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Nearly all money is created by commercial banks in the act of lending. They also decide whom to lend it to, and for what purposes. Is this good for the economy? A growing movement is arguing for an alternative.
Where does money come from? Printing it yourself, unsurprisingly, is illegal. But in today's digital society, creating money has less and less to do with the printing of notes or minting of coins.
"If you ask people where money comes from, most of them will say it's made by the government," says Ben Dyson, founder of the UK organization Positive Money, part of a growing international movement pushing for reform to the current monetary system."But the reality is that the government is only responsible for creating three percent of the money that we use, and that three percent is the cash: the coins and the paper money."
In fact, money is created when commercial banks issue credit, or "make loans". Banks don't take money from someone else's account when they make a new loan. Rather, they enter the amount of the loan simultaneously as a debt and a credit, in equal amount, on either side of a double-entry bookkeeping ledger.
“When a bank makes a loan ... it credits the borrower's bank account with a bank deposit ... At that moment, new money is created," explains the Bank of England in its 2014 introduction to money in the modern economy.
That is how new money - and debt - enter the financial system. Conversely, when a borrower pays back a bank loan, the entries on both sides of the ledger are cancelled - both the "money" (credit record) and the corresponding debt are destroyed.
Cash is actually just a physical token that people can obtain for money that originally arose as an electronic credit record in the banking system, when a loan was approved
So if everyone in the Eurozone paid back the principal of all their bank debts tomorrow, at the end of the day, there would be no debt, but neither would there be any money left anywhere in the system. The modern monetary system, in fact, is a scorekeeping system composed of precisely equal amounts of bank credit and bank debt.
Transferable IOUs administered by the banking system
What we think of "money" is really nothing other than transferable IOUs created and administered by the banking system, and supported by contract law.
The banking system's job is twofold: First, to keep track of exactly how much is owed to whom - by debtors to banks, and by banks to creditors.
And second, to decide on the allocation of new loans - to whom, and for what purposes. That's a powerful role - and a growing international movement is pushing for a wide social and political debate over the role of banks in making such decisions.
Creating electronic money
In the UK, 97 percent of the money that exists, Dyson says, is electronic money – money which exists only in computer banking systems and not in physical form. This is created not by the state, but by commercial banks.
In Germany, where many businesses do not accept card payments, around 85 percent of money is electronic and created by commercial banks, and 15 percent is cash, according to a German branch of the monetary reform movement called the Monetative.
While governments create money as coins and notes, commercial or high street banks create money as debt.
Financial instability, social disadvantage
"What this means for the economy is that because it is the banks that are creating the money and deciding who to lend it to, they get to choose where that money goes, for what purposes," Dyson told DW. The monetary reform movement argues that this is not only undemocratic, but damaging to the economy too.
According to Positive Money's research, in the ten years leading up to the financial crisis, around half of the money created by commercial banks was going directly into mortgage lending - loans to enable people to buy houses or commercial property - and around a third into the financial market, in order to buy existing financial assets, not to make new investments in things like factories.
"All that mortgage lending had the effect of pushing up house prices, and created a lot of instability in the market," Dyson says. Unaffordable housing has been a particular problem for the UK during the past couple of decades, as mortgage over-lending has relentlessly inflated a bubble in the price of housing.
If and when that bubble pops, many people will be left with housing debt in excess of the current market value of the house they borrowed so much money to buy. Precisely that problem - the bursting of a huge bubble in real estate prices - is what led to the economic depression in Spain after 2008. Instead of spending money on consumer goods or investment, Spaniards have been trying to pay down excessive debt accumulated pre-2008 during a decade-long era of real estate speculation.
Post-crisis public spending austerity has hit the UK hard - yet critics say it could be ended tomorrow with fresh central bank money
Dyson and his counterparts around the world – the International Association for Monetary Reform lists initiatives in 20 countries – are not alone in believing in the need for change. The debate is also taking off among economists and politicians, particularly in the UK, where last week a backbench parliamentary debate took place to discuss the issue took place.
Martin Wolf, the chief economics commentator at the Financial Times, has written several recent columns in favor of stripping the banks of their monopoly on the power to create money.
Lord Adair Turner, former head of the UK's Financial Services Authority, recently wrote a Financial Times opinion article calling on the UK government to direct the Bank of England to create debt-free money to fund the government deficit.
The government could spend a carefully calibrated amount of new, debt-free money into circulation to stimulate demand - for example, by using it to build new low-carbon energy infrastructure or improved rail systems. The new infusion of cash in workers' pockets would circulate, and as it got into the hands of debtors, it would them a source of fresh funds with which to pay down excessive previously accumulated debt, Turner and others have argued.
Mervyn King, who headed the Bank of England for ten years until 2013, has also called for reform of the monetary system, saying that "of all the many ways of organizing banking, the worst is the one we have today."
Calls for monetary reform from such prominent figures remains "barely imaginable" in Germany, says Klaus Karwat of the Monetative. "The banking sector plays a much greater role in the UK economy than it does here, so the need for debate is much more pressing there," he told DW.
The movement's focus is raising awareness of how the current system of money creation works: surveys conducted by Positive Money and Monetative showed that many MPs in both countries lacked a general understanding of the monetary system.
Returning the power to create money to the state
"What we're saying is that commercial banks shouldn't have the ability to create electronic money, the deposits in your account, because they have incentives to lend recklessly. The more they lend, the more interest they can charge. So they over-lend, especially in housing, and create bubbles - debt bubbles and housing price bubbles.
Dyson and his colleagues propose that the power to create money should be returned to the central bank, which is owned by the government, working closely with the Treasury. The state would then control the creation of electronic money as well as notes and coins.
"But the government monetary authority's job will be to create what the economy needs, looking at the economy as a whole and on a long term basis, whereas the banks are currently looking at the very short term, and only at their opportunity to profit rather than the wider needs of the economy," Dyson said.
"We don't need banks nearly as much as we think we do," added Dyson. "And if we take the power to create money away from them, we'll need them even less, because we'll have a source of money created by public central banks which will come into the economy without debt - without anybody having to borrow it."