“Loanable Funds Theory” of Banking is Wrong

The typical economics textbook describes banking as a process where people deposit money and then the bank looks for good opportunities to loan those funds out. This “Loanable Funds Theory” implies that banks will not even look for good loans if they don’t have that amount of money in deposits to loan out. That might be true under a banking system with a 100 percent reserve requirement, but our system of banking maintains a reserve requirement closer to 10 percent. A realistic theory of how a bank decides to make a loan doesn’t actually correspond to the Loanable Funds Theory. In fact, the process is somewhat the opposite. Banks first look for good loan opportunities, and if they find one, they check to see if they have enough excess reserves. Often a bank will have enough excess reserves to make the loan if it meets its risk-reward criteria. The bank creates a deposit account for the person or entity taking out the loan. The deposit account is created “out of thin air” as a result of the decision to create the loan, and not the other way around. This means that the bank is creating money. However, if the bank is already at its reserve requirement limit and needs more reserves to make the loan, it will increase the interest rate on savings and certificates of deposit to attract more money to satisfy the reserve requirement. Banks can also borrow money from each other or from the Federal Reserve Bank where the largest banks have accounts.

My wife and I have certificates of deposit (CDs) that we need to renew from time to time. We are in a metropolitan area with lots of banks. The interest rate offered on CDs can sometimes differ greatly from one branch to another of the same bank. Instead of going to bankrate.com and moving our money around over the internet, as we did when we lived in an area with fewer banks, we often find a bank locally with a CD interest rate that is at least as good as the best rate on bankrate.com. Typically the interest rates offered on CDs at most of the banks in our area are quite low. Most banks still have adequate excess reserves, or have not located any good additional loan opportunities offering a good enough risk-reward ratio to satisfy them. Consequently, most banks are not trying hard to attract more money and are happy to provide a very low interest rate on CDs to all those people who don’t check the interest rates on CDs and just let their CDs roll over at whatever rate the bank sets. After all, why would a bank want to pay to borrow money from you that it doesn’t need? Increasing costs without any corresponding increase in revenues makes no sense.

But even though the vast majority of banks offer a very low rate of return on CDs, there will often be one or two banks which offer rates that are three or four times the typical CD interest rate. Sometimes this is because those high-interest-rate banks have found some really good loan opportunity and are already at their reserve requirement limit. Sometimes a bank has gotten into trouble with loans that have defaulted. Fortunately for us the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) covers us up to a specified maximum amount in case the bank goes bankrupt. What this all boils down to is that it really pays to check the interest rates each time your CDs become due. Be sure to ask if the bank is offering any CD “specials” which might be for an odd period such as for 11 months or 13 months.

The Loanable Funds Theory of banking is wrong. That theory tells us that banks wait for deposits and then loan out only that money that has already been deposited with them. But under fractional reserve banking, banks do not have to wait for enough deposit money to cover the full amount of the loan. In reality, under the current system of fractional reserve banking, banks can offer loans even if they don’t have enough money in deposits to cover those loans as long as they meet the fractional reserve requirement. Banks make loans when those loans offer a good risk-reward opportunity.

This has important implications for our economic system overall. When savers cannot get a good return on their savings, they often turn to the stock market or the bond market. But corporations often pay out dividends and engage in share buybacks precisely because they cannot find new profitable investment opportunities. Financial investments in collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps, mortgage-backed securities, and other financial derivatives are not the same as direct investments in physical and intellectual capital. A bank may know more about the local economy and the reliability of the entity taking out the loan than reflected in the basic statistics used to securitize that loan. The temptation then is for a bank to make riskier loans than it would if it were to hold on to that loan instead of selling it off as part of a mortgage-backed security.

What this all boils down to is that the financial economy where money is traded has become more and more separated from the real economy. Money flowing into the New York financial markets is not guaranteed to end up in an expansion of our economy. Over time more and more of that money just goes around and around in the New York financial markets without ever making it out to the real economy. The velocity of money in the financial markets speeds up as second-by-second trading is replaced by nanosecond-by-nanosecond trading, while the velocity of money in the real economy slows as interest rates fall, our population ages, and income inequality becomes more extreme. All this has important implications for the effectiveness of monetary policy, which is a topic for a future blog post.

For a great YouTube video on why the “Loanable Funds Theory” is wrong go to this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OgsEyM82oCE&t=785s

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