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I am aware it will be said that by allowing drains of this character to operate freely upon the Bank reserve until they cease of themselves, a contraction of the currency and of credit would not be prevented, but only postponed; since if a limitation of issues were not reserted to for the purpose of checking the drain in its commencement, the same or a still greater limitation must take place afterwards, in order, by acting on prices, to bring back this large quantity of gold, for the indispensable purpose of replenishing the Bank reserve. But in this argument several things are overlooked. In the first place, the gold might be brought back, not by a fall of prices, but by the much more rapid and convenient medium of a rise of the rate of interest, involving no fall of any prices except the prices of securities. Either English securities would be bought on account of foreigners, or foreign securities held in England would be sent abroad for sale, both which operations took place largely during the mercan
double action, not upon the pecuniary position of the Bank itself, but upon the measures it is forced to take in order to stop the drain. Though the Bank itself is no poorer, its two reserves, the reserve in the banking department and the reserve in the issue department, have each been reduced three millions by a drain of only three. And as the separation of the departments renders it necessary that each of them separately should be kept as strong as the two together need be if they could help one another, the Bank's action on the money market must be as violent on a drain of three millions, as would have been required on the old system for one of six. The reserve in the banking department being less than it otherwise would be by the entire amount of the bullion in the issue department, and the whole amount of the drain falling in the first instance on that diminished reserve, the pressure of the whole drain on the half reserve is as much felt, and requires as strong measures to stop it, as a pressure of twice the amount on the entire reserve. As I have said elsewhere,” “it is as if a man having to lift a weight were restricted from using both hands to do it, and were only allowed to use one hand at a time; in which case it would be necessary that each of his hands should be as strong as the two together.”
* Evidence before the Committee of the ło of Commons on the Bank Acts, in od.
tile difficulties of 1847, and not only checked the efflux of gold, but turned the tide and brought the metal back. It was not, therefore, brought back b a contraction of the currency, thoug in this case it certainly was so by a contraction of loans. But even this is not always indispensable. For in the second place, it is not necessary that the gold should return with the same suddenness with which it went out. A great portion would probably return in the ordinary way of commerce, in payment for exported commodities. The extra gains made by dealers and producers in foreign countries through the extra payments they receive from this country, are very likely to be partly expended in increased purchases of English commodities, either for consumption or on speculation, though the effect may not manifest itself with sufficient rapidity to enable the transmission of gold to be dispensed with in the first instance. These extra purchases would turn the balance of payments in favour of the country, o gradually restore a portion of the exported gold; and the remainder would j be brought back, without any considerable rise of the rate of interest in England, by the fall of it in foreign countries, occasioned by the addition of some millions of gold to the loanable capital of those countries. Indeed, in the state of things consequent on the gold discoveries, when the enormous quantity of gold annually produced in Australia, and much of that from California, is distributed to other countries through England, and a month seldom passes without a large arrival, the Bank reserves can replenish themselves without any re-importation of the gold pre viously carried off by a drain. All that is needful is an intermission, and a very brief intermission is sufficient, of the exportation. For these reasons it appears to me, that notwithstanding the beneficial operation of the Act of 1844 in the first stages of one kind of commercial crisis (that produced by over specula. tion), it on the whole materially aggravates the severity of commercial revul. sions. And not only are contractions
of credit made more severe by the Act, they are also made greatly more frequent. “Suppose,” says Mr. George Walker, in a clear, impartial, and conclusive series of papers in the Aberdeen Herald, forming one of the best existing discussions of the present question —“suppose that, of eighteen millions of gold, ten are in the issue department and eight are in the banking department. The result is the same as under a metallic currency with only eight millions in reserve instead of eighteen. . . . . The effect of the Bank Act is, that the proceedings of the Bank under a drain are not determined by the amount of gold within its vaults, but are, or ought to be, determined by the portion of it belonging to the banking department. With the whole of the ji at its disposal, it may find it unnecessary to interfere with credit, or force down prices, if a drain leave a fair reserve behind. With only the banking reserve at its disposal, it must, from the narrow margin it has to operate on, meet all drains by counteractives more or less strong, to the injury of the commercial world; and if it fail to do so, as it may fail, the consequence is destruction. Hence the extraordinary and frequent variations of the rate of interest under the Bank Act. Since 1847, when the eyes of the Bank were opened to its true position, it has felt it necessary, as a precautionary measure, that every variation in the reserve should be accompanied by an alteration in the rate of interest.” To make the Act innocuous, therefore, it would be necessary that the Bank, in addition to the whole of the gold in the Issue Department, should retain as great a reserve in gold or notes in the Banking Department alone, as would suffice under the old system for the security both of the issues and of the deposits.
§ 5. There remain two questions respecting a bank-note currency, which have also been a subject of considerable discussion of late years: whether the privilege of providing it should be confined to a single establishment, such as the Bank of England, or a plurality of issuers should be allowed:
and in the latter case, whether any peculiar precautions are requisite or advisable, to protect the holders of notes against losses occasioned by the insolvency of the issuers. The course of the preceding speculations has led us to attach so much less of peculiar importance to bank notes, as compared with other forms of credit, than accords with the notions generally current, that questions respecting the regulation of sovery small a part of the general mass of credit, cannot appear to us of such momentous import asthey are sometimes considered. Bank notes, however, have so far a real peculiarity, that they are the only form of credit sufficiently convenient for all the purposes of circulation, to be able entirely to supersede the use of metallic money for internal purposes. Though the extension of the use of cheques has a tendency more and more to diminish the number of bank notes, as it would that of the sovereigns or other coins which would take their place if they were abolished; there is sure, for a long time to come, to be a considerable supply of them wherever the necessary degree of commercial confidence exists, and their free use is permitted. The exclusive privilege, therefore, of issuing them, if reserved to the government or to some one body, is a source of great pecuniary gain. That this gain should be obtained for the nation at large is both practicable and desirable : and if the management of a bank-note currency ought to be so completely mechanical, so entirely a thing of fixed rule, as it is made by the Act of 1844, there seems no reason why this mechanism should be worked for the profit of any rivate issuer, rather than for the pubic treasury. If, however, a plan be preferred which leaves the variations in the amount of issues in any degree whatever to the discretion of the issuers, it is not desirable that to the ever-growing attributions of the government, so delicate a function should be superadded; and that the attention of the heads of the state should be diverted from larger objects, by their being besieged with the applications, and made a mark for all the attacks, which are
never spared to those deemed to be responsible for any acts, however mimute, connected with the regulation of the currency. It would be better that treasury notes, exchangeable for gold on demand, should be issued to a fixed amount, not exceeding the minimum of a bank-note currency; the remainder of the notes which may be required being left to be supplied either by one or by a number oprivate banking establishments. Or an establishment like the Bank of England might supply the whole country, on condition of lending fifteen or twenty millions of its notes to the government without interest; which would give the same pecuniary advantage to the state as if it issued that number of its own notes. The reason ordinarily alleged in condemnation of the system of plurality of issuers which existed in England before the Act of 1844, and under certain limitations still subsists, is, that the competition of these different issuers induces them to increase the amount of their notes to an injurious extent. But we have seen that the ower which bankers have of augmenting their issues, and the degree of mischief which they can produce by it, are quite trifling compared with the current over-estimate. As remarked by Mr. Fullarton,” the extraordinary increase of banking competition occasioned by the establishment of the joint-stock banks, a competition often of the most reckless kind, has proved utterly powerless to enlarge the aggregate mass of the bank-note circulation; that aggregate circulation having, on the contrary, actually decreased. In the absence of any special case for an exception to freedom of industry, the general rule ought to prevail. It appears desirable, however, to maintain one great establishment like the Bank of England, distinguished from other banks of issue in this, that it alone is required to pay in gold, the others being at liberty to pay their notes with notes of the central establishment. The object of this is that there may be one body, responsible for maintaining a reserve of the precious metals sufficient * Pp. 89–92.
to meet any drain that can reasonably be expected to take place. By disseminating this responsibility among a number of banks, it is prevented from operating efficaciously upon any : or if it be still enforced against one, the reserves of the metals retained by all the others are capital kept idle in pure waste, which may be dispensed with by allowing them at their option to pay in Bank of England notes.
§ 6. The question remains whether, in case of a plurality of issuers, any peculiar precautions are needed to protect the holders of notes from the consequences of failure of payment. Before 1826, the insolvency of banks of issue was a frequent and very serious evil, often spreading distress through a whole neighbourhood, and at one blow depriving provident industry of the results of long and painful saving. This was one of the chief reasons which induced Parliament, in that year, to prohibit the issue of bank notes of a denomination below five pounds, that the labouring classes at least might be as little as possible exposed to participate in this suffering. As an additional safeguard, it has been suggested to give the holders of notes a priority over other creditors, or to require bankers to deposit stock or other public securities as a pledge for the whole amount of their issues. The insecurity of the former bank-note currency of England was partly the work of the law, which, in order to give a qualified monopoly of banking business to the Bank of England, had actually made the formation of safe banking establishments a punishable offence, by prohibiting the existence of any banks, in town or country, whether of issue or deposit, with a number of partners, exceeding six. This truly characteristic specimen of the old system of monopoly and restriction was done away with in 1826, both as to issues and deposits, everywhere but in a district of sixtyfive miles radius round London, and in 1833 in that district also, as far as relates to deposits. It was hoped that the numerous joint-stock banks since established, would have furnished a more trustworthy currency, and that under their influence the banking system of England would have been almost as secure to the public as that of Scotland (where banking was always free) has been for two centuries past. But the almost incredible instances of reckless and fraudulent mismanagement which these institutions have of late afforded (though in some of the most notorious cases the delinquent esta
blishments have not been banks of issue), have shown only too clearly that, south of the Tweed at least, the joint. stock principle applied to banking is not the adequate safeguard it was so confidently supposed to be: and it is difficult now to resist the conviction, that if plurality of issuers is allowed to exist, some kind of special security in favour of the holders of notes should be exacted as an imperative condition.
of TIIE COMPETITION OF DIFFERENT COUNTRIES IN THE SAME MARKET.
§ 1. IN the phraseology of the Mercantile System, the language and doctrines of which are still the basis of what may be called the political economy of the selling classes, as distinguished from the buyers or consumers, there is no word of more frequent recurrence or more perilous import than the word underselling. To undersell other countries — not to be undersold by other countries — were spoken of, and are still very often spoken of, almost as if they were the sole purposes for which production and commodities exist. The feelings of rival tradesmen, prevailing among nations, overruled for centuries all sense of the general community of advantage which commercial countries derive from the prosperity of one another: and that commercial spirit which is now one of the strongest obstacles to wars, was during a certain period of European history their principal cause.
Even in the more enlightened view now attainable of the nature and consequences of international commerce, some, though a comparatively small, space must still be made for the fact of commercial rivality. Nations may, like individual dealers, be competitors, with opposite interests, in the markets of some commodities, while in others they are in the more fortunate relation of reciprocal customers. The benefit
of commerce does not consist, as it was once thought to do, in the commodities sold; but, since the commodities sold are the means of obtaining those which are bought, a nation would be cut off from the real advantage of commerce, the imports, if it could not induce other nations to take any of its commodities in exchange; and in proportion as the competition of other countries compels it to offer its commodities on cheaper terms, on pain of not selling them at all, the imports which it obtains by its foreign trade are procured at greater cost. These points have been adequately, though incidentally, illustrated in some of the ..., chapters. . But the great space which the topic has filled, and continues to fill, in economical speculations, and in the practical anxieties both of politicians and of dealers and manufacturers, makes it desirable, before quitting the subject of international exchange, to subjoin a few observations on the things which do, and on those which do not, enable countries to undersell one another. One country can only undersell another in a given market, to the extent of entirely expelling her from it, on two conditions. In the first place, she must have a greater advantage than the second country in the production of the article exported by both; meaning by a greater advantage (as has been already so fully explained) not absolutely, but in comparison with other commodities; and in the second place, such must be her relation with the customer country in respect to the demand for each other's products, and such the consequent state of international values, as to give away to the customer country more than the whole advantage possessed by the rival country; otherwise the rival will still be able to hold her ground in the market. Iet us revert to the imaginary hypothesis of a trade between England and Germany in cloth and linen: England being capable of producing 10 yards of cloth at the same cost with 15 yards of Jinen, Germany at the same cost with 20, and the two commodities being exchanged between the two countries (cost of carriage apart) at some intermediate rate, say 10 for 17. Germany could not be permanently undersold in the English market, and expelled from it, unless by a country which offered not merely more than 17, but more than 20 yards of linen for 10 of cloth. Short of that, the competition would only oblige Germany to pay dearer for cloth. but would not disable her from exporting linen. The country, therefore, which could undersell Germany, must, in the first place, be able to produce linen at less cost, compared with cloth, than Germany herself; and in the next place, must have such a demand for cloth, or other English commodities, as would compel her, even when she became sole occupant of the market, to give a greater advantage to England than Germany could give by resigning the whole of hers; to give, for example, 21 yards for 10. For if not—if, for example, the equation of international demand, after Germany was excluded, gave a ratio of 18 for 10, Germany could again enter into the competition; Germany would be now the underselling nation; and there would be a point, perhaps 19 for 10, at which both countries would be able to maintain their ground, and to sell in England enough linen to pay for the cloth, or other English commodities, for which, on these newly adjusted terms of intorchange, they had a de
mand. In like manner, England, as an exporter of cloth, could only be driven from the German market by Some rival whose superior advantages in the production of cloth enabled her, and the intensity of whose demand for German produce compelled her, to offer 10 yards of cloth, not merely for less than 17 yards of linen, but for less than 15. In that case, England could no longer carry on the trade without loss; but in any case short of this, she would merely be obliged to give to Germany more cloth for less linen than she had previously given.
It thus appears that the alarm of being permanently undersold may betaken much too easily; may be taken when the thing really to be anticipated is not the loss of the trade, but the minor inconvenience of carrying it on at a diminished advantage; an inconvenience chiefly falling on the consumers of foreign commodities, and not on the producers or sellers of the exported article. It is no sufficient ground of apprehension to the English producers, to find that some other country can sell cloth in foreign markets at some particular time, a trifle cheaper than they can themselves afford to do in the existing state of prices in England. Suppose them to be temporarily unsold, and their exports diminished; the imports will exceed the exports, there will be a new distribution of the precious metals, prices will fall, and as all the money expenses of the English producers will be diminished, they will be able (if the case falls short of that stated in the preceding paragraph) again to compete with their rivals. The loss which England will incur, will not fall o the exporters, but upon those who consume imported commodities; who, with money incomes reduced in amount, will have to pay the same or even an increased price for all things produced in foreign countries.
§ 2. Such, I conceive, is the true theory, or rationale, of underselling. It will be observed that it takes no account of some things which we hear spoken of, oftener perhaps than any