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Part Three: Money and Banking > Chapter 18. The Redemption of Fiduciary Media

2. The Return of Fiduciary Media to the Issuer

The view has sometimes been expressed that if an issuing body wishes to secure equivalence between its fiduciary media and the money to which they refer, it should take precautions so as to be able to redeem those fiduciary media that are returned to it through lack of confidence on the part of the holders. It is impossible to subscribe to this view; for it completely fails to recognize the significance and object of a conversion fund. It cannot be the function of a conversion fund to enable the issuing body to redeem its fiduciary media when its counters are besieged by holders who have lost confidence in them. Confidence in the capacity of circulation of fiduciary media is not an individual phenomenon; either it is shared by everybody or it does not exist at all. Fiduciary media can fulfill their function only on the condition that they are fully equivalent to the sums of money to which they refer. They cease to be equivalent to these sums of money as soon as confidence in the issuer is shaken even if only among a part of the community. The yokel who presents his note for redemption in order to convince himself of the bank's capacity to pay, which nobody else doubts, is only a comic figure that the bank has no need to fear It need not make any special arrangements or take any special precautions on his account. But any bank that issues fiduciary media is forced to suspend payments if everybody begins to present notes for redemption or to withdraw deposits. Any such bank is powerless against a panic; no system and no policy can help it then. This follows necessarily from the very nature of fiduciary media, which imposes upon those who issue them the obligation to pay a sum of money which they cannot command.1

The history of the last two centuries contains more than one example of such catastrophes. Those banks that have succumbed to the onslaughts of noteholders and depositors have been reproached with bringing about the collapse by granting credit imprudently, by tying up their capital, or by advancing loans to the state; extremely serious charges have been brought against their directors. Where the state itself has been the issuer of the fiduciary media, the impossibility of maintaining their redeemability has usually been ascribed to their having been issued in defiance of precepts based on banking experience. It is obvious that this attitude is due to a misunderstanding. Even if the banks had put all their assets in short investments, that is, in investments that could have been realized in a relatively short time, they would not have been able to meet the demands of their creditors. This follows merely from the fact that the banks' claims fall due only after notice has been given, while those of their creditors are payable on demand. Thus there lies an irresolvable contradiction in the nature of fiduciary media. Their equivalence to money depends on the promise that they will at any time be converted into money at the demand of the person entitled to them and on the fact that proper precautions are taken to make this promise effective. But—and this is likewise involved in the nature of fiduciary media—what is promised is an impossibility insofar as the bank is never able to keep its loans perfectly liquid. Whether the fiduciary media are issued in the course of banking operations or not, immediate redemption is always impracticable if the confidence of the holders has been lost.

  • 1. See Ricardo, "Proposals," in Works, ed. McCulloch, 2d ed. (London, 1852), p. 406; Walras, Études d'économie politique appliquée (Lausanne, 1898), pp. 365 f.