This is one of the more technical (and misundersood) aspects of banking but also a basic fact about money creation in the modern economy that I think is useful to understand. For the uninitiated, bank deposits are typically the largest form of money in a modern economy with a well developed financial system.
One of the better explanations I have encountered is a paper titled “Money creation in the modern economy” that was published in the Bank of England’s Quarterly Bulletin in Q1 2014. You can find the full paper here but I have copied some extracts below that will give you the basic idea …
In the modern economy, most money takes the form of bank deposits. But how those bank deposits are created is often misunderstood: the principal way is through commercial banks making loans. Whenever a bank makes a loan, it simultaneously creates a matching deposit in the borrower’s bank account, thereby creating new money.
The reality of how money is created today differs from the description found in some economics textbooks:
Rather than banks receiving deposits when households save and then lending them out, bank lending creates deposits. In normal times, the central bank does not fix the amount of money in circulation, nor is central bank money ‘multiplied up’ into more loans and deposits.
Although commercial banks create money through lending, they cannot do so freely without limit. Banks are limited in how much they can lend if they are to remain profitable in a competitive banking system. Prudential regulation also acts as a constraint on banks’ activities in order to maintain the resilience of the financial system. And the households and companies who receive the money created by new lending may take actions that affect the stock of money — they could quickly ‘destroy’ money by using it to repay their existing debt, for instance.Money creation in the modern economy, Michale McLeay, Amar Radia and Ryland Thomas, Bank of England Quarterly Bulletin 2014 Q1
The power to create money is of course something akin to magic and the rise of stablecoins has revived a long standing debate about the extent to which market discipline alone is sufficient to ensure sound money. My personal bias (forged by four decades working in the Australian banking system) leans to the view that money creation is not something which banker’s can be trusted to discharge without some kind of supervision/constraints. The paper sets out a nice summary of the ways in which this power is constrained in the conventional banking system …
In the modern economy there are three main sets of constraints that restrict the amount of money that banks can create.
(i) Banks themselves face limits on how much they can lend. In particular:
– Market forces constrain lending because individual banks have to be able to lend profitably in a competitive market.
– Lending is also constrained because banks have to take steps to mitigate the risks associated with making additional loans.
– Regulatory policy acts as a constraint on banks’ activities in order to mitigate a build-up of risks that could pose a threat to the stability of the financial system.
(ii) Money creation is also constrained by the behaviour of the money holders — households and businesses. Households and companies who receive the newly created money might respond by undertaking transactions that immediately destroy it, for example by repaying outstanding loans.
(iii) The ultimate constraint on money creation is monetary policy. By influencing the level of interest rates in the economy, the Bank of England’s monetary policy affects how much households and companies want to borrow. This occurs both directly, through influencing the loan rates charged by banks, but also indirectly through the overall effect of monetary policy on economic activity in the economy. As a result, the Bank of England is able to ensure that money growth is consistent with its objective of low and stable inflation.
The confidence in the central bank’s ability to pursue its inflation objective possibly reflects a simpler time when the inflation problem was deemed solved but the paper is still my goto frame of reference when I am trying to understand how the banking system creates money.
If you want to dive a bit deeper into this particular branch of the dark arts, some researchers working at the US Federal Reserve recently published a short note titled “Understanding Bank Deposit Growth during the COVID-19 Pandemic” that documents work undertaken to try to better understand the rapid and sustained growth in aggregate bank deposits between 2020 and 2021. Frances Coppola also published an interesting post on her blog that argues that banks not only create money when they lend but also when they spend it. You can find the original post by Frances here and my take on it here.
A special shout out to anyone who has read this far. My friends and family think I spend too much time thinking about this stuff so it is nice to know that I am not alone.
Tony – From the Outside