Money, Banking & Alchemy

In our preliminary discussions about banks and balance sheets we shall learn something new about money. Trust remains central, not least our trust, as bank customers, that electronic deposits are safe. And yet you may well feel that something fishy is going on. Banks appear to create money out of nothing. In a sense, because balance sheets balance, deposits (money) – liabilities of a commercial bank – are backed by assets, notably the loans that commercial banks make. But then those loans can be risky and banks are often locked into contracts that mean they cannot necessarily call in those loans at a moment’s notice. In contrast depositors can shift or withdraw their deposits very quickly. Deposits are meant to be safe and liquid. Loans are typically much less safe and illiquid. It makes money and banking seem like a form of medieval alchemy: a magical transformation of base metals into gold.

Well, you are right to feel uncomfortable. Money and banking is a form of alchemy except textbooks like to give it more “scientific” descriptions such as risk and maturity transformation. In fact, the former Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, has written a book on the issue called “The End of Alchemy: Money, Banking and the Future of the Global Economy“. It is an excellent book and I highly recommend it. Your textbook authors, Cecchetti and Schoenholtz, also give the book high praise in their blog article, Making Banking Safe.

18 Sep 2019