The Principles of Political Economy, by John Stuart Mill

Chapter 24

Of the Regulation of a Convertible Paper Currency

§1. The frequent recurrence during the last half century of the painful series of phenomena called a commercial crisis, has directed much of the attention both of economists and of practical politicians to the contriving of expedients for averting, or at the least, mitigating its evils. And the habit which grew up during the era of the Bank restriction, of ascribing all alternations of high and low prices to the issues of banks, has caused inquirers in general to fix their hopes of success in moderating those vicissitudes, upon schemes for the regulation of bank notes. A scheme of this nature, after having obtained the sanction of high authorities, so far established itself in the public mind, as to be, with general approbation, converted into a law, at the renewal of the Charter of the Bank of England in 1844: and the regulation is still in force, though with a great abatement of its popularity, and with its prestige impaired by three temporary suspensions, on the responsibility of the executive, the earliest little more than three years after its enactment. It is proper that the merits of this plan for the relation of a convertible bank note currency should be here considered. Before touching upon the practical provisions of Sir Robert Peel’s Act of 1844, I shall briefly state the nature, and examine the grounds, of the theory on which it is founded.

It is believed by many, that banks of issue universally, or the Bank of England in particular, have a power of throwing their notes into circulation, and thereby raising prices, arbitrarily; that this power is only limited by the degree of moderation with which they think fit to exercise it; that when they increase their issues beyond the usual mount, the rise of prices, thus produced, generates a spirit of speculation in commodities, which carries prices still higher, and ultimately causes a reaction and recoil, mounting in extreme cases to a commercial crisis; and that every such crisis which has occurred in this country within mercantile memory, has been either originally produced by this cause, or greatly aggravated by it. To this extreme length the currency theory has not been carried by the eminent political economists who have given to a more moderate form of the same theory the sanction of their names. But I have not overstated the extravagance of the popular version; which is a remarkable instance to what lengths a favourite theory will hurry, not the closet students whose competency in such questions is often treated with so much contempt, but men of the world and of business, who pique themselves on the practical knowledge which they have at least had ample opportunities of acquiring. Not only has this fixed idea of the currency as the prime agent in the fluctuations of price, made them shut their eyes to the multitude of circumstances which, by influencing the expectation of supply, are the true causes of almost all speculations, and of almost all fluctuations of price; but in order to bring about the chronological agreement required by their theory, between the variations of bank issues and those of prices, they have played such fantastic tricks with facts and dates as would be thought incredible, if an eminent practical authority ad not taken the trouble of meeting them, on the ground of mere history, with an elaborate exposure. I refer, as all conversant with the subject must be aware, to Mr Tooke’s History of Prices. The result of Mr Tooke’s investigations was thus stated by himself, in his examination before the Commons’ Committee on the Bank Charter question in 1832; and the evidences of it stand recorded in his book: “In point of fact, and historically, as far as my researches have gone, in every signal instance of a rise or fall of prices, the rise or fall has preceded, and therefore could not be the effect of, an enlargement or contraction of the bank circulation.”

The extravagance of the currency theorists, in attributing almost every rise or fall of prices to an enlargement or contraction of the issues of bank notes, has raised up, by reaction, a theory the extreme opposite of the former, of which, in scientific discussion, the most prominent representatives are Mr Tooke and Mr Fullarton. This counter-theory denies to bank notes, so long as their convertibility is maintained, any power whatever of raising prices, and to banks any power of increasing their circulation, except as a consequence of, and in proportion to, an increase of the business to be done. This last statement is supported by the unanimous assurances of all the country bankers who have been examined before successive Parliamentary Committees on the subject. They all bear testimony that (in the words of Mr Fullarton1) “the amount of their issues is exclusively regulated by the extent of local dealings and expenditure in their respective districts, fluctuating with the fluctuations of production and price, and that they neither can increase their issues beyond the limits which the range of such dealings and expenditure prescribes, without the certainty of having their notes immediately returned to them, nor diminish them, but at an almost equal certainty of the vacancy being filled up from some other source.” from these premises it is argued by Mr Tooke and Mr Fullarton, that bank issues, since they cannot be increased in amount unless there be an increased demand, cannot possibly raise prices; cannot encourage speculation, nor occasion a commercial crisis; and that the attempt to guard against that evil by an artificial management of the issue of notes, is of no effect for the intended purpose, and liable to produce other consequences extremely calamitous.

§2. As much of this doctrine as rests upon testimony, and not upon inference, appears to me incontrovertible. I give complete credence to the assertion of the country bankers, very clearly and correctly condensed into a small compass in the sentence just quoted from Mr Fullarton. I am convinced that they cannot possibly increase their issue of notes in any other circumstances than those which are there stated. I believe, also, that the theory, grounded by Mr Fullarton upon this fact, contains a large portion of truth, and is far nearer to being the expression of the whole truth than any form whatever of the currency theory.

There are two states of the markets: one which may be termed the quiescent state, the other the expectant, or speculative state. The first is that in which there is nothing tending to engender in any considerable portion of the mercantile public a desire to extend their operations. The producers produce and the dealers purchase only their usual stocks, having no expectation of a more than usually rapid vent for them. Each person transacts his ordinary amount of business, and no more; or increases it only in correspondence with the increase of his capital or connexion, or with the gradual growth of the demand for his commodity, occasioned by the public prosperity. Not meditating any unusual extension of their own operations, producers and dealers do not need more than the usual accommodation from bankers and other money lenders; and as it is only by extending their loans that bankers increase their issues, none but a momentary augmentation of issues is in these circumstances possible. If at a certain time of the year a portion of the public have larger payments to make than at other times, or if an individual, under some peculiar exigency, requires an extra advance, they may apply for more bank notes, and obtain them; but the notes will no more remain in circulation, than the extra quantity of Bank of England notes which are issued once in every three months in payment of the dividends. The person to whom, after being borrowed, the notes are paid away, has no extra payments to make, and no peculiar exigency, and he keeps them by him unused, or sends them into deposit, or repays with them a previous advance made to him by some banker: in any case he does not buy commodities with them, since by the supposition there is nothing to induce him to lay in a larger stock of commodities than before. Even if we suppose, as we may do, that bankers create an artificial increase of the demand for loans by offering them below the market rate of interest, the notes they issue will not remain in circulation; for when the borrower, having completed the transaction for which he availed himself of them, has paid them away, the creditor or dealer who receives them, having no demand for the immediate use of an extra quantity of notes, sends them into deposit. In this case, therefore, there can be no addition, at the discretion of bankers, to the general circulating medium: any increase of their issues either comes back to them, or remains idle in the hands of the public, and no rise takes place in prices.

But there is another state of the markets, strikingly contrasted with the preceding, and to this state it is not so obvious that the theory of Mr Tooke and Mr Fullarton is applicable; namely, when an impression prevails, whether well founded or groundless, that the supply of one or more great articles of commerce is likely to fall short of the ordinary consumption. In such circumstances all persons connected with those commodities desire to extend their operations. The producers or importers desire to produce or import a larger quantity, speculators desire to lay in a stock in order to profit by the expected rise of price, and holders of the commodity desire additional advances to enable them to continue holding. All these classes are disposed to make a more than ordinary use of their credit, and to this desire it is not denied that bankers very often unduly administer. Effects of the same kind may be produced by anything which, exciting more than usual hopes of profit, gives increased briskness to business. for example, a sudden foreign demand for commodities on a large scale, or the expectation of it; such as occurred on the opening of Spanish America to English trade, and has occurred on various occasions in the trade with the United States. Such occurrences produce a tendency to a rise of price in exportable articles, and generate speculations, sometimes of a reasonable, and (as long as a large proportion of men in business prefer excitement to safety) frequently of an irrational or immoderate character. In such cases there is a desire in the mercantile classes, or in some portion of them, to employ their credit, in a more than usual degree, as a power of purchasing. This is a state of business which, when pushed to an extreme length, brings on the revulsion called a commercial crisis; and it is a known fact that such periods of speculation hardly ever pass off without having been attended, during some part of their progress, by a considerable increase of bank notes.

To this, however, it is replied by Mr Tooke and Mr Fullarton, that the increase of the circulation always follows instead of preceding the rise of prices, and is not its cause, but its effect. That in the first place, the speculative purchases by which prices are raised, are not effected by bank notes but by cheques, or still more commonly on a simple book credit: and secondly, even if they were made with bank notes borrowed for that express purpose from bankers, the notes, after being used for that purpose, would, if not wanted for current transactions, be returned into deposit by the persons receiving them. In this I fully concur, and I regard it as proved, both scientifically and historically, that during the ascending period of speculation, and as long as it is confined to transactions between dealers, the issues of bank notes are seldom materially increased, nor contribute anything to the speculative rise of prices. It seems to me, however, that this can no longer be affirmed when speculation has proceeded so far as to reach the producers. Speculative orders given by merchants to manufacturers induce them to extend their operations, and to become applicants to bankers for increased advances, which if made in notes, are not paid away to persons who return them into deposit, but are partially expended in paying wages, and pass into the various channels of retail trade, where they become directly effective in producing a further rise of prices. I cannot but think that this employment of bank notes must have been powerfully operative on prices at the time when notes of one and two pounds value were permitted by law. Admitting, however, that the prohibition of notes below five pounds has now rendered this part of their operation comparatively insignificant by greatly limiting their applicability to the payment of wages, there is another form of their instrumentality which comes into play in the latter stages of speculation, and which forms the principal argument of the more moderate supporters of the currency theory. Though advances by bankers are seldom demanded for the purpose of buying on speculation, they are largely demanded by unsuccessful speculators for the purpose of holding on; and the competition of these speculators for a share of the loanable capital, makes even those who have not speculated, more dependent than before on bankers for the advances they require. Between the ascending period of speculation and the revulsion, there is an interval extending to weeks and sometimes months, of struggling against a fall. The tide having shown signs of turning, the speculative holders are unwilling to sell in a falling market, and in the meantime they require funds to enable them to fulfil even their ordinary engagements. It is this stage that is ordinarily marked by a considerable increase in the amount of the banknote circulation. That such an increase does usually take place, is denied by no one. And I think it must be admitted that this increase tends to prolong the duration of the speculations; that it enables the speculative prices to be kept up for some time after they would otherwise have collapsed; and therefore prolongs and increases the drain of the precious metals for exportation, which is a leading feature of this stage in the progress of a commercial crisis: the continuance of which drain at last endangering the power of the banks to fulfil their engagement of paying their notes on demand, they are compelled to contract their credit more suddenly and severely than would have been necessary if they had been prevented from propping up speculation by increased advances, after the time when the recoil had become inevitable.

§3. To prevent this retardation of the recoil, and ultimate aggravation of its severity, is the object of the scheme for regulating the currency, of which Lord Overstone, Mr Norman, and Colonel Torrens, were the first promulgators, and which has, in a slightly modified form, been enacted into law.2

According to the scheme in its original purity, the issue of promissory notes for circulation was to be confined to one body. In the form adopted by Parliament, all existing issuers were permitted to retain this privilege, but none were to be hereafter admitted to it, even in the place of those who might discontinue their issues: and, for all except the Bank of England, a maximum of issues was prescribed, on a scale intentionally low. To the Bank of England no maximum was fixed for the aggregate amount of its notes, but only for the portion issued on securities, or in other words, on loan. These were never to exceed a certain limit, fixed in the first instance at fourteen millions.3 All issues beyond that amount must be in exchange for bullion; of which the Bank is bound to purchase, at a trifle below the Mint valuation, any quantity which is offered to it, giving its notes in exchange. In regard, therefore, to any issue of notes beyond the limit of fourteen millions, the Bank is purely passive, having no function but the compulsory one of giving its notes for gold at 3l. 17s. 9d., and gold for its notes at 3l. 17s. 10 1/2d., whenever and by whomsoever it is called upon to do so.

The object for which this mechanism is intended is, that the bank-note currency may vary in its amount at the exact times, and in the exact degree, in which a purely metallic currency would vary. And the precious metals being the commodity that has hitherto approached nearest to that invariability in all the circumstances influencing value, which fits a commodity for being adopted as a medium of exchange, it seems to be thought that the excellence of the Act of 1844 is fully made out, if under its operation the issues conform in all their variations of quantity, and therefore, as is inferred, of value, to the variations which would take place in a currency wholly metallic.

Now, all reasonable opponents of the Act, in common with its supporters, acknowledge as an essential requisite of any substitute for the precious metals, that it should conform exactly in its permanent value to a metallic standard. And they say, that so long as it is convertible into specie on demand, it does and must so conform. But when the value of a metallic or of any other currency is spoken of, there are two points to be considered; the permanent or average value, and the fluctuations. It is to the permanent value of a metallic currency, that the value of a paper currency ought to conform. But there is no obvious reason why it should be required to conform to the fluctuations too. The only object of its conforming at all, is steadiness of value; and with respect to fluctuations the sole thing desirable is that they should be the smallest possible. Now the fluctuations in the value of the currency are determined, not by its quantity, whether it consist of gold or of paper, but by the expansions and contractions of credit. To discover, therefore, what currency will conform the most nearly to the permanent value of the precious metals, we must find under what currency the variations in credit are least frequent and least extreme. Now, whether this object is best attained by a metallic currency (and therefore by a paper currency exactly conforming in quantity to it) is precisely the question to be decided. If it should prove that a paper currency which follows all the fluctuations in quantity of a metallic, leads to more violent revulsions of credit than one which is not held to this rigid conformity, it will follow that the currency which agrees most exactly in quantity with a metallic currency is not that which adheres closest to its value; that is to say, its permanent value, with which alone agreement is desirable.

Whether this is really the case or not we will now inquire. And first, let us consider whether the Act effects the practical object chiefly relied on in its defence by the more sober of its advocates, that of arresting speculative extensions of credit at an earlier period, with a less drain of gold, and consequently by a milder and more gradual process. I think it must be admitted that to a certain degree it is successful in this object.

I am aware of what may be urged, and reasonably urged, in opposition to this opinion. It may be said, that when the time arrives at which the banks are pressed for increased advances to enable speculators to fulfil their engagements, a limitation of the issue of notes will not prevent the banks, if otherwise willing, from making these advances; that they have still their deposits as a source from which loans may be made beyond the point which is consistent with prudence as bankers; and that even if they refused to do so, the only effect would be, that the deposits themselves would be drawn out to supply the wants of the depositors; which would be just as much an addition to the bank notes and coin in the hands of the public, as if the notes themselves were increased. This is true, and is a sufficient answer to those who think that the advances of banks to prop up failing speculations are objectionable chiefly as an increase of the currency. But the mode in which they are really objectionable, is as an extension of credit. If, instead of increasing their discounts, the banks allow their deposits to be drawn out, there is the same increase of currency (for a short time at least), but there is not an increase of loans, at the time when there ought to be a diminution. If they do increase their discounts, not by means of notes, but at the expense of the deposits alone, their deposits (properly so called) are definite and exhaustible, while notes may be increased to any amount, or, after being returned, may be re-issued without limit. It is true that a bank, if willing to add indefinitely to its liabilities, has the power of making its nominal deposits as unlimited a fund as its issues could be; it has only to make its advances in a book credit, which is creating deposits out of its own liabilities, the money for which it has made itself responsible becoming a deposit in its hands, to be drawn against by cheques; and the cheques when drawn may be liquidated (either at the same bank or at the clearing house) without the aid of notes, by a mere transfer of credit from one account to another. I apprehend it is chiefly in this way that undue extensions of credit, in periods of speculation, are commonly made. But the banks are not likely to persist in this course when the tide begins to turn. It is not when their deposits have already begun to flow out, that they are likely to create deposit accounts which represent, instead of funds placed in their hands, fresh liabilities of their own. But experience proves that extension of credit, when in the form of notes, goes on long after the recoil from over-speculation has commenced. When this mode of resisting the revulsion is made impossible, and deposits and book credits are left as the only sources from which undue advances can be made, the rate of interest is not so often, or so long, prevented from rising, after the difficulties consequent on excess of speculation begin to be felt. On the contrary, the necessity which the banks feel of diminishing their advances to maintain their solvency, when they find their deposits flowing out, and cannot supply the vacant place by their own notes, accelerates the rise of the rate of interest. Speculative holders are therefore obliged to submit earlier to that loss by resale, which could not have been prevented from coming on them at last: the recoil of prices and collapse of general credit take place sooner.

To appreciate the effects which this acceleration of the crisis has in mitigating its intensity, let us advert more particularly to the nature and effects of that leading feature in the period just preceding the collapse, the drain of gold. A rise of prices produced by a speculative extension of credit, even when bank notes have not been the instrument, is not the less effectual (if it lasts long enough) in turning the exchanges: and when the exchanges have turned from this cause, they can only be turned back, and the drain of gold stopped, either by a fall of prices or by a rise of the rate of interest. A fall of prices will stop it by removing the cause which produced it, and by rendering goods a more advantageous remittance than gold, even for paying debts already due. A rise of the rate of interest, and consequent fall of the prices of securities, will accomplish the purpose still more rapidly, by inducing foreigners, instead of taking away the gold which is due to them, to leave it for investment within the country, and even send gold into the country to take advantage of the increased rate of interest. Of this last mode of stopping a drain of gold, the year 1847 afforded signal examples. But until one of these two things takes place until either prices fall, or the rate of interest rises-nothing can possibly arrest, or even moderate, the efflux of gold. Now, neither will prices fall nor interest rise, so long as the unduly expanded credit is upheld by the continued advances of bankers. It is well known that when a drain of gold has set in, even if bank notes have not increased in quantity, it is upon them that the contraction first falls, the gold wanted for exportation being always obtained from the Bank of England in exchange for its notes. But under the system which preceded 1844, the Bank of England, being subjected, in common with other banks, to the importunities for fresh advances which are characteristic of such a time, could, and often did, immediately re-issue the notes which had been returned to it in exchange for bullion. It is a great error, certainly, to suppose that the mischief of this re-issue chiefly consisted in preventing a contraction of the currency. It was, however, quite as mischievous as it has ever been supposed to be. As long as it lasted, the efflux of gold could not cease, since neither would prices fall nor interest rise while these advances continued. Prices, having risen without any increase of bank notes, could well have fallen without a diminution of them; but having risen in consequence of an extension of credit, they could not fall without a contraction of it. As long, therefore, as the Bank of England and the other banks persevered in this course, so long gold continued to flow out, until so little was left that the Bank of England, being in danger of suspension of payments, was compelled at last to contract its discounts so greatly and suddenly as to produce a much more extreme variation in the rate of interest, inflict much greater loss and distress on individuals, and destroy a much greater amount of the ordinary credit of the country, than any real necessity required.

I acknowledge, (and the experience of 1847 has proved to those who overlooked it before,) that the mischief now described, may be wrought, and in large measure, by the Bank of England, through its deposits alone. It may continue or even increase its discounts and advances, when it ought to contract them: with the ultimate effect of making the contraction much more severe and sudden than necessary. I cannot but think, however, that banks which commit this error with their deposits, would commit it still more if they were at liberty to make increased loans with their issues as well as their deposits. I am compelled to think that the being restricted from increasing their issues, is a real impediment to their making those advances which arrest the tide at its turn, and make it rush like a torrent afterwards.. and when the Act is blamed for interposing obstacles at a time when not obstacles but facilities are needed, it must in justice receive credit for interposing them when they are an acknowledged benefit. In this particular, therefore, I think it cannot be denied, that the new system is a real improvement upon the old.

§4. But however this may be, it seems to me certain that these advantages, whatever value may be put on them, are purchased by still greater disadvantages. In the first place, a large extension of credit by bankers, though most hurtful when, credit being already in an inflated state, it can only serve to retard and aggravate the collapse, is most salutary when the collapse has come, and when credit instead of being in excess is in distressing deficiency, and increased advances by bankers, instead of being an addition to the ordinary amount of floating credit, serve to replace a mass of other credit which has been suddenly destroyed. Antecedently to 1844, if the Bank of England occasionally aggravated the severity of a commercial revulsion by rendering the collapse of credit more tardy and hence more violent than necessary, it in return rendered invaluable services during the revulsion itself, by coming forward with advances to support solvent firms, at a time when all other paper and almost all mercantile credit had become comparatively valueless. This service was eminently conspicuous in the crisis of 1825–6, the severest probably ever experienced; during which the Bank increased what is called its circulation by many millions, in advances to those mercantile firms of whose ultimate solvency it felt no doubt; advances which if it had been obliged to withhold, the severity of the crisis would have been still greater than it was. If the Bank, it is justly remarked by Mr Fullarton, 4 complies with such applications, “it must comply with them by an issue of notes, for notes constitute the only instrumentality through which the Bank is in the practice of lending its credit. But those notes are not intended to circulate, nor do they circulate. There is no more demand for circulation than there was before. On the contrary, the rapid decline of prices which the case in supposition presumes, would necessarily contract the demand for circulation. The notes would either be returned to the Bank of England, as fast as they were issued, in the shape of deposits, or would be locked up in the drawers of the private London bankers, or distributed by them to their correspondents in the country, or intercepted by other capitalists, who, during the fervour of the previous excitement, had contracted liabilities which they might be imperfectly prepared on the sudden to encounter. In such emergencies, every man connected with business, who has been trading on other means than his own, is placed on the defensive, and his whole object is to make himself as strong as possible, an object which cannot be more effectually answered than by keeping by him as large a reserve as possible in paper which the law has made a legal tender. The notes themselves never find their way into the produce market; and if they at all contribute to retard” (or, as I should rather say, to moderate) “the fall of prices, it is not by promoting in the slightest degree the effective demand for commodities, not by enabling consumers to buy more largely for consumption, and so giving briskness to commerce, but by a process exactly the reverse, by enabling the holders of commodities to hold on, by obstructing traffic and repressing consumption.”

The opportune relief thus afforded to credit, during the excessive contraction which succeeds to an undue expansion, is consistent with the principle of the new system; for an extraordinary contraction of credit, and fall of prices, inevitably draw gold into the country, and the principle of the system is that the bank-note currency shall be permitted, and even compelled, to enlarge itself, in all cases in which a metallic currency would do the same. But, what the principle of the law would encourage, its provisions in this instance preclude, by not suffering the increased issues to take place until the gold has actually arrived: which is never until the worst part of the crisis has passed, and almost all the losses and failures attendant on it are consummated. The machinery of the system withholds, until for many purposes it comes too late, the very medicine which the theory of the system prescribes as the appropriate remedy.5

This function of banks in filling up the gap made in mercantile credit by the consequences of undue speculation and its revulsion, is so entirely indispensable, that if the Act of 1844 continues unrepealed, there can be no difficulty in foreseeing that its provisions must be suspended, as they were in 1847, in every period of great commercial difficulty, as soon as the crisis has really and completely set in.6 Were this all, there would be no absolute inconsistency in maintaining the restriction as a means of preventing a crisis, and relaxing it for the purpose of relieving one. But there is another objection, of a still more radical and comprehensive character, to the new system.

Professing, in theory, to require that a paper currency shall vary in its amount in exact conformity to the variations of a metallic currency, it provides, in fact, that in every case of an efflux of gold, a corresponding diminution shall take place in the quantity of bank notes; in other words, that every exportation of the precious metals shall be virtually drawn from the circulation; it being assumed that this would be the case if the currency were wholly metallic. This theory, and these practical arrangements, are adapted to the case in which the drain of gold originates in a rise of prices produced by an undue expansion of currency or credit; but they are adapted to no case beside.

When the efflux of gold is the last stage of a series of effects arising from an increase of the currency, or from an expansion of credit tantamount in its effect on prices to an increase of currency, it is in that case a fair assumption that in a purely metallic system the gold exported would be drawn from the currency itself; because such a drain, being in its nature unlimited, will necessarily continue as long as currency and credit are undiminished. But an exportation of the precious metis often arises from no causes affecting currency or credit, but simply from an unusual extension of foreign payments, arising either from the state of the markets for commodities, or from some circumstance not commercial. In this class of causes, four, of powerful operation, are included, of each of which the last fifty years of English history afford repeated instances. The first is that of an extraordinary foreign expenditure by government, either political or military. as in the revolutionary war, and, as long as it lasted, during the Crimean war. The second is the case of a large exportation of capital for foreign investment; such as the loans and mining operations which partly contributed to the crisis of 1825, and the American speculations which were the principal cause of the crisis of 1839. The third is a failure of crops in the countries which supply the raw material of important manufactures; such as the cotton failure in America, which compelled England, in 1847, to incur unusual liabilities for the purchase of that commodity at an advanced price. The fourth is a bad harvest, and a great consequent importation of food; of which the years 1846 and 1847 presented an example surpassing all antecedent experience.

In none of these cases, if the currency were metallic, would the gold or silver exported for the purposes in question be necessarily, or even probably, drawn wholly from the circulation. It would be drawn from the hoards, which under a metallic currency always exist to a very large amount; in uncivilized countries, in the hands of all who can afford it; in civilized countries chiefly in the form of bankers’ reserves. Mr Tooke, in his “Inquiry into the Currency Principle,” bears testimony to this fact; but it is to Mr Fullarton that the public are indebted for the clearest and most satisfactory elucidation of it. As I am not aware that this part of the theory of currency has been set forth by any other writer with anything like the same degree of completeness, I shall quote somewhat largely from this able production.

“No person who has ever resided in an Asiatic country, where hoarding is carried on to a far larger extent in proportion to the existing stock of wealth, and where the practice has become much more deeply engrafted in the habits of the people, by traditionary apprehensions of insecurity and the difficulty of finding safe and remunerative investments, than in any European community — no person who has had personal experience of this state of society, can be at a loss to recollect innumerable instances of large metallic treasures extracted in times of pecuniary difficulty from the coffers of individuals by the temptation of a high rate of interest, and brought in aid of the public necessities, nor, on the other hand, of the facility with which those treasures have been absorbed again, when the inducements which had drawn them into light were no longer in operation. In countries more advanced in civilization and wealth than the Asiatic principalities, and where no man is in fear of attracting the cupidity of power by an external display of riches, but where the interchange of commodities is still almost universally conducted through the medium of a metric circulation, as is the case with most of the commercial countries on the Continent of Europe, the motives for amassing the precious metals may be less powerful than in the majority of Asiatic principalities; but the ability to accumulate being more widely extended, the absolute quantity amassed will be found probably to bear a considerably larger proportion to the population.7 In those states which lie exposed to hostile invasion, or whose social condition is unsettled and menacing, the motive indeed must still be very strong; and in a nation carrying on an extensive commerce, both foreign and internal, without any considerable aid from any of the banking substitutes for money, the reserves of gold and silver indispensably required to secure the regularity of payments, must of themselves engross a share of the circulating coin which it would not be easy to estimate.

“In this country, where the banking system has been carried to an extent and perfection unknown in any other part of Europe, and may be said to have entirely superseded the use of coin, except for retail dealings and the purposes of foreign commerce, the incentives to private hoarding exist no longer, and the hoards have all been transferred to the banks, or rather, I should say, to the Bank of England. But in France, where the bank-note circulation is still comparatively limited, the quantity of gold l and silver coin in existence I find now currently estimated, on what are described as the latest authorities, at the enormous sum of 120 millions sterling; nor is the estimate at all at variance with the reasonable probabilities of the case. Of this vast treasure there is every reason to presume that a very large proportion, probably by much the greater part, is absorbed in the hoards. If you present for payment a bill for a thousand francs to a french banker, he brings you the silver in a sealed bag from his strong room. And not the banker only, but every merchant and trader, according to his means, is under the necessity of keeping by him a stock of cash sufficient not only for his ordinary disbursements, but to meet any unexpected demands. That the quantity of specie accumulated in these innumerable depots, not in France only, but all over the Continent, where banking institutions are still either entirely wanting or very imperfectly organized, is not merely immense in itself, but admits of being largely drawn upon, and transferred even in vast masses from one country to another, with very little, if any, effect on prices, or other material derangements, we have had some remarkable proofs: “among others, “the signal success which attended the simultaneous efforts of some of the principal European powers (Russia, Austria, Prussia, Sweden, and Denmark) to replenish their treasuries, and to replace with coin a considerable portion of the depreciated paper which the necessities of the war had forced upon them, and this at the very time when the available stock of the precious metals over the world had been reduced by the exertions of England to recover her metallic currency. . . . . There can be no doubt that these combined operations were on a scale of very extraordinary magnitude, that they were accomplished without any sensible injury to commerce or public prosperity, or any other effect than some temporary derangement of the exchanges, and that the private hoards of treasure accumulated throughout Europe during the war must have been the principal source from which all this gold and silver was collected. And no person, I think, can fairly contemplate the vast superflux of metallic wealth thus proved to be at all times in existence, and, though in a dormant and inert state, always ready to spring into activity on the first indication of a sufficiently intense demand, without feeling themselves compelled to admit the possibility of the mines being even shut up for years together, and the production of the metals altogether suspended, while there might be scarcely a perceptible alteration in the exchangeable value of the metal.” 8

Applying this to the currency doctrine and its advocates, “one might imagine,” says Mr Fullarton,9 “that they supposed the gold which is drained off for exportation from a country using a currency exclusively metallic, to be collected by driblets at the fairs and markets, or from the tills of the grocers and mercers. They never even allude to the existence of such a thing as a great hoard of the metals, though upon the action of the hoards depends the whole economy of international payments between specie-circulating communities, while any operation of the money collected in hoards upon prices must, even according to the currency hypothesis, be wholly impossible. We know from experience what enormous payments in gold and silver specie-circulating countries are capable, at times, of making, without the least disturbance of their internal prosperity; and whence is it supposed that these payments come, but from their hoards? let us think how the money market of a country transacting all its exchanges through the medium of the precious metals only, would be likely to be affected by the necessity of making a foreign payment of several millions. Of course the necessity could only be satisfied by a transmission of capital; and would not the competition for the possession of capital for transmission which the occasion would call forth, necessarily raise the market rate of interest? If the payment was to be made by the government, would not the government, in all probability, have to open a new loan on terms more than usually favourable to the lender?” If made by merchants, would it not be drawn either from the deposits in banks, or from the reserves which merchants keep by them in default of banks, or would it not oblige them to obtain the necessary amount of specie by going into the money market as borrowers? “And would not all this inevitably act upon the hoards, and draw forth into activity a portion of the gold and silver which the money-dealers had been accumulating, and some of them with the express view of watching such opportunities for turning their treasures to advantage?. . . .

“To come to the present time, the balance of payments with nearly all Europe has for about four years past been in favour of this country, and gold has been pouring in till the influx amounts to the unheard-of sum of about fourteen millions sterling. Yet in all this time, has any one heard a complaint of any serious suffering inflicted on the people of the Continent? Have prices there been greatly depressed beyond their range in this country? Have wages fallen, Or have merchants been extensively ruined by the universal depreciation of their stock? There has occurred nothing of the kind. The tenor of commercial and monetary affairs has been everywhere even and tranquil; and in France more particularly, an improving revenue and extended commerce bear testimony to the continued progress of internal prosperity. It may be doubted, indeed, if this great efflux of gold has withdrawn from that portion of the metallic wealth of the nation which really circulates, a single napoleon. And it has been equally obvious, from the undisturbed state of credit, that not only has the supply of specie indispensable for the conduct of business in the retail market been all the while uninterrupted, but that the hoards have continued to furnish every facility requisite for the regularity of mercantile payments. It is of the very essence of the metallic system, that the hoards, in all cases of probable occurrence, should be equal to both objects; that they should, in the first place, supply the bullion demanded for exportation, and in the next place, should keep up the home circulation to its legitimate complement. Every man trading under that system, who, in the corse of his business, may have frequent occasion to remit large sums in specie to foreign countries, must either keep by him a sufficient treasure of his own or must have the means of borrowing enough from his neighbours, not only to make up when wanted the amount of his remittances, but to enable him, moreover, to carry on his ordinary transactions at home without interruption.”

In a country in which credit is carried to so great an extent as in England, one great reserve, in a single establishment, the Bank of England, supplies the place, as far as the precious metals are concerned, of the multitudinous reserves of other countries. The theoretical principle, therefore, of the currency doctrine would require, that all those drains of the metal, which, if the currency were purely metallic, would be taken from the hoards, should be allowed to operate freely upon the reserve in the coffers of the Bank of England, without any attempt to stop it either by a diminution of the currency or by a contraction of credit. Nor to this would there be any well-grounded objection, unless the drain were so great as to threaten the exhaustion of the reserve, and a consequent stoppage of payments; a danger against which it is possible to take adequate precautions, because in the cases which we are considering, the drain is for foreign payments of definite amount, and stops of itself as soon as these are effected. And in all systems it is admitted that the habitual reserve of the Bank should exceed the utmost amount to which experience warrants the belief that such a drain may extend; which extreme limit Mr Fullarton affirms to be seven millions, but Mr Tooke recommends an average reserve of ten, and in his last publication, of twelve millions. Under these circumstances, the habitual reserve, which would never be employed in discounts, but kept to be paid out exclusively in exchange for cheques or bank notes, would be sufficient for a crisis of this description; which therefore would pass off without having its difficulties increased by a contraction either of credit or of the circulation. But this, the most advantageous denouement that the case admits of, and not only consistent with but required by the professed principle of the system, the panegyrists of the system claim for it as a great merit that it prevents. They boast, that on the first appearance of a drain for exportation-whatever may be its cause, and whether, under a metallic currency, it would involve a contraction of credit or not — the Bank is at once obliged to curtail its advances. And this, be it remembered, when there has been no speculative rise of prices which it is indispensable to correct, no unusual extension of credit requiring contraction; but the demand for gold is solely occasioned by foreign payments on account of government, or large corn importations consequent on a bad harvest.

Even supposing that the reserve is insufficient to meet the foreign payments, and that the means wherewith to make them have to be taken from the loanable capital of the country, the consequence of which is a rise of the rate of interest; in such circumstances some pressure on the money market is unavoidable, but that pressure is much increased in severity by the separation of the banking from the issue department. The case is generally stated as if the Act only operated in one way, namely, by preventing the Bank, when it has parted with (say) three millions of bullion in exchange for three millions of its notes, from again lending those notes, in discounts or other advances. But the Act really does much more than this. It is well known, that the first operation of a drain is always on the banking department. The bank deposits constitute the bulk of the unemployed and disposable capital of the country; and capital wanted for foreign payments is almost always obtained mainly by drawing out deposits. Supposing three millions to be the amount wanted, three millions of notes are drawn from the banking department (either directly or through the private bankers, who keep the bulk of their reserves with the Bank of England), and the three millions of notes, thus obtained, are presented at the Issue Department, and exchanged against gold for exportation. Thus a drain upon the country at large of only three millions, is a drain upon the Bank virtually of six millions. The deposits have lost three millions, and the reserve of the Issue Department has lost an equal amount. As the two departments, so long as the Act remains in operation, cannot even in the utmost extremity help one another, each must take its separate precautions for its own safety. Whatever measures, therefore, on the part of the Bank, would have been required under the old system by a drain of six millions, are now rendered necessary by a drain only of three. The Issue Department protects itself in the manner prescribed by the Act, by not re-issuing the three millions of notes which have been returned to it. But the Banking Department must take measures to replenish its reserve, which has been reduced by three millions. Its liabilities having also decreased three millions, by the loss of that amount of deposits, the reserve, on the ordinary banking principle of a third of the liabilities, will bear a reduction of one million. But the other two millions it must procure by letting that amount of advances out, and not renewing them. Not only must it raise its rate of interest, but it must effect, by whatever means, a diminution of two millions in the total amount of its discounts: or it must sell securities to an equal amount. This violent action on the money market for the purpose of replenishing the Banking reserve, is wholly occasioned by the Act of 1844. If the restrictions of that Act did not exist, the Bank, instead of contracting its discounts, would simply transfer two millions, either in gold or in notes, from the Issue to the Banking Department; not in order to lend them to the public, but to secure the solvency of the Banking Department in the event of further unexpected demands by the depositors. And unless the drain continued, and reached so great an amount as to seem likely to exceed the whole of the gold in the reserves of both departments, the Bank would be under no necessity, while the pressure lasted, of withholding from commerce its accustomed amount of accommodation, at a rate of interest corresponding to the increased demand.10

I am aware it will be said that by allowing drains of this character to operate freely upon the Bank reserve until they cease of themselves, a contraction of the currency and of credit would not be prevented, but only postponed; since if a limitation of issues were not resorted to for the purpose of checking the drain in its commencement, the same or a still greater limitation must take place afterwards, in order, by acting on prices, to bring back this large quantity of gold, for the indispensable purpose of replenishing the Bank reserve. But in this argument several things are overlooked. In the first place, the gold might be brought back, not by a fall of prices, but by the much more rapid and convenient medium of a rise of the rate of interest, involving no fall of any prices except the price of securities. Either English securities would be bought on account of foreigners, or foreign securities held in England would be sent abroad for sale, both which operations took place largely during the mercantile difficulties of 1847, and not only checked the efflux of gold, but turned the tide and brought the metal back. It was not, therefore, brought back by a contraction of the currency, though in this case it certainly was so by a contraction of loans. But even this is not always indispensable for in the second place, it is not necessary that the gold should return with the same suddenness with which it went out. A great portion would probably return in the ordinary way of commerce, in payment for exported commodities. The extra gains made by dealers and producers in foreign countries through the extra payments they receive from this country, are very likely to be partly expended in increased purchases of English commodities, either for consumption or on speculation, though the effect may not manifest itself with sufficient rapidity to enable the transmission of gold to be dispensed with in the first instance. These extra purchases would turn the balance of payments in favour of the country, and gradually restore a portion of the exported gold; and the remainder would probably be brought back, without any considerable rise of the rate of interest in England, by the fall of it in foreign countries, occasioned by the addition of some millions of gold to the loanable capital of those countries. Indeed, in the state of things consequent on the gold discoveries, when the enormous quantity of gold annually produced in Australia, and much of that from California, is distributed to other countries through England, and a month seldom passes without a large arrival, the Bank reserves can replenish themselves without any re-importation of the gold previously carried off by a drain. All that is needful is an intermission, and a very brief intermission is sufficient, of the exportation.

For these reasons it appears to me, that notwithstanding the beneficial operation of the Act of 1844 in the first stages of one kind of commercial crisis (that produced by over-speculation), it on the whole materially aggravates the severity of commercial revulsions. And not only are contractions of credit made more severe by the Act, they are also made greatly more frequent. “Suppose,” says Mr George Walker, in a clear, impartial, and conclusive series of papers in the Aberdeen Herald, forming one of the best existing discussions of the present question-“suppose that, of eighteen millions of gold, ten are in the issue department and eight are in the banking department. The result is the same as under a metric currency with only eight millions in reserve, instead of eighteen. . . . .. The effect of the Bank Act is, that the proceedings of the Bank under a drain are not determined by the amount of gold within its vaults, but are, or ought to be, determined by the portion of it belonging to the banking department. With the whole of the gold at its disposal, it may find it unnecessary to interfere with credit, or force down prices, if a drain leave a fair reserve behind. With only the banking reserve at its disposal, it must, from the narrow margin it has to operate on, meet all drains by counteractives more or less strong, to the injury of the commercial world; and if it fail to do so, as it may fail, the consequence is destruction. Hence the extraordinary and frequent variations of the rate of interest under the Bank Act. Since 1847; when the eyes of the Bank were opened to its true position, it has felt it necessary, as a precautionary measure, that every variation in the reserve should be accompanied by an iteration in the rate of interest.” To make the Act innocuous, therefore, it would be necessary that the Bank, in addition to the whole of the gold in the Issue Department, should retain as great a reserve in gold or notes in the Banking Department alone, as would suffice under the old system for the security both of the issues and of the deposits.

§5. There remain two questions respecting a bank-note currency, which have also been a subject of considerable discussion of late years: whether the privilege of providing it should be confined to a single establishment, such as the Bank of England, or a plurality of issuers should be allowed; and in the latter case, whether any peculiar precautions are requisite or advisable, to protect the holders of notes against losses occasioned by the insolvency of the issuers.

The course of the preceding speculations has led us to attach so much less of peculiar importance to bank notes, as compared with other forms of credit, than accords with the notions generally current, that questions respecting the regulation of so very small a part of the general mass of credit, cannot appear to us of such momentous import as they are sometimes considered. Bank notes, however, have so far a real peculiarity, that they are the only form of credit sufficiently convenient for all the purposes of circulation, to be able entirely to supersede the use of metallic money for internal purposes. Though the extension of the use of cheques has a tendency more and more to diminish the number of bank notes, as it would that of the sovereigns or other coins which would take their place if they were abolished; there is sure, for a long time to come, to be a considerable supply of them, wherever the necessary degree of commercial confidence exists, and their free use is permitted. The exclusive privilege, therefore, of issuing them, if reserved to the Government or to some one body, is a source of great pecuniary gain. That this gain should be obtained for the nation at large is both practicable and desirable: and if the management of a bank-note currency ought to be so completely mechanical, so entirely a thing of fixed rule, as it is made by the Act of 1844, there seems no reason why this mechanism should be worked for the profit of any private issuer, rather than for the public treasury. If, however, a plan be preferred which leaves the variations in the amount of issues in any degree whatever to the discretion of the issuers, it is not desirable that to the ever-growing attributions of the Government, so delicate a function should be superadded; and that the attention of the heads of the state should be diverted from larger objects, by their being besieged with the applications, and made a mark for all the attacks, which are never spared to those deemed to be responsible for any acts, however minute, connected with the regulation of the currency. It would be better that treasury notes, exchangeable for gold on demand, should be issued to a fixed amount, not exceeding the minimum of a bank-note currency; the remainder of the notes which may be required being left to be supplied either by one or by a number of private banking establishments. Or an establishment like the Bank of England might supply the whole country, on condition of lending fifteen or twenty millions of its notes to the government without interest; which would give the same pecuniary advantage to the state as if it issued that number of its own notes.

The reason ordinarily alleged in condemnation of the system of plurality of issuers which existed in England before the Act of 1844, and under certain limitations still subsists, is that the competition of these different issuers induces them to increase the amount of their notes to an injurious extent. But we have seen that the power which bankers have of augmenting their issues, and the degree of mischief which they can produce by it, are quite trifling compared with the current over-estimate. As remarked by Mr Fullarton, 11 the extraordinary increase of banking competition occasioned by the establishment of the joint-stock banks, a competition often of the most reckless kind, has proved utterly powerless to enlarge the aggregate mass of the bank-note circulation; that aggregate circulation having, on the contrary, actually decreased. In the absence of any special case for an exception to freedom of industry, the general rule ought to prevail. It appears desirable, however, to maintain one great establishment like the Bank of England, distinguished from other banks of issue in this, that it alone is required to pay in gold, the others being at liberty to pay their notes with notes of the central establishment. The object of this is that there may be one body, responsible for maintaining a reserve of the precious metals sufficient to meet any drain that can reasonably be expected to take place. By disseminating this responsibility among a number of banks, it is prevented from operating efficaciously upon any. or if it be still enforced against one, the reserves of the metals retained by all the others are capital kept idle in pure waste, which may be dispensed with by allowing them at their option to pay in Bank of England notes.

§6. The question remains whether, in case of a plurality of issuers, any peculiar precautions are needed to protect the holders of notes from the consequences of failure of payment. Before 1826, the insolvency of banks of issue was a frequent and very serious evil, often spreading distress through a whole neighbourhood, and at one blow depriving provident industry of the results of long and painful saving. This was one of the chief reasons which induced Parliament, in that year, to prohibit the issue of bank notes of a denomination below five pounds, that the labouring classes at least might be as little as possible exposed to participate in this suffering. As an additional safeguard, it has been suggested to give the holders of notes a priority over other creditors, or to require bankers to deposit stock or other public securities as a pledge for the whole amount of their issues. The insecurity of the former bank-note currency of England was partly the work of the law, which, in order to give a qualified monopoly of banking business to the Bank of England, had actually made the formation of safe banking establishments a punishable offence, by prohibiting the existence of any banks, in town or country, whether of issue or deposit, with a number of partners exceeding six. This truly characteristic specimen of the old system of monopoly and restriction vas done away with in 1826, both as to issues and deposits, everywhere but in a district of sixty-five miles radius round London, and in 1833 in that district also, as far as relates to deposits. It was hoped that the numerous joint-stock banks since established would have furnished a more trustworthy currency, and that under their influence the banking system of England would have been almost as secure to the public as that of Scotland (where banking was always free) has been for two centuries past. But the almost incredible instances of reckless and fraudulent mismanagement which these institutions have of late afforded (though in some of the most notorious cases the delinquent establishments have not been banks of issue), have shown only too clearly that, south of the Tweed at least, the joint-stock principle applied to banking is not the adequate safeguard it was so confidently supposed to be: and it is difficult now to resist the conviction, that if plurality of issuers is allowed to exist, some kind of special security in favour of the holders of notes should be exacted as an imperative condition.

1 Regulation of Currencies, p. 85.

2 I think myself justified in affirming that the mitigation of commercial revulsions is the real, and only serious, purpose of the Act of 1844. I am quite aware that its supporters insist (especially since 1847) on its supreme efficacy in “maintaining the convertibility of the Bank note.” But I must be excused for not attaching any serious importance to this one among its alleged merits. The convertibility of the Bank note was maintained, and would have continued to be maintained, at whatever cost, under the old system. As was well said by Lord Overstone in his Evidence, the Bank can always, by a sufficiently violent action on credit, save itself at the expense of the mercantile public. That the Act of 1844 mitigates the violence of that process, is a sufficient claim to prefer in its behalf. Besides, if we suppose such a degree of mismanagement, on the part of the Bank, as, were it not for the Act, would endanger the continuance of convertibility, the same (or a less) degree of mismanagement, practised under the Act, would suffice to produce a suspension of payments by the Banking Department; an event which the compulsory separation of the two departments brings much nearer to possibility than it was before, and which, involving as it would the probable stoppage of every private banking establishment in London, and perhaps also the non-payment of the dividends to the national creditor, would be a far greater immediate calamity than a brief interruption of the convertibility of the note; insomuch that, to enable the Bank to resume payment of its deposits, no Government would hesitate a moment to suspend payment of the notes, if suspension of the Act of 1844 proved insufficient.

3 A conditional increase of this maximum is permitted, but only when by arrangement with any country bank the issues of that bank are discontinued, and Bank of England motes substituted; and even then the increase is limited to two-thirds of the amount of the country notes to be thereby superseded. Under the provision the amount of notes which the Bank of England is now at liberty to issue against securities, is about fifteen millions.

4 p. 106.

5 True the Bank is not precluded from making increased advances from its deposits, which are likely to be of unusually large amount, since, at these periods, every one leaves his money in deposit in order to have it within call. But, that the deposits are not always sufficient, was conclusively proved in 1847, when the Bank stretched to the very utmost the means of relieving commerce which its deposits afforded, without allaying the panic, which however ceased at once when the Government decided on suspending the Act.

6 This prediction was verified on the very next occurrence of a commercial crisis, in 1857; when Government were again under the necessity of suspending, on their own responsibility, the provisions of the Act.

7 It is known, from unquestionable facts, that the hoards of money at all times existing in the hands of the French peasantry, often from a remote date, surpass any amount which could have been imagined possible; and even in so poor a country as Ireland, it has of late been ascertained, that the small farmers sometimes possess hoards quite disproportioned to their visible means of subsistence.

8 Fullarton on the Regulation of Currencies, pp. 71–4.

9 Ib. pp. 139–42.

10 This, which I have called “the double action of drains.” has been strangely understood as if I had asserted that the Bank is compelled to part with six millions’ worth of property by a drain of three millions. such an assertion would be too absurd to require any refutation. Drains have a double action, not upon the pecuniary position of the Bank itself, but upon the measures it is forced to take in order to stop the drain. Though the Bank itself is no poorer, its two reserves, the reserve in the banking department and the reserve in the issue department, have each been reduced by three millions by a drain of only three. And as the separation of the departments renders it necessary that each of them separately should be kept as strong as the two together need be if they could help one another, the Bank’s action on the money market must be as violent on a drain of three millions, as would have been required on the old system for one of six. The reserve in the banking department being less than it otherwise would be by the entire amount of the bullion in the issue department, and the whole amount of the drain falling in the first instance on that diminished reserve, the pressure of the whole drain on the half reserve is as much felt, and requires as strong measures to stop it, as a pressure of twice the amount on the entire reserve. As I have said elsewhere “it is as if a man having to lift a weight were restricted from using both hands to do it, and where only allowed to use one hand at a time: in which case it would be necessary that each of his hands should be as strong as the two together.” {Evidence before the Committee of the House of Commons on the Bank Acts, in 1857.

11 Pp. 89–92.

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