Who owns the money in your bank account? [05.10.2010,
Who owns the money in your bank account? That small question has profound implications. According to a survey by Ipsos MORI, more than 70% of people in the UK believe that when they deposit money with the bank, it is theirs-but it is not.
Money deposited in a bank account is, as established under case law going back more than 200 years, legally the property of the bank, rather than the account holder. Were any hon. Members to deposit £100 at their bank this afternoon or, rather improbably, if the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority was to manage to do so on any Member’s behalf, the bank would then be free to lend on approximately £97 of it. Even under the new capital ratio requirements, the bank could lend on more than 90% of what one deposited. Indeed, bank A could then lend on £97 of the initial £100 deposit to another bank-bank B-which could then lend on 97% of the value. The lending would go round and round until, as we saw at the height of the credit boom, for every £1 deposited banks would have piled up more than £40-worth of accumulated credit of one form or another.
Banks enjoy a form of legal privilege extended to no other area of business that I am aware of-it is a form of legal privilege. I am sure that some hon. Members, in full compliance with IPSA rules, may have rented a flat, and they do not need me, or indeed IPSA, to explain that having done so they are, in general, not allowed to sub-let it to someone else. Anyone who tried to do that would find that their landlord would most likely eject them. So why are banks allowed to sub-let people’s money many times over without their consent?
My Bill would give account holders legal ownership of their deposits, unless they indicated otherwise when opening the account. In other words, there would henceforth be two categories of bank account: deposit-taking accounts for investment purposes, and deposit-taking accounts for storage purposes. Banks would remain at liberty to lend on money deposited in the investment accounts, but not on money deposited in the storage accounts. As such, the idea is not a million miles away from the idea of 100% gilt-backed storage accounts proposed by other hon. Members and the Governor of the Bank of England.
My Bill is not just a consumer-protection measure; it also aims to remove a curious legal exemption for banks that has profound implications on the whole economy. Precisely because they are able to treat one’s deposit as an investment in a giant credit pyramid, banks are able to conjure up credit. In most industries, when demand rises businesses produce more in response. The legal privilege extended to banks prevents that basic market mechanism from working, with disastrous consequences.
As I shall explain, if the market mechanism worked as it should, once demand for credit started to increase in an economy, banks would raise the price of credit-interest rates-in order to encourage more savings. More folk would save as a result, as rates rose. That would allow banks to extend credit in proportion to savings. Were banks like any other business, they would find that when demand for what they supply lets rip, they would be constrained in their ability to supply credit by the pricing mechanism. That is, alas, not the case with our system of fractional reserve banking. Able to treat people’s money as their own, banks can carry on lending against it, without necessarily raising the price of credit. The pricing mechanism does not rein in the growth in credit as it should. Unrestrained by the pricing mechanism, we therefore get credit bubbles. To satisfy runaway demand for credit, banks produce great candy-floss piles of the stuff. The sugar rush feels great for a while, but that sugar-rush credit creates an expansion in capacity in the economy that is not backed by real savings. It is not justified in terms of someone else’s deferred consumption, so the credit boom creates unsustainable over-consumption.
Policy makers, not least in this Chamber, regardless of who has been in office, have had to face the unenviable choice between letting the edifice of crony capitalism come crashing down, with calamitous consequences for the rest of us, or printing more real money to shore up this Ponzi scheme-and the people who built it-and in doing so devalue our currency to keep the pyramid afloat.
Since the credit crunch hit us, an endless succession of economists, most of whom did not see it coming, have popped up on our TV screens to explain its causes with great authority. Most have tended to see the lack of credit as the problem, rather than as a symptom. Perhaps we should instead begin to listen to those economists who saw the credit glut that preceded the crash as the problem. The Cobden Centre, the Ludwig von Mises Institute and Huerta de Soto all grasped that the overproduction of bogus candy-floss credit before the crunch gave rise to it. It is time to take seriously their ideas on honest money and sound banking.
The Keynesian-monetarist economists might recoil in horror at the idea, because their orthodoxy holds that without these legal privileges for banks, there would be insufficient credit. They say that the oil that keeps the engine of capitalism working would dry up and the machine would grind to a halt, but that is not so. Under my Bill, credit would still exist but it would be credit backed by savings. In other words, it would be credit that could fuel an expansion in economic capacity that was commensurate with savings or deferred consumption. It would be, to use the cliché of our day, sustainable.
Ministers have spoken of their lofty ambition to rebalance the economy from one based on consumption to one founded on producing things. A good place to begin might be to allow a law that permits storage bank accounts that do not permit banks to mass-produce phoney credit in a way that ultimately favours consumers and debtors over those who create wealth. With honest money, instead of being the nation of indebted consumers that we have become, Britons might become again the producers and savers we once were.
With a choice between the new storage accounts and investment accounts, no longer would private individuals find themselves co-opted as unwilling-and indeed unaware-investors in madcap deals through credit instruments that few even of the banks’ own boards seem to understand.
Douglas Carswell (Conservative MP) introduced a Bill designed to reform the banking system and to prevent banks automatically treating individuals money as if it were their own. Bill read the First time on September 15, 2010; to be read a Second time on November 19, 2010 and to be printed (Bill 71 - Financial Services (Regulation of Deposits and Lending) Bill).