Meeting of the Proprietors of the Bank of England.
September 13, 1866.
(From 'Economist,' September 22, 1866.)
A General Court of the Bank of England was held at the Bank at twelve o'clock on the 3th instant, for the purpose of declaring a dividend for the past half-year.
Mr. Launcelot Holland, the Governor of the Bank, who presided upon the occasion, addressed the proprietors as follows: This is one of the quarterly general courts appointed by our charter, and it is also one of our half-yearly general courts, held under our bye-laws, for the purpose of declaring a dividend. From a statement which I hold in my hand it appears that the net profits of the Bank for the half-year ending on the 31st of August last amounted to 970,014l. 17s. 10d., making the amount of the rest on that day, 3,981,783l. 18s. 11d.; and after providing for a dividend at the rate of 6l. 10s. per cent., the rest will stand at 3,035,838l.. 18s. 11d. The court of directors, therefore, propose that a half-yearly dividend of interest and profits, to the amount of 6l. 10s. per cent., without deduction on account of income tax, shall be made on the 10th of October next. That is the proposal I have now to lay before the general court; but as important events have occurred since we last met, I think it right I should briefly advert to them upon this occasion. A great strain has within the last few months been put upon the resources of this house, and of the whole banking community of London; and I think I am entitled to say that not only this house but the entire banking body acquitted themselves most honourably and creditably throughout that very trying period. Banking is a very peculiar business, and it depends so much upon credit that the least blast of suspicion is sufficient to sweep away, as it were, the harvest of a whole year. But the manner in which the banking establishments generally of London met the demands made upon them during the greater portion of the past half-year affords a most satisfactory proof of the soundness of the principles on which their business is conducted. This house exerted itself to the utmost—and exerted itself most successfully—to meet the crisis. We did not flinch from our post. When the storm came upon us, on the morning on which it became known that the house of Overend and Co. had failed, we were in as sound and healthy a position as any banking establishment could hold; and on that day and throughout the succeeding week, we made advances which would hardly be credited. I do not believe that any one would have thought of predicting, even at the shortest period beforehand, the greatness of those advances. It was not unnatural that in this state of things a certain degree of alarm should have taken possession of the public mind, and that those who required accommodation from the Bank should have gone to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and requested the Government to empower us to issue notes beyond the statutory amount, if we should think that such a measure was desirable. But we had to act before we could receive any such power, and before the Chancellor of the Exchequer was perhaps out of his bed we had advanced one-half of our reserves, which were certainly thus reduced to an amount which we could not witness without regret. But we could not flinch from the duty which we conceived was imposed upon us of supporting the banking community, and I am not aware that any legitimate application for assistance made to this house was refused. Every gentleman who came here with adequate security was liberally dealt with, and if accommodation could not be afforded to the full extent which was demanded, no one who offered proper security failed to obtain relief from this house. I have perhaps gone a little more into details than is customary upon these occasions, but the times have been unusually interesting, and I thought it desirable to say this much in justification of the course adopted by this house of running its balances down to a point which some gentlemen may consider dangerous. Looking back, however, upon recent events, I cannot take any blame to this court for not having been prepared for such a tornado as that which burst upon us on the 11th of May; and I hope the court of proprietors will feel that their directors acted properly upon that occasion, and that they did their best to meet a very extraordinary state of circumstances. I have now only to move that a dividend be declared at the rate of 6l. 10s. per cent. for the past half-year.
Mr. Hyam said that before the question was put he wished to offer a few observations to the court. He believed that the statement of accounts which had just been laid before them was perfectly satisfactory. He also thought that the directors had done their best to assist the commercial classes throughout the late monetary crisis; but it appeared to him at the same time that they were in fault in not having applied at an earlier period to the Chancellor of the Exchequer for a suspension of the Bank Act. It was well known that the demand on the Bank was materially lessened in the earlier part of the day, in consequence of a rumour which had been extensively circulated that permission to overstep the limits laid down in the Act had been granted. That concession, however, had only been made after the most urgent representations had been addressed to the Chancellor of the Exchequer at a late hour in the night, and if it had then been refused he felt persuaded that the state of affairs would have been much worse on the Saturday than it had been on the Friday. The fact was that the Act of 1844 was totally unsuited to the present requirements of the country, which since that period had tripled or quadrupled its commerce; and he was sorry to know that the measure seemed to meet with the approval of many of their directors. Any one who read the speeches made in the course of the discussion on Mr. Watkins' motion must see that the subject called for further inquiry; and he trusted that the demand for that inquiry would yet be conceded.
Mr. Jones said he entirely dissented from the views with respect to the Bank Act entertained by the hon. proprietor who had just addressed the court. In his opinion the main cause of the recent monetary crisis was that, while we had bought 275,000,000l. worth of foreign produce in the year 1865, the value of our exports had only been 165,000,000l., so that we had a balance against us to the amount of 110,000,000l. He believed that the Bank acted wisely in resisting every attempt to increase the paper currency, and he felt convinced that the working classes would be the people least likely to benefit by the rise in prices which would take place under such a change.
Mr. Moxon said he should be glad to know what was the amount of bad debts made by the Bank during the past half-year. It was stated very confidently out of doors that during that period the directors had between 3,000,000l. and 4,000,000l. of bills returned to them.
The Governor of the Bank.—May I ask what is your authority for that statement? We are rather amused at hearing it, and we have never been able to trace any rumour of the kind to an authentic source.
Mr. Moxon continued—Whether the bad debts were large or small, he thought it was desirable that they should all know what was their actual amount. They had been told at their last meeting that the Bank held a great many railway debentures; and he should like to know whether any of those debentures came from railway companies that had since been unable to meet their obligations. He understood that a portion of their property was locked up in advances made on account of the Thames Embankment, and in other ways which did not leave the money available for general banking and commercial purposes; and if that were so, he should express his disapproval of such a policy. There was another important point to which he wished to advert. He was anxious to know what was the aggregate balance of the joint stock banks in the Bank of England. He feared that some time or other the joint stock banks would be in a position to command perhaps the stoppage of the Bank of England. If that were not so, the sooner the public were fully informed upon the point the better. But if ten or twelve joint stock banks had large balances in the Bank of England, and if the Bank balances were to run very low, people would naturally begin to suspect that the joint stock banks had more power over the Bank of England than they ought to have. He wished further to ask whether the directors had of late taken into consideration the expediency of paying interest on deposits. He believed that under their present mode of carrying on their business they were foregoing large profits which they might receive with advantage to themselves and to the public; and he would recommend that they should undertake the custody of securities after the system adopted by the Bank of France. In conclusion, he proposed to move three resolutions, for the purpose of providing, first, that a list of all the proprietors of Bank stock should be printed, with a separate entry of the names of all those persons not entitled to vote from the smallness of their stock, or from the shortness of time during which they held it; secondly, that a copy of the charter of the Bank, with the rules, orders, and bye-laws passed for the good government of their corporation, should be printed for the use of the shareholders; and thirdly, that auditors should be appointed to make detailed audits of their accounts.
Mr. Gerstenberg recommended that the directors should take some step for the purpose of preventing the spread of such erroneous notions as that which lately prevailed on the Continent, that the Bank was about to suspend specie payments.
Mr. W. Botly said he wished to see the directors taking into their consideration the expediency of allowing interest on deposits.
Mr. Alderman Salomons said he wished to take that opportunity of stating that he believed nothing could be more satisfactory to the managers and shareholders of joint stock banks than the testimony which the Governor of the Bank of England had that day borne to the sound and honourable manner in which their business was conducted. It was mainfestly desirable that the joint stock banks and the banking interest generally should work in harmony with the Bank of England; and he sincerely thanked the Governor of the Bank for the kindly manner in which he had alluded to the mode in which the joint stock banks had met the late monetary crisis.
The Governor of the Bank said—Before putting the question for the declaration of a dividend, I wish to refer to one or two points that have been raised by the gentlemen who have addressed the court on this occasion. The most prominent topic brought under our notice is the expediency of allowing interest on deposits; and upon that point I must say that I believe a more dangerous innovation could not be made in the practice of the Bank of England. The downfall of Overend and Gurney, and of many other houses, must be traced to the policy which they adopted of paying interest on deposits at call, while they were themselves tempted to invest the money so received in speculations in Ireland or in America, or at the bottom of the sea, where it was not available when a moment of pressure arrived.
Mr. Botly said he did not mean deposits on call.
The Governor of the Bank of England continued—That is only a matter of detail; the main question is whether we ought to pay interest on deposits, and of such policy I must express my entire disapproval. Mr. Moxon has referred to the amount of our debts, but, as I stated when I took the liberty of interrupting him, we could never trace the origin of any rumour which prevailed upon that subject. As far as it can be said to have ever existed it had its origin most probably in the vast amount advanced by the Bank. It must, however, be remembered that we did not make our advances without ample security, and the best proof of that is the marvelously small amount of bad debts which we contracted. It has never been a feature of the Bank to state what was the precise amount of those debts; but I believe that if I were to mention it upon the present occasion, it would be found to be so inconsiderable that I should hardly obtain credence for the announcement I should have to make. I am convinced that our present dividend has been as honestly and as hardly earned as any that we have ever realised; but it has been obtained by means of great vigilance and great anxiety on the part of each and all of your directors; and I will add that I believe you would only diminish their sense of responsibility, and introduce confusion into the management of your business, if you were to transfer to auditors the making up of your accounts. If your directors deserve your confidence they are surely capable of performing that duty, and if they do not deserve it you ought not to continue them in their present office. With regard to the supposed lock-up of our capital, I must observe that, with 14,000,000l. on our hands, we must necessarily invest it in a variety of securities; but there is no ground for imagining that our money is locked up and is not available for the purpose of making commercial advances. We advanced in the space of three months the sum of 45,000,000l.; and what more than that do you want? It has been recommended that we should take charge of securities; but we have found it necessary to refuse all securities except those of our customers; and I believe the custody of securities is becoming a growing evil. With regard to railway debentures, I do not believe we have one of a doubtful character. We have no debentures except those of first-class railway companies and companies which we know are acting within their Parliamentary limits. Having alluded to those subjects, I will now put the motion for the declaration of the dividend.
The motion was accordingly put and unanimously adopted.
The chairman then announced that that resolution should be confirmed by ballot on Tuesday next, inasmuch as the Bank could not, under the provisions of its Act of Parliament, declare otherwise than in that form a dividend higher than that which it had distributed during the preceding half-year.
The three resolutions proposed by Mr. Moxon were then read; but they were not put to the meeting, inasmuch as they found no seconders.
Mr. Alderman Salomons said that their Governor had observed that he thought the payment of interests on deposits was objectionable; and everyone must see that such a practice ought not to be adopted by the Bank of England. But he took it for granted that the Governor did not mean that his statement should apply to joint stock banks which he had himself told them had conducted their business so creditably and so successfully.
The Governor of the Bank said that what he stated was that such a system would be dangerous for the Bank of England, and dangerous if carried into effect in the way contemplated by Mr. Moxon.
Mr. P. N. Laurie said he understood the Governor of the Bank to say that it would be dangerous to take deposits on call, and in that opinion he concurred.
Mr. Alderman Salomons said that he, too, was of the same opinion.
On the motion of Mr. Alderman Salomons, seconded by Mr. Botly, a vote of thanks was passed to the Governor and the directors for their able and successful management of the Bank during the past half-year, and the proceedings then terminated.
By E. Johnstone