BANK CASH PAYMENTS BILL
19 March 1821
The Chancellor of the Exchequer reminded the House that by the Act of 1819, the Bank of England were entitled, at their option, to issue gold coin on the 1st of May 1822, and were bound to resume cash payments on the 1st of May 1823. He would now propose that this optional power should be brought into practical operation on the 1st of May 1821. Two circumstances justified the anticipation: first, the rapid accumulation of treasure in the Bank, which by restricting the circulation of other countries produced an unfavourable effect on commerce; secondly, the widespread forgery of Bank-notes, which could only be diminished by the progressive substitution of coin for Bank-notes. Mr. Baring moved that the principle of the Act of 1819 be reconsidered. He thought the distress of the country was due to the rise in the value of the currency and the increased burden of debt, which had followed the return to cash payments. ‘He was not himself bold enough to recommend a departure from the standard,’ but he would propose two remedies for the evils of the present system. ‘The first was to render permanent the plan of paying Bank-notes in bullion, or to continue what he hoped he might, without disrespect, call the Ricardo system; for, in his opinion, the permanent establishment of that plan was peculiarly calculated to relieve the tension which was at present felt in the currency of the country.’ As to the danger of forgery, it could not require much ingenuity to invent a Bank-note more difficult to imitate than the present clumsy one; or, instead of the small notes, he would propose a gold token. ‘The second remedy which he had to propose was, the establishment of a double standard, namely, gold and silver.’
Mr. Ricardo began by observing, that his hon. friend had set out with contending for the propriety of establishing two standards: whereas a great part of his argument had gone to put the gold standard out of the question altogether. He had truly said, that in 1797, permission was given to the Bank of England, by act of parliament, to increase or diminish the amount of its circulation as it might think proper. Now, though he agreed that such a power could not have been lodged in hands less inclined to abuse that permission, he did consider it a power most dangerous to have been entrusted to any men, under any circumstances. It was undoubtedly true that the Bank had had it in its power to have kept the currency at a standard as if it had been composed entirely of gold and silver. He maintained that it had then the full power of doing so. The Bank of England, however, neglected that duty; and, in 1819, when the war had terminated, it became absolutely necessary that the House should adopt the steps it had adopted towards payment in bullion. The question with the House, then, was—“Shall we take the standard of our currency at its present depreciation? or shall we take it as it existed previously to the year 1797?” His noble friend, the member for Salisbury (lord Folkestone), had, with a great deal of good sense and judgment, proposed to fix the standard at the price at which gold then was. On that point he had differed from his noble friend, thinking that gold was not then sufficiently depreciated, had it been more depreciated, he should have preferred that plan to the adoption of a more variable standard. His hon. friend who had called him a theorist , seemed himself to have undergone a great change of sentiment. His own opinion always was, that there should be but one standard, and that that standard should be gold; because silver was liable to undergo such changes, that it might sink in value below gold, and thus occasion the greatest confusion; but his hon. friend had formerly contended, that the adoption of two standards would be attended with advantage. Now, however, his hon. friend advanced another idea, which, he confessed, did strike him with astonishment. His hon. friend seemed disposed to admit all the advantages of a fixed currency, and that gold should be adopted as the standard, but also thought, that the Bank should be allowed, at their option, to pay in silver, at 5s. 2d. per oz. for ten years to come, still retaining gold as the sole standard, and then adjust the price of silver to the standard of gold. Now, suppose the silver to sink to 4s. or to 3s. 6d., before the ten years had expired, at the end of that term it would be necessary, on the principle of his hon. friend, to raise it to 5s. 2d. thus adjusting it every ten years. This would unquestionably be one of the most variable standards that could possibly be devised. His hon. friend had stated, that representations were sent from all parts of the country complaining of the prevalence of distress. This was unfortunately too true; but it was worthy of remark, that his hon. friend, who was no theorist, had nevertheless a theory respecting the cause of these distresses, by which he imputed them all to the state of the currency. Now, it appeared to him that they might with more truth be referred to a great many other causes. They might arise from an abundant harvest, from the vast importations from Ireland, which had not taken place formerly, and from the late improvements in agriculture, which, he apprehended, would be felt hereafter more severely. These causes his hon. friend entirely over-looked, and laid the whole blame on the alteration which had been made in the currency; while he (Mr. Ricardo) contended that this alteration could not be said to amount to more than 5 per cent. He admitted, that gold might have altered in value; that was an accident against which it was impossible to provide; but, supposing that silver had been adopted as a standard, would it not also have varied? His hon. friend contended, that if silver had been made the standard, it could never have fallen so much in value; but his hon. friend argued all along on the assumption that the whole difference between gold and silver was owing to the rise of gold. This, however, was not fair; for when a difference arose in the relative value of the two metals, he had just as good a right to say that silver had fallen, as his hon. friend had to say that gold had risen. The surest test was the rate of the foreign exchanges; and if his hon. friend looked at what a pound sterling was worth in 1816 in the silver coin of France, and what it was now worth, he would find it difficult to make out a variation of more than 10 per cent. He begged the House to recollect, that in 1817 wheat sold at 109s. and bullion was then at 3l. 18s. 6d. Would his hon. friend say, that that price was owing to the depreciation of the currency? and if not, was he calling on his hon. friend to concede too much, by admitting that the present price of grain might be owing to many other causes? His hon. friend had said, that a great deal of capital had been expended during the war. Now, he doubted whether this was a sound proposition: for, he believed that the savings of individuals during the war, would be found to have more than counteracted the profuse expenditure of the government, and that the capital of the country at the end of the war was greater than it was at the commencement of it. His hon. friend had asked, why we should have a purer standard than the rest of the world?—a question which might be very properly answered by asking, why we should not? If other countries chose to adopt an error, was that any reason why we should follow their example? The attempt to procure the best possible standard had been characterised by his hon. friend as a piece of coxcombry to which he attached no value; but, in a question of finance, if we could get a better system than our neighbours, we were surely justified in adopting it. He undoubtedly did wish for a better system, and it was for that reason that he wished to see one metal adopted as a standard of currency, and the system of two metals rejected. With respect to the adoption of a gold token, he thought it would be attended with great danger; if by a gold token was meant a token materially less in value than the gold coin which it represented. The necessary consequence of such a system would be, that the tokens would be imitated in foreign countries, and poured into this country in such quantities as would very speedily produce a depreciation of our currency, equivalent to the difference between the value of the sovereign and that of the token which represented the sovereign. If he could be induced to give his consent to the introduction of a gold token, it must be of such a value as nearly to equal the value of the sovereign. He would permit no more alloy in the token than what would be sufficient to cover the actual expense of coining the bullion into money. Such a plan would afford a sufficient security against the inroads of forgers , and might be advantageously adopted.—It had been said, that if one metal were adopted for a standard of currency, it would be in the power of speculators to raise or lower the standard, and consequently place the Bank in an awkward predicament; but the power which the Bank had of regulating its issues, would always be sufficient to prevent any inconvenience of that kind. With respect to the suggestion of the right hon. gentleman opposite for diminishing the issues of Bank-notes as a security against forgery, he entirely concurred with his hon. friend that such a plan would be wholly ineffectual as a remedy against forgery. It was perfectly clear, that whether the issues consisted altogether of Bank-notes, or half in Bank-notes and half in sovereigns, the danger of forgery would be the same. The only effectual remedy against forgery would be, to hasten the period at which the Bank might commence payment in specie. He should be perfectly ready to abandon his own plan, if by so doing that most desirable object could be effected; and he was quite satisfied that the Bank was at this time in such a state of preparation, that in a very few months they might provide the best and only effectual security against the imitation of their notes, by returning to the system of currency which existed in this country previous to 1797. The right hon. gentleman had dwelt upon the tendency of his measure to prevent the accumulation of coin in the Bank; as if the coffers of the Bank were overflowing with coin. Now, the fact was, that the Bank had a great deal of bullion and very little coin. To propose a measure, therefore, for preventing the accumulation of coin in the hands of the Bank, was to provide against a danger, which was not at all likely to occur. With respect to the laws relating to usury, he should be extremely glad to see them repealed; and he thought no time more proper for the repeal of those laws than the present, when the rate of interest had actually sunk below 5 per cent. The rate of interest in the market had been invariably under 5 per cent since 1819. It would be a great advantage to the mercantile interests, that the Bank of England should discount the notes presented to them, not at one invariable rate of interest, but varying according to the alteration of the rate of interest in the market.
[See further p. 105.]