This is “The Central Bank’s Balance Sheet”, section 14.1 from the book Finance, Banking, and Money (v. 1.0). For details on it (including licensing), click here.

For more information on the source of this book, or why it is available for free, please see the project's home page. You can browse or download additional books there. To download a .zip file containing this book to use offline, simply click here.

Has this book helped you? Consider passing it on:
Creative Commons supports free culture from music to education. Their licenses helped make this book available to you. helps people like you help teachers fund their classroom projects, from art supplies to books to calculators.

14.1 The Central Bank’s Balance Sheet

Learning Objectives

  1. Who determines the money supply?
  2. How does the central bank’s balance sheet differ from the balance sheets of other banks?
  3. What is the monetary base?

Ultimately the money supply is determined by the interaction of four groups: commercial banks and other depositories, depositors, borrowers, and the central bank. Like any bank, the central bank’s balance sheet is composed of assets and liabilities. Its assets are similar to those of common banks and include government securitiesStudents sometimes become confused about this because they think the central bank is the government. At most, it is part of the government, and not the part that issues the bonds. Sometimes, as in the case of the BUS and SBUS, it is not part of the government at all. and discount loans. The former provide the central bank with income and a liquid asset that it can easily and cheaply buy and sell to alter its balance sheet. The latter are generally loans made to commercial banks. So far, so good. The central bank’s liabilities, however, differ fundamentally from those of common banks. Its most important liabilities are currency in circulation and reserves.

Yes, currency and reserves. You may recall from Chapter 9 "Bank Management" that those are the assets of commercial banks. In fact, for everyone but the central bank, the central bank’s notes, Federal Reserve notes (FRN) in the United States, are assets, things owned. But for the central bank, its notes are things owed (liabilities), just like your promissory note (IOU) would be your liability, but it would be an asset for the note’s holder or owner. Similarly, commercial banks own their deposits in the Fed (reserves), which the Fed, of course, owes to the commercial banks. So reserves are commercial bank assets but central bank liabilities.

Currency in circulation (C) and reserves (R) compose the monetary baseThe most basic, powerful types of money in a given monetary system, that is, gold and silver under the gold standard, FRN, and reserves (Federal Reserve deposits) today. (MB, aka high-powered money), the most basic building blocks of the money supply. Basically, MB = C + R, an equation you’ll want to internalize. In the United States, C includes FRN and coins issued by the U.S. Treasury. We can ignore the latter because it is a relatively small percentage of the MB, and the Treasury cannot legally manage the volume of coinage in circulation in an active fashion, but rather only meets the demand for each denomination: .01, .05, .10, .25, .50, and 1.00 coins. (The Fed also supplies the $1.00 unit, and for some reason Americans prefer $1 notes to coins. In most countries, coins fill demand for the single currency unit denomination.) C includes only FRN and coins in the hands of nonbanks. Any FRN in banks is called vault cash and is included in R, which also includes bank deposits with the Fed. Reserves are of two types: those required or mandated by the central bank (RR), and any additional or excess reserves (ER) that banks wish to hold. The latter are usually small, but they can grow substantially during panics like that of September–October 2008.

Central banks, of course, are highly profitable institutions because their assets earn interest but their liabilities are costless, or nearly so. Therefore, they have no gap problems, and liquidity management is a snap because they can always print more notes or create more reserves. Central banks anachronistically own prodigious quantities of gold, but some have begun to sell off their holdings because they no longer convert their notes into gold or anything else for that matter. Gold is no longer part of the MB but is rather just a commodity with an unusually high value-to-weight ratio.

Key Takeaways

  • The central bank, depository institutions of every stripe, borrowers, and depositors all help to determine the money supply.
  • The central bank helps to determine the money supply by controlling the monetary base (MB), aka high-powered money or its monetary liabilities.
  • The central bank’s balance sheet differs from those of other banks because its monetary liabilities, currency in circulation (C) and reserves (R), are everyone else’s assets.
  • The monetary base or MB = C + R, where C = currency in circulation (not in the central bank or any bank); R = reserves = bank vault cash and deposits with the central bank.
  • MB is important because an increase (decrease) in it will increase (decrease) the money supply (M1—currency plus checkable deposits, M2—M1 plus time deposits and retail money market deposit accounts, etc.) by some multiple (hence the “high-powered” nickname).