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Part Three: Money and Banking > Chapter 16. The Evolution of Fiduciary Media

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countries, the actual use of money for transacting exchanges made with the help of money has been very largely superseded by the use of money substitutes.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continued to be in actual circulation at all in a series of states, like Germany and England, and was not entirely superseded by fiduciary media and money certificates, was due solely to legislative intervention.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.7 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. Lindsay8 and Proby9 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.10

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.11

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.12

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,13 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.

  • 7. 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.
  • 8. 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.
  • 9. See Probyn, Indian Coinage and Currency (London, 1897), pp. 1 ff.
  • 10. 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.
  • 11. 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.
  • 12. See Conant, "The Gold Exchange Standard in the Light of Experience," The Economic Journal 19 (1909): 200.
  • 13. 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.