Ash Navabi returns to the podcast to discuss his essay, “Will Iceland’s Sovereign Money Proposal End Economic Crises?”
In April of 2015, Frosti Sigurjonsson, Member of the Parliament of Iceland and Chairman of the Committee for Economic Affairs and Trade, made a bold proposal to end fractional reserve banking and replace it with a system he calls “sovereign money.”
Fractional reserve banking is the system under which banks create money by lending out a portion of depositors’ money, keeping only a fraction to pay out on demand. One problem with fractional reserve banking is that the mismatch between banks’ assets and liabilities leaves them exposed to bank runs and financial panics. To solve this problem, the central banks of the world function as “lenders of last resort” to save insolvent banks from going under. However, the more insidious problem with fractional reserves is that the injection of new money directly into credit markets artificially lowers interest rates and incentivizes entrepreneurs to take on longer term projects than the real savings available in the economy can sustain. Having central banks intervene to keep the cheap credit flowing does nothing to address this problem, and in fact makes it worse.
Under the Icelandic proposal, while there would be a 100% reserve requirement for private banks, the central bank would still be able to create money at will. Ash critiques this on the basis of the “Cantillon effect.” The Cantillon effect is the phenomenon whereby the creation of new money transfers wealth to the early holders of that money. If a new dollar is created, the first holder of the dollar can use it to buy goods before prices have adjusted upwards. However, as people exchange the new dollar and use it to bid on various goods, the sellers of those goods will adjust their prices upwards to account for their consumers’ greater willingness to pay. If you are the last to get hold of the new dollar, then you’ve been bidding against the holders of new money for a long time before seeing an increase in your income, thus making you poorer in real terms.
By centralizing money creation in the central bank, Sigurjonsson’s proposal would enrich those to whom the central bank lends. In particular, the proposal would allow the central bank to grant money directly to the government to pay for government spending. Thus, the Cantillon effect would enrich those who are paid directly by the government at expense of those who aren’t. Ash argues that this would invite cronyism, since those with the right connections will be able to benefit from these Cantillon effects.
In the end, it’s not clear whether the sovereign money proposal would have been a net good or a net bad. It could have reduced credit expansion, but the cronyism inherent in the proposal could easily outweigh the positive effects.
UPDATE: Shortly after we recorded this episode, a similar proposal came out of Switzerland.