The Accounting System #3: Banks, Credit, and Gold Cycles
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previous: The Coin Age
The banking system, which was at the heart of the accounting system, was also found to be wanting for a modern economy. This is because the banking system had three separate functions which did not go well together. It became the core of the social accounting system: a man might claim to be rich, but it his bank checks bounced, people knew the reality was otherwise. It allowed its depositors to keep their money safe and perhaps earn a bit of interest. To make a profit, bankers had to loan out the money of their depositors at an interest rate sufficient to keep their depositors happy, pay for the costs of operation, and still come out ahead. This was the credit system.
The credit system of the early 1800's in the United States is worth a close look because of the way it resembled and differed from our present system. Individuals were more likely to be sources of credits, which typically took the form of "IOUs." Andrew Jackson, before he became President, is a well documented example. Like most Americans of the era, he seldom could put his hands on much cash or coin, but he owned land, race horses, and slaves of considerable value. If he purchased goods he would write a personal note, an IOU, which he pledged to redeem at a later date, say when he received some cash to pay for his cotton crop.
A creditor holding the Jackson note might want to spend it before then, and would sign it over to another man, perhaps to buy or horse. If a man was considered to have good credit, as Jackson was, his notes might circulate for some time and be considered more sound than bank notes. If a note was collectable, and you took it to the Hermitage to demand payment, and Jackson still had no cash, he might try to pay you off with a slave, dog, horse, or perhaps some wine or whiskey. In effect Andrew would discount his own note, giving you, perhaps, a $250 race horse for a $200 note. As long as he did that, his credit remained good. Similarly, if you were another local slaver and wanted to by some possession of Jackson's and he was willing to sell, he would probably accept your IOU (which, along with the shortage of gold, was one reason most people had very little cash to play with).
The primitive banks of that era were in a strangely similar position to private individuals like Jackson. The bank might actually own nothing but a license from the state (usually obtained by bribing legislators), but usually began with a little bit of gold or silver coin. Banks would take deposits – hopefully coin, but also other bank's notes – and then would start making loans, which is to say, creating credit. They tried to avoid loaning their coins, instead issuing their own bank notes. If too many people came in demanding that the bank notes be redeemed in coin, the coin would run out, depositors would demand their deposits, and the bank would fail. The more clever bankers liked to loan to people a goodly distance from home, so that their notes would circulate afar and be unlikely to be redeemed.
This system led to credit cycles of boom and bust. When people were confident in the banknotes and IOUs a speculator could buy land and be confident of selling it in a year or two for more money. Sound familiar? During a boom farmers got good prices for their crops, and manufacturers had little problem selling their wares to the farmers. When credit contracted, as it invariably did, no one wanted to take an IOU or banknote. With little gold to go around, commerce collapsed and people returned to bartering until time healed the wounds and another upward cycle began.
Eventually Americans got tired of this ridiculous system, made banknotes illegal, and tried various banking reserve systems cumulating in the Federal Reserve System. Only the federal government could issue paper money, and that was backed by gold or silver. But that system did not work long either, as the Great Depression proved.
Next: The Big Reversal
[The Accounting System, Your Fate is in the Cloud, is a work in progress by William P. Meyers, ©2013]
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