Real Bills Doctrine

What Is the Real Bills Doctrine?

The real bills doctrine refers to a norm in which currency is issued in exchange for short-term debt, but at a discount.

Key Takeaways

  • The real bills doctrine refers to a doctrine in which real bills sold to banks are used to increase the money supply in an economy.
  • Its origins lie in 18th-century economic thought.
  • The free bill doctrine is most often criticized by economists favoring free banking, who argue that governments should not manage the money supply and that open commercial competition is the best way to stabilize money creation.

Understanding the Real Bills Doctrine

According to the real bills doctrine, limiting banks to only or primarily issuing money that is adequately backed by equally valued assets will not contribute to inflation. By contrast, proponents of quantity theory argue that any increases in the money supply tend to create inflation. The real bills doctrine is commonly described as a simple transaction between a bank and a business that results in the issuance of money into the economy.

For example, a parts supplier sells $10,000 worth of widgets to a manufacturer, along with an invoice with payment due in 90 days. The manufacturer agrees to these terms, as it intends to manufacture and sell the widgets over 90 days. In effect, the supplier has created commercial paper (a "real bill" that is not secured but represents tangible goods in the process) that has a value of $10,000. Rather than wait to be paid, the parts supplier can sell the paper to a bank at its present discounted value of say $9,800. The bank monetizes the paper and later collects the bill at full value.

Origins and Policy Debate

As an economic theory, the real bills doctrine evolved from 18th-century economic thought, such as Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations. Smith suggested that real bills were a prudent asset for commercial banks to purchase and hold. The Doctrine is often part of the larger debate about the appropriate role of central banks in managing the money supply. Many economists argue, for example, that the recently created Federal Reserve adhered too strictly to the real bills doctrine, contributing to the Great Contraction and Great Depression of 1929–1932.

The doctrine is most heavily criticized by economists favoring free banking, who argue that the government should not be involved in managing the money supply and that open commercial competition provides the optimal stabilization of money creation. Although many economists find fault with the doctrine and consider it discredited, there is disagreement about which alternative system is most efficient.

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  1. Cato Institute. "Free Banking Theory Versus the Real Bills Doctrine." Accessed April 18, 2021.

  2. Columbia Business School. "The Political Lessons of Depression-Era Banking Reform," Page 540. Accessed Sept. 15, 2021.