Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 15: The Business of Banking - The Theory of Money and Credit
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
CHAPTER 15: The Business of Banking - Ludwig von Mises, The Theory of Money and Credit 
The Theory of Money and Credit, trans. H.E. Batson (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
The Business of Banking
Types of Banking Activity
The business of banking falls into two distinct branches: the negotiation of credit through the loan of other people’s money and the granting of credit through the issue of fiduciary media, that is, notes and bank balances that are not covered by money. Both branches of business have always been closely connected. They have grown up on a common historical soil, and nowadays are still often carried on together by the same firm. This connection cannot be ascribed to merely external and accidental factors; it is founded on the peculiar nature of fiduciary media, and on the historical development of the business of banking. Nevertheless, the two kinds of activity must be kept strictly apart in economic theory; for only by considering each of them separately is it possible to understand their nature and functions. The unsatisfactory results of previous investigations into the theory of banking are primarily attributable to inadequate consideration of the fundamental difference between them.
Modern banks, beside their banking activities proper, carry on various other more or less closely related branches of business. There is, for example, the business of exchanging money, on the basis of which the beginnings of the banking system in the Middle Ages were developed, and to which the bill of exchange, one of the most important instruments of banking activity, owes its origin. Banks still carry on this business nowadays, but so do exchange bureaus, which perform no banking functions; and these also devote themselves to such business as the purchase and sale of securities.
The banks have also taken over a number of functions connected with the general management of the property of their customers. They accept and look after securities as “open” deposits, detach interest and dividend coupons as they fall due, and receive the sums concerned. They superintend the allotment of shares, attend to the renewal of coupon sheets, and see to other similar matters. They carry out stock exchange dealings for their customers and also the purchase and sale of securities that are not quoted on the exchange. They let out strong rooms which are used for the secure disposal of articles of value under the customer’s seal. All of these activities, whatever their bearing in individual cases upon the profitability of the whole undertaking, and however great their economic significance for the community as a whole, yet have no inherent connection with banking proper as we have defined it above.
The connection between banking proper and the business of speculation and flotation is similarly loose and superficial. This is the branch of their activities on which the general economic importance of the banks nowadays depends, and by means of which on the continent of Europe and in the United States they secured control of production, no less than of the provision of credit. It would not be easy to overestimate the influence on the organization of economic life that has been exerted by the change in the relation of the banks to industry and commerce; perhaps it would not be an exaggeration to describe it as the most important event in modern economic history. But in connection with the influence of banking on the exchange ratio between money and other economic goods, which alone concerns us here, it has no significance at all.
The Banks as Negotiators of Credit
The activity of the banks as negotiators of credit is characterized by the lending of other people’s, that is, of borrowed, money. Banks borrow money in order to lend it; the difference between the rate of interest that is paid to them and the rate that they pay, less their working expenses, constitutes their profit on this kind of transaction. Banking is negotiation between granters of credit and grantees of credit. Only those who lend the money of others are bankers; those who merely lend their own capital are capitalists, but not bankers.1 Our use of this definition of the Classical School should not furnish any ground for terminological controversy. The expression banking may be extended or contracted as one likes, although there seems little reason for departing from a terminology that has been usual since Smith and Ricardo. But one thing is essential: that activity of the banks that consists in lending other people’s money must be sharply distinguished from all other branches of their business and subjected to separate consideration.
For the activity of the banks as negotiators of credit the golden rule holds, that an organic connection must be created between the credit transactions and the debit transactions. The credit that the bank grants must correspond quantitatively and qualitatively to the credit that it takes up. More exactly expressed, “The date on which the bank’s obligations fall due must not precede the date on which its corresponding claims can be realized.”2 Only thus can the danger of insolvency be avoided. It is true that a risk remains. Imprudent granting of credit is bound to prove just as ruinous to a bank as to any other merchant. That follows from the legal structure of their business; there is no legal connection between their credit transactions and their debit transactions, and their obligation to pay back the money they have borrowed is not affected by the fate of their investments; the obligation continues even if the investments prove dead losses. But it is just the existence of this risk which makes it worthwhile for the bank to play the part of an intermediary between the granter of credit and the grantee of it. It is from the acceptance of this risk that the bank derives its profits and incurs its losses.
That is all that needs to be said here about this branch of the business of banking. For as far as money and monetary theory are concerned, even the function of the banks as negotiators of credit is of significance only so far as it is able to influence the issue of fiduciary media, which alone will be discussed in the rest of the present work.
The Banks as Issuers of Fiduciary Media
To comprehend the significance of fiduciary media, it is necessary to examine the nature of credit transactions.
Acts of exchange, whether direct or indirect, can be performed either in such a way that both parties fulfill their parts of the contract at the same time, or in such a way that they fulfill them at different times. In the first case we speak of cash transactions; in the second, of credit transactions. A credit transaction is an exchange of present goods for future goods.
Credit transactions fall into two groups, the separation of which must form the starting point for every theory of credit and especially for every investigation into the connection between money and credit and into the influence of credit on the money prices of goods. On the one hand are those credit transactions which are characterized by the fact that they impose a sacrifice on that party who performs his part of the bargain before the other does—the forgoing of immediate power of disposal over the exchanged good, or, if this version is preferred, the forgoing of power of disposal over the surrendered good until the receipt of that for which it is exchanged. This sacrifice is balanced by a corresponding gain on the part of the other party to the contract—the advantage of obtaining earlier disposal over the good acquired in exchange, or, what is the same thing, of not having to fulfill his part of the bargain immediately. In their respective valuations both parties take account of the advantages and disadvantages that arise from the difference between the times at which they have to fulfill the bargain. The exchange ratio embodied in the contract contains an expression of the value of time in the opinions of the individuals concerned.
The second group of credit transactions is characterized by the fact that in them the gain of the party who receives before he pays is balanced by no sacrifice on the part of the other party. Thus the difference in time between fulfillment and counterfulfillment, which is just as much the essence of this kind of transaction as of the other, has an influence merely on the valuations of the one party, while the other is able to treat it as insignificant. This fact at first seems puzzling, even inexplicable; it constitutes a rock on which many economic theories have come to grief. Nevertheless, the explanation is not very difficult if we take into account the peculiarity of the goods involved in the transaction. In the first kind of credit transactions, what is surrendered consists of money or goods, disposal over which is a source of satisfaction and renunciation of which a source of dissatisfaction. In the credit transactions of the second group, the granter of the credit renounces for the time being the ownership of a sum of money, but this renunciation (given certain assumptions that in this case are justifiable) results for him in no reduction of satisfaction. If a creditor is able to confer a loan by issuing claims which are payable on demand, then the granting of the credit is bound up with no economic sacrifice for him. He could confer credit in this form free of charge, if we disregard the technical costs that may be involved in the issue of notes and the like. Whether he is paid immediately in money or only receives claims at first, which do not fall due until later, remains a matter of indifference to him.3
It seems desirable to choose special names for the two groups of credit transactions in order to avoid any possible confusion of the concepts. For the first group the name commodity credit (Sachkredit) is suggested, for the second the name circulation credit (Zirkulationskredit). It must be admitted that these expressions do not fully indicate the essence of the distinction that they are intended to characterize. This objection, however, which can in some degree be urged against all technical terms, is not of very great importance. A sufficient reply to it is contained in the fact that there are no better and more apt expressions in use to convey the distinction intended, which, generally speaking, has not received the consideration it merits. In any case the expression circulation credit gives occasion for fewer errors than the expression emission credit (Emissionskredit), which is sometimes used and has been chosen merely with regard to the issue of notes. Besides, what applies to all such differences of opinion is also true of this particular terminological controversy—the words used do not matter; what does matter is what the words are intended to mean.
Naturally, the peculiarities of circulation credit have not escaped the attention of economists. It is hardly possible to find a single theorist who has devoted serious consideration to the fundamental problems of the value of money and credit without having referred to the peculiar circumstances in which notes and checks are used. That this recognition of the individuality of certain kinds of credit transactions has not led to the distinction of commodity credit and circulation credit is probably to be ascribed to certain accidents in the history of our science. The criticism of isolated dogmatic and economico-political errors of the Currency principle that constituted the essence of most nineteenth-century investigation into the theory of banking and credit led to an emphasis being placed on all the factors that could be used to demonstrate the essential similarity of notes and other media of bank credit, and to the oversight of the important differences that exist between the two groups of credit characterized above, the discovery of which constitutes one of the permanent contributions of the Classical School and its successors, the Currency theorists.
The peculiar attitude of individuals toward transactions involving circulation credit is explained by the circumstance that the claims in which it is expressed can be used in every connection instead of money. He who requires money, in order to lend it, or to buy something, or to liquidate debts, or to pay taxes, is not first obliged to convert the claims to money (notes or bank balances) into money; he can also use the claims themselves directly as means of payment. For everybody they therefore are really money substitutes; they perform the monetary function in the same way as money; they are “ready money” to him, that is, present, not future, money. The practice of the merchant who includes under cash not merely the notes and token coinage which he possesses but also any bank balances which he has constantly at his immediate disposal by means of checks or otherwise is just as correct as that of the legislator who endows these fiduciary media with the legal power of settling all obligations contracted in terms of money—in doing which he only confirms a usage that has been established by commerce.
In all of this there is nothing special or peculiar to money. The objective exchange value of an indubitably secure and mature claim, which embodies a right to receive a definite individual thing or a definite quantity of fungible things, does not differ in the least from the objective exchange value of the thing or quantity of things to which the claim refers. What is significant for us lies in the fact that such claims to money, if there is no doubt whatever concerning either their security or their liquidity, are, simply on account of their equality in objective exchange value to the sums of money to which they refer, commercially competent to take the place of money entirely. Anyone who wishes to acquire bread can achieve his aim by obtaining in the first place a mature and secure claim to bread. If he only wishes to acquire the bread in order to give it up again in exchange for something else, he can give this claim up instead and is not obliged to liquidate it. But if he wishes to consume the bread, then he has no alternative but to procure it by liquidation of the claim. With the exception of money, all the economic goods that enter into the process of exchange necessarily reach an individual who wishes to consume them; all claims which embody a right to the receipt of such goods will therefore sooner or later have to be realized. A person who takes upon himself the obligation to deliver on demand a particular individual good, or a particular quantity of fungible goods (with the exception of money), must reckon with the fact that he will be held to its fulfillment, and probably in a very short time. Therefore he dare not promise more than he can be constantly ready to perform. A person who has a thousand loaves of bread at his immediate disposal will not dare to issue more than a thousand tickets each of which gives its holder the right to demand at any time the delivery of a loaf of bread. It is otherwise with money. Since nobody wants money except in order to get rid of it again, since it never finds a consumer except on ceasing to be a common medium of exchange, it is quite possible for claims to be employed in its stead, embodying a right to the receipt on demand of a certain sum of money and unimpugnable both as to their convertibility in general and as to whether they really would be converted on the demand of the holder; and it is quite possible for these claims to pass from hand to hand without any attempt being made to enforce the right that they embody. The obligee can expect that these claims will remain in circulation for so long as their holders do not lose confidence in their prompt convertibility or transfer them to persons who have not this confidence. He is therefore in a position to undertake greater obligations than he would ever be able to fulfill; it is enough if he takes sufficient precautions to ensure his ability to satisfy promptly that proportion of the claims that is actually enforced against him.
The fact that is peculiar to money alone is not that mature and secure claims to money are as highly valued in commerce as the sums of money to which they refer, but rather that such claims are complete substitutes for money, and, as such, are able to fulfill all the functions of money in those markets in which their essential characteristics of maturity and security are recognized. It is this circumstance that makes it possible to issue more of this sort of substitute than the issuer is always in a position to convert. And so the fiduciary medium comes into being in addition to the money certificate.
Fiduciary media increase the supply of money in the broader sense of the word; they are consequently able to influence the objective exchange value of money. To the investigation of this influence the following chapters are devoted.
Deposits as the Origin of Circulation Credit
Fiduciary media have grown up on the soil of the deposit system; deposits have been the basis upon which notes have been issued and accounts opened that could be drawn upon by checks. Independently of this, coins, at first the smaller and then the mediumsized, have developed into fiduciary media. It is usual to reckon the acceptance of a deposit which can be drawn upon at any time by means of notes or checks as a type of credit transaction and juristically this view is, of course, justified; but economically, the case is not one of a credit transaction. If credit in the economic sense means the exchange of a present good or a present service against a future good or a future service, then it is hardly possible to include the transactions in question under the conception of credit. A depositor of a sum of money who acquires in exchange for it a claim convertible into money at any time which will perform exactly the same service for him as the sum it refers to, has exchanged no present good for a future good. The claim that he has acquired by his deposit is also a present good for him. The depositing of the money in no way means that he has renounced immediate disposal over the utility that it commands.
Therefore the claim obtained in exchange for the sum of money is equally valuable to him whether he converts it sooner or later, or even not at all; and because of this it is possible for him, without damaging his economic interests, to acquire such claims in return for the surrender of money without demanding compensation for any difference in value arising from the difference in time between payment and repayment, such, of course, as does not in fact exist. That this could be so repeatedly overlooked is to be ascribed to the long accepted and widely accepted view that the essence of credit consists in the confidence which the lender reposes in the borrower The fact that anybody hands money over to a bank in exchange for a claim to repayment on demand certainly shows that he has confidence in the bank’s constant readiness to pay. But this is not a credit transaction, because the essential element, the exchange of present goods for future goods, is absent. But another circumstance that has helped to bring about the mistaken opinion referred to is the fact that the business performed by banks in exchanging money for claims to money payable on demand which can be transferred in the place of money, is very closely and intimately connected with that particular branch of their credit business that has most influenced the volume of money and entirely transformed the whole monetary system of the present day, namely, the provision of circulation credit. It is with this sort of banking business alone, the issue of notes and the opening of accounts that are not covered by money, that we are concerned. For this sort of business alone is of significance in connection with the function and value of money; the volume of money is affected by no other credit transactions than these.
While all other credit transactions may occur singly and be per formed on both sides by persons who do not regularly occupy themselves with such transactions, the provision of credit through the issue of fiduciary media is only possible on the part of an undertaking which conducts credit transactions as a matter of regular business. Deposits must be accepted and loans granted on a fairly considerable scale before the necessary conditions for the issue of fiduciary media are fulfilled. Notes cannot circulate unless the person who issues them is known and trustworthy. Moreover, payment by transfer from one account to another presupposes either a large circle of customers of the same bank or such a union of several banking undertakings that the total number of participants in the system is large. Fiduciary media can therefore be created only by banks and bankers; but this is not the only business that can be carried on by banks and bankers.
One branch of banking business deserves particular mention because, although closely related to that circle of banking activities with which we have to deal, it is quite without influence on the volume of money. This is that deposit business which does not serve the bank as a basis for the issue of fiduciary media. The activity carried on here by the bank is merely that of an intermediary, concerning which the English definition of a banker as a man who lends other people’s money is perfectly apt. The sums of money handed over to the bank by its customers in this branch of business are not a part of their reserves, but investments of money which are not necessary for day-to-day transactions. As a rule the two groups of deposits are distinguished even by the form they have in banking technique. The current accounts can be withdrawn on demand, that is to say, without previous notice. Often no interest at all is paid upon them, but when interest is paid, it is lower than that on the investment deposits. On the other hand, the investment deposits always bear interest and are usually repayable only on notice being given in advance. In the course of time, the differences in banking technique between the two kinds of deposit have been largely obliterated. The development of the savings-deposit system has made it possible for the banks to undertake the obligation to pay out small amounts of savings deposits at any time without notice. The larger the sums which are brought to the banks in the investment-deposit business, the greater, according to the law of large numbers, is the probability that the sums paid in on any particular day will balance those whose repayment is demanded, and the smaller is the reserve which will guarantee the bank the possibility of not having to break any of its promises. Such a reserve is all the easier to maintain inasmuch as it is combined with the reserve of the current-account business. Small business people or not very well-to-do private individuals, whose monetary affairs are too insignificant to be transferred as a whole to a bank, now make use of this development by trusting part of their reserve to the banks in the form of savings deposits. On the other hand, the circumstance that competition among banks has gradually raised the rate of interest on current accounts causes sums of money that are not needed for current-account purposes, and therefore might be invested, to be left on current account as a temporary investment. Nevertheless, these practices do not alter the principle of the matter; it is not the formal technical aspect of a transaction but its economic character that determines its significance for us.
From the point of view of the banks there does exist a connection between the two kinds of deposit business inasmuch as the possibility of uniting the two reserves permits of their being maintained at a lower level than their sum would have to be if they were completely independent. This is extremely important from the point of view of banking technique, and explains to some degree the advantage of the deposit banks, which carry on both branches of business, over the savings banks, which only accept savings deposits (the savings banks being consequently driven to take up currentaccount business also). For the organization of the banking system this circumstance is of importance; for the theoretical investigation of its problems it is negligible.
The essential thing about that branch of banking business which alone needs to be taken into consideration in connection with the volume of money is this: the banks that undertake current-account business for their customers are, for the reasons referred to above, in a position to lend out part of the deposited sums of money. It is a matter of indifference how they do this, whether they actually lend out a portion of the deposited money or issue notes to those who want credit or open a current account for them. The only circumstance that is of importance here is that the loans are granted out of a fund that did not exist before the loans were granted. In all other circumstances, whenever loans are granted they are granted out of existing and available funds of wealth. A bank which neither possesses the right of note issue nor carries on current-account business for its customers can never lend out more money than the sum of its own resources and the resources that other persons have entrusted to it. It is otherwise with those banks that issue notes or open current accounts. They have a fund from which to grant loans, over and above their own resources and those resources of other people that are at their disposal.
The Granting of Circulation Credit
According to the prevailing opinion, a bank which grants a loan in its own notes plays the part of a credit negotiator between the borrowers and those in whose hands the notes happen to be at any time. Thus in the last resort bank credit is not granted by the banks but by the holders of the notes. The intervention of the banks is said to have the single object of permitting the substitution of its well-known and indubitable credit for that of an unknown and perhaps less trustworthy debtor and so of making it easier for a borrower to get a loan taken up by “the public.” It is asserted, for example, that if bills are discounted by the bank and the discounted equivalent paid out in notes, these notes only circulate in place of the bills, which would otherwise be passed directly from hand to hand in lieu of cash. It is thought that this can also be proved historically by reference to the fact that before the development of the bank-of-issue system, especially in England, bills circulated to a greater extent than afterward; that in Lancashire, for example, until the opening of a branch of the Bank of England in Manchester, ninetenths of the total payments were made in bills and only one-tenth in money or banknotes.4 Now this view by no means describes the essence of the matter A person who accepts and holds notes, grants no credit; he exchanges no present good for a future good. The immediately convertible note of a solvent bank is employable everywhere as a fiduciary medium instead of money in commercial transactions, and nobody draws a distinction between the money and the notes which he holds as cash. The note is a present good just as much as the money.
Notes might be issued by banks in either of two ways. One way is to exchange them for money. According to accounting principles, the bank here enters into a debit transaction and a credit transaction; but the transaction is actually a matter of indifference, since the new liability is balanced by an exactly corresponding asset. The bank cannot make a profit out of such a transaction. In fact such a transaction involves it in a loss, since it brings in nothing to balance the expense of manufacturing the notes and storing the stocks of money. The issue of fully backed notes can therefore only be carried on in conjunction with the issue of fiduciary media. This is the second possible way of issuing notes, to issue them as loans to persons in search of credit. According to the books, this, like the other, is a case of a credit and a debit transaction only.5 It is true that this is not shown by the bank’s balance sheet. On the credit side of the balance sheet are entered the loans granted and the state of the till, and on the debit side, the notes. We approach a better understanding of the true nature of the whole process if we go instead to the profit-and-loss account. In this account there is recorded a profit whose origin is suggestive—“profit on loans.” When the bank lends other people’s money as well as its own resources, part of this profit arises from the difference between the rates of interest that it pays its depositors and the rates that it charges its borrowers. The other part arises from the granting of circulation credit. It is the bank that makes this profit, not the holders of the notes. It is possible that the bank may retain the whole of it; but sometimes it shares it, either with the holders of the notes or, more probably, with the depositors. But in either case there is a profit.6
Let us imagine a country whose monetary circulation consists in 100 million ducats. In this country a bank-of-issue is established. For the sake of simplicity, let us assume that the bank’s own capital is invested as a reserve outside the banking business, and that it has to pay the annual interest on this capital to the state in return for the concession of the right of note issue—an assumption that does correspond closely with the actual situation of some banks-of-issue. Now let the bank have fifty million ducats paid into it and issue fifty million ducats’ worth of one-ducat notes against this sum. But we must suppose that the bank does not allow the whole sum of fifty million ducats to remain in its vaults; it lends out forty million on interest to foreign businessmen. The interest on these loans consitutes its gross profit which is reduced only by the cost of manufacture of the notes, by administrative expenses, and the like. Is it possible in this case to say that the holders of the notes have granted credit to the foreign debtors of the bank, or to the bank itself?
Let us alter our example in a nonessential point. Let the bank lend the forty million not to foreigners but to persons within the country. One of these, A, is indebted to B for a certain sum, say the cost of goods which he has bought from him. A has no money at his disposal, but is ready to cede to B a claim maturing in three months, which he himself holds against P. Can B agree to this? Obviously only if he himself does not need for the next three months the sum of money which he could demand immediately, or if he has a prospect of finding somebody who can do without a corresponding sum of money for three months and is therefore ready to take over the claim against P. Or the situation might arise in which B wished to buy goods immediately from C, who was willing to permit postponement of payment for three months. In such a case, if C was really in agreement with the postponement, this could only be for one of the three reasons that might also cause B to be content with payment after the lapse of three months instead of immediate payment. All these, in fact, are cases of genuine credit transactions, of the exchange of present goods for future goods. Now the number and extent of these transactions is dependent on the quantity of present goods available; the total of the possible loans is limited by the total quantity of money and other goods available for this purpose. Loans can be granted only by those who have disposal over money or other economic goods which they can do without for a period. Now when the bank enters the arena by offering forty million ducats on the loan market, the fund available for lending pur poses is increased by exactly this sum; what immediate influence this must have on the rate of interest, should not need further explanation. Is it then correct to say that when the bank discounts bills it does nothing but substitute a convenient note currency for an inconvenient bill currency?7 Is the banknote really nothing but a handier sort of bill of exchange? By no means. The note that embodies the promise of a solvent bank to pay a sum to the bearer on demand at any time, that is, immediately if desired, differs in an important point from the bill that contains the promise to pay a sum of money after the passage of a period of time. The sight bill, which as is well known) plays no part in the credit system, is comparable with the note; but not the time bill, which is the form regularly assumed by the bills that are usual in credit transactions. A person who pays the price of a purchased commodity in money, in notes, or by the transfer of any other claim payable on demand, has carried through a cash transaction; a person who pays the purchase price by the acceptance of a three-month bill has carried through a credit transaction.8
Let us introduce a further unessential variation into our example, which will perhaps help to make the matter clearer. Let us assume that the bank has first issued notes to the value of fifty million ducats and received for them fifty million ducats in money; and now let us suppose it to place a further forty million ducats in its own notes on the loan market. This case is in every way identical with the two considered above.
The activity of note issue cannot in any way be described as increasing the demand for credit in the same sense as, say, an increase in the number of bills current. Quite the contrary. The bank-of-issue does not demand credit; it grants it. When an additional quantity of bills comes on to the market, this increases the demand for credit, and therefore raises the rate of interest. The placing of an additional quantity of notes on the loan market at first has the opposite effect; it constitutes an increase in the supply of credit and has therefore an immediate tendency to diminish the rate of interest.9
It is one of the most remarkable phenomena in the history of political economy that this fundamental distinction between notes and bills could have passed unnoticed. It raises an important problem for investigators into the history of economic theory. And in solving this problem it will be their principal task to show how the beginnings of a recognition of the true state of affairs that are to be found even in the writings of the Classical School and were further developed by the Currency School, were destroyed instead of being continued by the work of those who came after.10
Fiduciary Media and the Nature of Indirect Exchange
It should be sufficiently clear from what has been said that the traditional way of looking at the matter is but little in harmony with the peculiarities of fiduciary media. To regard notes and current accounts, whether they are covered by money or not, as constituting the same phenomenon, is to bar the way to an adequate conception of the nature of these peculiarities. To regard noteholders or owners of current accounts as granters of credit is to fail to recognize the meaning of a credit transaction. To treat both notes and bills of exchange in general (that is, not merely sight bills) as “credit instruments” alike is to renounce all hope of getting to the heart of the matter.
On the other hand, it is a complete mistake to assert that the nature of an act of exchange is altered by the employment of fiduciary media. Not only those exchanges that are carried through by the cession of notes or current-account balances covered by money, but also those exchanges that are carried through by the employment of fiduciary media, are indirect exchanges involving the use of money. Although from the juristic point of view it may be significant whether a liability incurred in an act of exchange is discharged by physical transference of pieces of money or by cession of a claim to the immediate delivery of pieces of money, that is, by cession of a money substitute, this has no bearing upon the economic nature of the act of exchange. It would be incorrect to assert, for instance, that when payment is made by check, commodities are really exchanged against commodities, only without any of the crude clumsiness of primitive barter.11 Here, just as in every other indirect exchange made possible by money, and in contrast to direct exchange, money plays the part of an intermediary between commodity and commodity. But money is an economic good with its own fluctuations in value. A person who acquires money or money substitutes will be affected by all the variations in their objective exchange value. This is just as true of payment by notes or checks as of the physical transference of pieces of money. But this is the only point that matters, and not the accidental circumstance whether money physically “enters into” the transaction as a whole. Anybody who sells commodities and is paid by means of a check and then immediately uses either the check itself or the balance that it puts at his disposal to pay for commodities that he has purchased in another transaction, has by no means exchanged commodities directly for commodities. He has undertaken two independent acts of exchange, which are connected no more intimately than any other two purchases.
It is possible that the terminology proposed is not the most suitable that could be found. This must be freely admitted. But it may at least be claimed for it that it opens the way to a better comprehension of the nature of the phenomena under discussion than those that have been previously employed. For if it is not quite true to say that inexact and superficial terminology has been chiefly responsible for the frequently unsatisfactory nature of the results of investigations into the theory of banking, still a good deal of the ill success of such investigations is to be laid to that account.
That economic theory puts questions of law and banking technique in the background and draws its boundaries differently from those drawn by jurisprudence or business administration is or should be self-evident. Reference to discrepancies between the above theory and the legal or technical nature of particular procedures is therefore no more relevant as an argument against the theory than economic considerations would be in the settlement of controversial juristic questions.
[1. ]See Bagehot, Lombard Street (London, 1906), p. 21.
[2. ]Knies, Geld und Kredit, (Berlin, 1876), vol. 2, Part II, p. 242. See further, Weber, Depositen- und Spekulationsbanken (Leipzig, 1902), pp. 106 f.; Sayous, Les banques de depêt, les banques de crédit et les sociétés financières, 2d ed. (Paris, 1907), pp. 219 ff.; Jaffé, Das englische Bankwesen, 2d ed. (Leipzig, 1910), p. 203.
[3. ]See Macleod, The Elements of Banking (London, 1904), p. 153.
[4. ]See Fullarton, On the Regulation of Currencies, 2d ed. (London, 1845), p. 39; Mill, Principles of Political Economy (London, 1867), p. 314; Jaffé, op. cit., p. 175.
[5. ]See Jaffé, op. cit., p. 153.
[6. ]This is the “surplus profit” (Übergewinn) of the business of banking, referred to by Hermann (op. cit., pp. 500 f.).
[7. ]As, for example, even Wicksell does (Geldzins und Güterpreise [Jena, 1898], p. 57).
[8. ]See Torrens, The Principles and Practical Operation of Sir Robert Peel’s Act of 1844 Explained and Defended, 2d ed. (London, 1857), pp. 16 ff.
[9. ]Ibid., p. 18.
[10. ]Since the appearance of the first edition of the present work numerous books have been published that still do not recognize the problem of circulation credit. Among the works that have grasped the nature of this problem the following should be mentioned: Schumpeter, Theorie der wirtschaftlichen Entwicklung (Leipzig, 1912), pp. 219 ff.; Schlesinger, Theorie der Geld- und Kreditwirtschaft (Munich and Leipzig, 1914), pp. 133 ff.; Hahn, Volkswirtschaftliche Theorie des Bankkredits (Tübingen, 1920), pp. 52 ff.
[11. ]Thus Lexis, Allegemeine Volkswirtschaftslehre (Berlin, 1910) (Hinnenberg, Die Kultur der Gegenwart, section II, vol. 10, Part 1), p. 122; Lexis, Geld und Preise (Riesser-Festgabe, Berlin, 1913), pp. 83 f. Similarly, with regard to the clearinghouse business, Schumacher, Weltwirtschaftliche Studien (Leipzig, 1911), pp. 53 f. and the writings there referred to.