I recently had a fascinating chat with the economist Peter Šurda to discuss how nonpolitical cryptocurrencies like bitcoin could alter the future of fractional reserve banking.
Peter is also a software developer experienced in the online payments industry and will present at the Bitcoin 2013: The Future of Payments conference in San Jose in May. His 2012 master's thesis at Vienna University of Economics and Business was entitled Economics of Bitcoin: Is Bitcoin an Alternative to Fiat Currencies and Gold? He's an abstract thinker, but the implications of his work are tantalizing: that digital money like Bitcoin opens up possibilities for banking without central planners or a lender of last resort, where interest rates and reserve requirements are driven purely by the market.
The debate between the full reserve bankers and the fractional reserve bankers is an old one and it has been explored in depth by the Austrian school of economics. More recently, the debate has been broadened to include the dynamics of introducing the bitcoin cryptocurrency, which is the functional equivalent of digital gold, since its supply is predictable and fixed. (There are currently 10.9 million bitcoins in circulation with a total fixed supply of 21 million expected to be mined before 2140, 99% of them by the year 2032.) The Austrian school economist Michael Suede and the technologist Eli Gothill have speculated that fractional reserve banking can indeed appear within a bitcoin monetary environment. This is where we join up with Peter.
JON MATONIS: I enjoyed your blog post, "Market Forces and Fractional Reserve Banking." Do you consider fractional reserve banking to be compatible with Austrian economics?
PETER ŠURDA: First of all, I would like to separate fractional reserve banking and credit expansion. On one hand, there are ways of increasing the money supply, in the broader sense, which do not require fractional reserve banking or changes in the monetary base such as a system based on the principle of mutual credit like LETS [local exchange trading systems], or a fiat currency that uses bitcoin as reserves (i.e. they are not claims in the sense that Ludwig von Mises uses them, but they act as full substitutes). From the opposite direction, fractional reserve banking does not necessarily lead to credit expansion.
I agree with the full reservists that credit expansion has the effects described by the Austrian Business Cycle Theory. However, I agree with the free bankers that fractional reserve banking is not necessarily a violation of property rights and other ways of increasing the money supply also are not necessarily a violation of property rights.