Sun Sep 15, 2013, 09:46 AM
Ghost Dog (14,822 posts)
+ The Economist dates back to the beginning of big banking. Here's Bagehot (1873):
... The briefest and truest way of describing Lombard Street is to say that it is by far the greatest combination of economical power and economical delicacy that the world has even seen. Of the greatness of the power there will be no doubt. Money is economical power. Everyone is aware that England is the greatest moneyed country in the world; everyone admits that it has much more immediately disposable and ready cash than any other country. But very few persons are aware how much greater the ready balance—the floating loan-fund which can be lent to anyone or for any purpose—is in England than it is anywhere else in the world. A very few figures will show how large the London loan-fund is, and how much greater it is than any other. The known deposits—the deposits of banks which publish their accounts—are, in
London (31st December, 1872) 120,000,000 L
Paris (27th February, 1873) 13,000,000 L
New York (February, 1873) 40,000,000 L
German Empire (31st January, 1873) 8,000,000 L
And the unknown deposits—the deposits in banks which do not publish their accounts—are in London much greater than those many other of these cities. The bankers' deposits of London are many times greater than those of any other city—those of Great Britain many times greater than those of any other country.
Of course the deposits of bankers are not a strictly accurate measure of the resources of a Money Market. On the contrary, much more cash exists out of banks in France and Germany, and in all non-banking countries, than could be found in England or Scotland, where banking is developed. But that cash is not, so to speak, 'money-market money:' it is not attainable. Nothing but their immense misfortunes, nothing but a vast loan in their own securities, could have extracted the hoards of France from the custody of the French people. The offer of no other securities would have tempted them, for they had confidence in no other securities. For all other purposes the money hoarded was useless and might as well not have been hoarded. But the English money is 'borrowable' money. Our people are bolder in dealing with their money than any continental nation, and even if they were not bolder, the mere fact that their money is deposited in a bank makes it far more obtainable. A million in the hands of a single banker is a great power; he can at once lend it where he will, and borrowers can come to him, because they know or believe that he has it. But the same sum scattered in tens and fifties through a whole nation is no power at all: no one knows where to find it or whom to ask for it. Concentration of money in banks, though not the sole cause, is the principal cause which has made the Money Market of England so exceedingly rich, so much beyond that of other countries.
The effect is seen constantly. We are asked to lend, and do lend, vast sums, which it would be impossible to obtain elsewhere. It is sometimes said that any foreign country can borrow in Lombard Street at a price: some countries can borrow much cheaper than others; but all, it is said, can have some money if they choose to pay enough for it. Perhaps this is an exaggeration; but confined, as of course it was meant to be, to civilised Governments, it is not much of an exaggeration. There are very few civilised Governments that could not borrow considerable sums of us if they choose, and most of them seem more and more likely to choose. If any nation wants even to make a railway—especially at all a poor nation—it is sure to come to this country—to the country of banks—for the money. It is true that English bankers are not themselves very great lenders to foreign states. But they are great lenders to those who lend. They advance on foreign stocks, as the phrase is, with 'a margin;' that is, they find eighty per cent of the money, and the nominal lender finds the rest. And it is in this way that vast works are achieved with English aid which but for that aid would never have been planned.
In domestic enterprises it is the same. We have entirely lost the idea that any undertaking likely to pay, and seen to be likely, can perish for want of money; yet no idea was more familiar to our ancestors, or is more common now in most countries. A citizen of London in Queen Elizabeth's time could not have imagined our state of mind. He would have thought that it was of no use inventing railways (if he could have understood what a railway meant), for you would not have been able to collect the capital with which to make them. At this moment, in colonies and all rude countries, there is no large sum of transferable money; there is no fund from which you can borrow, and out of which you can make immense works. Taking the world as a whole—either now or in the past—it is certain that in poor states there is no spare money for new and great undertakings, and that in most rich states the money is too scattered, and clings too close to the hands of the owners, to be often obtainable in large quantities for new purposes. A place like Lombard Street, where in all but the rarest times money can be always obtained upon good security or upon decent prospects of probable gain, is a luxury which no country has ever enjoyed with even comparable equality before.
But though these occasional loans to new enterprises and foreign States are the most conspicuous instances of the power of Lombard Street, they are not by any means the most remarkable or the most important use of that power. English trade is carried on upon borrowed capital to an extent of which few foreigners have an idea, and none of our ancestors could have conceived. In every district small traders have arisen, who 'discount their bills' largely, and with the capital so borrowed, harass and press upon, if they do not eradicate, the old capitalist. The new trader has obviously an immense advantage in the struggle of trade. If a merchant have 50,000 L. all his own, to gain 10 per cent on it he must make 5,000 L. a year, and must charge for his goods accordingly; but if another has only 10,000 L., and borrows 40,000 L. by discounts (no extreme instance in our modern trade), he has the same capital of 50,000 L. to use, and can sell much cheaper. If the rate at which he borrows be 5 per cent., he will have to pay 2,000 L. a year; and if, like the old trader, he make 5,000 L. a year, he will still, after paying his interest, obtain 3,000 L. a year, or 30 per cent, on his own 10,000 L. As most merchants are content with much less than 30 per cent, he will be able, if he wishes, to forego some of that profit, lower the price of the commodity, and drive the old-fashioned trader—the man who trades on his own capital—out of the market. In modern English business, owing to the certainty of obtaining loans on discount of bills or otherwise at a moderate rate of interest, there is a steady bounty on trading with borrowed capital, and a constant discouragement to confine yourself solely or mainly to your own capital.
This increasingly democratic structure of English commerce is very unpopular in many quarters, and its effects are no doubt exceedingly mixed. On the one hand, it prevents the long duration of great families of merchant princes, such as those of Venice and Genoa, who inherited nice cultivation as well as great wealth, and who, to some extent, combined the tastes of an aristocracy with the insight and verve of men of business. These are pushed out, so to say, by the dirty crowd of little men. After a generation or two they retire into idle luxury. Upon their immense capital they can only obtain low profits, and these they do not think enough to compensate them for the rough companions and rude manners they must meet in business. This constant levelling of our commercial houses is, too, unfavourable to commercial morality. Great firms, with a reputation which they have received from the past, and which they wish to transmit to the future, cannot be guilty of small frauds. They live by a continuity of trade, which detected fraud would spoil. When we scrutinise the reason of the impaired reputation of English goods, we find it is the fault of new men with little money of their own, created by bank 'discounts.' These men want business at once, and they produce an inferior article to get it. They rely on cheapness, and rely successfully.
But these defects and others in the democratic structure of commerce are compensated by one great excellence. No country of great hereditary trade, no European country at least, was ever so little 'sleepy,' to use the only fit word, as England; no other was ever so prompt at once to seize new advantages. A country dependent mainly on great 'merchant princes' will never be so prompt; their commerce perpetually slips more and more into a commerce of routine. A man of large wealth, however intelligent, always thinks, more or less 'I have a great income, and I want to keep it. If things go on as they are I shall certainly keep it; but if they change I may not keep it.' Consequently he considers every change of circumstance a 'bore,' and thinks of such changes as little as he can. But a new man, who has his way to make in the world, knows that such changes are his opportunities; he is always on the look-out for them, and always heeds them when he finds them. The rough and vulgar structure of English commerce is the secret of its life; for it contains 'the propensity to variation,' which, in the social as in the animal kingdom, is the principle of progress.
But in exact proportion to the power of this system is its delicacy I should hardly say too much if I said its danger. Only our familiarity blinds us to the marvellous nature of the system. There never was so much borrowed money collected in the world as is now collected in London. Of the many millions in Lombard street, infinitely the greater proportion is held by bankers or others on short notice or on demand; that is to say, the owners could ask for it all any day they please: in a panic some of them do ask for some of it. If any large fraction of that money really was demanded, our banking system and our industrial system too would be in great danger.
Some of those deposits too are of a peculiar and very distinct nature. Since the Franco-German war, we have become to a much larger extent than before the Bankers of Europe. A very large sum of foreign money is on various accounts and for various purposes held here. And in a time of panic it might be asked for. In 1866 we held only a much smaller sum of foreign money, but that smaller sum was demanded and we had to pay it at great cost and suffering, and it would be far worse if we had to pay the greater sums we now hold, without better resources than we had then.
It may be replied, that though our instant liabilities are great, our present means are large; that though we have much we may be asked to pay at any moment, we have very much always ready to pay it with. But, on the contrary, there is no country at present, and there never was any country before, in which the ratio of the cash reserve to the bank deposits was so small as it is now in England. So far from our being able to rely on the proportional magnitude of our cash in hand, the amount of that cash is so exceedingly small that a bystander almost trembles when he compares its minuteness with the immensity of the credit which rests upon it.
Again, it may be said that we need not be alarmed at the magnitude of our credit system or at its refinement, for that we have learned by experience the way of controlling it, and always manage it with discretion. But we do not always manage it with discretion. There is the astounding instance of Overend, Gurney, and Co. to the contrary. Ten years ago that house stood next to the Bank of England in the City of London; it was better known abroad than any similar firm known, perhaps, better than any purely English firm. The partners had great estates, which had mostly been made in the business. They still derived an immense income from it. Yet in six years they lost all their own wealth, sold the business to the company, and then lost a large part of the company's capital. And these losses were made in a manner so reckless and so foolish, that one would think a child who had lent money in the City of London would have lent it better. After this example, we must not confide too surely in long-established credit, or in firmly-rooted traditions of business. We must examine the system on which these great masses of money are manipulated, and assure ourselves that it is safe and right.
But it is not easy to rouse men of business to the task. They let the tide of business float before them; they make money or strive to do so while it passes, and they are unwilling to think where it is going. Even the great collapse of Overends, though it caused a panic, is beginning to be forgotten. Most men of business think—'Anyhow this system will probably last my time. It has gone on a long time, and is likely to go on still.' But the exact point is, that it has not gone on a long time. The collection of these immense sums in one place and in few hands is perfectly new. In 1844 the liabilities of the four great London Joint Stock Banks were 10,637,000 L.; they now are more than 60,000,000 L. The private deposits of the Bank of England then were 9,000,000 L.; they now are 8,000,000 L. There was in throughout the country but a fraction of the vast deposit business which now exists. We cannot appeal, therefore, to experience to prove the safety of our system as it now is, for the present magnitude of that system is entirely new. Obviously a system may be fit to regulate a few millions, and yet quite inadequate when it is set to cope with many millions. And thus it may be with 'Lombard Street,' so rapid has been its growth, and so unprecedented is its nature...
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