Books / Digital Text
4. The Gold-Premium Policy
4. The Gold-Premium Policy11
Let us first review the systems which are supposed to be able to maintain the level of the rate of discount in the national money market by making it more difficult or more expensive to procure gold at a rate below that determined by the circumstances of the international market. The most important and most well known of these is the gold-premium policy, as it was carried out by the Bank of France.
In view of the circumstances that nowadays the silver five-franc piece is still legally current coin, the Bank of France is authorized to redeem its notes at its own choice either in gold or in these pieces. It sometimes used to make use of this authority for the purpose of increasing the difficulty of procuring gold for export purposes. As a rule it made no difficulty about surrendering gold in exchange for notes. And it exchanged five-franc pieces in the same way for gold coins, although it was not obliged to do so, and by so doing it endowed the latter with the property of being money substitutes. Naturally, these facilities were not requisitioned to a great extent for purposes of domestic business. Notes and five-franc pieces enjoyed unlimited public confidence so that their employability as money substitutes was not in the least in question. But if the bank was asked to surrender gold for export, it did not necessarily do so. It is true that it used to hand over gold unhesitatingly for the requirements of what was called "legitimate" trade, that is, when it was needed to pay for imported commodities, especially corn and cotton. But if gold was demanded for the purpose of speculating on the difference between home and foreign interest rates, it was not handed over as a matter of course. For this purpose, the bank did not issue Napoleons, the French gold coins, at all; and it issued ingots and foreign gold coins only at an additional charge, varying from four to eight percent of the 3,437 francs at which it was legally bound to purchase a kilogram of fine gold. It is impossible to state the exact amount of this "gold premium," because the rate has never been published officially.12
The purpose of the gold-premium policy was to postpone as long as ever possible the moment when the condition of the international money market would force the bank to raise the discount rate in order to prevent an efflux of gold. The lowness of the rate of discount is of extraordinary importance in French financial policy. In the interest of those classes of the community by which it is supported, the government of the Third Republic is obliged to avoid anything that might injure the high standing of the rentes which constitute the chief investment of those classes. Even a merely temporary high rate of discount is always dangerous to the rentes market, for it might induce some holders of rentes to dispose of their bonds in order to reinvest their capital more fruitfully, and the disturbance of the market that might result from this would have a disproportionately adverse effect on the quotation of the rentes. It is undeniable that the result aimed at was to a certain extent attained, even though the premium policy by no means possessed the significance that was erroneously ascribed to it.
It is above all mistaken to ascribe the lowness of the rate of discount in France to the procedure that has been described. If the rate of discount has been lower in France than in other countries, this is due to altogether different causes. France is of all the countries in the whole world that which is richest in capital; but its people are not greatly endowed with the spirit of initiative and enterprise.13 Consequently its capital has to emigrate. Now in a country which exports capital, even disregarding the premium for risk-bearing that is contained in the gross rate of interest, the rate of interest on loans must be lower than in a country which imports capital. Capitalists, when comparing the yields of home and foreign investment, are led by a series of psychological factors to prefer the former to the latter when other circumstances are equal. This is enough to explain why long-term and short-term investments bear lower interest in France than in other countries, such as Germany. The cause is a general economic cause; it is a matter in which measures of banking or currency policy can have no influence. The ratio between the rate of interest in France and that abroad could not for long be forced away by the premium policy of the Bank of France from that determined by the general economic situation. The Bank of France was not above the laws that govern the course of economic affairs. In fixing the level of its discount rate, it was not exempt from the necessity for paying due attention to the level of the natural rate of interest. Like every other credit-issuing bank that has an influence on the domestic market, it had to endeavor to keep the rate of interest on domestic short-term investments at such a level that foreign investment did not appear so attractive to home capitalists as to endanger the bank's own solvency. Like the others, the Bank of France could effectively prevent an outflow of gold in one way only—by raising its discount rate.14 Employing the premium policy could do no more than postpone for a short time a rise in the rate of discount that the state of the international money market had made necessary. The premium made it more expensive to export gold and so reduced the profitability of interest arbitrage transactions. When it was widely believed that the difference between the French and the foreign rates of interest was about to be altered in France's favor through a fall in the foreign rate, then arbitrage dealers would not export gold at all, since the small profit of the transaction would be too greatly reduced by the premium. In this way the Bank of France may sometimes have avoided raising the discount rate when it would otherwise have been necessary to do so for a short time. But whenever the difference between the rates of interest was significant enough to make short-term foreign investment still promise to be profitable in spite of the increased cost of procuring gold due to the premium, and whenever the result of arbitrage dealings was not jeopardized by the prospect of an imminent reduction of the foreign rate, then even the Bank of France could not avoid raising the rate of interest.
It has been asserted that it is possible for a central bank to use successive increases of the premium so as entirely to prevent the export of gold if it continually forces back the gold point or export limit as the fall in the rate of exchange requires.15 This is undoubtedly correct. The procedure, as is well known, has been employed repeatedly; it is known as cessation of cash payments. The bank that adopts it deprives its fiduciary media of their character of money substitutes. If they continue to function as general media of exchange, it is in the role of credit money. Their value will have become subject to independent variation. In such a case, it is admittedly possible for the bank to follow a completely independent discount policy; it may now reduce to any desired extent the rate of interest it charges without running the risk of insolvency. But this brings to light the consequences that must follow a banking policy that endeavors by extending the issue of fiduciary media to depress the rate of interest on loans below the natural rate of interest. This point has already been discussed in detail; in the present connection there is a second point that is of importance. If the intervention of the bank leads to the artificial retention of the rate of interest on loans at a level below that of the rate given by international conditions, then the capitalists will be all the more anxious to invest their capital abroad as the gap between the domestic and foreign rates of interest increases. The demand for foreign common media of exchange will increase, because foreign capital goods will be desired more and home capital goods less. And there is no way in which the fall in the rate of exchange could automatically set forces in motion to reestablish between the bank money and gold, the world money, that exchange ratio which had previously existed when the notes and deposits of the bank were not credit money but still money substitutes. The mechanism of the monetary system tends to bring the exchange value of the two kinds of money to that "natural" level determined by the exchange ratio between each of them and the remaining goods. But in the present case it is the natural exchange ratio itself which has moved against the country that refuses to pay out gold. An "autonomous" interest policy must necessarily lead to progressive depredation.
There are many advocates of the gold-premium policy who make no attempt to deny that its employment in the way in which they intend must infallibly lead to a credit-money or fiat-money standard with a rapidly falling objective exchange value of the unit. In fact, they are inclined to regard this very fact as a special advantage; for they are, more or less, inflationists.16
Nevertheless, this was by no means the way in which the Bank of France carried out its premium policy. It observed a fixed limit, above which it never allowed the premium to rise in any circumstances whatever. Eight per mill is probably the highest premium that it has ever demanded. And this was certainly not an error on the part of the bank; it was founded on the nature of the case. In the eyes of the French government and of the administration of the bank controlled by it, the amount of depreciation consequent upon a gold premium of eight percent was not intolerable; but, in view of the unpredictable reactions throughout the whole community it was thought better to avoid further depreciation. Thus the French gold-premium policy was not able to prevent the export of gold altogether, but could only postpone it for a short time. Now this fact alone, and not only when the difference between the rates of interest was so inconsiderable and transient that the rate of discount did not need to be raised at all, meant a cheapening of the rate of interest on loans. But this was offset by the increase in the rate of interest during those periods when the rate of interest abroad was relatively low. Whenever the loan rate abroad sank so low that it might have seemed advantageous to capitalists to transfer capital to France for investment, they nevertheless refrained from doing so if a long continuance of the situation could not be reckoned with or if the difference between the rates was not very great, because they had reason to fear that a subsequent repatriation of the capital when the situation was reversed would be possible only at an increased cost. Thus the gold-premium policy did not merely constitute a hindrance to the efflux of gold from France; it also hindered an influx. It reduced the rate of interest on loans at certain times, but raised it at other times. It is true that it did not altogether exclude the country from international dealings in capital; it only made participation in them harder; but it did this in both directions. Its effect, the intensity of which should not be overestimated, was principally expressed in the fact that the rate of interest for short-term investments has been more stable in France than in other countries. It has never sunk so low as in England, for example; but neither has it ever risen so high. This is shown quite dearly by a comparison of movements in the London and Paris loan rates.
It has become more and more clearly recognized that the gold-premium policy could not have these effects ascribed to it. Those who once regarded it as the remedy for all ills are gradually becoming silent.
- 11. [See p. 13 above. H.E.B.]
- 12. See Rosendorff, "Die Goldprämienpolitik der Banque de France und ihre deutschen Lobredner," Jahrbücher für Nationalökonomie und Statistik 21 (1901): 632 ff.; Dunbar, Chapters on the Theory and History of Banking, 2d ed. (New York, 1907), pp. 147 ff.
- 13. See Kaufmann, Das französische Bankwesen (Tübingen, 1911), pp. 35 ff.
- 14. On this, see Rosendorff, op. cit., pp. 640 ff., and passages cited in the essay "Die neue Richtung in der Goldpolitik der Bank von Frankreich," Bank-Archiv. 7 (1907): (72) ff., taken from the statements of account of the Bank of France, in which the raising of the discount rate is spoken of as the "seul moyen connu de défendre l'encaisse.
- 15. See Landesberger, Währungssystem und Relation (Vienna, 1891), p. 104.
- 16. Ibid., p. 105, and Über die Goldprämienpolitik der Zettelbanken (Vienna, 1892), p. 28.