The Theory of Money and Credit

Ludwig von Mises.
Mises, Ludwig von
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The Business of Banking

1 Types of Banking Activity


The business of banking falls into two distinct branches: the negotiation of credit through the loan of other people's money and the granting of credit through the issue of fiduciary media, that is, notes and bank balances that are not covered by money. Both branches of business have always been closely connected. They have grown up on a common historical soil, and nowadays are still often carried on together by the same firm. This connection cannot be ascribed to merely external and accidental factors; it is founded on the peculiar nature of fiduciary media, and on the historical development of the business of banking. Nevertheless, the two kinds of activity must be kept strictly apart in economic theory; for only by considering each of them separately is it possible to understand their nature and functions. The unsatisfactory results of previous investigations into the theory of banking are primarily attributable to inadequate consideration of the fundamental difference between them.


Modern banks, beside their banking activities proper, carry on various other more or less closely related branches of business. There is, for example, the business of exchanging money, on the basis of which the beginnings of the banking system in the Middle Ages were developed, and to which the bill of exchange, one of the most important instruments of banking activity, owes its origin. Banks still carry on this business nowadays, but so do exchange bureaus, which perform no banking functions; and these also devote themselves to such business as the purchase and sale of securities.


The banks have also taken over a number of functions connected with the general management of the property of their customers. They accept and look after securities as "open" deposits, detach interest and dividend coupons as they fall due, and receive the sums concerned. They superintend the allotment of shares, attend to the renewal of coupon sheets, and see to other similar matters. They carry out stock exchange dealings for their customers and also the purchase and sale of securities that are not quoted on the exchange. They let out strong rooms which are used for the secure disposal of articles of value under the customer's seal. All of these activities, whatever their bearing in individual cases upon the profitability of the whole undertaking, and however great their economic significance for the community as a whole, yet have no inherent connection with banking proper as we have defined it above.


The connection between banking proper and the business of speculation and flotation is similarly loose and superficial. This is the branch of their activities on which the general economic importance of the banks nowadays depends, and by means of which on the continent of Europe and in the United States they secured control of production, no less than of the provision of credit. It would not be easy to overestimate the influence on the organization of economic life that has been exerted by the change in the relation of the banks to industry and commerce; perhaps it would not be an exaggeration to describe it as the most important event in modern economic history. But in connection with the influence of banking on the exchange ratio between money and other economic goods, which alone concerns us here, it has no significance at all.

2 The Banks as Negotiators of Credit


The activity of the banks as negotiators of credit is characterized by the lending of other people's, that is, of borrowed, money. Banks borrow money in order to lend it; the difference between the rate of interest that is paid to them and the rate that they pay, less their working expenses, constitutes their profit on this kind of transaction. Banking is negotiation between granters of credit and grantees of credit. Only those who lend the money of others are bankers; those who merely lend their own capital are capitalists, but not bankers.*1 Our use of this definition of the Classical School should not furnish any ground for terminological controversy. The expression banking may be extended or contracted as one likes, although there seems little reason for departing from a terminology that has been usual since Smith and Ricardo. But one thing is essential: that activity of the banks that consists in lending other people's money must be sharply distinguished from all other branches of their business and subjected to separate consideration.


For the activity of the banks as negotiators of credit the golden rule holds, that an organic connection must be created between the credit transactions and the debit transactions. The credit that the bank grants must correspond quantitatively and qualitatively to the credit that it takes up. More exactly expressed, "The date on which the bank's obligations fall due must not precede the date on which its corresponding claims can be realized."*2 Only thus can the danger of insolvency be avoided. It is true that a risk remains. Imprudent granting of credit is bound to prove just as ruinous to a bank as to any other merchant. That follows from the legal structure of their business; there is no legal connection between their credit transactions and their debit transactions, and their obligation to pay back the money they have borrowed is not affected by the fate of their investments; the obligation continues even if the investments prove dead losses. But it is just the existence of this risk which makes it worthwhile for the bank to play the part of an intermediary between the granter of credit and the grantee of it. It is from the acceptance of this risk that the bank derives its profits and incurs its losses.


That is all that needs to be said here about this branch of the business of banking. For as far as money and monetary theory are concerned, even the function of the banks as negotiators of credit is of significance only so far as it is able to influence the issue of fiduciary media, which alone will be discussed in the rest of the present work.

3 The Banks as Issuers of Fiduciary Media


To comprehend the significance of fiduciary media, it is necessary to examine the nature of credit transactions.


Acts of exchange, whether direct or indirect, can be performed either in such a way that both parties fulfill their parts of the contract at the same time, or in such a way that they fulfill them at different times. In the first case we speak of cash transactions; in the second, of credit transactions. A credit transaction is an exchange of present goods for future goods.


Credit transactions fall into two groups, the separation of which must form the starting point for every theory of credit and especially for every investigation into the connection between money and credit and into the influence of credit on the money prices of goods. On the one hand are those credit transactions which are characterized by the fact that they impose a sacrifice on that party who performs his part of the bargain before the other does—the forgoing of immediate power of disposal over the exchanged good, or, if this version is preferred, the forgoing of power of disposal over the surrendered good until the receipt of that for which it is exchanged. This sacrifice is balanced by a corresponding gain on the part of the other party to the contract—the advantage of obtaining earlier disposal over the good acquired in exchange, or, what is the same thing, of not having to fulfill his part of the bargain immediately. In their respective valuations both parties take account of the advantages and disadvantages that arise from the difference between the times at which they have to fulfill the bargain. The exchange ratio embodied in the contract contains an expression of the value of time in the opinions of the individuals concerned.


The second group of credit transactions is characterized by the fact that in them the gain of the party who receives before he pays is balanced by no sacrifice on the part of the other party. Thus the difference in time between fulfillment and counterfulfillment, which is just as much the essence of this kind of transaction as of the other, has an influence merely on the valuations of the one party, while the other is able to treat it as insignificant. This fact at first seems puzzling, even inexplicable; it constitutes a rock on which many economic theories have come to grief. Nevertheless, the explanation is not very difficult if we take into account the peculiarity of the goods involved in the transaction. In the first kind of credit transactions, what is surrendered consists of money or goods, disposal over which is a source of satisfaction and renunciation of which a source of dissatisfaction. In the credit transactions of the second group, the granter of the credit renounces for the time being the ownership of a sum of money, but this renunciation (given certain assumptions that in this case are justifiable) results for him in no reduction of satisfaction. If a creditor is able to confer a loan by issuing claims which are payable on demand, then the granting of the credit is bound up with no economic sacrifice for him. He could confer credit in this form free of charge, if we disregard the technical costs that may be involved in the issue of notes and the like. Whether he is paid immediately in money or only receives claims at first, which do not fall due until later, remains a matter of indifference to him.*3


It seems desirable to choose special names for the two groups of credit transactions in order to avoid any possible confusion of the concepts. For the first group the name commodity credit (Sachkredit) is suggested, for the second the name circulation credit (Zirkulationskredit). It must be admitted that these expressions do not fully indicate the essence of the distinction that they are intended to characterize. This objection, however, which can in some degree be urged against all technical terms, is not of very great importance. A sufficient reply to it is contained in the fact that there are no better and more apt expressions in use to convey the distinction intended, which, generally speaking, has not received the consideration it merits. In any case the expression circulation credit gives occasion for fewer errors than the expression emission credit (Emissionskredit), which is sometimes used and has been chosen merely with regard to the issue of notes. Besides, what applies to all such differences of opinion is also true of this particular terminological controversy—the words used do not matter; what does matter is what the words are intended to mean.


Naturally, the peculiarities of circulation credit have not escaped the attention of economists. It is hardly possible to find a single theorist who has devoted serious consideration to the fundamental problems of the value of money and credit without having referred to the peculiar circumstances in which notes and checks are used. That this recognition of the individuality of certain kinds of credit transactions has not led to the distinction of commodity credit and circulation credit is probably to be ascribed to certain accidents in the history of our science. The criticism of isolated dogmatic and economico-political errors of the Currency principle that constituted the essence of most nineteenth-century investigation into the theory of banking and credit led to an emphasis being placed on all the factors that could be used to demonstrate the essential similarity of notes and other media of bank credit, and to the oversight of the important differences that exist between the two groups of credit characterized above, the discovery of which constitutes one of the permanent contributions of the Classical School and its successors, the Currency theorists.


The peculiar attitude of individuals toward transactions involving circulation credit is explained by the circumstance that the claims in which it is expressed can be used in every connection instead of money. He who requires money, in order to lend it, or to buy something, or to liquidate debts, or to pay taxes, is not first obliged to convert the claims to money (notes or bank balances) into money; he can also use the claims themselves directly as means of payment. For everybody they therefore are really money substitutes; they perform the monetary function in the same way as money; they are "ready money" to him, that is, present, not future, money. The practice of the merchant who includes under cash not merely the notes and token coinage which he possesses but also any bank balances which he has constantly at his immediate disposal by means of checks or otherwise is just as correct as that of the legislator who endows these fiduciary media with the legal power of settling all obligations contracted in terms of money—in doing which he only confirms a usage that has been established by commerce.


In all of this there is nothing special or peculiar to money. The objective exchange value of an indubitably secure and mature claim, which embodies a right to receive a definite individual thing or a definite quantity of fungible things, does not differ in the least from the objective exchange value of the thing or quantity of things to which the claim refers. What is significant for us lies in the fact that such claims to money, if there is no doubt whatever concerning either their security or their liquidity, are, simply on account of their equality in objective exchange value to the sums of money to which they refer, commercially competent to take the place of money entirely. Anyone who wishes to acquire bread can achieve his aim by obtaining in the first place a mature and secure claim to bread. If he only wishes to acquire the bread in order to give it up again in exchange for something else, he can give this claim up instead and is not obliged to liquidate it. But if he wishes to consume the bread, then he has no alternative but to procure it by liquidation of the claim. With the exception of money, all the economic goods that enter into the process of exchange necessarily reach an individual who wishes to consume them; all claims which embody a right to the receipt of such goods will therefore sooner or later have to be realized. A person who takes upon himself the obligation to deliver on demand a particular individual good, or a particular quantity of fungible goods (with the exception of money), must reckon with the fact that he will be held to its fulfillment, and probably in a very short time. Therefore he dare not promise more than he can be constantly ready to perform. A person who has a thousand loaves of bread at his immediate disposal will not dare to issue more than a thousand tickets each of which gives its holder the right to demand at any time the delivery of a loaf of bread. It is otherwise with money. Since nobody wants money except in order to get rid of it again, since it never finds a consumer except on ceasing to be a common medium of exchange, it is quite possible for claims to be employed in its stead, embodying a right to the receipt on demand of a certain sum of money and unimpugnable both as to their convertibility in general and as to whether they really would be converted on the demand of the holder; and it is quite possible for these claims to pass from hand to hand without any attempt being made to enforce the right that they embody. The obligee can expect that these claims will remain in circulation for so long as their holders do not lose confidence in their prompt convertibility or transfer them to persons who have not this confidence. He is therefore in a position to undertake greater obligations than he would ever be able to fulfill; it is enough if he takes sufficient precautions to ensure his ability to satisfy promptly that proportion of the claims that is actually enforced against him.


The fact that is peculiar to money alone is not that mature and secure claims to money are as highly valued in commerce as the sums of money to which they refer, but rather that such claims are complete substitutes for money, and, as such, are able to fulfill all the functions of money in those markets in which their essential characteristics of maturity and security are recognized. It is this circumstance that makes it possible to issue more of this sort of substitute than the issuer is always in a position to convert. And so the fiduciary medium comes into being in addition to the money certificate.


Fiduciary media increase the supply of money in the broader sense of the word; they are consequently able to influence the objective exchange value of money. To the investigation of this influence the following chapters are devoted.

4 Deposits as the Origin of Circulation Credit


Fiduciary media have grown up on the soil of the deposit system; deposits have been the basis upon which notes have been issued and accounts opened that could be drawn upon by checks. Independently of this, coins, at first the smaller and then the mediumsized, have developed into fiduciary media. It is usual to reckon the acceptance of a deposit which can be drawn upon at any time by means of notes or checks as a type of credit transaction and juristically this view is, of course, justified; but economically, the case is not one of a credit transaction. If credit in the economic sense means the exchange of a present good or a present service against a future good or a future service, then it is hardly possible to include the transactions in question under the conception of credit. A depositor of a sum of money who acquires in exchange for it a claim convertible into money at any time which will perform exactly the same service for him as the sum it refers to, has exchanged no present good for a future good. The claim that he has acquired by his deposit is also a present good for him. The depositing of the money in no way means that he has renounced immediate disposal over the utility that it commands.


Therefore the claim obtained in exchange for the sum of money is equally valuable to him whether he converts it sooner or later, or even not at all; and because of this it is possible for him, without damaging his economic interests, to acquire such claims in return for the surrender of money without demanding compensation for any difference in value arising from the difference in time between payment and repayment, such, of course, as does not in fact exist. That this could be so repeatedly overlooked is to be ascribed to the long accepted and widely accepted view that the essence of credit consists in the confidence which the lender reposes in the borrower The fact that anybody hands money over to a bank in exchange for a claim to repayment on demand certainly shows that he has confidence in the bank's constant readiness to pay. But this is not a credit transaction, because the essential element, the exchange of present goods for future goods, is absent. But another circumstance that has helped to bring about the mistaken opinion referred to is the fact that the business performed by banks in exchanging money for claims to money payable on demand which can be transferred in the place of money, is very closely and intimately connected with that particular branch of their credit business that has most influenced the volume of money and entirely transformed the whole monetary system of the present day, namely, the provision of circulation credit. It is with this sort of banking business alone, the issue of notes and the opening of accounts that are not covered by money, that we are concerned. For this sort of business alone is of significance in connection with the function and value of money; the volume of money is affected by no other credit transactions than these.


While all other credit transactions may occur singly and be per formed on both sides by persons who do not regularly occupy themselves with such transactions, the provision of credit through the issue of fiduciary media is only possible on the part of an undertaking which conducts credit transactions as a matter of regular business. Deposits must be accepted and loans granted on a fairly considerable scale before the necessary conditions for the issue of fiduciary media are fulfilled. Notes cannot circulate unless the person who issues them is known and trustworthy. Moreover, payment by transfer from one account to another presupposes either a large circle of customers of the same bank or such a union of several banking undertakings that the total number of participants in the system is large. Fiduciary media can therefore be created only by banks and bankers; but this is not the only business that can be carried on by banks and bankers.


One branch of banking business deserves particular mention because, although closely related to that circle of banking activities with which we have to deal, it is quite without influence on the volume of money. This is that deposit business which does not serve the bank as a basis for the issue of fiduciary media. The activity carried on here by the bank is merely that of an intermediary, concerning which the English definition of a banker as a man who lends other people's money is perfectly apt. The sums of money handed over to the bank by its customers in this branch of business are not a part of their reserves, but investments of money which are not necessary for day-to-day transactions. As a rule the two groups of deposits are distinguished even by the form they have in banking technique. The current accounts can be withdrawn on demand, that is to say, without previous notice. Often no interest at all is paid upon them, but when interest is paid, it is lower than that on the investment deposits. On the other hand, the investment deposits always bear interest and are usually repayable only on notice being given in advance. In the course of time, the differences in banking technique between the two kinds of deposit have been largely obliterated. The development of the savings-deposit system has made it possible for the banks to undertake the obligation to pay out small amounts of savings deposits at any time without notice. The larger the sums which are brought to the banks in the investment-deposit business, the greater, according to the law of large numbers, is the probability that the sums paid in on any particular day will balance those whose repayment is demanded, and the smaller is the reserve which will guarantee the bank the possibility of not having to break any of its promises. Such a reserve is all the easier to maintain inasmuch as it is combined with the reserve of the current-account business. Small business people or not very well-to-do private individuals, whose monetary affairs are too insignificant to be transferred as a whole to a bank, now make use of this development by trusting part of their reserve to the banks in the form of savings deposits. On the other hand, the circumstance that competition among banks has gradually raised the rate of interest on current accounts causes sums of money that are not needed for current-account purposes, and therefore might be invested, to be left on current account as a temporary investment. Nevertheless, these practices do not alter the principle of the matter; it is not the formal technical aspect of a transaction but its economic character that determines its significance for us.


From the point of view of the banks there does exist a connection between the two kinds of deposit business inasmuch as the possibility of uniting the two reserves permits of their being maintained at a lower level than their sum would have to be if they were completely independent. This is extremely important from the point of view of banking technique, and explains to some degree the advantage of the deposit banks, which carry on both branches of business, over the savings banks, which only accept savings deposits (the savings banks being consequently driven to take up currentaccount business also). For the organization of the banking system this circumstance is of importance; for the theoretical investigation of its problems it is negligible.


The essential thing about that branch of banking business which alone needs to be taken into consideration in connection with the volume of money is this: the banks that undertake current-account business for their customers are, for the reasons referred to above, in a position to lend out part of the deposited sums of money. It is a matter of indifference how they do this, whether they actually lend out a portion of the deposited money or issue notes to those who want credit or open a current account for them. The only circumstance that is of importance here is that the loans are granted out of a fund that did not exist before the loans were granted. In all other circumstances, whenever loans are granted they are granted out of existing and available funds of wealth. A bank which neither possesses the right of note issue nor carries on current-account business for its customers can never lend out more money than the sum of its own resources and the resources that other persons have entrusted to it. It is otherwise with those banks that issue notes or open current accounts. They have a fund from which to grant loans, over and above their own resources and those resources of other people that are at their disposal.

5 The Granting of Circulation Credit


According to the prevailing opinion, a bank which grants a loan in its own notes plays the part of a credit negotiator between the borrowers and those in whose hands the notes happen to be at any time. Thus in the last resort bank credit is not granted by the banks but by the holders of the notes. The intervention of the banks is said to have the single object of permitting the substitution of its well-known and indubitable credit for that of an unknown and perhaps less trustworthy debtor and so of making it easier for a borrower to get a loan taken up by "the public." It is asserted, for example, that if bills are discounted by the bank and the discounted equivalent paid out in notes, these notes only circulate in place of the bills, which would otherwise be passed directly from hand to hand in lieu of cash. It is thought that this can also be proved historically by reference to the fact that before the development of the bank-of-issue system, especially in England, bills circulated to a greater extent than afterward; that in Lancashire, for example, until the opening of a branch of the Bank of England in Manchester, ninetenths of the total payments were made in bills and only one-tenth in money or banknotes.*4 Now this view by no means describes the essence of the matter A person who accepts and holds notes, grants no credit; he exchanges no present good for a future good. The immediately convertible note of a solvent bank is employable everywhere as a fiduciary medium instead of money in commercial transactions, and nobody draws a distinction between the money and the notes which he holds as cash. The note is a present good just as much as the money.


Notes might be issued by banks in either of two ways. One way is to exchange them for money. According to accounting principles, the bank here enters into a debit transaction and a credit transaction; but the transaction is actually a matter of indifference, since the new liability is balanced by an exactly corresponding asset. The bank cannot make a profit out of such a transaction. In fact such a transaction involves it in a loss, since it brings in nothing to balance the expense of manufacturing the notes and storing the stocks of money. The issue of fully backed notes can therefore only be carried on in conjunction with the issue of fiduciary media. This is the second possible way of issuing notes, to issue them as loans to persons in search of credit. According to the books, this, like the other, is a case of a credit and a debit transaction only.*5 It is true that this is not shown by the bank's balance sheet. On the credit side of the balance sheet are entered the loans granted and the state of the till, and on the debit side, the notes. We approach a better understanding of the true nature of the whole process if we go instead to the profit-and-loss account. In this account there is recorded a profit whose origin is suggestive—"profit on loans." When the bank lends other people's money as well as its own resources, part of this profit arises from the difference between the rates of interest that it pays its depositors and the rates that it charges its borrowers. The other part arises from the granting of circulation credit. It is the bank that makes this profit, not the holders of the notes. It is possible that the bank may retain the whole of it; but sometimes it shares it, either with the holders of the notes or, more probably, with the depositors. But in either case there is a profit.*6


Let us imagine a country whose monetary circulation consists in 100 million ducats. In this country a bank-of-issue is established. For the sake of simplicity, let us assume that the bank's own capital is invested as a reserve outside the banking business, and that it has to pay the annual interest on this capital to the state in return for the concession of the right of note issue—an assumption that does correspond closely with the actual situation of some banks-of-issue. Now let the bank have fifty million ducats paid into it and issue fifty million ducats' worth of one-ducat notes against this sum. But we must suppose that the bank does not allow the whole sum of fifty million ducats to remain in its vaults; it lends out forty million on interest to foreign businessmen. The interest on these loans consitutes its gross profit which is reduced only by the cost of manufacture of the notes, by administrative expenses, and the like. Is it possible in this case to say that the holders of the notes have granted credit to the foreign debtors of the bank, or to the bank itself?


Let us alter our example in a nonessential point. Let the bank lend the forty million not to foreigners but to persons within the country. One of these, A, is indebted to B for a certain sum, say the cost of goods which he has bought from him. A has no money at his disposal, but is ready to cede to B a claim maturing in three months, which he himself holds against P. Can B agree to this? Obviously only if he himself does not need for the next three months the sum of money which he could demand immediately, or if he has a prospect of finding somebody who can do without a corresponding sum of money for three months and is therefore ready to take over the claim against P. Or the situation might arise in which B wished to buy goods immediately from C, who was willing to permit postponement of payment for three months. In such a case, if C was really in agreement with the postponement, this could only be for one of the three reasons that might also cause B to be content with payment after the lapse of three months instead of immediate payment. All these, in fact, are cases of genuine credit transactions, of the exchange of present goods for future goods. Now the number and extent of these transactions is dependent on the quantity of present goods available; the total of the possible loans is limited by the total quantity of money and other goods available for this purpose. Loans can be granted only by those who have disposal over money or other economic goods which they can do without for a period. Now when the bank enters the arena by offering forty million ducats on the loan market, the fund available for lending pur poses is increased by exactly this sum; what immediate influence this must have on the rate of interest, should not need further explanation. Is it then correct to say that when the bank discounts bills it does nothing but substitute a convenient note currency for an inconvenient bill currency?*7 Is the banknote really nothing but a handier sort of bill of exchange? By no means. The note that embodies the promise of a solvent bank to pay a sum to the bearer on demand at any time, that is, immediately if desired, differs in an important point from the bill that contains the promise to pay a sum of money after the passage of a period of time. The sight bill, which as is well known) plays no part in the credit system, is comparable with the note; but not the time bill, which is the form regularly assumed by the bills that are usual in credit transactions. A person who pays the price of a purchased commodity in money, in notes, or by the transfer of any other claim payable on demand, has carried through a cash transaction; a person who pays the purchase price by the acceptance of a three-month bill has carried through a credit transaction.*8


Let us introduce a further unessential variation into our example, which will perhaps help to make the matter clearer. Let us assume that the bank has first issued notes to the value of fifty million ducats and received for them fifty million ducats in money; and now let us suppose it to place a further forty million ducats in its own notes on the loan market. This case is in every way identical with the two considered above.


The activity of note issue cannot in any way be described as increasing the demand for credit in the same sense as, say, an increase in the number of bills current. Quite the contrary. The bank-of-issue does not demand credit; it grants it. When an additional quantity of bills comes on to the market, this increases the demand for credit, and therefore raises the rate of interest. The placing of an additional quantity of notes on the loan market at first has the opposite effect; it constitutes an increase in the supply of credit and has therefore an immediate tendency to diminish the rate of interest.*9


It is one of the most remarkable phenomena in the history of political economy that this fundamental distinction between notes and bills could have passed unnoticed. It raises an important problem for investigators into the history of economic theory. And in solving this problem it will be their principal task to show how the beginnings of a recognition of the true state of affairs that are to be found even in the writings of the Classical School and were further developed by the Currency School, were destroyed instead of being continued by the work of those who came after.*10

6 Fiduciary Media and the Nature of Indirect Exchange


It should be sufficiently clear from what has been said that the traditional way of looking at the matter is but little in harmony with the peculiarities of fiduciary media. To regard notes and current accounts, whether they are covered by money or not, as constituting the same phenomenon, is to bar the way to an adequate conception of the nature of these peculiarities. To regard noteholders or owners of current accounts as granters of credit is to fail to recognize the meaning of a credit transaction. To treat both notes and bills of exchange in general (that is, not merely sight bills) as "credit instruments" alike is to renounce all hope of getting to the heart of the matter.


On the other hand, it is a complete mistake to assert that the nature of an act of exchange is altered by the employment of fiduciary media. Not only those exchanges that are carried through by the cession of notes or current-account balances covered by money, but also those exchanges that are carried through by the employment of fiduciary media, are indirect exchanges involving the use of money. Although from the juristic point of view it may be significant whether a liability incurred in an act of exchange is discharged by physical transference of pieces of money or by cession of a claim to the immediate delivery of pieces of money, that is, by cession of a money substitute, this has no bearing upon the economic nature of the act of exchange. It would be incorrect to assert, for instance, that when payment is made by check, commodities are really exchanged against commodities, only without any of the crude clumsiness of primitive barter.*11 Here, just as in every other indirect exchange made possible by money, and in contrast to direct exchange, money plays the part of an intermediary between commodity and commodity. But money is an economic good with its own fluctuations in value. A person who acquires money or money substitutes will be affected by all the variations in their objective exchange value. This is just as true of payment by notes or checks as of the physical transference of pieces of money. But this is the only point that matters, and not the accidental circumstance whether money physically "enters into" the transaction as a whole. Anybody who sells commodities and is paid by means of a check and then immediately uses either the check itself or the balance that it puts at his disposal to pay for commodities that he has purchased in another transaction, has by no means exchanged commodities directly for commodities. He has undertaken two independent acts of exchange, which are connected no more intimately than any other two purchases.


It is possible that the terminology proposed is not the most suitable that could be found. This must be freely admitted. But it may at least be claimed for it that it opens the way to a better comprehension of the nature of the phenomena under discussion than those that have been previously employed. For if it is not quite true to say that inexact and superficial terminology has been chiefly responsible for the frequently unsatisfactory nature of the results of investigations into the theory of banking, still a good deal of the ill success of such investigations is to be laid to that account.


That economic theory puts questions of law and banking technique in the background and draws its boundaries differently from those drawn by jurisprudence or business administration is or should be self-evident. Reference to discrepancies between the above theory and the legal or technical nature of particular procedures is therefore no more relevant as an argument against the theory than economic considerations would be in the settlement of controversial juristic questions.

Notes for this chapter

See Bagehot, Lombard Street (London, 1906), p. 21.
Knies, Geld und Kredit, (Berlin, 1876), vol. 2, Part II, p. 242. See further, Weber, Depositen- und Spekulationsbanken (Leipzig, 1902), pp. 106 f.; Sayous, Les banques de depôt, les banques de crédit et les sociétés financières, 2d ed. (Paris, 1907), pp. 219 ff.; Jaffé, Das englische Bankwesen, 2d ed. (Leipzig, 1910), p. 203.
See Macleod, The Elements of Banking (London, 1904), p. 153.
See Fullarton, On the Regulation of Currencies, 2d ed. (London, 1845), p. 39; Mill, Principles of Political Economy (London, 1867), p. 314; Jaffé, op. cit., p. 175.
See Jaffé, op. cit., p. 153.
This is the "surplus profit" (Übergewinn) of the business of banking, referred to by Hermann (op. cit., pp. 500 f.).
As, for example, even Wicksell does (Geldzins und Güterpreise [Jena, 1898], p. 57).
See Torrens, The Principles and Practical Operation of Sir Robert Peel's Act of 1844 Explained and Defended, 2d ed. (London, 1857), pp. 16 ff.
Ibid., p. 18.
Since the appearance of the first edition of the present work numerous books have been published that still do not recognize the problem of circulation credit. Among the works that have grasped the nature of this problem the following should be mentioned: Schumpeter, Theorie der wirtschaftlichen Entwicklung (Leipzig, 1912), pp. 219 ff.; Schlesinger, Theorie der Geld- und Kreditwirtschaft (Munich and Leipzig, 1914), pp. 133 ff.; Hahn, Volkswirtschaftliche Theorie des Bankkredits (Tübingen, 1920), pp. 52 ff.
Thus Lexis, Allegemeine Volkswirtschaftslehre (Berlin, 1910) (Hinnenberg, Die Kultur der Gegenwart, section II, vol. 10, Part 1), p. 122; Lexis, Geld und Preise (Riesser-Festgabe, Berlin, 1913), pp. 83 f. Similarly, with regard to the clearinghouse business, Schumacher, Weltwirtschaftliche Studien (Leipzig, 1911), pp. 53 f. and the writings there referred to.

End of Notes

22 of 33


The Evolution of Fiduciary Media

1 The Two Ways of Issuing Fiduciary Media


Thus fiduciary media are claims to the payment of a given sum on demand, which are not covered by a fund of money and whose legal and technical characteristics make them suitable for tender and acceptance instead of money in fulfillment of obligations that are in terms of money. As has already been suggested, it is not the dead letter of the law so much as actual business practice that counts, so that some things function as fiduciary media, although they cannot be regarded as promises to pay money from the juristic point of view, because they nevertheless are in fact honored as such by somebody or other. We were able to show that, so far as they are not money certificates, even modern token coins and such kinds of money as the German thaler during the period from the establishment of the gold standard until its abolition, constitute fiduciary media and not money.


Fiduciary media may be issued in two ways: by banks, and otherwise. Bank fiduciary media are characterized by being dealt with as constituting a debt of the issuing body. They are entered as liabilities, and the issuing body does not regard the sum issued as an increase of its income or capital, but as an increase on the debit side of its account, which must be balanced by a corresponding increase on the credit side if the whole transaction is not to figure as a loss. This way of dealing with fiduciary media makes it necessary for the issuing body to regard them as part of its trading capital and never to spend them on consumption but always to invest them in business. These investments need not always be loans; the issuer may himself carry on a productive enterprise with the working capital that is put into his hands by the issue of fiduciary media. It is known that some deposit banks sometimes open deposit accounts without a money cover not only for the purpose of granting loans, but also for the purpose of directly procuring resources for production on their own behalf. More than one of the modern credit and commercial banks has invested a part of its capital in this manner, and the question of the right attitude in this case of the holders of the money substitutes, and of the state legislature that feels itself called upon to protect them, remains an open one. In earlier times there was a similar problem concerning banks issuing notes*12 until banking practice or the law prescribed short-term loans as "cover."


The issuer of fiduciary media may, however, regard the value of the fiduciary media put into circulation as an addition to his income or capital. If he does this, he will not take the trouble to cover the increase in his obligations due to the issue by setting aside a special credit fund out of his capital. He will pocket the profits of the issue, which in the case of token coinage is called seigniorage, as composedly as any other sort of income.


The only difference between the two ways of putting fiduciary media into circulation lies in the attitude of the issuer. Naturally, this cannot have any significance for the determination of the value of the fiduciary media. The difference between the methods of issue is a result of historical factors. Fiduciary media have sprung from two different roots: from the activities of the deposit and giro banks on the one hand, and from the state prerogative of minting on the other hand. The former is the source of notes and current accounts; the latter, that of convertible Treasury notes, token coins, and that current money of which the coinage is restricted, but which can be regarded neither as credit money nor as fiat money because it is actually convertible into money on demand to its full amount. Today the difference between the two methods of issuing is gradually disappearing, all the more as the state endeavors to act in the same way as the banks in issuing fiduciary media. Some states are already in the habit of devoting the profits of their coinage to special purposes and of refusing to treat them in any way as an increase of wealth.*13


Of the two types of money substitutes issued by the banks, the current account is the older. The banknote, in fact, is only a development of it. It is true that the two are different in the eyes of the law and the banker, but they do not differ at all in the eyes of the economist. The only distinctions between them are in those legal or banking or commercial peculiarities of the banknote which give it a special capacity of circulation. It is easily transferable and very like money in the way in which it is transferred. Banknotes were therefore able to outstrip the older money substitute, the current account, and penetrate into commerce with extraordinary rapidity. For medium and small payments they offer such great advantages that the current account was hardly able to maintain its ground beside them. It was not until the second half of the nineteenth century that the current account once more became important along with the banknote. In large transactions, check and clearing payments are often superior to notes. But the chief reason why the current account was able in part to expel the banknote must by no means be sought in any inherent requirements of business. The current account is not, as it is sometimes the fashion to assert without any reason or proof, a "higher" form of money substitute than the banknote. The banknote has been supplanted by the current account in many countries because its development was artificially hindered and that of the current account artificially encouraged, the reason for this being that acceptance of the doctrines of the Currency principle led people to see danger for the stability of the exchange ratio between money and other economic goods only in the overissue of notes, and not in the excessive increase of bank deposits.


For the study of the credit system from the economic point of view, the contrast between notes and deposits is of minor importance. There are payments for which one or other form is the more suitable, and payments for which both forms are suitable. If their development had been allowed to take its own course, this fact would undoubtedly have been more evident than it is today when the attempt is sometimes made to bring about the employment of one or other kind of fiduciary medium by artificial means in circumstances where it appears the less appropriate technically.

2 Fiduciary Media and the Clearing System


That want of clarity concerning the nature of fiduciary media which constitutes the chief characteristic of the writings of the banking theorists and their epigoni, the modern writers on problems of banking theory, leads to a perpetual confusion between money substitutes and a series of institutions which reduce the demand for money in the narrower sense, and also to relative neglect of the differences that exist between money certificates and fiduciary media within the group of money substitutes proper.


The economic effect of an exchange that is carried out with the help of a certain quantity of a fungible good, can sometimes, if several persons have to transact business at the same time, be attained more indirectly in ways which, while they are formally of a more complicated legal structure, nevertheless fundamentally simplify the technical transaction and make it possible to dispense in particular instances with the physical presence of pieces of the medium of exchange. If A has to deliver a piece of cloth to B and receive a sheep from him for it, and if A at the same time has to give a sheep to C and receive from him a horse, these two exchanges can also be transacted if B gives a sheep to C on behalf and on account of A, so freeing himself from the obligation that he is under to give A a sheep in return for the cloth and A from the obligation that he is under to give C a sheep in return for the horse. Whereas the direct transaction of these two exchanges would have necessitated four transfers, this procedure necessitates only three.


The possibility of facilitating exchanges in this way is extraordinarily increased by extension of the custom of using certain goods as common media of exchange. For the number of cases in which anybody simultaneously owes and has a claim to a certain fungible good will increase with the number of cases in which one and the same fungible good—the common medium of exchange—is the object of exchange in individual transactions. Full development of the use of money leads at first to a splitting up into two acts of indirect exchange even of such transactions as could in any case have been carried through by direct exchange. The butcher and the baker, who could also exchange their products directly, often prefer to have their mutual relations take the form of an exchange carried through with the help of money which their other transactions assume also. The butcher sells meat to the baker for money and the baker sells bread to the butcher for money. This gives rise to reciprocal money claims and money obligations. But it is clear that a settlement can be arrived at here, not only by each party actually handing money over to the other, but also by means of offsetting, in which merely the balance remaining over is settled by payment of money. To complete the transaction in this way by full or partial cancellation of counterclaims offers important advantages in comparison with direct exchange: all the freedom connected with the use of money is combined with the technical simplicity that characterizes direct exchange transactions.


This method of carrying through indirect exchanges by cancellation of counterclaims is very greatly stimulated at the time when the cases where its employment is possible are increased by the fact that credit transactions, or the exchange of present goods for future goods, are becoming customary. When all exchanges have to be settled in ready cash, then the possibility of performing them by means of cancellation is limited to the case exemplified by the butcher and baker and only then on the assumption, which of course only occasionally holds good, that the demands of both parties are simultaneous. At the most, it is possible to imagine that several other persons might join in and so a small circle be built up within which drafts could be used for the settlement of transactions without the actual use of money. But even in this case simultaneity would still be necessary, and, several persons being involved, would be still seldomer achieved.


These difficulties could not be overcome until credit set business free from dependence on the simultaneous occurrence of demand and supply. This, in fact, is where the importance of credit for the monetary system lies. But this could not have its full effect so long as all exchange was still direct exchange, so long even as money had not established itself as a common medium of exchange. The instrumentality of credit permits transactions between two persons to be treated as simultaneous for purposes of settlement even if they actually take place at different times. If the baker sells bread to the cobbler daily throughout the year and buys from him a pair of shoes on one occasion only, say at the end of the year, then the payment on the part of the baker, and naturally on that of the cobbler also, would have to be made in cash, if credit did not provide a means first for delaying the one party's liability and then for settling it by cancellation instead of by cash payment.


Exchanges made with the help of money can also be settled in part by offsetting if claims are transferred within a group until claims and counterclaims come into being between the same persons, these being then canceled against each other, or until the claims are acquired by the debtors themselves and so extinguished. In interlocal and international dealing in bills, which has been developed in recent years by the addition of the use of checks and in other ways which have not fundamentally changed its nature, the same sort of thing is carried out on an enormous scale. And here again credit increases in a quite extraordinary fashion the number of cases in which such offsetting is feasible.*14 In all these cases we have an exchange made with the help of money which is nevertheless transacted without the actual use of money or money substitutes simply by means of a process of offsetting between the parties. Money in these cases is still a medium of exchange, but its employment in this capacity is independent of its physical existence. Use is made of money, but not physical use of actually existing money or money substitutes. Money which is not present performs an economic function; it has its effect solely by reason of the possibility of its being able to be present.


The reduction of the demand for money in the broader sense which is brought about by the use of offsetting processes for settling exchanges made with the help of money, without affecting the function performed by money as a medium of exchange, is based upon the reciprocal cancellation of claims to money. The use of money is avoided because claims to money are transferred instead of actual money. This process is continued until claim and debt come together, until creditor and debtor are united in the same person. Then the claim to money is extinguished, since nobody can be his own creditor or his own debtor.*15 The same result may be reached at an earlier stage by reciprocal cancellation, that is by the liquidation of counterclaims by a process of offsetting.*16 In either case the claim to money ceases to exist, and then, and not until then, is the act of exchange which gave birth to the claim finally completed.


Any transfer of a claim which does not bring it nearer to being extinguished by cancellation or offsetting cannot decrease the demand for money. In fact, if the transfer of the claim is not instead of payment in money, then it is on the contrary the source of a fresh demand for money. Now cession of claims instead of payment in money has, apart from the use of money substitutes, never been of very great commercial importance. As far as claims that are already due are concerned, the holder will as a rule prefer to call in the outstanding sums of money, because he will invariably find it easier to buy (and carry through other transactions in the market) with money or money substitutes than with claims whose goodness has not been indisputably established. But if the holder does in exceptional cases transfer such a claim by way of payment, then the new holder will be in the same position. A further hindrance to the transfer of claims to money that are not yet due instead of payment in money is the fact that such claims can be accepted only by such persons as are able to agree to postponement of payment; to rest content with a claim that is not yet due, when immediate payment could be enforced, is to grant credit.


Commercial requirements had previously made use of the legal institution of the bill in a way that caused it to circulate in a manner fairly similar to that of fiduciary media. Toward the end of the eighteenth and at the beginning of the nineteenth century bills were current in the European commercial centers which were endorsed by the merchants in place of payment in money.*17 Since it was the general custom to make payments in this way, anybody could accept a bill that still had some time to run even when he wanted cash immediately; for it was possible to reckon with a fair amount of certainty that those to whom payments had to be made would also accept a bill not yet mature in place of ready money. It is perhaps hardly necessary to add that in all such transactions the element of time was of course taken into consideration, and discount consequently allowed for. Now it is true that this might increase the technical difficulties in handling the circulatory apparatus, which was already not an easy matter to deal with for other reasons, such, for example, as the different amounts of the bills. But, on the other hand, it offered a profit to any holder who did not pass the bill on immediately but kept it for a while, even if only for a very short while, in his portfolio. Used in this way, the bill was able to make up to a certain extent for the lack of fiduciary media. Even though it might not be due for a long time ahead, the holder could regard it as liquid, because he could pass it on at any time.


Despite this, bills of this sort were not fiduciary media in the sense in which notes or deposits are. They lack the characteristic features and properties which enabled the fiduciary medium, the indefinitely augmentable product of the arbitrary issuing activity of the banks, to become a complete substitute for money for business purposes. It is true that the cooperation of issuers and acceptors can give the circulation of bills the capacity of unlimited augmentation and unlimited lease of life through the agency of bill jobbing and regular prolongation, even if technical difficulties alone are sufficient to prevent the bills from ever being used in business to the same extent as money substitutes. But every increase in the amount of bills in circulation makes negotiation of individual bills more difficult. It reduces the resources of the market. In fact, the holder of a bill, as distinct from the holder of a note or of a current account, is a creditor A person who accepts a bill must examine the standing of the previous endorser, and also that of the issuer and the others who are liable for the bill, but in particular the primary acceptor Whoever passes a bill on, in endorsing it undertakes responsibility for the payment of the amount of the bill. The endorsement of the bill is in fact not a final payment; it liberates the debtor to a limited degree only. If the bill is not paid then his liability is revived in a greater degree than before. But the peculiar rigor of the law relating to its enforcement and the responsibility of its signatories could not be eliminated, for it was these very characteristics alone that had made the bill a suitable instrument for the cession, in place of money payment, of unmatured claims for which the common-law provisions regarding indebtedness are little suited. To whatever extent the custom of issuing or endorsing bills in place of payment in money may have established itself, every single payment that was made in this way nevertheless retained the character of a credit transaction. It was necessary in each individual case for the parties to the transaction to begin by coming to a special agreement as to the present price to be paid for the claim that would not fall due until some future time; if the amount of bills in circulation increased greatly, or if doubts happened to arise concerning the solidity of the position of any of the signatories, then it became more difficult to place the bill even on fairly tolerable terms. Issuer and acceptor had then in addition to make arrangements for covering the bill before it fell due, even if only by negotiating a prolongation bill. There is none of this in the case of fiduciary media, which pass like money from hand to hand without any sort of friction.


The modern organization of the payment system makes use of institutions for systematically arranging the settlement of claims by offsetting processes. There were beginnings of this as early as the Middle Ages, but the enormous development of the clearinghouse belongs to the last century. In the clearinghouse, the claims continuously arising between members are subtracted from one another and only the balances remain for settlement by the transfer of money or fiduciary media. The clearing system is the most important institution for diminishing the demand for money in the broader sense.


In the literature of the banking system it is not as a rule customary to draw a sufficient distinction between the diminution of the demand for money in the broader sense which is due to the operations of the clearinghouses and the diminution of the demand for money in the narrower sense which is due to the extension of the use of fiduciary media. This is the cause of much obscurity.

3 Fiduciary Media in Domestic Trade


In the domestic trade of most civilized countries, the actual use of money for transacting exchanges made with the help of money has been very largely superseded by the use of money substitutes. And among the money substitutes, fiduciary media play a constantly increasing part. At the same time, the number of exchanges made with the help of money which are settled by the offsetting of counterclaims is growing also. There are countries in which nearly all the internal payments that are not settled by the clearing process are made without the use of money merely with the aid of banknotes and deposits that are not covered by money, of token coins in the proper sense of the word, and of other coins convertible on demand into money. In other countries, again, the fiduciary medium has not yet been developed to a like extent; but if we disregard those countries in which the insecurity of the law hinders the birth of that confidence in the soundness of the issuer which is the sine qua non for the circulation of money substitutes, then we shall find no part of the world in which a large proportion of the internal payments are not made by means of the use of fiduciary media alone, without the actual transference of money. It is only in medium-sized transactions that there is still room for the transference of actual money. In Germany and England before the war it was usual to make payments of twenty to one hundred marks and £1 and £5 by the transference of gold coins. Smaller and larger payments were made almost exclusively by the cession of token coins or notes or deposits which were only partly covered by money. It was the same in other countries.


The fact that money continued to be in actual circulation at all in a series of states, like Germany and England, and was not entirely superseded by fiduciary media and money certificates, was due solely to legislative intervention. For reasons which were connected with certain views on the nature of notes, it was thought that the circulation of notes of small denominations ought to be opposed.*18 The battle against the one-pound note in England ended with the complete victory of the sovereign, and this victory had a significance outside England, too, for the disfavor in which small banknotes were held for decades on the continent of Europe was based upon English opinion. It is certain that in those states which have a sound administration of justice and a developed banking system, the employment of actual money in commerce could be replaced without difficulty by the issue of a corresponding quantity of small notes.


In some countries in which the actual transfer of money has been completely superseded by fiduciary media and money certificates, this end has been systematically sought and attained in a peculiar fashion and under very peculiar conditions. The silver-standard countries—India, primarily, but the situation was similar in other Asiatic states—after the great controversy about the standards had been decided in favor of monometallism, were forced to accept the world gold standard. But there were extraordinary difficulties in the way of the transition to a monetary system in imitation of English of German institutions. To introduce gold money in the circulation of these countries would have necessitated the conveyance of enormous quantities of gold to them, which would not have been practicable without serious convulsion of the European money market and would have meant great sacrifice. The governments of these countries, however, had to endeavor at all costs on the one hand not to raise the value of gold (so as not to disturb the European markets), and on the other hand not to reduce the value of silver any more than was necessary. The English government in India did not dare to undertake anything which might have had an unfavorable influence on the London money market; but, having regard to India's Asiatic competitors, which presumably would remain on the silver standard, neither did it dare to take any steps which would expedite the fall in the price of silver and consequently weaken for a time, even if only in appearance, the ability of India to compete with China, Japan, the Straits Settlements, and the other silver countries. It therefore had the task of conducting India's transition to the gold standard without buying gold in considerable quantities or selling silver.


The problem was not insoluble. Within limits, the circumstances were similar to those of the bimetallic countries which had discontinued the free coinage of silver at the end of the seventies. And besides, careful scientific consideration of the problem showed that it was possible to create a gold standard without a gold currency; that it was enough to discontinue the free coinage of silver and to announce its convertibility into gold at a specific rate, making this effective by establishing a suitable conversion fund, in order to give the country a gold standard which would differ from that of England only in the lower level of the stock of gold. It was only necessary to go back to the writings of Ricardo in order to find the plan for such a currency system already worked out in detail. Lindsay*19 and Probyn*20 followed this path and, building upon Ricardo, worked out plans for this kind of currency regulation. Both wanted to close the mints to silver and to make the rupee convertible into gold at a fixed ratio. For the future, only the rupee was to be legal tender. The two proposals differed on some minor points, of which the most important was that while Probyn held it necessary that the rupee should be convertible into gold in India itself, Lindsay was of the opinion that it would suffice if the conversion were to be in London from a gold reserve to be established there. Both proposals were rejected, by the Indian government and by the commissions appointed to inquire into the Indian monetary system. The opinion was expressed that a normal gold standard necessitates an actual gold currency, and that the lack of such a currency would awaken mistrust.*21


The report of the commission of 1898 was signed by the most eminent experts of the day; its comments on the recommendations of Probyn and Lindsay were supported on the decisive point by the expert opinions of the biggest bankers in the British Empire. The course of events vindicated the theorists, however, not the statesmen and great financiers who had regarded them with amused commiseration. What was ultimately done in India corresponded roughly and on the whole to the recommendations of Probyn and Lindsay, even if there were variations in detail. And the monetary systems of other countries that had previously been on a silver standard were organized in a precisely similar manner The present currency system of India, of the Straits Settlements, of the Philippines, and of the other Asiatic countries which have followed their example, is superficially characterized by the fact that in domestic trade, payments in money, that is, in gold, do not occur at all or at least are far rarer than in the gold-standard countries of Europe and America, and even in these the actual circulation of gold is only quite small in proportion to the total of all the payments made with the help of money. Under the system in India, payments are made, along with notes, checks, and giro transfers, chiefly in silver coins, which are partly relics of the time of the silver standard, and partly minted by the government for the account of the state and to the benefit of the Treasury, which receives the considerable profits of the coinage. A conversion fund, which is set up and administered by the government, exchanges these silver coins at a fixed ratio for gold, gold securities, or other claims to money, payable on demand, while, on the other hand, it issues such silver coins in exchange for gold in unlimited quantities at the same rate, allowance being made for the expenses of storage, transportation, etc. The minor details of this arrangement differ in different countries; but the differences in its legal or banking technique are insignificant as far as its nature is concerned. It is, for example, of no further significance, whether or not the silver coins are converted on the basis of a legal obligation. All that matters is whether the conversion actually does take place on demand.*22


There exists no fundamental difference at all between the currency system of these Asiatic and American countries and that that the European gold-standard countries once had. Under both systems, payments are made without the actual transference of money by the aid of the surrender of fiduciary media. The fact that in England and Germany the actual transference of money also played a certain part for medium-sized payments, whereas in India and in the Philippines the number of actual transfers of money is scarcely worth mentioning, or that in the former countries the proportion of the circulation that was not covered by money was smaller than in the latter, is quite inessential; it is a difference that is merely quantitative, not qualitative. Of no great relevance is the circumstance that the fiduciary media were in the one case predominantly banknotes and checks and are in the other case predominantly silver coins. The silver rupee is in truth nothing but a metallic note, for the conversion of which its issuer, the state, is responsible.*23


Following up a train of thought of Ricardo's, who was the first to develop the plan of this monetary system more than a hundred years ago,*24 it is customary to speak of it as the gold-exchange standard. The aptness of this designation can only be conceded if it is intended to stress the peculiarities in banking and currency technique that characterize the system. But it is a name that must be rejected if it is intended to indicate the existence of a fundamental difference from what used to be the English and German type of gold standard. It is not correct to assert that in these countries gold functions merely as a measure of prices while the silver coins are used as a common medium of exchange. We know what little justification there is for speaking of a price-measuring function of money. In Ricardo's sense, it was possible to speak of measurement and measures of value; from the point of view of the subjective theory of value these and similar concepts are untenable. In India and Austria-Hungary and in all other countries with similar currency and banking systems, gold is or was just as much a common medium of exchange as in prewar England or Germany; the difference between the two systems is only one of degree, not one of kind.

4 Fiduciary Media in International Trade


The practice of making payments by the writing off or reciprocal balancing of claims is not restricted by the boundaries of states or countries. It was in fact in trade between different areas that the need for it was earliest and most strongly felt. The transportation of money always involves not inconsiderable cost, loss of interest, and risk. If the claims arising out of various transactions are liquidated not by the actual transference of money, but by balancing or offsetting, then all these expenses and dangers can be avoided. This provided an extraordinarily effective motive for developing those methods of making payments over long distances which saved the transference of sums of money. Quite early we find the use of bills established for interlocal payments; then in addition we later find checks, and ordinary and cable transfers, all forming the basis of an interlocal clearing system which worked through the ordinary free play of the market without the help of a special clearinghouse. When making payments within a given locality the advantages for the individual of the method of settling transactions by the clearing process and therefore without the use of cash are smaller than those when making payments between localities, and therefore it was a longer time before the system of reciprocal cancellation came into full operation with the establishment of clearinghouses.


If the clearing system has without difficulty transcursed political boundaries and created for itself a world-embracing organization in the international bill and check system, the validity of the fiduciary media, like that of all money substitutes, is nationally limited. There are no money substitutes, and so no fiduciary media, that are recognized internationally and consequently able to take the place of money in international trade for settling the balances that remain over after the clearing process. That is often overlooked in discussions of the present position of the international system of payments and the possibilities of its future development. Here again, in fact, the confusion creeps in, that has already been criticized adversely, between the system of reciprocal cancellation and the circulation of fiduciary media. This is most clear in the usual arguments about international giro transactions. In domestic giro transactions, payments are effected by the transfer of money substitutes, which are often fiduciary media, namely, the balances of the members at the giro bank. In international transactions, the money substitute is lacking, and even the international clearing system that is recommended in various quarters is not intended to introduce one. Rather it should be pointed out that this so-called international giro system—which incidentally was done away with again by the inflation during the war—while it may have changed the external form of the traditional manner of settling international monetary claims, has not changed in nature. When banks of various countries agree to give their clients the right to undertake direct transference from their balances to the balances of the clients of foreign banks, this may quite well constitute a new and additional method of international settlement of accounts. A Viennese desirous of paying a sum of money to somebody in Berlin was previously able either to use an international money order or to go to the exchange and buy a bill on Berlin and send it to his creditor As a rule he would have made use of the intermediate services of a bank, which for its part would perform the transaction through the purchase of a foreign bill or a check. Later, if he was a member of the check system of the Austrian Post Office Savings Bank and his creditor belonged to that of the German post office, he would have been able to make the transfer more simply by sending the appropriate order on the Vienna office of the Post Office Savings Bank. This might well be more convenient and better suited to the demands of business than the only method that was once usual; but, however excellent a method, it was not a new method of international monetary intercourse. For the balances of this international giro system, if they could not be paid by bills, had to be paid by the actual transference of money. It is not true that the international giro system has decreased the international transportation of money. Even before its introduction, the Viennese who wanted to pay money to somebody in Berlin did not buy twenty-mark pieces and send them to Berlin in a parcel.


The only thing calculated to create international money substitutes and subsequently international fiduciary media would be the establishment of an international giro bank or bank-of-issue. When it became possible to use the notes issued by the world bank and the accounts opened by it for the settlement of money claims of all kinds, there would no longer be any need to settle the national balances of payments by transportation of money. The actual transference of money could be superseded by the transference of the notes issued by the world bank or of checks giving disposal over the issuer's account with the world bank, or even by simple entries in the books of the world bank. The balances of the international "clearinghouse," which already exists today although it is not concentrated in any one locality and has not the rigid organization of the national clearinghouses, would then be paid off in the same way as those of the national clearinghouses are at present.


Proposals have been made again and again for the creation of international fiduciary media through the establishment of an interstate bank. It is true that this must not be taken to include every project for extending the international giro system in the sense in which this word is commonly used. Nevertheless, in certain writings which demand the foundation of a world bank, or at least of an interstate banking organization, there gleams the idea of an international fiduciary medium.*25 The problems of organization raised by the establishment of such an international institution could be solved in various ways. The establishment of the world bank as a special form of organization and as an independent legal body would probably be the simplest form for the new creation. It would, however, also be possible, apart from this, to establish a special central authority for administering and investing the sums of money paid in to open the accounts, and for issuing the money substitutes. An attempt could be made to avoid the obstructions which the susceptibilities of national vanity would probably oppose to the local concentration of the business of the bank by leaving the reserves of the world giro authority and the world issuing authority in the keeping of the separate national banks. In the reserves of every central bank a distinction would then have to be made between two sums: one, which would have to serve as a basis for the world organization of the system of payments, and over which only the authorities of the latter would have power of disposal; and a second, which would continue to be at the service of the national monetary system. It would even be possible to go still further and leave the issue of international notes and other money substitutes to the individual banks, which would only be required in doing this to follow the instructions given by the authorities of the world organization. It is not our task to investigate which of the various possibilities is the most practical; it is its nature alone that interests us, not the actual form it might take.


Special reference must nevertheless be made to one point. If the balances in the books of the world bank are to be acquired only by cash payment of the full sum in money, or by transfer from some other account that has been acquired by cash payment of the full sum in money, and if the world bank is to issue notes only in exchange for money, then its establishment may certainly render unnecessary the transportation of quantities of money (which still plays a large part nowadays in the international payments system), but it would not have the effect of economizing money payments. It is true that it would be able to reduce the demand for money, because transferences would perhaps be completed more quickly and with less friction. But, as before, the payments that were made through the bank would involve the actual use of money. Of course, the money would remain in the vaults of the world bank and only the right to demand its surrender would be transferred. But the amount of the payments would be arithmetically limited by the amount of the money deposits in the bank. The possibility of trans ferring sums of money would be bound up with the existence of these sums of money in actual monetary shape. In order to free the international monetary system from these fetters the world bank would have to be granted the right of issuing notes as loans also and of opening accounts on credit; that is to say, the right of partly lending out its reserves of money. Then, and not until then, would the interstate system of payments be given a fiduciary medium such as is already possessed by the domestic system; it would become independent of the quantity of money in existence.


The realization of a world-bank project developed in this way is opposed by tremendous obstacles which it would hardly be possible to surmount in the near future. The least of these obstacles is constituted by the variety of the kinds of money that are in use in the individual states. Nevertheless, in spite of the inflation that was created by the world war and its consequences, we are every day approaching nearer and nearer to the situation of having a world monetary unit based on the metallic money gold. More important are the difficulties due to political considerations. The establishment of a world bank might come to grief owing to the uncertainty of its position in international law. No state would wish to incur the danger of the accounts of its citizens being impounded by the world bank in case of war. This involves questions of primary importance and therefore no provisions of international law, however surrounded with precautions they might be, could satisfy the individual states so far as to overcome their opposition to membership in such an organization.*26


Nevertheless, the biggest difficulty in the way of issuing international credit instruments lies in the circumstance that it would scarcely be possible for the states that had joined the world-banking system to come to an agreement concerning the policy to be followed by the bank in issuing the credit instruments. Even the question of determining the quantity of them to be issued would disclose irreconcilable antagonisms. Under present conditions, therefore, proposals for the establishment of a world bank with power of issuing fiduciary media attract hardly any notice.*27

Notes for this chapter

See Lotz, Geschichte und Kritik des deutschen Bankgesetzes vom 14. März 1875 (Leipzig, 1888), pp. 72 f.
See for example on the Swiss currency reserve fund established by article 8 of the Currency Act of January 31, 1860, Altherr, Eine Betrachtung über neue Wege der schweizerischen Münzpolitik (Bern, 1908), pp. 61 ff.
See Knies, Geld und Kredit, (Berlin, 1876), vol. 2, Part I, pp. 268 ff.
See l. 21, sec. 1 D. de liberatione legata 34, 3. Terentius Clemens libro XII ad legem Juliam et Papiam.
See l. 1 D. der compensationibus 16, 2. Modestinus libro sexto pandectarum.
See Thornton, An Enquiry into the Nature and Effects of the Paper Credit of Great Britain (London, 1802), pp. 39 ff.
See Baird, The One Pound Note, Its History, Place and Power in Scotland, and Its Adaptability for England, 2d ed. (Edinburgh, 1901), pp. 9 ff.; Graham, The One Pound Note in the History of Banking in Great Britain, 2d ed. (Edinburgh, 1911), pp. 195 ff.; Nicholson, A Treatise on Money and Essays on Present Monetary Problems (Edinburgh, 1888), pp. 177 ff.; Jevons, Investigations in Currency and Finance (London, 1909), pp. 275 ff.
See Lindsay, A Gold Standard Without a Gold Coinage in England and India (Edinburgh, 1879), pp. 12 ff. I have not been able to obtain access to a second pamphlet by the same author which appeared anonymously in 1892 under the title Ricardo's Exchange Remedy.
See Probyn, Indian Coinage and Currency (London, 1897), pp. 1 ff.
See Report of the Indian Currency Committee 1898 (in Stability of International Exchange, Report on the Introduction of the Gold-Exchange Standard into China and Other Silver-using Countries submitted to the Secretary of State, October 1, 1903, by the Commission on International Exchange [Washington, D.C., 1903], Appendix G), pp. (315).; Heyn, Die indische Währungsreform, (Berlin, 1903), pp. 54 ff.; Bothe, Die indische Währungsreform seit 1893 (Stuttgart, 1906), pp. 199 ff.
On the fate of the Indian currency in the period of inflation during the Great War, see Spalding, Eastern Exchange, Currency and Finance, 3d ed. (London, 1920), pp. 31 ff.
See Conant, "The Gold Exchange Standard in the Light of Experience," The Economic Journal 19 (1909): 200.
In the pamphlet published in 1816, "Proposals for an Economical and Secure Currency with Observations on the Profits of the Bank of England," in Works, ed. McCulloch, 2d ed. (London, 1852), pp. 404 ff.
See Patterson, Der Krieg der Banken, trans. from the English by Holtzendorff (Berlin, 1867), pp. 17 ff.; Wolf, Verstaatlichung der Silberproduktion und andere Vorschläge zur Währungsfrage (Zurich, 1892), pp. 54 ff.; Wolf, "Eine international Banknote," in Zietscrift für Sozialwissenschaft (1908), vol 11, pp. 44 ff.
These words, written in 1911, need no addition today.
See De Greef, "La monnaie, le crédit et le change dans le commerce international," Revue economique internationale 4 (1911): 58 ff.

End of Notes

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