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

4. The Redemption Fund

A person who holds money substitutes and wishes to transact business with persons to whom these money substitutes are unfamiliar and therefore unacceptable in lieu of money is obliged to change the money substitutes into money. He goes to the body that is responsible for maintaining equivalence between the money substitutes and money and proceeds to enforce the claim that the money substitutes embody. He presents the notes (or token coins or similar form of currency) for conversion or withdraws his deposits. It follows from this that whoever issues money substitutes is never able to put more of them into circulation than will meet the needs of his customers for business among themselves. All issues in excess of this will return to the issuer, who will have to accept them in exchange for money if he does not wish to destroy the confidence on which his whole business is built up. (In view of what has been said in the preceding chapter and remains to be said in the following chapter, it should not be necessary to state expressly in this place also that this is true only when several coexisting banks issue money substitutes which have a limited capacity of circulation. If there is only a single bank issuing money substitutes, and if these money substitutes have an unlimited capacity of circulation, then there are no limits to the extension of the issue of fiduciary media. The case would be the same if all the banks had a common understanding as to the issue of their money substitutes and extended the circulation of them according to uniform principles.)

Thus, in the circumstances assumed, it is not possible for a bank to issue more money substitutes than its customers can use; everything in excess of this must flow back to it. There is no danger in this so long as the excess issue is one of money certificates; but an excess issue of fiduciary media is catastrophic.

Consequently the chief rule to be observed in the business of a credit-issuing bank is quite clear and simple: it must never issue more fiduciary media than will meet the requirements of its customers for their business with each other. But it must be admitted that there are unusually big difficulties in the practical application of this maxim for there is no way of determining the extent of these requirements on the part of customers. In the absence of any exact knowledge on this point the bank has to rely upon an uncertain empirical procedure which may easily lead to mistakes. Nevertheless, prudent and experienced bank directors—and most bank directors are prudent and experienced—usually manage pretty well with it.

It is only exceptionally that the clienteles of the credit-issuing banks as such extend beyond political boundaries. Even those banks that have branches in different countries give complete independence to their individual branches in the issue of money substitutes. Under present political conditions, uniform administration of banking firms domiciled in different countries would hardly be possible; and difficulties of banking technique and legislation, and finally difficulties of currency technique, stand in the way also. Furthermore, within individual countries it is usually possible to distinguish two categories of credit banks. On the one hand there is a privileged bank, which possesses a monopoly or almost a monopoly of the note issue, and whose antiquity and financial resources, and still more its extraordinary reputation throughout the whole country, give it a unique position. And on the other hand there is a series of rival banks, which have not the right of issue and which, however great their reputation and the confidence in their solvency, are unable to compete in the capacity for circulation of their money substitutes with the privileged bank, behind which stands the state with all its authority. Different principles apply to the policies of the two kinds of bank. For the banks of the second group, it is sufficient if they keep in readiness for the redemption of those money substitutes which are returned to them a certain sum of such assets as will enable them to command on demand the credit of the central bank. They extend the circulation of their fiduciary media as far as possible. If in so doing they exceed the issue that their customers can absorb, so that some of their fiduciary media are presented for redemption, then they procure from the central bank the necessary resources for this by rediscounting bills from their portfolio, or by pledging securities. Thus the essence of the policy that they must pursue to maintain their position as credit-issuing banks consists in always maintaining a sufficiently large quantity of such assets as the central bank regards as an adequate basis for granting credit.

The central banks have no such support from a more powerful and distinguished institution. They are thrown entirely upon their own resources, and must shape their policy accordingly. If they have put too many money substitutes into circulation so that holders apply for their redemption, then they have no other way out than that provided by their redemption fund. Consequently, it is necessary for them to see that there are never more of their fiduciary media in circulation than will meet the requirements of their customers. As has already been said, it is not possible to make a direct evaluation of these requirements. Only an indirect evaluation is practicable. The proportion of the total demand for money in the broader sense that cannot be satisfied by fiduciary media must be determined. This will be the quantity of money that is necessary for doing business with the persons who are not customers of the central bank; that is, the quantity required for purposes of foreign trade.

The demand for money for international trade is composed of two different elements. It consists, first, of the demand for those sums of money which, as a result of variations in the relative extent and intensity of the demand for money in different countries, are transported from one country to another until that position of equilibrium is reestablished in which the objective exchange value of money has the same level everywhere. It is impossible to avoid the transfers of money that are necessary on this account. It is true that we might imagine the establishment of an international deposit bank in which large sums of money were deposited, perhaps even all the money in the world, and made the basis of an issue of money certificates, that is, of notes or balances completely backed by money. This well might put a stop to the physical use of coins, and might in certain circumstances tend to a considerable reduction of costs; instead of coins being used, notes would be sent or transfers made in the books of the bank. But such external differences would not affect the nature of the process.

The other motive for international transfers of money is provided by those balances that arise in the international exchange of commodities and services. These have to be settled by transfers in opposite directions, and it is therefore theoretically possible to eliminate them completely by developing the clearing process.

In foreign-exchange dealings and the related transactions that in recent times have been united with them, there is a fine mechanism which cancels out nearly all such transfers of money. It is only exceptionally nowadays that two ships meet at sea, one of them taking gold from London to New York and the other bringing gold from New York to London. International transfers of money are controlled as a rule merely by variations in the ratio between the demand for money and the stock of money. Among these variations, those with the greatest practical importance are those which distribute the newly mined precious metals throughout the world, a process in which London often plays the part of a middleman. Apart from this, and provided that no extraordinary cause suddenly alters the relative demand for money in different countries, the transference of money from country to country cannot be particularly extensive. It may be assumed that, as a rule, the variations that occur in this way are not so great as those variations in stocks of money that are due to new production, or at least that they do not exceed them by very much. If this is true—and it is supported only by rough estimates—then the movements which are necessary for bringing the purchasing power of money to a common level will consist largely or entirely of variations in the distribution of the additional quantity of money only.

It is possible to estimate on empirical grounds that the relative demand for money in a country, that is, the extent and intensity of its demand for money in relation to the extent and intensity of the demand for money in other countries (this phrase being interpreted throughout in the broader sense), will not decrease within a relatively short period to such an extent as to cause the quantity of money and fiduciary media together in circulation to sink below such and such a fraction of its present amount. Of course, such estimates are necessarily based upon more or less arbitrary combinations of factors and it is obviously never out of the question that they will be subsequently upset by unforeseen events. But if the amount is estimated very conservatively, and if due account is also taken of the fact that the state of international trade may necessitate transfers of money from country to country if only temporarily, then, so long as the quantity of fiduciary media circulating within the country is not increased beyond the estimated amount and no money certificates are issued either, the accumulation of a redemption fund might prove altogether unnecessary. For so long as the issue of fiduciary media does not exceed this limit, and assuming of course the correctness of the estimate on which it is based, there can arise no demand for redemption of the fiduciary media. If, for example, the quantity of the banknotes, treasury notes, token coins, and deposits at present in circulation in Germany were reduced by the sum deposited as cover for it in the vaults of the banks, the money and credit system would not be changed in any way. Germany's power to transact business through the medium of money with foreign countries would not be affected.7 It is only the notes, deposits, and so forth, that are not covered by money that have the character of fiduciary media; it is these only and not those covered by money that have the effects on the determination of prices which it is the task of this part of our book to describe.

If the amount of fiduciary media in circulation were kept at a level below the limit set by the presumable maximum requirements of foreign trade, then it would be possible to do without a redemption reserve altogether, if it were not for a further circumstance that enters into the question. This circumstance is the following: if persons who needed a sum of money for foreign payments and were obliged to obtain it by the exchange of money substitutes could do this only through numerous money-changing transactions, perhaps involving an expenditure of time and trouble so that the procedure cost them something, this would militate against the complete equivalence of money substitutes and money, causing the former to circulate at a discount. Hence, if only on this account, a redemption fund of a certain amount would have to be maintained, even though the quantity of money actually in circulation was enough for trade with foreign countries. It follows from this that the fully backed note and the fully covered deposit, originally necessary in order to accustom the public to the use of these forms of money substitute, have still to be retained nowadays along with the superficially similar but essentially different fiduciary medium. A note or deposit currency with no money backing at all, that is, one which consists entirely of fiduciary media, still remains a practical impossibility.

If we look at the redemption funds of the self-sufficing banks, we shall observe in them an apparently quite irregular multifariousness. We shall observe that the kind and amount of cover of the money substitutes, especially those issued in note form, are regulated by a series of rules, constructed on quite different lines, partly by mercantile usage and partly by legislation. It is hardly correct to speak of different systems in this connection; that ambitious designation is little suited to empirical rules that have for the most part been founded on erroneous views of the nature of money and fiduciary media. There is, however, one idea that is expressed in all of them; the idea that the issue of fiduciary media needs to be limited by some kind of artificial restriction since it has no natural limits. Thus the question underlying all monetary policy, whether an unlimited increase of fiduciary media with its ineluctable consequence of a diminution in the objective exchange value of money is a thing to be encouraged, is implicitly answered in the negative.

Recognition of the need for an artificial limitation of the circulation of fiduciary media is, both on strictly scientific grounds and also on grounds of practical expediency, a product of economic inquiry during the first half of the nineteenth century. Its triumph over other views ended decades of such lively discussion as our science has seldom known, and at the same time concluded a period of uncertain experiment in the issuing of fiduciary media. During the years that have since elapsed, the grounds on which it was based have been subjected to criticism, sometimes ill founded, sometimes founded upon real objections. But the principle of limiting the issue of uncovered notes has not been abandoned in banking legislation. Nowadays it still constitutes an essential element in the banking policy of civilized nations, even if the circumstance that the limitation only applies to the issue of fiduciary media in the form of notes and not to the constantly growing issue in the form of deposits may make its practical importance less than it was some decades ago.

Limitation of fiduciary media also forms part of the money and credit system in India, the Philippines, and those countries that have imitated them, although in a different garb. No direct numerical proportion has been set up between the redemption fund administered by the government and the quantity of fiduciary media in circulation; any attempt to do this would have met with technical difficulties if only because it was impossible to calculate exactly what the quantity of fiduciary media was at the time of the transition to the new standard. But the further issue of fiduciary media in the form of legal-tender coinage is reserved to the state (it mostly requires special legislation) in a similar fashion to that in which the issue of token coinage and the like is regulated elsewhere.

  • 7. This example assumes the circumstances that existed before 1914.