Chapter Nine: The Secret Science
The condensed history of fractional-reserve banking; the unbroken record of fraud, booms, busts, and economic chaos; the formation of the Bank of England, the world’s first central bank, which became the model for the Federal Reserve System,
Banks of deposit first appeared in early Greece, concurrent with the development of coinage itself. They were known in India at the time of Alexander the Great. They also operated in Egypt as part of the public granary system. They appeared in Damascus in 1200 and in Barcelona in 1401. It was the city-state of Venice, however, which is considered the cradle of banking as we know it today.
The Bank of Venice
By the year 1361, there already had been sufficient abuse in banking that the Venetian Senate passed a law forbidding bankers to engage in any other commercial pursuit, thus removing the temptation to use their depositors’ funds to finance their own enterprises. They were also required to open their books for public inspection and to keep their stockpile of coins available for viewing at all reasonable times. In 1524, a board of bank examiners was created and, two years later, all bankers were required to settle accounts between themselves in coin rather than by check.
In spite of these precautions, however, the largest bank at that time, the house of Pisano and Tiepolo, had been active in lending against its reserves and, in 1584, was forced to close its doors because of inability to refund depositors. The government picked up the pieces at that point and a state bank was established, the Banco della Piazza del Rialto. Having learned from the recent experience with bankruptcy, the new bank was not allowed to make any loans. There could be no profit from the issuance of credit. The bank was required to sustain itself solely from fees for coin storage, exchanging currencies, handling the transfer of payments between customers, and notary services.
The formula for honest banking had been found. The bank prospered and soon became the center of Venetian commerce. Its paper receipts were widely accepted far beyond the country’s borders and, in fact, instead of being discounted in exchange for gold coin as was the usual practice, they actually carried a premium over coins. This was because there were so many kinds of coin in circulation and such a wide variance of quality within the same type of coin that one had to be an expert to evaluate their worth. The bank performed this service automatically when it took the coins into its vault. Each was evaluated, and the receipt given for it was an accurate reflection of its intrinsic worth. The public, therefore, was far more certain of the value of the paper receipts than of many of the coins and, consequently, was willing to exchange a little bit more for them.
Unfortunately, with the passage of time and the fading from memory of previous banking abuses, the Venetian Senate eventually succumbed to the temptation of credit. Strapped for funds and not willing to face the voters with a tax increase, the politicians decided they would authorize a new bank without restrictions against loans, have the bank create the money they needed, and then
borrow it. So, in 1619, the Banco del Giro was formed, which, like its bankrupt predecessor, began immediately to create money out of nothing for the purpose of lending it to the government. Eighteen years later, the Banco della Piazza del Rialto was absorbed into the new bank, and history’s first tiny flame of sound banking sputtered and died.
Throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, banks had been springing up all over Europe. Almost without exception, however, they followed the lucrative practice of lending money which was not truly available for loan. They created excess obligations against their reserves and, as a result, every one of them failed. That is not to say that their owners and directors did not prosper. It merely means that their depositors lost all or a part of their assets entrusted for safekeeping.
The Bank of Amsterdam
It wasn’t until the Bank of Amsterdam was founded in 1609 that we find a second example of sound banking practices, and the results were virtually the same as previously experienced by the Banco della Piazza del Rialto, The bank only accepted deposits and steadfastly refused to make loans. Its income was derived solely from service fees. All payments in and around Amsterdam soon came to be made in paper currency issued by the bank and, in fact, that currency carried a premium over coin itself. The burgomasters and the city council were required to take an annual oath swearing that the coin reserve of the bank was intact. Galbraith reminds us:
For a century after its founding it functioned usefully and with notably strict rectitude. Deposits were deposits, and initially the metal remained in storage for the man who owned it until he transferred it to another. None was loaned out. In 1672, when the armies of Louis XIV approached Amsterdam, there was grave alarm. Merchants besieged the bank, some in the suspicion that their wealth might not be there. All who sought their money were paid, and when they found this to be so, they did not want payment. As was often to be observed in the future, however desperately people want their money from a bank, when they are assured they can get it, they no longer want it.
The principles of honesty and restraint were not to be long lived, however. The temptation of easy profit from money creation was simply too great. As early as 1657, individuals had been permitted to overdraw their accounts which means, of course, that the bank created new money out of their debt. In later years enormous loans were made to the Dutch East Indies Company. The truth finally became known to the public in January of 1790, and demands for a return of deposits were steady from that date forward. Ten months later, the bank was declared insolvent and was taken over by the City of Amsterdam.
The Bank of Hamburg
The third and last experience with honest banking occurred in Germany with the Bank of Hamburg. For over two centuries it faithfully adhered to the principle of safe deposit. So scrupulous was its administration that, when Napoleon took possession of the bank in 1813, he found 7,506,956 marks in silver held against liabilities of 7,489,343. That was 17,613 more than was actually needed. Most of the bank’s treasure that Napoleon hauled away was restored a few years later by the French government in the form of securities. It is not clear if the securities were of much value but, even if they were, they were not the same as silver. Because of foreign invasion, the bank’s currency was no longer fully convertible into coin as receipt money. It was now fractional mone>, and the self-destruct mechanism had been set in motion. The bank lasted another fifty-five years until 1871 when it was ordered to liquidate all of its accounts.
That is the end of the short story of honest banking. From that point forward, fractional-reserve banking became the universaJ practice. But there were to be many interesting twists and turns in its development before it would be ready for something as sophisticated as the Federal Reserve System.
Early Banking in England
In England, the first paper money was the exchequer order of Charles II. It was pure fiat and, although it was decreed legal tender, it was not widely used. It was replaced in 1696 by the exchequer bill. The bill was redeemable in gold, and the government went to great lengths to make sure that there was enough actual coin or bullion to make good on the pledge. In other words, it was true receipt money, and it became widely accepted as the medium of exchange. Furthermore, the bills were considered as short-term loans to the government and actually paid interest to the holders.
In 1707, the recently created Bank of England was given the responsibility of managing this currency, but the bank found more profit in the circulation of its own banknotes, which were in the form of fractional money and which provided for the collection of interest, not the payment of it. Consequently, the government bills gradually passed out of use and were replaced by banknotes which, by the middle of the eighteenth century, became England’s only paper money.
It must be understood that, at this time, the Bank of England was not yet fully developed as a central bank. It had been given a monopoly over the issue of banknotes within London and other prime geographic areas, but they were not yet decreed as legal tender. No one was forced to use them. They were merely private fractional receipts for gold coin issued by a private bank which the public could accept, reject, or discount at its pleasure. Legal tender status was not conferred upon the bank’s money until 1833.
Meanwhile, Parliament had granted charters to numerous other banks throughout the empire and, without exception, the issuance of fractional money led to their ultimate demise and the ruin of their depositors.
Disaster after disaster had to come upon the country, says Shaw, because
of the indifference of the state to these mere private paper tokens. The Bank of England, however, was favored by the government above all others and, time after time, it was saved from insolvency by Parliament. How it came to be that way is an interesting story.
The Bank of England
England was financially exhausted after half a century of war against France and numerous civil wars fought largely over excessive taxation. By the time of the War of the League of Augsberg in 1693, King William was in serious need for new revenue. Twenty years previously, King Charles II had flat out repudiated a debt of over a million pounds which had been lent to him by scores of goldsmiths, with the result that ten-thousand depositors lost their savings. This was still fresh in everyone’s memory, and, needless to say, the government was no longer considered a good investment risk. Unable to increase taxes and unable to borrow, Parliament became desperate for some other way to obtain the money. The objective, says Groseclose, was not to bring
the money mechanism under more intelligent control, but to provide means outside the onerous sources of taxes and public loans for the financial requirements of an impecunious government.
There were two groups of men who saw a unique opportunity arise out of this necessity. The first group consisted of the political scientists within the government. The second was comprised of the monetary scientists from the emerging business of banking. The organizer and spokesman of this group was William Paterson from Scotland. Paterson had been to America and came back with a grandiose scheme to obtain a British charter for a commercial company to colonize the Isthmus of Panama, then known as Darien. The government was not interested in that, so Paterson turned his attention to a scheme that did interest it very much, the creation of money.
The two groups came together and formed an alliance. No, that is too soft a word. The American Heritage Dictionary defines a cabal as
A conspiratorial group of plotters or intriguers, There is no other word that could so accurately describe this group. With much of the same secrecy and mystery that surrounded the meeting on Jekyll Island, the Cabal met in Mercer’s Chapel in London and hammered out a seven-point plan which would serve their mutual purposes:
- The government would grant a charter to the monetary scientists to form a bank;
- The bank would be given a monopoly to issue banknotes which would circulate as England’s paper currency;
- The bank would create money out of nothing with only a fraction of its total currency backed by coin;
- The monetary scientists then would loan the government all the money it needed;
- The money created for government loans would be backed primarily by government I.O.U.s;
- Although this money was to be created out of nothing and would cost nothing to create, the government would pay
intereston it at the rate of 8%;
- Government I.O.U.s would also be considered as
reservesfor creating additional loan money for private commerce. These loans also would earn interest. Thus, the monetary scientists would collect double interest on the same nothing.
The circular which was distributed to attract subscribers to the Bank’s initial stock offering explained:
The Bank hath benefit of interest on all the moneys which it, the Bank, creates out of nothing, The charter was issued in 1694, and a strange creature took its initial breath of life. It was the world’s first central bank. Rothbard writes:
In short, since there were not enough private savers willing to finance the deficit, Paterson and his group were graciously willing to buy government bonds, provided they could do so with newly-created out-of-thin-air bank notes carrying a raft of special privileges with them. This was a splendid deal for Paterson and company, and the government benefited from the flimflam of a seemingly legitimate bank’s financing their debts … As soon as the Bank of England was chartered in 1694, King William himself and various members of Parliament rushed to become shareholders of the new money factory they had just created.
The Secret Science of Money
Both groups within the Cabal were handsomely rewarded for their efforts. The political scientists had been seeking about £500,000 to finance the current war. The Bank promptly gave them more than twice what they originally sought. The monetary scientists started with a pledged capital investment of £1,200,000. Textbooks tell us that this was lent to the government at 8% interest, but what is usually omitted is the fact that, at the time the loan was made, only £720,000 had been invested, which means the Bank
loaned 66% more than it had on hand. Furthermore, the Bauik was given the privilege of creating at least an equal amount of money in the form of loans to the public. So, after lending their capital to the government, they still had it available to loan out a second time.
An honest loan of their £720,000 at 8% would have yielded £57,600 interest. But, with the new secret science, they were able to earn 8% on £1,200,000 given to the government plus an estimated 9% on £720,000 loaned to the public. That adds up to £160,800, more than 22% on their investment. The real point, however, is that, under these circumstances, it is meaningless to talk about a rate of interest. When money is created out of nothing, the true interest rate is not 8% or 9% or even 22%. It is infinity.
In this first official act of the world’s first central bank can be seen the grand pretense that has characterized all those which have followed. The Bank pretended to make a loan but what it really did was to manufacture the money for government’s use. If the government had done this directly, the fiat nature of the currency would have been immediately recognized, and it probably would not have been accepted at full face value in payment for the expenses of war. By creating money through the banking system, however, the process became mystifying to the general public. The newly created bills and notes were indistinguishable from those previously backed by coin, and the public was none the wiser.
The reality of central banks, therefore — and we must not forget that the Federal Reserve System is such a creature — is that, under the guise of purchasing government bonds, they act as hidden money machines which can be activated any time the politicians want. This is a godsend to the political scientists who no longer must depend on taxes or the good credit of their treasury to raise money. It is even easier than printing and, because the process is not understood by the public, it is politically safe.
The monetary scientists, of course, are amply paid for this service. To preserve the pretense of banking, it is said they collect interest, but this is a misnomer. They didn’t lend money, they created it. Their compensation, therefore, should be called what it is: a professional fee, or commission, or royalty, or kickback, depending on your perspective, but not interest.
From Inflation to Bank Runs
The new money created by the Bank of England splashed through the economy like rain in April. The country banks outside of the London area were authorized to create money on their own, but they had to hold a certain percentage of either coin or Bank of England certificates in reserve. Consequently, when these plentiful banknotes landed in their hands, they quickly put them into the vaults and then issued their own certificates in even greater amounts. As a result of this pyramiding effect, prices rose 100% in just two years. Then, the inevitable happened: There was a run on the bank, and the Bank of England could not produce the coin.
When banks cannot honor their contracts to deliver coin in return for their receipts, they are, in fact, bankrupt. They should be allowed to go out of business and liquidate their assets to satisfy their creditors just like any other business. This, in fact, is what always had happened to banks which loaned out their deposits and created fractional money. Had this practice been allowed to continue, there is little doubt that people eventually would have understood that they simply do not want to do business with those kinds of banks. Through the painful but highly effective process of trial and error, mankind would have learned to distinguish real money from fool’s gold. And the world would be a lot better because of it today.
That, of course, was not allowed to happen. The Cabal is a partnership, and each of the two groups is committed to protect each other, not out of loyalty, but out of mutual self interest. They know that, if one falls, so does the other. It is not surprising, therefore that, when there was a run on the Bank of England, Parliament intervened. In May of 1696, just two years after the Bank was formed, a law was passed authorizing it to
suspend payment in specie. By force of law, the Bank was now exempted from having to honor its contract to return the gold.
The Pattern of Protection Was Set
This was a fateful event in the history of money, because the precedent has been followed ever since. In Europe and America the banks have always operated with the assumption that their partners m government will come to their aid when they get into trouble. Politicians may speak about
protecting the public, but the underlining reality is that the government needs the fiat money produced by the banks. The banks, therefore — at least the big ones — must not be allowed to fail. Only a cartel with government protection can enjoy such insulation from the workings of a free market.
It is commonly observed in modern times that criminals often are treated lightly when they rob their neighbor. But if they steal from the government or a bank, the penalties are harsh. This is merely another manifestation of the Cabal’s partnership. In the eyes of government, banks are special, and it has been that way even from the beginning of their brotherhood. For example, Galbraith tells us:
In 1780, when Lord George Gordon led his mob through London in protest against the Catholic Relief Acts, the Bank was a principal target. It signified the Establishment. For so long as the Catholic districts of London were being pillaged, authorities were slow to react. When the siege of the Bank began, things were thought more senous. Troops intervened, and ever since soldiers have been sent to guard the Bank by night.
Booms and Busts Now Guaranteed
Once the Bank of England had been legally protected from the consequences of converting debt into money, the British economy was doomed to a nauseating roller-coaster ride of inflation, booms, and busts. The natural and immediate result was the granting of massive loans for just about any wild scheme imaginable. Why not? The money cost nothing to make, and the potential profits could be enormous. So the Bank of England, and the country banks which pyramided their own money supply on top of the Bank s supply, pumped a steady stream of new money into the economy. Great stock companies were formed and financed by this money. One was for the purpose of draining the Red Sea to recover the gold supposedly lost by the Egyptians when pursuing the Isrealites. £150,000,000 were siphoned into vague and fruitless ventures in South America and Mexico.
The result of this flood of new money — how many times mus history repeat it?-was even more inflation. In 1810, the House of Commons created a special committee, called the Select Committee on the High Price of Gold Bullion, to explore the problem and to find a solution. The verdict handed down in the final report was a model of clarity. Prices were not going up, it said. The value of the currency was going down, and that was due to the fact that it was being created at a faster rate than the creation of goods to be purchased with it. The solution? The committee recommended that She notes of the Bank of England be made fully convertible into gold coin, thus putting a brake on the supply of money that could be created.
In Defense of the Gold Standard
One of the most outspoken proponents of a true gold standard was a Jewish London stockbroker by the name of David Ricardc Ricardo argued that an ideal currency
should be absolutely invariable in value, He conceded that precious metals were not perfect in this regard because they do shift in purchasing power to a small degree. Then he said:
They are, however, the best with which we are acquainted.
Almost everyone in government agreed with Ricardo’s assessment, but, as is often the case, theoretical truth was fighting a losing battle against practical necessity. Men’s opinions on the best form of money were one thing. The war with Napoleon was another, and it demanded a constant inflow of funding. England continued to use the central-bank mechanism to extract that revenue from the populace.
Depression and Reform
By 1815, prices had doubled again and then fell sharply. The Corn Act was passed that year to protect local growers from lower-priced imports. Then, when corn and wheat prices began to climb once more in spite of the fact that wages and other prices were falling, there was widespread discontent and rebellion.
By 1816, notes Roy Jastram,
England was in deep depression. There was stagnation of industry and trade generally; the iron and coal industries were paralyzed … Riots occurred spasmodically from May through December.
In 1821, after the war had ended and there was no longer a need to fund military campaigns, the political pressure for a gold standard became too strong to resist, and the Bank of England returned to a convertibility of its notes into gold coin. The basic central-bank mechanism was not dismantled, however. It was merely limited by a new formula regarding the allowable fraction of reserves. The Bank continued to create money out of nothing for the purpose of lending and, within a year, the flower of a new business boom unfolded. Then, in November of 1825, the flower matured into its predestined fruit. The crisis began with the collapse of Sir Peter Cole and Company and was soon followed by the failure of sixty-three other banks. Fortunes were wiped out and the economy plunged back into depression.
When a similar crisis with still more bank failures struck again In 1839, Parliament attempted to come to grips with the problem. After five more years of analysis and debate, Sir Robert Peel Succeeded in passing a banking reform act. It squarely faced the cause of England’s booms and busts: an elastic money supply. What Peel’s Bank Act of 1844 attempted to do was to limit the amount of money the banks could create to roughly the same as it would be if their banknotes were backed by gold or silver. It was a good try, but it ultimately failed because it fell short on three counts: (1) It was a political compromise and was not strict enough, allowing the banks to still create lending money out of nothing to the extent of £14,000,000; in other words, a
fractional amount thought to be safe at the time; (2) The limitation applied only to paper currency issued by the Bank. It did not apply to checkbook money, and that was then becoming the preferred form of exchange. Consequently, the scxalled reform did not even apply to the area where the greatest amount of abuse was taking place; and (3) The basic concept was allowed to remain unchallenged that man, in his infinite political wisdom, can determine what the money supply should be more effectively than an unmanaged system of gold or silver responding to the law of supply and demand.
The Roller Coaster Continues
Within three years of the
reform, England faced another crisis with still more bank failures and more losses to depositors. But when the Bank of England tottered on the edge of insolvency, once again the government intervened. In 1847, the Bank was exempted from the legal reserve requirements of the Peel Act. Such is the rock-steady dependability of man-made limits to the money supply.
Groseclose continues the story:
Ten years later, in 1857, another crisis occurred, due to excessive and unwise lending as a result of over-optimism regarding foreign trade prospects. The bank found itself in the same position as in 1847, and similar measures were taken. On this occasion the bank was forced to use the authority to increase its fiduciary [debt-based money] issue beyond the limit imposed by the Bank Charter Act …
Again in 1866, the growth of banking without sufficient attention to liquidity, and the use of bank credit to support a speculative craze …prepared the way for a crash which was finally precipitated by the failure of the famous house of Overend, Gurney and Co. The Act of 1844 was once more suspended …
In 1890, the Bank of England once again faced crisis, again the result of widespread and excessive speculation in foreign securities, particularly American and Argentine. This time it was the failure of Baring Brothers that precipitated the crash.
The Mechanism Spreads to Other Countries
It is an incredible fact of history that, in spite of the general and recurring failures of the Bank of England during these years, the central-bank mechanism was so attractive to the political and monetary scientists that it became the model for all of Europe. The Rank of Prussia became the Reichsbank. Napoleon established the Banque de France. A few decades later, the concept became the venerated model for the Federal Reserve System. Who cares if the scheme is destructive? Here is the perfect tool for obtaining unlimited funding for politicians and endless profits for bankers. And, best of all, the little people who pay the bills for both groups have practically no idea what is being done to them.
The business of banking began in Europe in the fourteenth century. Its function was to evaluate, exchange, and safeguard people’s coins. In the beginning, there were notable examples of totally honest banks which operated with remarkable efficiency considering the vast variety of coinage they handled. They also issued paper receipts which were so dependable they freely circulated as money and cheated no one in the process. But there was a great demand for more money and more loans, and the temptation soon caused the bankers to seek easier paths. They began lending out pieces of paper that said they were receipts, but which in fact were counterfeit. The public could not tell one from the other and accepted both of them as money. From that point forward, the receipts in circulation exceeded the gold held in reserve, and the age of fractional-reserve banking had dawned. This led immediately to what would become an almost unbroken record from then to the present: a record of inflation, booms and busts, suspension of payments, bank failures, repudiation of currencies, and recurring spasms of economic chaos.
The Bank of England was formed in 1694 to institutionalize fractional-reserve banking. As the world’s first central bank, it introduced the concept of a partnership between bankers and politicians. The politicians would receive spendable money (created out of nothing by the bankers) without having to raise taxes. In return, the bankers would receive a commission on the transaction — deceptively called interest — which would continue in perpetuity. Since it all seemed to be wrapped up in the mysterious rituals of banking, which the common man was not expected to understand, there was practically no opposition to the scheme. The arrangement proved so profitable to the participants that it soon spread to many other countries in Europe and, eventually, to the United States.