Laws that make it illegal for you to print your own £5 or £10 notes have been in place since 1844. But those laws have never been updated to account for the fact that almost all money now is electronic (in the form of bank deposits). Because of this oversight, banks worldwide now have the power to create money, effectively out of nothing.
A Short History of Money in the UK
Prior to 1844, the state had a legal monopoly only over the creation of metal coins dating from the time when this had been the only form of money. But keeping lots of metal and carrying it around was inconvenient so bank customers would typically deposit their coins with the local jeweller or goldsmith who would have secure storage facilities. Eventually these goldsmiths started to focus more on holding money and valuables on behalf of customers rather than on actually working with gold, and thereby became the first bankers.
A customer depositing coins would be given a piece of paper stating the value of coins deposited, like the one on the left. If the customer wanted to spend his money, he could take the piece of paper to the bank, get the coins back, and then spend them in the high street.
However, the shopkeeper who received the coins would then most likely take them straight back to the bank. To avoid this hassle, shopkeepers would simply accept the paper receipts as payment instead. As long as the bank that issued the receipts was trusted, businesses and individuals would be happy to accept the receipts, safe in the knowledge that they would be able to get the coins out of the bank whenever they needed to.
Over time, the paper receipts began to be accepted as being as good as metal money. People effectively forgot that they were just a substitute for money and saw them as being equivalent to the coins.
The goldsmiths soon noticed that the bulk of the coins placed in their vaults were never being taken out. In fact, only a small percentage of all the deposits were ever being claimed at any particular time. This opened up a profit opportunity – if the bank had £1,000 of coins in the vault, but customers only ever withdrew a maximum of £100 on any one day, then the other £900 in the vault was effectively idle. The goldsmith could lend out that extra £900 to borrowers, and make a profit by charging interest on it.
However, the borrowers again chose to use the paper receipts as money rather than taking out the metal coins from the bank. This meant that the bank could issue paper receipts to other borrowers without necessarily needing to have many – or even any – coins in the vault. Even with only £1,000 in the vault the bank could lend out £2,000, £4,000 or as much as it dared too. (Of course, the banks still faced some restrictions – if too many people came to get their money back at any one time then it would soon become obvious that the bank didn’t have enough money to repay more than a small fraction of customers.)
The banks had acquired the power to create a substitute for money which people would accept as being money. In effect, they had acquired the power to create money: perhaps this is when the goldsmiths became real bankers.
1844 Bank Charter Act
The profit potential drove bankers to over-issue their paper receipts and lend excessive amounts, creating masses of new paper money out of proportion to the actual quantity of state-issued metal money. Inevitably, blowing up the money supply pushed up prices and destabilised the economy (one such crisis was particularly embarrassing for the Bank of England – in 1839 it had to borrow £2 million of gold from France to rescue failing banks).
In 1844, the Conservative government of the day, led by Sir Robert Peel, recognised that the problem was that they had allowed the power to create money to slip into the hands of banks. So they passed a law to take back control over the creation of bank notes through the Bank Charter Act, which curtailed the private sector’s right to print money (and eventually phased it out altogether), transferring this power to the Bank of England.
The banks fight back
However, the 1844 Bank Charter Act only addressed the creation of paper bank notes – it didn’t refer to other substitutes for money, such as bank deposits. With growth in the use of cheques these deposits could be transferred, and therefore used as money. When a cheque is used to make a payment, the actual cash is not withdrawn from the bank. Instead, the paying bank periodically communicates with the receiving bank to settle any net difference remaining between them once all customers’ payments in both directions have been cancelled out against each other. This means that payments can be made even if the bank has only a fraction of the money that depositors believe they have in their accounts.
The 1844 act made no mention of bank deposits. Because of this oversight, banks could still create ‘bank deposits’ by making loans – and so they could still create money simply by opening accounts for people or companies and adding numbers to them. However, despite the rise of cheques cash was still used for a large proportion of transactions, and so banks were limited in the amount of money they could create in case they ran out of physical cash.
And then there were computers
Following on in the spirit of financial innovation, after cheques came credit and debit cards, electronic fund transfers and internet banking. Cheques are now almost irrelevant as a means of payment: today over 99% of payments (by value) are made electronically. With the rise of computers and financial deregulation beginning in the 1970′s, banks could really let loose, as the following charts show:
Even among those who are aware that what banks do is more complicated than merely operating as middlemen between savers and borrowers, there is a widespread belief that banks are obliged to possess a sum corresponding to a significant fraction of their liabilities (their customers’ deposits) in liquid assets, i.e. in cash, or a form that can be rapidly converted into cash. In fact, such laws were weakened in the 1980s in response to lobbying from the industry (although some effort is now being made to re-impose such rules in the aftermath of the crisis).
The ‘money’ in your bank account was created by private companies
The electronic numbers in your bank account do not represent real money. They simply give you a right to demand that the bank gives you the physical cash or makes an electronic payment on your behalf. In fact, if you and a lot of other customers demanded your money back at the same time – a bank run – it would soon become apparent that the bank does not actually have your money. For example, on the 31st of January 2007 banks held just £12.50 of real money (in the form of electronic money held at the Bank of England) for every £1000 shown in their customers’ accounts.
Digital money now makes up over 97% of all the money in the economy – around £2.1 trillion, compared to only £50 billion of cash.1 By volume of payments, bank deposits are used for 99.91% of transactions and transfers, with cash being used for just 0.09% of transfers.2 Consequently, the physical currency issued by the state has been almost entirely replaced by a digital currency issued by private companies. In other words, the UK’s money supply has been effectively privatised.