“The world that disappeared in 1914 appeared, in retrospect, something like our picture of Paradise,” wrote the economist Cecil Hirsch in his June 1934 review of R.W. Hawtrey’s classic, The Art of Central Banking (1933). Hirsch bemoaned the loss of the far-sighted restraint that had once prevailed among the “bankers’ banks” of the West, concluding that modern times “had failed to attain the standard of wisdom and foresight that prevailed in the 19th century.”
That wisdom and foresight was once upon a time institutionalized throughout an international monetary culture — gold-based, wary of credit, and contemptuous of debt, public or private. This world included central banks including the Bank of England, the Bank of France, the Swiss National Bank, the early Federal Reserve, the Imperial Bank of Austria-Hungary, and the German Reichsbank. But the entrenched hard-money ideology of the time restrained all of them. The Bank of Russia, for example, which once required 50 percent to 100 percent gold backing of all notes issued, possessed the second largest gold reserves on the planet at the turn of the twentieth century.
“The countries that were tied together in the gold standard system represented to a not inconsiderable degree a community of interest in and responsibility for the maintenance of economic and financial stability throughout the world,” recounted Aldoph C. Miller, member of the Federal Reserve Board from 1914 to 1936, inThe Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science, in May 1936. “The gold standard was the one outstanding symbol of unity and economic solidarity which the nineteenth century world had developed.”
It was a time when “automatic market forces,” as economists of the day referred to them, prevailed over monetary management. Redeemability of money in (fine) gold ensured, within limits, stability in foreign exchange rates. Credit was extended only as far as reserve ratios would allow, and central banks were required to keep fixed reserves of gold against notes-in-circulation and against demand deposits.
When Markets Dominated Monetary “Policy”
Gold flows regulated international price relationships through markets, which adjusted themselves accordingly: prices rose when there was an influx of gold — for example, when one country received a debt payment from another country (always in gold), or during such times as the California or Australian gold rushes of the 1870s. These inflows meant credit expansion and a rise in prices. An outflow of gold meant credit was contracted and price deflation followed.
The efficiency of that standard was not impeded by the major central banks in such a way that “any disturbance of economic or financial character originating at any point in the world which might threaten the continued maintenance of economic equilibrium was quickly detected by foreign exchanges,” Miller, the Federal Reserve board member, noted in his paper. “In this way, the gold standard system became in a very real sense a regime or rule of economic health, a method of catching economic disturbances in the bud.”
The Bank of England, the grand master of them all, was the financial center of the universe, whose tight handle on its credit policies was so disciplined that the secured the top spot while not even holding the largest gold reserves. Consistent in its belief that protection of reserves was the chief, and only important, criterion of credit policy, England became the leading exporter of capital, the free market for gold, the international discount market, and international banker for the trade of other countries, as well as her own. The world was in this sense on the sterling standard.
The Bank of France, wisely admonished by its founder, Napoleon, to make sure France was always a creditor country, was so replete with reserves it made England a 500 million franc loan (in 1915 numbers) at the onset of the World War I. Switzerland, perhaps the last “19th-century-style” hold-out today with unlimited-liability private bankers and strict debt-ceiling legislation, also required high standards of its National Bank, founded in 1907. By the 1930s that country had higher banking reserves than the US; the Swiss franc was never explicitly devalued, unlike nearly every other Western nation’s currency, and the country’s domestic price level remainedthe most stable in the world.
For a time, the disciplined mindset of these banks found its way across the Atlantic, where the idea of a central bank had been long the subject of hot debate in the US. The economist H. Parker Willis, writing about the controversy in The Journal of the Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science, October 1913, admonished: “The Federal Reserve banks are to be ‘bankers’ banks,’ and they are intended to do for the banker what he himself does for the public.”
At first, the advice was heeded: in September 1916, almost two years after its founding on December 23,1913, the fledgling Fed worked out an amendment to its gold policy on the basis of a very conservative view of credit. This new policy sought to restrain “the undue and unnecessary expansion of credit,” wrote Fed board member Miller, in an article for The American Economic Review, in June 1921.
The Bank of Russia, during the second half of the nineteenth century steered itself through the Crimean War, the Russo-Turkish War, the Russo-Japanese War, impending Balkan wars — not to mention all that was to follow — and managed to emerge with sound fiscal policies and massive gold reserves. According to The Economist of May 20, 1899, Russian holdings were 95 million pounds sterling of gold, while the Bank of France held 78 million sterling worth. (Austria-Hungary held 30 million sterling worth of gold and the Bank of England 30 million sterling worth of both gold and silver.) “Russia up to the very moment of rupture [with Japan, 1904–1905], was working imperturbably at the progressive consolidation of her finances,” reported Karl Helfferich of the University of Berlin, at a meeting of The Royal Economic Society [UK] in December 1904. “Even in years of industrial crises and defective harvest, her foreign trade showed an excess of exports over imports more than sufficient to compensate payments sent abroad. And, as guarantee her monetary system she has succeeded in a amassing and maintaining a vast reserve of gold.”
These banks, in turn, drew on the medieval/Renaissance and Baroque-era banking traditions of the Hanseatic League, the Bank of Venice, and Amsterdam banks. Payment-on-demand “in good and heavy gold” was like a blood-oath binding the banker-client relationship. The transfer of credit “did not arise from any such substitution of credit for money,” noted Charles F. Dunbar, in The Quarterly Journal of Economics of April 1892, “but from the simple fact that the transfer in-bank saved the necessity of counting coin and manual delivery of every transaction.”
Bankers were forbidden to deal in certain commodities, could not make loans or create credit for the purchase of such commodities, and forbade both foreigners and citizens from buying silver on credit unless the same amount in cash was in the bank. According to Dunbar, a Venetian law of 1403 on reserve requirements becamethe basis of US banking law on the deposits of public securities in the late 1800s.
After the fall of bi-metallism in the 1870s, gold continued to perform monetary functions among the main countries of the Western world (and the well-administered Bank of Japan). It was the only medium of exchange and the only currency with unrestricted legal tender. It became the vaunted “measure of value.” Bank currency notes were simply used as auxiliary to gold and, in general, did not enjoy the privilege of legal tender.
The End of An Era
It was certainly not a flawless system, or without periodic crises. But central banks had to act in an exceptionally prudent manner given the all-over public distrust of paper money.
As economist Andrew Jay Frame of the University of Chicago, writing in The Journal of Political Economy, in January 1912, noted: “During panics in Britain in 1847 and 1866, when cash payments were suspended, the floodgates of cash were opened [by The Bank of England], the governor sent word to the street that solvent banks would be accommodated, and the panic was relieved.” Frame then adds: “However, this extra cash and the increased loans that went with it were very quickly put to an end to avoid credit expansion.”
The US was equally confident of its prudent attitude. Aldoph Miller, writing of Federal Reserve policy, remarked: “The three chief elements of the policy of a central bank or system of reserve holding institutions are best disclosed in connection with the attitude towards 1) gold 2) currency 3) credit.” He noted proudly: “The federal reserve system has met [these] tests on the whole with remarkable success.”
But after World War I, a different international landscape was left behind. England had been displaced as the center of international finance; the US and France emerged as the chief post-war creditor countries. The mechanism of the gold standard to which depreciated currencies could be related no longer existed. Only the US was left with a full gold standard. England and France had a gold bullion standard and other countries (Germany, primarily) had a gold-exchange standard.
A matrix of unbalanced trade relationships began to saturate the international economy. Then, with so many foreign countries attendant upon its speculative boom, the US manipulated its own domestic credit policies to ease credit and exchange-standard controls. This eventually culminated in an international financial crisis of 1931. Under Bretton Woods (1944), the gold standard was effectively abandoned: domestic convertibility was illegal and the role of gold was very constrained in favor of the dollar.
“It was, at least in theory, simple enough in the old days,” wrote a wistful W. Randolph Burgess, head of the New York Federal Reserve, in 1938. “In the present strange new world, where the old gold portents have lost their former meaning, where is the radio beam which the central banker may follow? What is the equivalent of gold?”
The men of his era and of the late nineteenth century understood the meaning of such a question and, more importantly, why it is one that must be asked. But theirs was a different world, indeed — one without “QE,” ZIRP,” or “Unknown Knowns” as fiscal policy. And there were no helicopters, either.