Sunday, January 27, 2008

A bank run averted

We are grateful to Ken Palmerton, a liberal resident in the Channel Islands, for drawing our attention to a more recent historical parallel to the Northern Rock crisis than the 1866 one usually quoted. In 1914, on the outbreak of war, a Liberal Chancellor of the Exchequer took swift action to prevent what would have been a ruinous run on the banks. For a short period, he effectively nationalised UK banking.

From Thomas Johnston's "The Financiers and the Nation":

WHEN the whistle blew for the start of the Great War in August 1914 the Bank of England possessed only nine millions sterling of a gold reserve, and, as the Bank of England was the Bankers' Bank, this sum constituted the effective reserve of all the other Banking Institutions in Great Britain.

The bank managers at the outbreak of War were seriously afraid that the depositing public, in a panic, would demand the return of their money. And, inasmuch as the deposits and savings left in the hands of the bankers by the depositing public had very largely been sunk by the bankers in enterprises which, at the best, could not repay the borrowed capital quickly, and which in several and large-scale instances were likely to be submerged altogether in the stress of war and in the collapse of great areas of international trade, it followed that if there were a widespread panicky run upon the banks, the banks would be unable to pay and the whole credit system would collapse, to the ruin of millions of people.

Private enterprise banking thus being on the verge of collapse, the Government (Mr. Lloyd George at the time was Chancellor of the Exchequer) hurriedly declared a moratorium, i.e. it authorized the banks not to pay out (which in any event the banks could not do), and it extended the August Bank Holiday for another three days. During these three or four days when the banks and stock exchanges were closed, the bankers held anxious negotiation with the Chancellor of the Exchequer. And one of them has placed upon record the fact that 'he (Mr. George) did everything that we asked him to do.' When the banks reopened, the public discovered that, instead of getting their money back in gold, they were paid in a new legal tender of Treasury notes (the £1 notes in black and the 10s. notes in red colours). This new currency had been issued by the State, was backed by the credit of the State, and was issued to the banks to prevent the banks from utter collapse. The public cheerfully accepted the new notes ; and nobody talked about inflation.

Not since 1697 had the State itself issued paper money.
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