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Part Three: Money and Banking > Chapter 15. The Business of Banking

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.