Public Banking and Taxing the Wild Frontier: Part Four

In the period following the ratification of the federal US Constitution, the financial course for the new nation had yet to be charted. Alexander Hamilton had a dream to turn the former colonies into a modern mercantilist nation on a model he borrowed from the British and its Bank of England. His idea would succeed with flying colors, but few truly understood just what he had done to make banking so indispensable to the health of this new form of economics. It would take decades for the nation to warm up to the idea of banks as an everyday feature of American life, but by that time, private banks would dominate the landscape and the old civic-minded banks would be a distant memory.

People were highly suspicious of the purity of Hamilton and other speculator’s motives, and rightfully so. Populist anger the elite eastern “stockjobbers” was well-founded, the blanket rejection of banks and all financial schemes was, however, foolish. Banking (especially of the public variety) would prove to be so successful that its detractors would come around in the long run, but the damage would already be done by that time. The option for government involvement in banking was besieged and destroyed in the first decades of the United States, that is, until the populist farmers realized that bringing banking into the government was the best and perhaps only defense against the insatiable greed of Wall Street bankers and industrialists in the antebellum nineteenth century. In hindsight, keeping public banks around was the best way to prevent gross economic hardship, but the battle-lines were drawn differently in these very different times.

The revolts and minor uprisings that occurred in this time period were all debt related. Traditional debt relations were far more fluid and amenable to the needs of common villagers before modern economics took a hold of them. The soldiers and suppliers of the Revolutionary War had not been paid. Their expedients for trade were dashed. Their protests were quelled. Before 1787, farmers outside of the merchant city regions had the benefit of the state’s former issuance of paper money to stimulate business. They began as a war-time expedient during the seven-years-war but remained afterward to everyone’s joy. In a frontier land lacking in specie (metal coin currency), paper money was a godsend. But the new constitution forbade the states from issuing any more colonial scrip and centralized the money-making function within the new federal government. The very first articles of the US Constitution are explicitly designed to prevent states from issuing their own ‘bills of credit’ and instead enshrine the return of the economy to a hard currency basis. The framers worried about the inflation these bills created, but paper money would come to dominate the economy anyways in the form of bank notes.

If bills of credit or paper money could no longer be used by farmers, then they were stuck with hard specie scarcity. Their business was less connected to the world at large, so metal money was harder to get their hands on.On top of that, exploitation by speculators, who sensed their desperation only to capitalize on it, added to their affective loathing of all things financial coming from the coastal port cities. Upon reading accounts of the financial hardships of American farmers and poor debtors, laid out in the previous post, it’s easy to see why they would be driven to such hate. But every actor needs a circulating medium of exchange to lift their fortunes. The distrust of a banker-government partnership inculcated during this period of history went a long way towards eliminating the necessary checks against the money-creating power of private banks. The banks role in controlling the increase or decrease in the overall supply of money could only be effectively curtailed and controlled by a central governing body endowed with financial powers like that of a bank. Distrust and anger at central government and public banks actually hurt prospects for economic justice by empowering private banks to carry on this highly profitable enterprise free of restraint.

Bray Hammond sticks the point well at the beginning of his grand history of banks in Banks and Politics in America: From the Revolution to the Civil War:

“The agrarian demand for paper money and easy credit which did at last appear in the States in the latter part of the 19th century arose from tardy recognition by the agrarians that they lived in a modern economy, not in dreamland, and in order to hold their own must use credit as business men did. It arose from a slow realization that farming must be a means of making money, not of withholding oneself from the world… But in the face of business enterprise and industrialization, it became impossible for farming to remain unchanged. Stock had to be improved. Machinery had to be acquired. The elements of farm capital became diversified, the land itself ceasing to be the one ingredient of weight. Money and credit forced their way into the farmer’s reckoning.” (Hammond, p.33)

It’s at this point that a shift in emphasis must ensue. A different country than the one Jefferson envisioned was taking shape around the turn of the 18th to the 19th century and we cannot simply remain pitted against all financial concoctions wherever they crop up. The future involves banks and they need to be made to work for the people or the vast majority instead of fought at every turn. The makings of a modern economy were shaping up at this time; increased specialization in the workplace and the overriding importance of overseas trade in the international game of political economy was drowning out the small farmer’s hope for New World of freeholders. The cat was out of the bag.

The scars leftover from Federalist era lingered on into the Jacksonian era of Democratic entrepreneurialism until the producing farmers figured out how debt, monetary policy, and banks effected them on the national level many decades later. The populist party sought to take over control of the money supply away from banks in the late eighteenth century with their ‘sub-treasury’ system and the non-partisan league would successfully lobby for a state-owned bank in North Dakota. But no movement in America has been able to sustain a public-oriented financial school of thought in the tumultuous times that capitalist industrialism wrought at the end of the 19th century, 20th and up until today. We have a moment right now to establish new public banks with the growing momentum of the public banking movement. It is high time that certain truths about banking become a part of common wisdom and used for the benefit of the 99% instead of the exclusive gain of the 1%.

Hamilton’s Bank of the United States was lauded by all those who understood it. It not only flipped a liability in high war debts into an asset (quite literally), it spread new money out into the economy whenever loans were dispersed. It’s bank notes functioned just like money, similar to the paper money of colonial scrip but more like state bank notes also circulating, so it increased the amount of business that could be done in two separate ways simultaneously. It offered credit for new projects in a typical lending fashion and then, as a result, bank notes could be drawn on representing the promise to repay the debt. These notes were basically paper IOU’s for the original loan/deposited coin (more on this later), but they would inevitably change hands many times in the course of business and effectively enter circulation as money. This is the what makes banks so hotly contested: they don’t just offer loans and act as special intermediaries for future business (though they do that also), they increase the amount of money in the system as a whole so long as they remain solvent (i.e. have enough hard currency to back up the notes that come back in for redemption, or withstand the depletion of specie from their vaults). That these bank notes could be used to pay federal taxes enhanced their acceptability as legitimate money.

Absent regulation, this operation is fragile and private banks are incentivized to extend credit wherever they can profit. The increase in available paper bank notes/IOU’s increases the amount of money passing from hand-to-hand in the general economy, even if you as an individual do not have an account at that bank or any bank. Those paper bank notes can always be redeemed at a local branch of the corresponding bank for hard coin in the vaults, that is, unless too many notes come in for redemption at once and the vaults are depleted.Provided the bank remains solvent, the net effect on the economy at large is immense. Having more things getting passed around as money lifts up the general economic prospects of every actor in the system, provided that the amount of notes issued are commensurate with the overall level of real economic activity. Issue too many and you get price inflation, too little and prices drop but there is less money around to get your hands on.

The national public bank of Hamilton was able to check the excessive issuance of bank notes in the way that a central bank does now. Today central banks are independent of government and merely transfer money from one bank within its system to another in the form of reserves in their central bank accounts. The first and second Bank of the United States operated slightly differently but also kept private banks and state banks that existed before them from collapsing in a heap of panic, rendering its notes useless and its contribution to the overall money supply vanishing in a flash. It made sure that the ratio of bank notes to reserves didn’t get too high and private banks couldn’t print way more notes than they could back up with coins. The first Bank of the United States, Hamilton’s bank, operated in a time when the split between public and private sectors was not so pronounced. Many believed that private investors were needed to lend credibility to the institution in the first place, the government being too young and fragile to instill any confidence. But it was a public bank that served the needs of the people at large by servicing the new and fragile government’s debt and hence its credibility as a future borrower. It increased the supply of money to stimulate industry by issuing its own US Bank Notes that had a wide circulation.

Banks whether public or private wield enormous power by controlling the size of money in the economy at any given time. This is not always well-understood by economists but when banks make loans they increase the amount of money flowing through the economy. Bank loans create more money, paying back those debts created by the loan destroys it. It’s an extraordinary tool within a modern economy and there is no reason why governments shouldn’t be involved in banking when it plays such a vital (and lucrative) role. This is what Hamilton’s bank did before private businessmen and entrepreneurs started opening up their own banks and attacking the national bank. In another one of histories ironies, it was farmer’s opposition to the Hamilton’s policies that killed the second Bank of the United States when Andrew Jackson swept into power. Little did they know that this national, central bank was the only thing preventing private banks from wildly profiting off of the economy’s need for credit, in turn playing havoc on the money supply. The full story is told in Bray Hammond’s standard financial history book in Banks and Politics in America from the Revolution to the Civil War.

According to Hammond, Hamilton did understand this crucial function of banking. It’s quite possible that only a handful of individuals grasped this operation and its significance and few understand it still today. The fact that banks create money, control its supply (in a more-or-less/marginal sort way of increases or decreases from day to day instead of absolutely), and perform a systemically vital function to a dynamic modern economy escapes contemporary economic textbook definitions of banks as mere “intermediaries.” If we replace the terms of 21st century economics with ones from the 18th century, we can still detail the same banking function:

“…[I]n the sentence before his explanation of specie deposits, Hamilton had made the observation that every loan which a bank makes is in the first instance a credit on its books in favor of the borrower and that, unless withdrawn in specie, it remains a liability of the bank till the loan is repaid. In these words he explained 20th century banking as will as 18th, and how bank lending creates bank deposits, with the difference that he did not call them “deposits” but reserved that term for specie transactions, distinguishing credit for specie from credit for the proceeds of loans. He did so because he observed banking in terms of the individual bank and not of many banks constituting a system. He was writing at a time when there were three banks only in America, each sole in its community. The effect each bank’s lending had on its own positions was in those circumstances direct and unobscured; its loans obviously increased what would now be called its deposits; for the checks drawn on it were not being deposited in other banks nor were the checks drawn on others being deposited in it. Each bank was a closed and separate system. Hamilton simply noted what in the then situation was plain and required no unusual discernment. The records of the Massachusetts Bank indicate how common it was at the very beginning to credit borrower’s accounts with the amounts lent them; and the known figures of deposit liabilities are plainly too large to have arisen from specie alone. Such credits seem in practice to have been included with deposits proper but in discussion to have been kept distinct. A deposit was of something tangible, whether for safekeeping or to apply on a capital subscription. The liability for amounts lent was called credit or book credit, as by Hamilton in the passage in which he described the procedure.

Though exempting specie deposits from the restriction could scarcely have given a bank any more inducement than it already had to acquire specie; it doubtless seemed logical to Hamilton that the liability arising from deposits of specie be distinguished from the liability representing the proceeds of loans and that it be excepted from limitations on an expansion that could occur only when liabilities were assumed in excess of the specie held. The issuance of notes and the crediting of customers’ accounts might and did entail the assumption of liabilities in excess of specie holdings, but not when the issuance of the credit resulted from a deposit of specie.” (Hammond, p.138-9. Emphasis mine.)

In other words, when a loan is made by a bank it doesn’t matter that there isn’t enough corresponding metal coin specie to match it one-for-one. Taking in deposits or specie to store in its vaults and making loans to those seeking credit are two separate functions of banking that work in tandem but don’t require a steadfast equivalence. When a loan is made, the amount of money requested by the borrower is written into their account, which they can then draw on regardless of how much specie that individual has deposited on their own. The only thing that matters is that people don’t rush in and grab all of the hard currency all at once in a panic. As long as the bank is believed to be trustworthy, it is. The bank can then keep on lending as much as it likes (more or less), printing more of its bank notes (no doubt to change hands many times), and profiting off of the regular interest payments coming in from the borrower. It’s this ambiguity that leads people to call banking a monster of instability playing fast and loose with our money. Within the accounting format called ‘double-entry bookkeeping’ is the ability to measurably increase the overall money supply by entering numbers on a piece of paper during the loan making process. Whether those two sides read ‘asset/liability,’ ‘credit/deposits,’ or ‘bank credit/specie capital’ is insignificant. It’s in the proportion of one to the other that the fluctuations in money supply increase or decrease, but the ratio itself was fluid in the early days of banking.

“The practice then was less conventional than now, for then, taking advantage of the fact that every item on a bank’s books has both an asset and a liability aspect, it might be called either; whereas now every item belongs rigidly on one side or the other. Thus deposits were sometimes what a bank held and sometimes what it owed; and circulation represented money lent as much as money owed. There is a modern parallel in the fact that bank credit may be measured either in assets or in liabilities, and though the statistical practice of measuring it in loans and investments is now well established, deposits are often taken informally as its measure, and the law provides for its control through the ration of reserves to deposit liabilities.” (Hammond, p. 141)

Banking reform would later come in the form of reserve ratios to restrict the amount of loans on one side of the page to the reserves on the other side. Playing with this ratio became the way to check bank’s influence on the economy at large and prevent collapse of banks who greedily issued to many notes without having enough coin to back them up. But fixing reserve ratios as a universal standard did not and does not provide an effective restraint upon the banking system in general. This method assumes, falsely, that issuance of loans comes attached to the specie in the vault when they are actually two separate functions within a bank. The ratio can go up or down and still be left in tact. What matters is that the confidence trick in the bank’s vaults is upheld and people don’t collectively make a run on the bank. As Hammond explains above, it doesn’t really matter if you focus in on the amount of deposits at the bank or the amount of book credit granted by a loan. They are two separate things that have been joined together within the marble walls and pillars of the bank so that a single thing (money) can be multiplied and dispersed where businesses wants it to go.

The Bank of the United States performed this function in a controlled, centralized manner that serviced a fledgling nation. It’s not so absurd to say that without it, the United States might have crumbled in its infancy under the surrounding colonial European powers and its own war debts. Hamilton’s Bank serviced the interest on the debt, enhanced the credibility of the United States of America abroad, stimulated business, and acted as an early-modern regulator of the banking system.

“its prominence as one of the largest corporations in America and its branches’ broad geographic position in the emerging American economy allowed it to conduct a rudimentary monetary policy. The bank’s notes, backed by substantial gold reserves, gave the country a relatively stable national currency. By managing its lending policies and the flow of funds through its accounts, the bank could — and did — alter the supply of money and credit in the economy and hence the level of interest rates charged to borrowers.

These actions, which had effects similar to today’s monetary policy, can be seen most clearly in the Bank’s interactions with state banks. In the course of business, the Bank would accumulate the notes of the state banks and hold them in its vault. When it wanted to slow the growth of money and credit, it would present the notes to banks for collection in gold or silver, thereby reducing state banks’ reserves and putting the brakes on their ability to circulate new banknotes. To speed up the growth of money and credit, the Bank would hold on to the state banks’ notes, thereby increasing state banks’ reserves and allowing those banks to issue more banknotes by making loans.

The Bank’s branches were all located in the fledgling nation’s port cities. This made it easier for the federal government to collect tax revenues, most of which came from customs duties. Locating the branches in ports also made it easier for the Bank to finance international trade and help the Treasury fund the government’s operations through sales of US government securities to foreigners. Furthermore, the Bank’s branch system gave it another advantage: it could move its notes around the country more readily than could a state bank. The Bank’s branches also helped to fund and encourage the country’s westward expansion, particularly with the establishment of a branch in New Orleans.” [Federal Reserve History Website]

So the utility of this bank is without question. More than a money-making machine for a handful of investors getting fat off collecting interest payments, it actually prevented the excesses of banks from spiraling out of control and wrecking the greater economy – as would happen many times after the two banks were killed. In its virtuous civic function, The Bank of the United States was almost an “anti-bank bank” that looked after all actors within the bounds of the nation instead of a small faction of wealthy investors. The number of those kinds of banks would multiply very soon and the network of private banks would come to dominate the American economy to this day. Had the Bank survived, industry would have progressed much more steadily and without the chaos of epidemic bank failures, greatly reducing the severity of depressions that jaded so many Americans. One can imagine the despair and resentment of a population left holding worthless pieces of paper that used to be as good as money, failing to understand what exactly had gone wrong.

It’s worth looking at how this bank was incorporated, if only to admire the grandeur of an intelligent plan conceived on paper but willed into reality. With the war debts exceeding $150 million from the federal and state treasuries combined, interest payments would need to be effected soon. Direct payment with taxes would have crippled an economy that didn’t have as much specie available to do business as is, with outlying farmers feeling this pain exceptionally. The bank would offer to the public a subscription for future stock of the bank to the limit of $8 million, with the federal treasury owning $2 million for a total of $10 million. The federal government would own one-fifth of the bank and private citizens would make up the remaining four-fifths, drawing interest from the scrips they bought. Once enough specie was collected (which it was almost immediately), the game was in play and debt servicing could commence on the basis of that hard currency.

“Though the authorized capital of the Bank was $10,000,000, of which $2,000,000 was to be paid in specie, the Bank was permitted to organize as soon as $400,000 had been received from the subscribers. Whether much more was ever got from them on successive installments is doubtful, though the Bank subsequently accumulated a treasure much in excess of what the stockholders were supposed to pay. Payment for the government’s stock was accomplished under an authorizations in the charter that was taken over almost intact form Hamilton’s proposal and was presumably intended by him to give the appearance of a cash payment. In effect the Treasury drew for $2,000,000 on the United States commissioners engaged in selling government securities in Amsterdam, deposited the drafts with the Bank, and then drew against the deposit to pay for the stock. Technically this consummated the purchase of the stock with funds borrowed in Europe. But it was not desired to have the drafts go through and the specie shipped from Europe, because it would have had to be shipped back for other purposes. So the Treasury borrowed $2,000,000 from the Bank and used the amount to take up the drafts on the commissioners, with which the whole transaction had opened. The net effect was therefore to leave the government in possession of $2,000,000 of Bank stock and in debt to the Bank for $2,000,000, though technically the money owing to the Bank had not been used to buy the stock but to “restore” the funds in Amsterdam which had been “used” for that purpose.” (Hammond, p.123-4)

It was a kind of trick that can work with the use of a public bank and the stability of a government combined. Only enough specie needed to be acquired so that those who needed it could draw on it when they needed it. The rest of the subscribers, including the treasury, kept their accounts on the books and waited for the interest payments to come in from regular installments. The one-fifth of the bank that the government owned it didn’t actually pay for, it borrowed the money from Dutch financiers already keen on these machinations. Instead of physically transferring specie hand-to-hand, agents of the treasury gave to the Dutch paper promises to pay later. They then used this borrowed money to buy bank stock (which earns interest) and pay off the imbalances of the account as time goes on. It all works because there is enough specie to be drawn out of the bank on occasion, allowing the pretense of convertibility between metal money and paper money to persist. People trusted that there would be enough business in America for these accounts to be settled in the end because there was so much nascent potential on the American continent, the bank allowed them to push paying off debts forward into the future by playing with this divergence in forms of money. Essentially, it was a leap of faith on everyone’s part:

“The early Americans were short of capital, particularly capital in the form of gold and silver. If that dearth of gold and silver had been allowed to hold up their formation of banks, the circle would never have been broken; instead they resorted to arrangements which had the practical virtue of establishing the proper procedure in principle if not in fact. And in time, because the pretenses worked, they accumulated the gold and silver and made the principle a reality. It is a case where a pious lifting of oneself by the bootstraps is preferable to cynical realism or conscientious passivity. And for the most part a saner and more honest practice in capitalization established itself as soon as a surplus of wealth made it possible. Without the initial act of faith, so to speak, the surplus would have been slower in coming. The Americans had declared their political independence before it was a reality, not after; and what they did in the matter of financial competence was much the same.” (Hammond, p.124)

It’s the complexity of the move, the juggling of many different obligations all at once, that makes people resort to religious terminology to explain what in the world just happened before their eyes. But all parties simply had enough trust in the ability for a national government to persist in a stabilized capacity, collect enough taxes, pay investors their installments of interest, and receive the required initial subscription to kick things off. Hamilton was also an eloquent speaker and assured congress that his plan would work. He was right and he knew it.

The Bank of the United States brought together private business and public regulation together at a time when both needed each others help. The bank and public banks like it expanded the total money supply in a controlled and regulated fashion, while giving the government the means to pay off its own debts. When the treasury was forced to liquidate its bank stock, it profited for “$672,000 or 30 per cent, and the dividends it received while shareholder were $1,100,000.” (Hammond, p.207) Public banks are very profitable for the governments they represent, but they partner with the other banks and keep them from stashing these profits all to themselves. If large projects are to be effected without a public bank to borrow from, private banks pocket the interest from that demand for funds. Since banks create money, owning one means you can essentially borrow from yourself, like the confidence trick of the Bank of the United States.

The expediency of the bank can be mimicked in our own day and at the state level. Having a public bank for each state would stabilize the rest of the banks of that state by providing additional money to borrow at lower interests. Interests rates could be lowered across the board, or raised if too much business activity is causing inflation and over-extension of credit; and there lies the great hope: a regulated banking industry unbeholden to the insatiable demands of unchecked private banks. This is not a faux-public central bank like the federal reserve, but one that really works for the people by relieving the strangle hold that private banks have on the creation of money. Governments don’t have to be debtors begging for money to start their projects, slashing public worker hours and benefits, stagnating wages, and paying huge amounts of interest to private bankers when they own their own bank.

Author: billrosethorn

(Geo)Philosopher. Building bridges between populism and geopolitics for fellow earthlings.

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