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Part Three: Money and Banking > Chapter 20. Problems of Credit Policy > II. Problems of Credit Policy Before...

2. Peel’s Act

Peel's Bank Act, and the ideas on which it was based, still sets the standard by which credit policy is ultimately governed nowadays; even those countries that do not follow the example of the English bank legislation, or do not follow it so faithfully as others, have yet not been able to withstand its influence altogether. Here we are confronted with a strange phenomenon. While the economic literature of all countries was directing the most violent and passionate attacks against the system of having a fixed quota of the note issue not backed by metal; while people were untiring in calling Peel's Act the unfortunate legislative product of a mistaken theory; while the currency principle continued to be represented as a system of erroneous hypotheses that had long been confuted; yet one legislature after another took steps to limit the issue of uncovered banknotes. And, remarkably enough, this procedure on the part of governments evoked but little censure, if any at all, from those whose views on banking theory should logically have led them most severely to condemn it. To start from the banking principle, which denies the possibility of an overissue of banknotes and regards "elasticity" as their essential characteristic, is necessarily to arrive at the conclusion that any limitation of the circulation of notes, whether they are backed by money or not, must prove injurious, since it prevents the exercise of the chief function of the note issue, the contrivance of an adjustment between the stock of money and the demand for money without changing the objective exchange value of money. It might easily have appeared desirable to Tooke's followers that provision should be made for backing that part of the note circulation that was not backed by metal; but logically they should have condemned the prescription that a certain proportion was to be maintained between the stock of metal and the note circulation. There is an irreconcilable contradiction, however, between the theoretical arguments of these writers and the practical conclusions that they draw from them. Scarcely any writer that need be taken seriously ventures to put forward proposals that might fundamentally disturb the various systems for restricting the unbacked note issue; not a single one definitely demands their complete abolition. Nothing could show the inherent uncertainty and lack of independence of modern banking theory better than this inconsistency. That the note issue must somehow be restricted in order to guard against serious evils is still accepted today as the essence of government wisdom in matters of banking policy, and the science which claims to have produced proof to the contrary always ends up by deferring to this dogma, which nobody is nowadays able to prove and everybody thinks himself able to refute. The conversatism of the English hinders them from meddling with a law which stands as a monument to an intellectual contest which went on for many years and in which the best men of the time participated; and the example of the world's chief bank influences all the other banks. The conclusions of two generations of economists have not been able to shake the opinions which are supposed to be the result of practical banking experience.

Many serious errors are involved in the currency principle. The most serious lies in its failure to recognize the essential similarity of banknotes and bank deposits.3 Its opponents have skillfully discovered these weak spots in the system and directed their sharpest attacks accordingly.4 But the doctrine of the Currency School does not stand or fall by its views on the nature of checks and deposits. It is enough to correct it on this one point—to take its propositions concerning the issue of notes and apply them also to the opening of deposit accounts—to silence the censures of those who adhere to the banking principle. That its mistake on this point is of small significance in comparison with that made by the banking principle can hardly need further discussion. And in any case, it does not seem an inexcusable mistake to have made if we take into account the relatively backward development of even the English deposit system at the time when the foundations of the classical theory of banking were being laid, and if we further consider the ease with which the legal differences between payment by note and payment by check might give rise to error.

As far as Peel's Act was concerned, however, this very shortcoming of the theory that had created it turned out to be an advantage; it caused the incorporation in it of the safety valve without which it would not have been able to cope with the subsequent increase in the requirements of business. The fundamental mistake of Peel's system, which it shares with all other systems which proceed by restricting the note circulation, lies in its failure to foresee the extension of the quota of notes not backed by metal that went with the increase in the demand for money in the broader sense. As far as the past was concerned, the act sanctioned the creation of a certain amount of fiduciary media and the influence that this had on the determination of the objective exchange value of money; it did not do anything to counteract the effects of this issue of fiduciary media. But at the same time, in order to guard the capital market from shocks, it removed all future possibility of partly or wholly satisfying the increasing demand for money by the issuing of fiduciary media and so of mitigating or entirely preventing a rise in the objective exchange value of money. This amounts to the same thing as suppressing the creation of fiduciary media altogether and so renouncing all the attendant advantages for the stabilization of the objective exchange value of money. It is an heroic remedy with a vengeance, in essence hardly differing at all from the proposals of the downright opponents of all fiduciary media.

Nevertheless, something was overlooked in the calculations of the currency theorists. They did not realize that unbacked deposits were substantially the same as unbacked notes, and so they omitted to legislate for them in the same way as for the notes. So far as the development of fiduciary media depended on the issue of notes, Peel's Act completely restricted it; so far as it depended on the open ing of deposit accounts, it was not interfered with at all. This forced the technique of the English banking system in a direction in which it had already been urged in some degree by the circumstance that the right of note issue in London and its environs was an exclusive privilege of the Bank of England. The deposit system developed at the expense of the note system. From the point of view of the community this was a matter of indifference because notes and deposits both fulfill the same functions. Thus Peel's Act did not achieve its aim, or at least not in the degree and manner that its authors had intended; fiduciary media, suppressed as banknotes, developed in the form of deposits.

It is true that German writers on banking held that it was possible to discover a fundamental difference between notes and deposits. But they did not succeed in demonstrating their contention; in fact they did not really attempt to do so. Nowhere is the inherent weakness of German banking theory more obvious than in connection with this particular question of the note versus the check, which for years has been the central issue of all discussion. Anybody who, like them, had learned from the English Banking School that there is no fundamental difference between notes and checks, and was in the constant habit of stressing this,5 should at least be prepared to supply a detailed proof in support of an assertion that the banknote system represents "an earlier and lower stage of development of the credit economy" than the deposit bank and the check, with the connected system of the account current, book credit, and clearinghouse.6 Certainly reference to England and the United States cannot be accepted as proof of the correctness of this assertion, least of all in the mouth of a decided opponent of Peel's Act and of the restriction of the note issue in general; for it is undeniable that the great importance of the deposit system and the decreasing relative importance of the banknote in Anglo-Saxon countries are the result of that act. The consequence is that the German literature on banking theory is full of almost unbelievable contradictions.7

The repression of the banknote, as it has occurred in England and in the United States—in different ways and for different reasons, but as a result of the same fundamental ideas—and the corresponding growth in importance of the deposit, and the additional circumstance that the organization of the deposit banks has not attained that soundness that would have enabled it to retain the public confidence during dangerous crises, have led to serious disturbances. In England, as also in the United States, it has repeatedly happened in times of crisis that confidence has been destroyed in those banks that circulate fiduciary media in the form of deposits, while confidence in banknotes has been maintained. The measures by which the consequences which such a collapse of a part of the national business organization would infallibly have involved were avoided are well known. In England an attempt was made to fill the gap in the circulation which was due to the lack of large quantities of fiduciary media by the Bank of England being ready to increase the issue of its own notes. In the United States, where the law made this solution impossible, the clearinghouse certificates served the same purpose.8 In both countries, attempts to give this device a legislative basis were made. But Lowe's bill was not passed, and even the Aldrich-Vreeland Act in the United States had only a partial success.9

None of the many systems of limiting the note circulation has proved ultimately capable of interposing an insurmountable obstacle in the way of further creation of fiduciary media. This is equally true of Peel's Act, which completely forbids the new issue of fiduciary media in the shape of notes, and of such bank-of-issue legislation in other states as does leave a certain scope for the augmentation of notes not backed by money. Between the English act of 1844 and, say, the German act of 1875, there seems to be a fundamental difference: while the one rigidly fixes, for all time, the quota of the note circulation not backed by metal, the other, inasmuch as it only requires that a certain proportion of the note circulation shall be backed by metal and puts a tax upon the rest, does make provision within certain limits for its future extension. But everything depends upon the scope that is thus provided for extending the issue of fiduciary media. If it had been wide enough to give free play to the development of the unbacked note circulation, then the German law —and the same is true, not only of other laws based on the same principle (for example, the Austrian), but also of those that attempt to limit the circulation of notes in other ways, as for example, the French—would have had fundamentally different results from the English. Since in fact it proved to be too narrow for this, the difference between the two laws is merely one of degree, not one of kind. All these laws have limited the issue of fiduciary media in the form of notes, but have set no limits to their issue in the form of deposits. Making the issue of notes more difficult was bound to promote an increased employment of deposits; in place of the note, the deposit account came into prominence. For the development of the credit system, this change was not altogether a matter of indifference. The note is technically superior to the deposit in medium and small transactions; in many cases for which it might have been used as a money substitute, checks or clearing transfers could not be used, and in such cases restriction of the issue of fiduciary media in the form of notes was bound to have the effect of restriction of the issue of fiduciary media in general. Under the law of the United States of America, the issue of fiduciary media in the shape of deposits is also restricted; but since this only applies to some of the banks, namely, the national banks, it is not enough to make a big difference between the deposit business of the United States and that of the other countries in which no similar regulations have been established.

The real obstacle in the way of an unlimited extension of the issue of fiduciary media is not constituted by legislative restriction of the note issue, which, after all, only affects a certain kind of fiduciary medium, but the lack of a centralized world bank or of uniform procedure on the part of all credit-issuing banks. So long as the banks do not come to an agreement among themselves concerning the extension of credit, the circulation of fiduciary media can indeed be increased slowly, but it cannot be increased in a sweeping fashion. Each individual bank can only make a small step forward and must then wait until the others have followed its example. Every bank is obliged to regulate its interest policy in accordance with that of the others.

  • 3. See Torrens, The Principles and Practical Operation of Sir Robert Peel's Act of 1844 Explained and Defended, 2d ed. (London, 1857), pp. 8 ff.
  • 4. See Tooke, An Inquiry into the Currency Principle (London, 1844), pp. 23 ff.
  • 5. See Wagner, "Banknote," in Rentzsch, Handwörterbuch der Volkswirtschaftslehre (Leipzig, 1866), p. 91.
  • 6. See Wagner, "Kredit," ibid., p. 201.
  • 7. See Schumacher's criticism of this contradiction, Weltwirtschaftliche Studien (Leipzig, 1911), pp. 62 ff.
  • 8. See Cannon, Clearinghouses: Their History, Methods and Administration (New York, 1900), pp. 79 ff.
  • 9. The Federal Reserve Act has since provided the United States with a basis for issuing notes in order to allay a panic.