Goldsmiths, Gold Standard, Fractional Reserve Banking, Sherman Silver Purchase Act, Panics of 1893 & 1907 and the Federal Reserve System

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 24th, 2012

History 101

Goldsmiths Encouraged others to Store their Precious Metals with them by Paying Interest on their Deposits

Goldsmiths were some of our first banks.  Because they worked with gold.  And needed a safe place to lock it up.  To prevent thieves from getting their gold.  Other people who had precious metals (gold and silver) also needed a safe place to put their precious metals.  And what better place was there than a goldsmith?  For a goldsmith knew a thing or two about securing precious metals.

People used gold and silver for money.  But they didn’t like carrying it around.  Because carrying a heavy pouch of gold and silver was just an invitation for thieves.  So they took their gold and silver to the goldsmith.  The goldsmith locked it up for a small fee.  And gave the person a receipt for his or her gold or silver.  Which became paper currency.  Backed by precious metal.  The first ‘gold’ standard.  These receipts could be inconspicuously tucked away and hidden from the prying eyes of thieves.  They were light, convenient and a nice temporary storage of value.  Sellers would accept these receipts as money because they could take these receipts to the goldsmith and exchange them for the precious metal held in the goldsmith’s depository.

As these receipts circulated as money the goldsmith noted that more and more gold and silver accumulated in his depository.  Few holders of his receipts were exchanging them for the deposited gold and silver.  The precious metal just sat there.  Doing nothing.  And earning nothing.  Which gave these early ‘bankers’ an idea.  They would invest some of these deposits and have them earn something.  Leaving just a little on hand in their depositories for the occasional few who came in and exchanged their receipts for the precious metals they represented.  It was a novel idea.  And a profitable one.  Soon storage fees became interest payments.  As goldsmiths encouraged others to store their precious metals with them by paying them interest on their deposits.

The Panic of 1893 was the Worst Depression until the Great Depression

But there were risks.  Because they only kept a small fraction of their deposits in the bank.  Which could prove to be quite a problem if a lot of borrowers asked for their money back at the same time.  It’s happened.  And when it did it wasn’t pretty.  Because all borrowers eventually get wind of trouble.  And they know about that limited amount of money actually in the bank.  So when there is trouble in the air they run to the bank.  To withdraw their deposits while the bank still has money to withdraw.  What we call a run on the bank.  Which often precedes a bank failure.  Hence the run.

In 1890 U.S. farmers were using technology to over produce.  And some miners discovered some rich silver veins.  Making farm crops and silver plentiful.  A little too plentiful.  The price of silver fell below the cost of mining it.  And farm prices fell.  Making it difficult for farmers to service their debt.  They wanted some inflation.  To be able to pay off their past debt with cheaper dollars.  And all that silver could make that happen.  With the help of friends in Congress.  And the Sherman Silver Purchase Act.  Which required the U.S. government to buy a lot of that silver.  And issue notes backed in that silver.  Notes that could be exchanged for silver.  As well as gold.  A big mistake as it turned out.  Because silver was flooding the market.  While gold wasn’t.  Investors clearly understood this.  They took those new notes and exchanged them for gold.  Depleting U.S. gold reserves.

While this was happening there was a railroad boom.  They were building new railroads everywhere.  Financed by excessive borrowing.  In hopes to reap great profits from those new lines.  Lines as it turned out that could never pay for themselves.  Railroads failed.  Which meant they could not repay those great debts.  Which caused a lot of bank failures.  As this was happening people ran to their banks to withdraw their money while the banks still had money to withdraw.  Which only made the banking crisis worse.  Coupled with the depletion of U.S. gold reserves this shook the very foundation of the U.S. banking system.  And launched the Panic of 1893.  The worst depression until the Great Depression.

The Federal Reserve System did not work as well as J.P. Morgan

But this wasn’t the last crisis.  As soon as 1907 there was another one.  Involving another metal.  This time copper.  Not a metal backing the U.S. dollar.  But a metal that precipitated another rash of bank runs.  Including the downfall of the Knickerbocker Trust Company.  A New York financial powerhouse.   Instigated by someone who borrowed heavily to corner the market in copper.  Who failed.  Forcing his creditors to eat his massive loans.  Thus precipitating the aforementioned bank runs.

The bank runs of 1893 and 1907 were caused by liquidity crises as depositors pulled out more money than these banks had on hand.  That risk of fractional reserve banking.  At the time of these crises there was no central bank to step in and restore liquidity.  So a rich guy did.  J.P. Morgan.  Who on more than one occasion stepped in and used his wealth and influence to save the U.S. banking system.  The last crisis, the Panic of 1907, would be the last time for Morgan.  Who said another one would ruin him.  And the United States.

Shortly thereafter Congress passed the Federal Reserve Act in 1913.  Creating the American central bank.  The Federal Reserve System.  To prevent further bank runs by being the lender of last resort during future liquidity crises.  Which did not work as well as J.P. Morgan.  For the worst banking crisis of all time happened during the Great Depression.  Which followed the creation of the Federal Reserve System.  And just goes to show you that a smart rich guy is better than a bunch of government bureaucrats.

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