Bagehot’s REAL opinion

We all know the cliché about how to deal with panics – viz., ‘lend freely at a penalty rate’ – and the fact that this is taken as an endorsement of central banking, per se, but , in fact, Lombard St (1873) finishes with a much more fatalistic conclusion.

I know it will be said that in this work I have pointed out a deep malady, and only suggested a superficial remedy. I have tediously insisted that the natural system of banking is that of many banks keeping their own cash reserve, with the penalty of failure before them if they neglect it. I have shown that our system is that of a single bank keeping the whole reserve under no effectual penalty of failure. And yet I propose to retain that system, and only attempt to mend and palliate it.

I can only reply that I propose to retain this system because I am quite sure that it is of no manner of use proposing to alter it. A system of credit which has slowly grown up as years went on, which has suited itself to the course of business, which has forced itself on the habits of men, will not be altered because theorists disapprove of it, or because books are written against it. You might as well, or better, try to alter the English monarchy and substitute a republic, as to alter the present constitution of the English money market, founded on the Bank of England, and substitute for it a system in which each bank shall keep its own reserve. There is no force to be found adequate to so vast a reconstruction, and so vast a destructions and therefore it is useless proposing them.

No one who has not long considered the subject can have a notion how much this dependence on the Bank of England is fixed in our national habits. I have given so many illustrations in this book that I fear I must have exhausted my reader’s patience, but I will risk giving another. I suppose almost everyone thinks that our system of savings’ banks is sound and good. Almost everyone would be surprised to hear that there is any possible objection to it. Yet see what it amounts to. By the last return the savings’ banks—the old and the Post Office together—contain about 60,000,000l. of deposits, and against this they hold in the funds securities of the best kind. But they hold no cash whatever. They have of course the petty cash about the various branches necessary for daily work. But of cash in ultimate reserve—cash in reserve against a panic—the savings’ banks have not a sixpence. These banks depend on being able in a panic to realise their securities. But it has been shown over and over again, that in a panic such securities can only be realised by the help of the Bank of England—that it is only the Bank with the ultimate cash reserve which has at such moments any new money, or any power to lend and act. If in a general panic there were a run on the savings’ banks, those banks could not sell 100,000l. of Consols without the help of the Bank of England; not holding themselves a cash reserve for times of panic, they are entirely dependent on the one Bank which does hold that reserve.

This is only a single additional instance beyond the innumerable ones given, which shows how deeply our system of banking is fixed in our ways of thinking. The Government keeps the money of the poor upon it, and the nation fully approves of their doing so. No one hears a syllable of objection. And every practical man—every man who knows the scene of action—will agree that our system of banking, based on a single reserve in the Bank of England, cannot be altered, or a system of many banks, each keeping its own reserve, be substituted for it. Nothing but a revolution would effect it, and there is nothing to cause a revolution.

This being so, there is nothing for it but to make the best of our banking system, and to work it in the best way that it is capable of. We can only use palliatives, and the point is to get the best palliative we can. I have endeavoured to show why it seems to me that the palliatives which I have suggested are the best that are at our disposal.

I have explained why the French plan will not suit our English world. The direct appointment of the Governor and Deputy-Governor of the Bank of England by the executive Government would not lessen our evils or help our difficulties. I fear it would rather make both worse. But possibly it may be suggested that I ought to explain why the American system, or some modification, would not or might not be suitable to us. The American law says that each national bank shall have a fixed proportion of cash to its liabilities (there are two classes of banks, and two different proportions; but that is not to the present purpose), and it ascertains by inspectors, who inspect at their own times, whether the required amount of cash is in the bank or not. It may be asked, could nothing like this be attempted in England? could not it, or some modification, help us out of our difficulties? As far as the American banking system is one of many reserves, I have said why I think it is of no use considering whether we should adopt it or not. We cannot adopt it if we would. The one-reserve system is fixed upon us. The only practical imitation of the American system would be to enact that the Banking department of the Bank of England should always keep a fixed proportion—say one-third of its liabilities—in reserve. But, as we have seen before, a fixed proportion of the liabilities, even when that proportion is voluntarily chosen by the directors, and not imposed by law, is not the proper standard for a bank reserve. Liabilities may be imminent or distant, and a fixed rule which imposes the same reserve for both will sometimes err by excess, and sometimes by defect. It will waste profits by over-provision against ordinary danger, and yet it may not always save the bank; for this provision is often likely enough to be insufficient against rare and unusual dangers. But bad as is this system when voluntarily chosen, it becomes far worse when legally and compulsorily imposed. In a sensitive state of the English money market the near approach to the legal limit of reserve would be a sure incentive to panic; if one-third were fixed by law, the moment the banks were close to one-third, alarm would begin, and would run like magic. And the fear would be worse because it would not be unfounded—at least, not wholly. If you say that the Bank shall always hold one-third of its liabilities as a reserve, you say in fact that this one-third shall always be useless, for out of it the Bank cannot make advances, cannot give extra help, cannot do what we have seen the holders of the ultimate reserve ought to do and must do. There is no help for us in the American system; its very essence and principle are faulty.

We must therefore, I think, have recourse to feeble and humble palliatives such as I have suggested. With good sense, good judgment, and good care, I have no doubt that they may be enough. But I have written in vain if I require to say now that the problem is delicate, that the solution is varying and difficult, and that the result is inestimable to us all.


  • lola says:

    I’d never read that before, so thank you.

    Comment? Ho hum. There’s nowt new under t’sun.

  • Bagehot needn’t have been so humble or unsure of his ideas in view of some of the alternatives.

    One alternative is NOT to adhere to his dictum “lend to problem banks only at prohibitive rates and in return for first class collateral”. Ireland ignored the dictum, and offered carte blanche guarantees to banks. Look where that got them.

    The Fed has allegedly accepted junk in exchange for loans. The full glory of the dirty washing has yet to be revealed here.

    And Peer Steinbruck and others are now talking of haircuts (long after they should have been given) for European bank shareholders and senior creditors. See:

    The central bank system described by Bagehot is doubtless not the best possible system, but there are plenty of much worse ones.

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