Where Does Money Come From?

Money can be simplistically defined as “A medium that can be exchanged for goods and services and is used as a measure of their values on the market, and/or a liquifiable asset which can readily be converted to the medium of exchange”.  Earlier we described the amounts of various classes of “money” in the U.S.      Here is a chart showing the amount of currency in circulation (coins and bills; lowest line on the chart) for 2005-2020, and also M1 (green), M2 (upper curve, purple) and “monetary base” (currency plus reserves at the Fed; red line).

To recap what M1 and M2 are:

M1: Physical currency circulating outside of the Fed and private banking system, plus the amount of demand deposits, travelers’ checks and other checkable deposits. This is highly “liquid” money, i.e. accepted and used for transactions in the private economy.

M2: M1 + most savings accounts, money market accounts, retail money market mutual funds, and small denomination time deposits (certificates of deposit of under $100,000).

 The funds in these additional savings and money market accounts can in general be easily transferred to checkable accounts, and thus could go towards making purchases if desired.

Physical currency is made and put into circulation by the government or quasi-governmental agencies (the Treasury mints coins, and the Federal Reserve prints bills). But what about all the other money (M1, M2, etc.), which dwarfs the physical currency? How does it grow?

Without getting into all the weeds, it turns out that the major driver of money creation in modern economies is the process of bank loans.  The vast majority of money in countries like the U.S. is not created directly by government or central bank operations, but is created in the private sector when commercial banks make loans.   When individuals or companies decide to take out more loans (including loans for cars, houses, or business investment), the effective money supply in the nation increases. This is true for other modern economies. For instance, the Bank of England states:

There are three types of money in the UK economy:

3% Notes and coins

18% Reserves

79% Bank deposits

A typical scenario of how bank lending increases money might go something like this: Fred would like to add an enclosed back porch to his house, but doesn’t have the money in hand to pay a carpenter to build it for him. So the base case is no payment to the carpenter and no porch for Fred. However, Fred realizes he can go the bank and get a loan to pay for the porch. So he obtains a $20,000 loan from the bank, which first shows up as a $20,000 credit to Fred’s checking account. The bank credits Fred’s account, and in exchange obtains a contract from Fred promising that Fred will pay it back, with interest.

Fred writes a check for $20,000 to the carpenter, who in turn pays $10,000 to a lumberyard for materials and keeps the other $10,000 as his fee. The lumberyard is able to pay its workers for that day, and order replacement lumber from a mill. The workers spent their pay on various items.  The carpenter puts $5000 of his $10,000 fee in a savings account, and pays the rest to a car dealer for a used car.

The initial loan to Fred set off a chain of spending and economic activity, which would not have otherwise occurred. Fred has his porch, the lumberyard workers continue to be employed and supporting their local merchants, the carpenter gets a second car, and this money keeps ricocheting around until it gets drained away into stagnant savings, or is used to pay down prior debt. Although they are not aware of it, part of the lumberyard workers’ pay for that day came out of the debt incurred by Fred.

The granting of that loan created $20,000 of spending capability, i.e. money.  As far as the economy is concerned, that $20,000 did not exist as effective money prior to the loan. Thus, the money came into existence simultaneously with the debt associated with the loan. Fred received the capacity to spend $20,000 today, but in turn accepted the obligation to pay back this money, with interest. It is assumed that Fred had a stable income, such that he would in fact be able to pay back the loan in the future.

In general, increasing debt increases the money supply, and paying down debt extinguishes money. For simplicity, suppose Fred repays the $20,000 loan (with $2000 interest added) in one big lump, two years later. In that year, he will presumably spend into the economy something like $22,000 less than he would have otherwise. Thus, his paying down of his debt will act as a decrease in the circulating money.

In normal times, as one person is paying down his loan (and thereby shrinking the money supply), someone else is taking out a new and even larger loan, so total debt and the amount of money in circulation stays about the same, or grows somewhat. A feature of the 2008-2009 recession, however, was a big drop in consumer demand for credit; folks decided to pay down debts and not borrow so much money to buy stuff. The effect was a big drop in spending and thus in overall economic activity (GDP) and in employment.

Where was that $20,000 before Fred borrowed it? We might think that it was sitting unused in the bank vaults, just waiting to be borrowed. That turns out to be an incorrect picture of the lending process.

Bank loans differ in key ways from, say, an interpersonal loan. If I lend you money, I might draw down my checking deposit and give you a check which you would deposit in your bank account. No new money is created. You may hand me an I.O.U. slip stating when you will pay me back and with what interest, but that would still be just the same funds being traded back and forth between the two of us. I would have to have the money in my account to start with before I could loan it to you.

Bank lending is different. A bank can lend money and hence create a new deposit, which amounts to brand-new money, even if the bank does not have that money to start with.  This is counterintuitive. In a later post we may flesh out this seemingly magical aspect of bank lending. See  Overview of the U. S. Monetary System for a more complete discussion.

Peering Inside the Balance Sheet of the Fed

A balance sheet gives a snapshot of a corporation’s assets and liabilities. The difference between total assets and total liabilities is (by definition) the value of the equity owned by the owners or shareholders of the company.

With, say, a manufacturing firm, the assets would include tangible items such as buildings and equipment and inventory, and intangibles such as cash, bank accounts, and accounts receivable. Liabilities may include mortgages and other loans, and accounts payable such as taxes, wages, pensions, and bills for purchased goods.

The balance sheet for a bank is different. The “Assets” are mainly loans that the bank has made, plus some securities (such as US Treasury bonds) that the bank has purchased. These assets pay interest to the bank. The money the bank used to make these loans and purchase these securities came mainly from customer deposits or other borrowings by the bank (which are considered “Liabilities” of the bank), and also from paid-in capital from the bank owners/shareholders. [1]  As usual, the current equity of the bank is assets minus liabilities. Thus:

Source:  BBVA

The Federal Reserve System is a complex beast. We will not delve into all the components and moving parts, but just take a look at the overall balance sheet.

Unlike other banks, the Fed has the magical power of being able to create money out of thin air. Technically, what the Fed can do with that money is mainly make loans, i.e. buy interest-bearing securities such as government bonds. The Fed makes its transactions through affiliated banks, so it credits a bank’s reserve account with a million dollars, if it buys from that bank a million dollars’ worth of bonds. Those bonds then become part of the Fed’s “assets”, while the reserve account of the bank at the Fed (which is a liability of the Fed) becomes larger by a million dollars. Since the Fed is not a for-profit bank, the “Equity” entry on its balance sheet is nearly zero. Thus, total assets are essentially equal to total liabilities.

The Fed also has the power of literally printing money, in the form of Federal Reserve Notes (printed dollar bills). These, too, are classified as liabilities. Thus, you are probably carrying in your wallet right now some of the liabilities of the central bank of the United States.

Before 2008, the balance sheet of the Fed was under a trillion dollars. Nearly all the “Liabilities” were the Federal Reserve Notes and nearly all the “Assets” were US Treasury securities. The reserve accounts of the affiliated Depository Institutions was minuscule. All that changed with the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-2009. To help stabilize the financial system, the Fed started buying lots of various types of securities, including mortgage-backed securities (MBS) [2]. The Fed thus propped up the value of these securities, and injected cash (liquidity) into the system.

Here is a plot of how the assets of the Fed ballooned in the wake of the GFC, from about $ 0.9 trillion to over $ 4 trillion:

Source: Investopedia

The initial purchases in 2008 were US Treasuries, which the Fed had prior authorization to do. To buy other securities, especially the mortgage products, required congressional authorization. The increased liabilities of the Fed which offset these purchases were mainly in the form of larger reserve accounts of the affiliated banks. The Fed started paying interest on these reserve accounts, to keep short term interest rates above zero at all times (otherwise the whole money market in the U.S. might implode).

 With the Fed relentlessly buying the mortgage and bond products, the interest rates on long-term mortgages and bonds was kept low. This was deemed good for economic growth. The Fed tried to sell off some securities to taper down its balance sheet in 2018, but that effort blew up in its face – – the stock market started crashing in response in late 2018, and so the Fed backtracked . You can look at weekly tables of the Fed balance sheet here.

Anyway, the GFC and its aftermath provided the precedent for massive purchases of “stuff” by the Fed. When the Covid shutdown of the economy hit in March of this year, the Fed very quickly went into high gear. Its balance sheet shot up from $4 trillion to $7 trillion in just a few months. It bought not only Treasuries and MBS, but corporate bonds. This was way outside the Fed’s original charter, but the crisis was so intense that nobody seemed to care whether these actions were legal or not. And now, to finance the huge deficit spending of the federal government in the wake of the shutdowns, the Fed has been buying up nearly the entire issuance of Treasury bonds and notes.

These actions may have long term consequences we will explore in later posts [3]. For now, the Fed has made it clear that it will keep interests rates near zero for at least the next couple of years. Invest accordingly.


[1] Huge caveat: This statement gives the impression that a bank must first receive say a thousand dollar deposit before it can make a thousand dollar loan. That is not the case. The reality is just the opposite: the act of making a thousand dollar loan actually CREATES a corresponding thousand dollar deposit. This is very counterintuitive, and I won’t try to explain or justify this point here.

[2] Technically, the Fed is not “buying” the mortgage-backed security (MBS). Rather, it is making a “loan” to the bank, and holding the MBS as collateral against that loan.

[3] It is now harder to take the federal deficit seriously as a constraint on spending:  the government can issue unlimited bonds to fund deficits, which the Fed will purchase to keep interest rates low. Yes, the government has to pay interest on those bonds, but the Fed has to return most of that interest to the Treasury, so the real cost to the government of that extra debt is low.