The Principles of Political Economy, by John Stuart Mill

Chapter 20

Of the Foreign Exchanges

§1. We have thus far considered the precious metals as a commodity, imported like other commodities in the common course of trade, and have examined what are the circumstances which would in that case determine their value. But those metals are also imported in another character, that which belongs to them as a medium of exchange; not as an article of commerce, to he sold for money, but as themselves money, to pay a debt, or effect a transfer of property. It remains to consider whether the liability of gold and silver to be transported from country to country for such purposes, in any way modifies the conclusions we have already arrived at, or places those metals under a different law of value from that to which, in common with all other imported commodities, they would be subject if international trade were an affair of direct barter.

Money is sent from one country to another for various purposes: such as the payment of tributes or subsidies; remittances of revenue to or from dependencies, or of rents or other incomes to their absent owners; emigration of capital, or transmission of it for foreign investment. The most usual purpose, however, is that of payment for goods. To show in what circumstances money actually passes from country to country for this or any of the other purposes mentioned, it is necessary briefly to state the nature of the mechanism by which international trade is carried on, when it takes place not by barter but through the medium of money.

§2. In practice, the exports and imports of a country not only are not exchanged directly against each other, but often do not even pass through the same hands. Each is separately bought and paid for with money. We have seen, however, that, even in the same country, money does not actually pass from hand to hand each time that purchases are made with it, and still less does this happen between different countries. The habitual mode of paying and receiving payment for commodities, between country and country, is by bills of exchange.

A merchant in England, A, has exported English commodities, consigning them to his correspondent B in France. Another merchant in France, C, has exported French commodities, suppose of equivalent value, to a merchant D in England. It is evidently unnecessary that B in France should send money to A in England, and that D in England should send an equal sum of money to C in France. The one debt may be applied to the payment of the other, and the double cost and risk of carriage be thus saved. A draws a bill on B for the amount which B owes to him: D, having an equal amount to pay in France, buys this bill from A, and sends it to C, who, at the expiration of the number of days which the bill has to run, presents it to B for payment. Thus the debt due from France to England, and the debt due from England to France, are both paid without sending an ounce of gold or silver from one country to the other.

In this statement, however, it is supposed, that the sum of the debts due from France to England, and the sum of those due from England to France, are equal; that each country has exactly the same number of ounces of gold or silver to pay and to receive. This implies (if we exclude for the present any other international payments than those occurring in the course of commerce), that the exports and imports exactly pay for one another, or in other words, that the equation of international demand is established. When such is the fact, the international transactions are liquidated without the passage of any money from one country to the other. But if there is a greater sum due from England to France, than is due from France to England, or vice versa, the debts cannot be simply written off against one another. After the one has been applied, as far as it will go, towards covering the other, the balance must be transmitted in the precious metals. In point of fact, the merchant who has the amount to pay, will even then pay for it by a bill. When a person has a remittance to make to a foreign country, he does not himself search for some one who has money to receive from that country, and ask him for a bill of exchange. In this as in other branches of business, there is a class of middlemen or brokers, who bring buyers and sellers together, or stand between them, buying bills from those who have money to receive, and selling bills to those who have money to pay. When a customer comes to a broker for a bill on Paris or Amsterdam, the broker sells to him, perhaps the bill he may himself have bought that morning from a merchant, perhaps a bill on his own correspondent in the foreign city: and to enable his correspondent to pay, when due, all the bills he has granted, he remits to him all those which he haS bought and has not resold. In this manner these brokers take upon themselves the whole settlement of the pecuniary transactions between distant places, being remunerated by a small commission or percentage on the amount of each bill which they either sell or buy. Now, if the brokers find that they are asked for bills on the one part, to a greater amount than bills are offered to them on the other, they do not on this account refuse to give them; but since, in that case, they have no means of enabling the correspondents on whom their bills are drawn, to pay them when due, except by transmitting part of the amount in gold or silver, they require from those to whom they sell bills an additional price, sufficient to cover the freight and insurance of the gold and silver, with a profit sufficient to compensate them for their trouble and for the temporary occupation of a portion of their capital. This premium (as it is called) the buyers are willing to pay, because they must otherwise go to the expense of remitting the precious metals themselves, and it is done cheaper by those who make doing it a part of their especial business. But though only some of those who have a debt to pay would have actually to remit money, all will be obliged, by each other’s competition, to pay the premium; and the brokers are for the same reason obliged to pay it to those whose bills they buy. The reverse of all this happens, if on the comparison of exports and imports, the country, instead of having a balance to pay, has a balance to receive. The brokers find more bills offered to them, than are sufficient to cover those which they are required to grant. Bills on foreign countries consequently fall to a discount; and the competition among the brokers, which is exceedingly active, prevents them from retaining this discount as a profit for themselves, and obliges them to give the benefit of it to those who buy the bills for purposes of remittance.

Let us suppose that all countries had the same currency, as in the progress of political improvement they one day will have: and, as the most familiar to the reader, though not the best, let us suppose this currency to be the English. When England had the same number of pounds sterling to pay to France, which France had to pay to her, one set of merchants in England would want bills, and another set would have bills to dispose of, for the very same number of pounds sterling; and consequently a bill on France for 100l. would sell for exactly 100l., or, in the phraseology of merchants, the exchange would be at par. As France also, on this supposition, would have an equal number of pounds sterling to pay and to receive, bills on England would be at par in France, whenever bills on France were at par in England.

If, however, England had a larger sum to pay to France than to receive from her, there would be persons requiring bills on France for a greater number of pounds sterling than there were bills drawn by persons to whom money was due. A bill on France for 100l. would then sell for more than 100l., and biLls would be said to be at a premium. The premium, however, could not exceed the cost and risk of making the remittance in gold, together with a trifling profit; because if it did, the debtor wouLd send the gold itself, in preference to buying the bill.

If, on the contrary, England had more money to receive from France than to pay, there would be bills offered for a greater number of pounds than were wanted for remittance, and the price of bills would fall below par: a bill for 100l. might be bought for somewhat less than 100l., and bills would be said to be at a discount.

When England has more to pay than to receive, France has more to receive than to pay, and vice versa. When, therefore, in England, bills on France bear a premium, then, in France, bills on England are at a discount: and when bills on France are at a discount in England, bills on England are at a premium in France. If they are at par in either country, they are so, as we have already seen, in both.

Thus do matters stand between countries, or places, which have the same currency. So much of barbarism, however, still remains in the transactions of the most civilized nations, that almost all independent countries choose to assert their nationality by having, to their own inconvenience and that of their neighbours, a peculiar currency of their own. To our present purpose this makes no other difference, than that instead of speaking of equal sums of money, we have to speak of equivalent sums. By equivalent sums, when both currencies are composed of the same metal, are meant sums which contain exactly the same quantity of the metal, in weight and fineness; but when, as in the case of France and England, the metals are different, what is meant is that the quantity of gold in the one sum, and the quantity of silver in the other, are of the same value in the general market of the world: there being no material difference between one place and another in the relative value of these metals. Suppose 25 francs to be (as within a trifling fraction it is) the equivalent of a pound sterling. The debts and credits of the two countries would be equal, when the one owed as many times 25 francs, as the other owed pounds. When this was the case, a bill on France for 2500 francs would be worth in England 100l., and a bill on England for 100l. would be worth in France 2500 francs. The exchange is then said to be at par: and 25 francs (in reality 25 francs and a trifle more) 1 is called the par of exchange with France. When England owed to France more than the equivalent of what France owed to her, a bill for 2500 francs would be at a premium, that is, would be worth more than 100l. When France owed to England more than the equivalent of what England owed to France, a bill for 2500 francs would be worth less than 100l., or would be at a discount.

When bills on foreign countries are at a premium, it is customary to say that the exchanges are against the country, or unfavourable to it. In order to understand these phrases, we must take notice of what “the exchange,” in the language of merchants, really means. It means the power which the money of the country has of purchasing the money of other countries. Supposing 25 francs to be the exact par of exchange, then when it requires more than 100l. to buy a bill for 2500 francs, 100l. of English money are worth less than their real equivalent of French money: and this is called an exchange unfavourable to England. The only persons in England, however, to whom it is really unfavourable, are those who have money to pay in France; for they come into the bill market as buyers, and have to pay a premium: but to those who have money to receive in France, the same state of things is favourable; for they come as sellers, and receive the premium. The premium, however, indicates that a balance is due by England, which might have to be eventually liquidated in the precious metals: and since, according to the old theory, the benefit of a trade consisted in bringing money into the country, this prejudice introduced the practice of calling the exchange favourable when it indicated a balance to receive, and unfavourable when it indicated one to pay: and the phrases in turn tended to maintain the prejudice.

§3. It might be supposed at first sight that when the exchange is unfavourable, or in other words, when bills are at a premium, the premium must alWays amount to a full equivalent for the cost of transmitting money: since, as there is really a balance to pay, and as the full cost must therefore be incurred by some of those who have remittances to make, their competition will compel all to submit to an equivalent sacrifice. And such would certainly be the case, if it were always necessary that whatever is destined to be paid should be paid immediately. The expectation of great and immediate foreign payments sometimes produces a most startling effect on the exchanges.2 But a small excess of imports above exports, or any other small amount of debt to be paid to foreign countries, does not usually affect the exchanges to the full extent of the cost and risk of transporting bullion. The length of credit allowed, generally permits, on the part of some of the debtors, a postponement of payment, and in the mean time the balance may turn the other way, and restore the equality of debts and credits without any actual transmission of the metals. And this is the more likely to happen, as there is a self-adjusting power in the variations of the exchange itself. Bills are at a premium because a greater money value has been imported than exported. But the premium is itself an extra profit to those who export. Besides the price they obtain for their goods, they draw for the amount and gain the premium. It is, on the other hand, a diminution of profit to those who import. Besides the price of the goods, they have to pay a premium for remittance. So that what is called an unfavourable exchange is an encouragement to export, and a discouragement to import. And if the balance due is of small amount, and is the consequence of some merely casual disturbance in the ordinary course of trade, it is soon liquidated in commodities, and the account adjusted by means of bills, without the transmission of any bullion. Not so, however, when the excess of imports above exports, which has made the exchange unfavourable, arises from a permanent cause. In that case, what disturbed the equilibrium must have been the state of prices, and it can only be restored by acting on prices. It is impossible that prices should be such as to invite to an excess of imports, and yet that the exports should be kept permanently up to the imports by the extra profit on exportation derived from the premium on bills; for if the exports were kept up to the imports, bills would not be at a premium, and the extra profit would not exist. It is through the prices of commodities that the correction must be administered.

Disturbances, therefore, of the equilibrium of imports and exports, and consequent disturbances of the exchange, may be considered as of two classes; the one casual or accidental, which, if not on too large a scale, correct themselves through the premium on bills, without any transmission of the precious metals; the other arising from the general state of prices, which cannot be corrected without the subtraction of actual money from the circulation of one of the counties, or an annihilation of credit equivalent to it; since the mere transmission of bullion (as distinguished from money), not having any effect on prices, is of no avail to abate the cause from which the disturbance proceeded.

It remains to observe, that the exchanges do not depend on the balance of debts and credits with each country separately, but with all counties taken together. England may owe a balance of payments to France; but it does not follow that the exchange with France will be against England, and that bills on France will be at a premium; because a balance may be due to England from Holland or Hamburg, and she may pay her debts to France with bills on those places; which is technically called arbitration of exchange. There is some little additional expense, partly commission and partly loss of interest, in settling debts in this circuitous manner, and to the extent of that small difference the exchange with one country may vary apart from that with others; but in the main, the exchanges with all foreign countries vary together, according as the country has a balance to receive or to pay on the general result of its foreign transactions.

1 Written before the change in the relative value of the two metals produced by the gold discoveries. The par of exchange between gold and silver currencies is now variable, and no one can foresee at what point it will ultimately rest.

2 On the news of Bonaparte’s landing from Elba, the price of bills advanced in one day as much as ten per cent. Of course this premium was not a mere equivalent for cost of carriage, since the freight of such an article as gold, even with the addition of war insurance, could never have amounted to so much. This great price was an equivalent not for the difficulty of sending gold, but for the anticipated difficulty of procuring it to send; the expectation being that there would be such immense remittances to the Continent in subsidies and for the support of armies, as would press hard on the stock of bullion in the country (which was then entirely denuded of specie), and this, too, in a shorter time than would allow of its being replenished. Accordingly the price of bullion rose likewise, with the same suddenness. It is hardly necessary to say that this took place during the Bank restriction. In a convertible state of the currency, no such thing could have occurred until the Bank stopped payment.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/m/mill/john_stuart/m645p/book3.20.html

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 23:09