawn from circulation, or is the money destined to remain forever in circulation, because, commercial bank money, once created, must ultimately be held, however unwillingly, by someone? That’s the issue. I claim that there is a market mechanism that tends to equilibrate the quantity of bank money created with the amount demanded, so that if too much bank money is created, the excess will tend to be withdrawn from circulation without generating an increase in total expenditure. Nick denies that there is any such mechanism.
Nick and I have been discussing this point for about two and a half years, and every time I think we inch a bit closer to agreement, it seems that the divide separating us seems unbridgeable. But I’m not ready to give up yet. On the other hand, James Tobin explained it all over 50 years ago (when the idea seemed so radical it was called the New View) in his wonderful, classic (I don’t have enough
adjectives superlatives to do it justice) paper “Commercial Banks and Creators of Money.” And how can I hope to improve on Tobin’s performance? (Actually there was a flaw in Tobin’s argument, which was not to recognize a key distinction between the inside (beta) money created by banks and the outside (alpha) money created by the monetary authority, but that has nothing to do with the logic of Tobin’s argument about commercial banks.)
Message to Nick: You need to write an article (a simple blog post won’t do, but it would be a start) explaining what you think is wrong with Tobin’s argument. I think that’s a hopeless task, but I’m sorry that’s the challenge you’ve chosen for yourself. Good luck, you’ll need it.
With that introduction out of the way, let me comment directly on Nick’s post. Nick has a subsequent post defending both the Keynesian multiplier and the money multiplier. I reserve the right (but don’t promise) to respond to that post at a later date; I have my hands full with this post. Here’s Nick:
Commercial banks are typically beta banks, and central banks are typically alpha banks. Beta banks promise to convert their money into the money of alpha banks at a fixed exchange rate. Alpha banks make no such promise the other way. It’s asymmetric redeemability. This means there cannot be an excess supply of beta money in terms of alpha money. (Nor can there be an excess demand for alpha money in terms of beta money.) Because people would convert their beta money into alpha money if there were. But there can be an excess supply of beta money in terms of goods, just as there can be an excess supply of alpha money in terms of goods. If beta money is in excess supply in terms of goods, so is alpha money, and vice versa. If commercial and central bank monies are perfect or imperfect substitutes, an increased supply of commercial bank money will create an excess supply of both monies against goods. The Law of Reflux will not prevent this.
The primary duty of a central bank is not to make a profit. It is possible to analyze and understand its motivations and its actions in terms of policy objectives that do not reflect the economic interests of its immediate owners. On the other hand, commercial banks are primarily in business to make a profit, and it should be possible to explain their actions in terms of their profit-enhancing effects. As I follow Nick’s argument, I will try to point where I think Nick fails to keep this distinction in mind. Back to Nick:
Money, the medium of exchange, is not like other goods, because if there are n goods plus one money, there are n markets in which money is traded, and n different excess supplies of money. Money might be in excess supply in the apple market, and in excess demand in the banana market.
If there are two monies, and n other goods, there are n markets in which money is traded against goods, plus one market in which the two monies are traded for each other. If beta money is convertible into alpha money, there can never be an excess supply of beta money in the one market where beta money is traded for alpha money. But there can be an excess supply of both beta and alpha money in each or all of the other n markets.
Sorry, I don’t understand this at all. First of all, to be sure, there can be n different excess demands for money; some will be positive, some negative. But it is entirely possible that the sum of those n different excess demands is zero. Second, even if we assume that the n money excess demands don’t sum to zero, there is still another market, the (n+1)st market in which the public exchanges assets that provide money-backing services with the banking system. If there is an excess demand for money, the public can provide the banks with additional assets (IOUs) in exchange for money, and if there is an excess supply of money the public can exchange their excess holding of money with the banks in return for assets providing money-backing services. The process is equilibrated by adjustments in the spreads between interests on loans and deposits governing the profitability of the banks loans and deposits. This is what I meant in the first paragraph when I said that I agree that it is possible for there to an excess demand for or supply of beta money. But the existence of that excess demand or excess supply can be equilibrated via the equilibration of market for beta money and the market for assets (IOUs) providing money-backing services. If there is a market process equilibrating the quantity of beta money, the adjustment can take place independently of the n markets for real goods and services that Nick is concerned with. On the other hand, if there is an excess demand for or supply of alpha money, it is not so clear that there are any market forces that cause that excess demand or supply to be equilibrated without impinging on the n real markets for goods and services.
Nick goes on to pose the following question:
Start in equilibrium, where the existing stocks of both alpha and beta money are willingly held. Hold constant the stock of alpha money. Now suppose the issuers of beta money create more beta money. Could this cause an excess supply of money and an increase in the price level?
That’s a great question. Just the question that I would ask. Here’s how Nick looks at it:
If alpha and beta money were perfect substitutes for each other, people would be indifferent about the proportions of alpha to beta monies they held. The desired share or ratio of alpha/beta money would be indeterminate, but the desired total of alpha+beta money would still be well-defined. If beta banks issued more beta money, holding constant the stock of alpha money, the total stock of money would be higher than desired, and there would be an excess supply of both monies against all other goods. But no individual would choose to go to the beta bank to convert his beta money into alpha money, because, by assumption, he doesn’t care about the share of alpha/beta money he holds. The Law of Reflux will not work to eliminate the excess supply of alpha+beta money against all other goods.
The assumption of perfect substitutability doesn’t seem right, as Nick himself indicates, inasmuch as people don’t seem to be indifferent between holding currency (alpha money) and holding deposits (beta money). And Nick focuses mainly on the imperfect-substitutes case. But, aside from that point, I have another problem with Nick’s discussion of perfect substitutes, which is that he seems to be conflate the assumption that alpha and beta moneys are perfect substitutes with the assumption that they are indistinguishable. I may be indifferent between holding currency and deposits, but if I have more deposits than I would like to hold, and I can tell the difference between a unit of currency and a deposit and there is a direct mechanism whereby I can reduce my holdings of deposits – by exchanging the deposit at the bank for another asset – it would seem that there is a mechanism whereby the excess supply of deposits can be eliminated without any change in overall spending. Now let’s look at Nick’s discussion of the more relevant case in which currency and deposits are imperfect substitutes.
Now suppose that alpha and beta money are close but imperfect substitutes. If beta banks want to prevent the Law of Reflux from reducing the stock of beta money, they would need to make beta money slightly more attractive to hold relative to alpha money. Suppose they do that, by paying slightly higher interest on beta money. This ensures that the desired share of alpha/beta money equals the actual share. No individual wants to reduce his share of beta/alpha money. But there will be an excess supply of both alpha and beta monies against all other goods. If apples and pears are substitutes, an increased supply of pears reduces the demand for apples.
What does it mean for “beta banks to want to prevent the Law of Reflux from reducing the stock of beta money?” Why would beta banks want to do such a foolish thing? Banks want to make profits for their owners. Does Nick think that by “prevent[ing] the Law of Reflux from reducing the stock of beta money” beta banks are increasing their profitability? The method by which he suggests that they could do this is to increase the interest they pay on deposits? That does not seem to me an obvious way of increasing the profits of beta banks. So starting from what he called an equilibrium, which sounds like a position in which beta banks were maximizing their profits, Nick is apparently positing that they increased the amount of deposits beyond the profit-maximizing level and, then, to keep that amount of deposits outstanding, he assumes that the banks increase the interest that they are paying on deposits.
What does this mean? Is Nick saying something other than that if banks collectively decide on a course of action that is not profit-maximizing either individually or collectively that the outcome will be different from the outcome that would have resulted had they acted with a view to maximize profits? Why should anyone be interested in that observation? At any rate, Nick concludes that because the public would switch from holding currency to deposits, the result would be an increase in total spending, as people tried to reduce their holdings of currency. It is not clear to me that people would be trying to increase their spending by reducing their holdings of deposits, but I can see that there is a certain ambiguity in trying to determine whether there is an excess supply of deposits or not in this case. But the case seems very contrived to say the least.
A more plausible way to look at the case Nick has in mind might be the following. Suppose banks perceive that their (marginal) costs of intermediation have fallen. Intermediation costs are very hard to measure, and banks aren’t necessarily very good at estimating those costs either. That may be one reason for the inherent instability of credit, but that’s a whole other discussion. At any rate, under the assumption that marginal intermediation costs have fallen, one could posit that the profit-maximizing response of beta banks would be to increase their interest payments on deposits to support an increase in their, suddenly more profitable than heretofore, lending. With bank deposits now yielding higher interest than before, the public would switch some of their holdings of currency to deposits. The shift form holding currency to holding deposits would initially involve an excess demand for deposits and an excess supply of currency. If the alpha bank was determined not to allow the quantity of currency to fall, then the excess supply of currency could be eliminated only through an increase in spending that would raise prices sufficiently to increase the demand to hold currency. But Nick would apparently want to say that even in this case there was also an excess supply of deposits, even though we saw that initially there was an excess demand for deposits when banks increased the interest paid on deposits, and it was only because the alpha bank insisted on not allowing the quantity of currency to fall that there was any increase in total spending.
So, my conclusion remains what it was before. The Law of Reflux works to eliminate excess supplies of bank money, without impinging on spending for real goods and services. To prove otherwise, you have to find a flaw in the logic of Tobin’s 1963 paper. I think that that is very unlikely. On the other hand, if you do find such a flaw, you just might win the Nobel Prize.