Holier Than Tobin?

It sometimes happens that important insights of great contributors to an academic field are missed. One of the most important things in Monetary Economics is Tobin’s asset allocation theory which although is well known is sometimes poorly understood.

James TobinJames Tobin (Source: Econometric Theory)

But sometimes a holier-than-thou attitude can lead one to miss an important and insightful aspect of a work.

The blogger Winterspeak – well aware of some of Tobin’s work such as his paper Commercial Banks As Creators Of “Money” from  1963 has written as post A Bank is not a Financial Intermediary and concludes that

… This then is the conceptual fallacy at the heart of academic macro and what it thinks about banks, and it goes at least all the way back to 1963.

Winterspeak is stuck on a quote from Tobin-Brainard paper (1963) which says:

…the essential function of financial intermediaries, including commercial banks, is to satisfy simultaneously the portfolio preferences of two types of individuals or firms. On one side are borrowers, who wish to expand their holdings of real assets… On the other side are lenders who wish to hold part or all of their net worth in assets of stable money value with negligible risk of default.

This is also repeated in Tobin’s Commercial Banks As Creators Of “Money” which obviously states explicitly that loans create deposits and that the money mutliplier view is highly inaccurate:

According to the ‘new view’, the essential function of financial intermediaries, including commercial banks, is to satisfy simultaneously the portfolio preferences of two types of individuals or firms. On one side are borrowers, who wish to expand their holdings of real assets – inventories, residential real estate, productive plant and equipment, etc. – beyond the limits of their own net worth. On the other side are lenders, who wish to hold part or all of their net worth in assets of stable money value with negligible risk of default. The assets of financial intermediaries are obligations of the borrowers – promissory notes, bonds, mortgages. The liability of financial intermediaries are the assets of the lenders – bank deposits, insurance policies, pension rights.

Winterspeak is adamant about the usage of the phrase “intermediary” and that since banks create deposits out of thin air, they shouldn’t really be called intermediary and that Tobin’s views are equivalent to the loanable funds view. For the first part – maybe but Winterspeak seems to crucially miss out the mediating role played by banks in the portfolio allocation decisions of wealth owners such as households. See my comments in that blog.

First it is crystal clear that Tobin knows loans create deposits. Second, he presents a “new view” in which the distinction between “money” and “bonds” is blurred and this led him subsequently to his asset allocation theory. It is true that Tobin’s model was far from complete and this was improved substantially by Wynne Godley, but nevertheless Tobin’s insights were wonderful and the work of a genius.

Perhaps I would have worded what Tobin wrote differently if I were to teach this but this is just a matter of emphasis.

Perhaps “the essential function” is better worded with “an essential function” so that the reader doesn’t take it to mean that the concept I will come to,  isn’t taken to mean “the only function” or “the most essential function”.

The mediation role played by banks is related to the super-version of “loans create deposits” – asset purchases by banks also create deposits.

So when a bank purchases say a government bond from a household (or a mutual fund selling in response to redemptions by a household), banks create more deposits in the process. In the opposite case, there is a destruction of deposits.

Now suppose for some reason – such as improved animal spirits of entrepreneurs, firms borrow more from banks and the expenditures transfers funds to households. Coincidentally – for different reasons – households wish to hold less of their wealth in deposits and more in bonds or other securities. There is now a discrepancy and it is reconciliated by banks standing ready to sell bonds to households. This decreases the stock of money (monetary aggregate) in existence so that there is no discrepancy at all. There is of course another way in which this may happen – i.e., by price changes (of financial secruities and not that of goods and services) bringing supplies equal to demand but this needs a full course on asset allocation theory discovered by nobody else than James Tobin himself!!

Of course there are other ways. There is the reflux mechanism and more complicated mechanisms involving asset allocation theory such as higher issuance of equities by production firms. In the reverse case when households desire to hold more of their wealth in deposits, firms may need to borrow more from banks so that the “supply” of money is equal to the “demand”.

In contrast there is the Monetarist hot potato process which mainly relies on prices changes of goods and services. In ideas such as the asset allocation theory including the mechanism of the mediating role of banks is a blow to the Monetarist hot potato.

Of course there is the notion of convenience lending – one favoured by Basil Moore – in which household volitionally hold bank deposits non-volitionally but it is too artificial.

This mediating role of banks (and not the most important if you like) is also endorsed by some Post-Keynesian authors such as Wynne Godley and Nicholas Kaldor.

In an article In his essay Keynes And The Management Of Real Income And Expenditure, (in Keynes And The Modern World, ed. George David Norman Worswick and James Anthony Trevithick, Cambridge University Press, 1983), Wynne Godley says (p 151):

Even though I am not going in detail into monetary mechanisms it is worth drawing attention to the fact that the commercial banks’ role, apart from creating credit to finance certain kinds of expenditure, is to mediate the non-bank private sector’s portfolio choice, given the income flows and the central authorities’ funding policy.

Nicky Kaldor’s The Scourge Of Monetarism (Oxford University Press, 1982) is more clearer than simply stating:

As it is, a highly developed banking system already provides such facilities on an ample scale, since it is prepared to accommodate the public’s changing demand between different types or financial assets by altering the composition of the banks’ assets or liabilities in a reverse direction. If the non-banking public wishes to switch its holding of gilts for interest-bearing bank deposits, the banks are ready to supply such deposits at the minimum of inconvenience, and at the same time to place their surplus funds into the gilts which were previously held by the public. Similarly the banks provide easy facilities to their customers for switching balances on current accounts into interest-bearing deposit accounts, or vice versa. Hence, while the annual increment in the total holding of financial assets of the private sector (considered as a whole) is nothing more than the mirror-image of the borrowing requirement of the public sector (in a closed economy at any rate), neither the Government nor the banks can determine how much of this increment will be held in the form of cash (meaning notes and current deposits) and how much in the near-equivalents to cash (such as interest-bearing demand deposits) or in various forms of public sector debt. Thus neither the Government nor the central bank can control how much or the total financial assets the public prefers to hold in the form of ‘money’ on one particular definition or another.

Again in 1997 in Money Finance And National Income Determination Wynne Godley repeats himself although criticising Tobin but nevertheless realising the importance of his work – this time writing an explicit model for the whole thing which incorporates Tobin’s ideas:

… I am saying that (within strict limits e.g. concerning credit-worthiness) banks respond passively to the needs of business for loans and to the asset allocation activities of households (as well as providing the means of payment).


It is true that PKE authors and bloggers do have a much better understanding of monetary matters than mainstream economists but in trying to emphasise this point, sometimes they miss out on important matters. There is no need to say (as Winterspeak says “Tobin … sees … [banks as] something which brings efficiency and eases friction between the actual lender and borrower.”) especially when Winterspeak doesn’t seem to understand the mediating role of banks in the portfolio allocation decisions of financial asset owners which really has less to do with any “friction”. Perhaps the word intermediary is not the best but it is a minor point. In fact the ideas of the 1960s and later are missed by younger ones.

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