The Bubble Factory

Steven Miller

There's a simple reason why banks have been so reluctant to loan to other banks.

More than anyone, bankers know what banks do.

Fractional-reserve banking, after all, is the business of legally lending out money one doesn't have, hoping all the while that large numbers of your depositors never all show up at the same time, demanding their money.

Usually, in the short term, it works out OK for the banks. People don't usually show up all at once. Ultimately, however, banks and banking systems always eventually get into trouble. Bank runs and financial panics then ensue.

During the 19th Century, the U.S. averaged a financial panic every 20 years. In every case, the cause was federal or state governments monkeying with the banking business, making it legal for banks that presented themselves to depositors as full-reserve institutions to operate with only fractional reserves. As is regularly the case, politicians colluded with wheeler-dealer bankers to allow the latter to skirt fraud laws and inflate credit by issuing loans not backed by bank reserves, or – what is essentially the same thing – inflate the currency by printing money (i.e., promises to pay gold or silver on demand) not actually backed by the precious metals.

What most politicians never understand, however, is that the leveraging and inflating of bank reserves may initially produce a boom, but it always also must end with an equivalently severe economic contraction. Because artificial, bank-created credit is essentially counterfeit capital, i.e., counterfeit savings, it misrepresents the true level of genuine investment capital, or built-up savings, available in an economy and thus misleads business people – misinforming them as to the actual ability of the economy to support their entrepreneurial projects. 

Thus, artificial, bank-created credit necessarily produces a disproportionately large number of bad investments. Entrepreneurs' time, energy and financial resources and workers' labor get directed into producing goods and services for which there is no real demand. (For a contemporary example, think of all the homes built during the housing mania now sitting empty and unwanted.)

As investments made during the boom increasingly reveal themselves as unsustainable, people start recognizing that somehow they were misled. Wiser individuals start cutting their investment losses, others follow and the entire economy starts the painful readjustment to reality. And as many people now see that the easy-money banks were actually making bad loans, it's not a big jump to realize that many of these banks may well be effectively bankrupt.

"Wow – I better get my money out!" depositors think.  Bank runs and financial panics follow.

In each such boom-bust cycle, the collusion between politicians and funny-money bankers produces massive economic trauma and huge waste, measured in the time, energy, labor and savings of millions of American lives.

Although the Federal Reserve System was sold to the public as a way to bring "stability" to the banking system and prevent future financial panics, its record is just the opposite. Since the Fed's creation in 1913 it has presided over the crashes of 1921 and 1929, the Great Depression of the 1930s, the recessions of 1953, 1957, 1969, 1975, 1981 and 1991, the Internet Bubble, the Housing Bubble and, most recently, the commodities bubble.

This record was entirely foreseeable because the Fed's real objective – widely discussed at the time by the bankers and politicians who pushed hardest for its formation, and well documented by subsequent historians – was to establish a nationwide banking trust, or cartel, that can inflate money and credit at will.

The Fed has accomplished that objective many times over. Today it regularly prescribes more artificial credit as the "cure" for the ills that its last binge of artificial credit produced. And almost no one blinks.

The economic contraction seen by Nevada and America to this point is, almost certainly, just the beginning.

This is the most basic challenge that our state faces today.

Steven Miller is vice president for policy at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. This article first appeared in the Nevada Business Journal.

Steven Miller

Senior Vice President, Nevada Journal Managing Editor

Steven Miller is Nevada Journal Managing Editor, Emeritus, and has been with the Institute since 1997.

Steven graduated cum laude with a B.A. in Philosophy from Claremont Men’s College (now Claremont McKenna). Before joining NPRI, Steven worked as a news reporter in California and Nevada, and a political cartoonist in Nevada, Hawaii and North Carolina. For 10 years he ran a successful commercial illustration studio in New York City, then for five years worked at First Boston Credit Suisse in New York as a technical analyst. After returning to Nevada in 1991, Steven worked as an investigative reporter before joining NPRI.