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Part Three: Money and Banking > Chapter 19. Money, Credit, and Interest

1. On the Nature of the Problem

It is the object of this chapter to investigate the connection between the amount of money in circulation and the level of the rate of interest. It has already been shown that variations in the proportion between the quantity of money and the demand for money influence the level of the exchange ratio between money and other economic goods. It now remains for us to investigate whether the variations thus evoked in the prices of commodities affect goods of the first order and goods of higher orders to the same extent. Until now we have considered variations in the exchange ratio between money and consumption goods only and left out of account the exchange ratio between money and production goods. This procedure would seem to be justifiable, for the determination of the value of consumption goods is the primary process and that of the value of production goods is derived from it. Capital goods or production goods derive their value from the value of their prospective products; nevertheless, their value never reaches the full value of these prospective products, but as a rule remains somewhat below it. The margin by which the value of capital goods falls short of that of their expected products constitutes interest; its origin lies in the natural difference of value between present goods and future goods.1 If price variations due to monetary determinants happened to affect production goods and consumption goods in different degrees—and the possibility cannot be dismissed offhand—then they would lead to a change in the rate of interest. The problem suggested by this is identical with a second, although they are usually dealt with separately: Can the rate of interest be affected by the credit policy of the banks that issue fiduciary media? Are banks able to depress the rate of interest charged by them, for those loans that their power to issue fiduciary media enables them to make, until it reaches the limit set by the technical working costs of their lending business? The question that confronts us here is the much discussed question of the gratuitous nature of bank credit.

In lay circles this problem is regarded as long since solved. Money performs its function as a common medium of exchange in facilitating not only the sale of present goods but also the exchange of present goods for future goods and of future goods for present goods. An entrepreneur who wishes to acquire command over capital goods and labor in order to begin a process of production must first of all have money with which to purchase them. For a long time now it has not been usual to transfer capital goods by way of direct exchange. The capitalists advance money to the producers, who then use it for buying means of production and for paying wages. Those entrepreneurs who have not enough of their own capital at their disposal do not demand production goods, but money. The demand for capital takes on the form of a demand for money. But this must not deceive us as to the nature of the phenomenon. What is usually called plentifulness of money and scarcity of money is really plentifulness of capital and scarcity of capital. A real scarcity or plentifulness of money can never be directly perceptible in the community, that is, it can never make itself felt except through its influence on the objective exchange value of money and the consequences of the variations so induced. For since the utility of money depends exclusively upon its purchasing power, which must always be such that total demand and total supply coincide, the community is always in enjoyment of the maximum satisfaction that the use of money can yield.

This was not recognized for a long time and to a large extent it is not recognized even nowadays. The entrepreneur who would like to extend his business beyond the bounds set by the state of the market is prone to complain of the scarcity of money. Every increase in the rate of discount gives rise to fresh complaints about the illiberality of the banks' methods or about the unreasonableness of the legislators who make the rules that limit their powers of granting credit. The augmentation of fiduciary media is recommended as a universal remedy for all the ills of economic life. Much of the popularity of inflationary tendencies is based on similar ways of thinking. And it is not only laymen who subscribe to such views. Even if experts have been unanimous on this point since the famous arguments of David Hume and Adam Smith,2 almost every year new writers come forward with attempts to show that the size and composition of the stock of capital has no influence on the level of interest, that the rate of interest is determined by the supply of and the demand for credit, and that, without having to raise the rate of interest, the banks would be able to satisfy even the greatest demands for credit that are made upon them, if their hands were not tied by legislative provisions.3

The superficial observer whose insight is not very penetrating will discover many symptoms which seem to confirm the above views and others like them. When the banks-of-issue proceed to raise the rate of discount because their note circulation threatens to increase beyond the legally permissible quantity, then the most immediate cause of their procedure lies in the provisions that have been made by the legislators for the regulation of their right of issue. The general stiffening of the rate of interest in the so-called money market, the market for short-term capital investments, which occurs, or at least should occur, as a consequence of the rise of the discount rate, is therefore, and with a certain appearance of justification, laid to the charge of national banking policy. Still more striking is the procedure of the central banks when they think it beyond their power to bring about the desired general dearness in the money market by merely increasing the bank rate: they take steps which have the immediate object of forcing up the rate of interest demanded by the other national credit-issuing banks in their short-term-loan business. The Bank of England is in the habit in such circumstances of forcing consols on the open market,4 the German Reichsbank of offering Treasury bonds for discount. If these methods are considered by themselves, without account being taken of their function in the market, then it seems reasonable to conclude that legislation and the self-seeking policy of the banks are responsible for the rise in the rate of interest. Inadequate Understanding of the complicated relationships of economic life makes all such legislative provisions appear to be measures in favor of capitalism and against the interest of the producing classes.5

But the defenders of orthodox banking policy have been no happier in their arguments. They evidence no very considerable insight into the problems lying behind such slogans as "protection of the standard" and "control of excessive speculation." Their prolix discussions are generously garnished with statistical data that are incapable of proving anything, and they devote scrupulous attention to the avoidance of the big questions of theory that constitute the bulk of their subject. It is undeniable that there are some excellent works of a descriptive nature to be found among the huge piles of valueless publications on banking policy of recent years, but it is equally undeniable that with a few honorable exceptions their contribution to theory cannot compare with the literary memorials left by the great controversy of the Currency and Banking Schools.

The older English writers on the theory of the banking system made a determined attempt to apprehend the essence of the problem. The question around which their investigations centered is whether there is a limit to the granting of credit by the banks; it is identical with the question of the gratuitous nature of credit; it is most intimately connected with the problem of interest. During the first four decades of the nineteenth century the Bank of England was able to regulate only to a limited degree the amount of credit granted by varying the rate of discount. Because of the legislative restriction of the rate of interest which was not removed until 1837 it could not raise its rate of discount above five percent; and it never allowed it to fall below four percent.6 At that time the best means it had of adjusting its portfolio to the state of the capital market was the expansion and contraction of its discounting activities. That explains why the old writers on banking theory mostly speak only of increases and diminutions of the note circulation, a mode of expression that was still retained long after the circumstances of the time would have justified reference to rises and falls in the rate of discount. But this does not affect the essence of the matter; in both problems, the only point at issue is whether the banks can grant credit beyond the available amount of capital or not.7

Both parties were agreed in answering this question in the negative. This is not surprising. These English writers had an extraordinarily deep understanding of the nature of economic activities; they combined thorough knowledge of the theoretical literature of their time with an insight into economic life that was based upon their own observations. Their strictly logical training permitted them rapidly and easily to separate essentials from nonessentials and guarded them from mistaking the outer husk of truth for the kernel that it encloses. Their views on the nature of interest might diverge considerably—many of them, in fact, had but the vaguest ideas on this important problem, whose significance was not made explicit until a later stage in the development of the science—but they harbored no doubts that the level of the rate of interest as determined by general economic conditions could certainly not be influenced by an increase or diminution in the quantity of money or other media of payment in circulation, apart from considerations of the increase in the stock of goods available for productive purposes that might be brought about by the diminution of the demand for money.

But beyond this the paths of the two schools diverged. Tooke, Fullarton, and their disciples flatly denied that the banks had any power to increase the amount of their note issue beyond the requirements of business. In their view, the media of payment issued by the banks at any particular time adjust themselves to the requirements of business in such a way that with their assistance the payments that have to be made at that time at a given level of prices can all be settled by the use of the existing quantity of money. As soon as the circulation is saturated, no bank, whether it has the right to issue notes or not, can continue to grant credit except from its own capital or from that of its depositors.8 These views were directly opposed to those of Lord Overstone, Torrens, and others, who started by assuming the possibility of the banks having the power of arbitrarily extending their note issue, and who attempted to determine the way in which the disturbed equilibrium of the market would reestablish itself after such a proceeding. 9 The Currency School propounded a theory, complete in itself, of the value of money and the influence of the granting of credit on the prices of commodities and on the rate of interest. Its doctrines were based upon an untenable fundamental view of the nature of economic value; its version of the quantity theory was a purely mechanical one. But the school should certainly not be blamed for this: its members had neither the desire nor the power to rise above the economic doctrine of their time. Within the Currency School's own sphere of investigation, it was extremely successful. This fact deserves grateful recognition from those who, coming after it, build upon the foundations it laid. This needs particular emphasis in the face of the belittlements of its influence which now appear to be part of the stock contents of all writings on banking theory. The shortcomings exhibited by the system of the Currency School have offered an easy target to the critical shafts of their opponents, and doubtless the adherents of the banking principle deserve much credit for making use of this opportunity. If this had been all that they did, if they had merely announced themselves as critics of the currency principle, no objection could be raised against them on that account. The disastrous thing about their influence lay in their claiming to have created a comprehensive theory of the monetary and banking systems and in their imagining that their obiter dicta on the subject constituted such a theory. For the classical theory whose shortcomings should not be extenuated but whose logical acuteness and deep insight into the complications of the problem are undeniable, they substituted a series of assertions that were not always formulated with precision and often contradicted one another. In so doing they paved the way for that method of dealing with monetary problems that was customary in our science before the labors of Menger began to bear their fruit.10

The fatal error of Fullarton and his disciples was to have overlooked the fact that even convertible banknotes remain permanently in circulation and can then bring about a glut of fiduciary media the consequences of which resemble those of an increase in the quantity of money in circulation. Even if it is true, as Fullarton insists, that banknotes issued as loans automatically flow back to the bank after the term of the loan has passed, still this does not tell us anything about the question whether the bank is able to maintain them in circulation by repeated prolongation of the loan. The assertion that lies at the heart of the position taken up by the Banking School, namely that it is impossible to set and permanently maintain in circulation more notes than will meet the public demand, is untenable; for the demand for credit is not a fixed quantity; it expands as the rate of interest falls, and contracts as the rate of interest rises. But since the rate of interest that is charged for loans made in fiduciary media created expressly for that purpose can be reduced by the banks in the first instance down to the limit set by the marginal utility of the capital used in the banking business, that is, practically to zero, the whole edifice built up by Tooke's school collapses.

It is not our task to give a historical exposition of the controversy between the two famous English schools, however tempting an enterprise that may be. We must content ourselves with reiterating that the works of the much abused Currency School contain far more in the way of useful ideas and fruitful thoughts than is usually assumed, especially in Germany, where as a rule the school is known merely through the writings of its opponents, such as Tooke and Newmarch's History of Prices, J. S. Mill's Principles, and German versions of the banking principle which are deficient in comprehension of the nature of the problems they deal with.

Before proceeding to investigate the influence of the creation of fiduciary media on the determination of the objective exchange value of money and on the level of the rate of interest, we must devote a few pages to the problem of the relationship between variations in the quantity of money and variations in the rate of interest.

  • 1. The fact that I have followed the terminology and method of attack of Böhm-Bawerk's theory of interest throughout this chapter does not imply that I am an adherent of that theory or am able to regard it as a satisfactory solution of the problem. But the present work does not afford scope for the exposition of my own views on the problem of interest; that must be reserved for a special study, which I hope will appear in the not too distant future. In such circumstances I have had no alternative but to develop my argument on the basis of Böhm-Bawerk's theory. Böhm-Bawerk's great achievement is the foundation of the work of all those who until now have dealt with the problem of interest since his time, and may well be the foundation of the work of those who will do so in the future. He was the first to clear the way that leads to understanding of the problem; he was the first to make it possible systematically to relate the problem of interest to that of the value of money.
  • 2. See Hume, Essays, ed. Frowde (London), pp. 303 ff.; Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Cannan's ed. (London, 1930), vol. 2, pp. 243 ff.; see also J. S. Mill, Principles of Political Economy (London, 1867), pp. 296 f.
  • 3. See, for example, Georg Schmidt, Kredit und Zins (Leipzig, 1910), pp. 38 ff.
  • 4. The transaction is conducted by the bank selling part of its consols "for money" and buying them back immediately "on account." The on-account price is higher, because it contains a large part of the interest that is almost due; the margin between the two prices represents the compensation that the bank pays for the loan. The cost that this entails is made up for by the fact that the bank now gets a larger proportion of the lending business. See Jaffé, Das englische Bankwesen, 2d ed. (Leipzig, 1910), p. 250.
  • 5. See, for example, Arendt, Geld—Bank—Börse (Berlin, 1907), p. 19.
  • 6. See Gilbart, The History, Principles and Practice of Banking, rev. ed. (London, 1904), vol. 1, p. 98.
  • 7. See Wicksell, Geldzins und Güterpreise (Jena, 1898), p. 74. Indeed, even the writers of that period do frequently deal with the problem of a change in the rate of interest; see, for example, Tooke, An Inquiry into the Currency Principle (London, 1844), p. 224.
  • 8. See Tooke, An Inquiry into the Currency Principle (London, 1844), pp. 121 ff.; Fullarton, On the Regulation of Currencies, 2d ed. (London, 1845), pp. 82 ff.; Wilson, Capital, Currency and Banking (London, 1847), pp. 67 ff. Wagner follows the train of thought of these writers in his Die Geld-und Kredittheorie der Peelschen Bankakte, pp. 135 ff.
  • 9. See Torrens, The Principles and Practical Operation of Sir Robert Peel's Act of 1844 Explained and Defended, 2d ed. (London, 1857), pp. 57 ff.; Overstone, Tracts and Other Publications on Metallic and Paper Currency (London, 1858), passim.
  • 10. See Wicksell, op. cit., pp. 1 ff.