Goldsmiths, Specie, Bank Notes, Bank Reserves, Spanish Dollar, Continentals, Bank of the United States and the Panic of 1819

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 26th, 2012

History 101

When Spain came to the New World they Brought Home a lot of Gold and Silver and Turned it into Coin

Our first banks were goldsmiths’ vaults.  They locked up people’s gold or other valuable metals (i.e., specie) in their vaults and issued these ‘depositors’ receipts for their specie.  When a depositor presented their receipt to the goldsmith he redeemed it for the amount of specie noted on the receipt.  These notes were as good as specie.  And a lot easier to carry around.  So these depositors used these notes as currency.  People accepted them in payment.  Because they could take them to the goldsmith and redeem them for the amount of specie noted on the receipt.

The amount of specie these first bankers kept in their vaults equaled the value of these outstanding notes.  Meaning their bank reserves were 100%.   If every depositor redeemed their notes at the same time there was no problem.  Because all specie that was ever deposited was still in the vault.  So there was no danger of any ‘bank runs’ or liquidity crises.

When Spain came to the New World they brought home a lot of gold and silver.  And turned it into coin.  Or specie.  The Spanish dollar entered the American colonies from trade with the West Indies.  As the British didn’t allow their colonies to coin any money of their own the Spanish dollar became the dominate money in circulation in commerce and trade in the cities.  (Which is why the American currency unit is the dollar).  While being largely commodity money in the rural parts of the country.  Tobacco in Virginia, rice in the south, etc.  Paper money didn’t enter into the picture until Massachusetts funded some military expeditions to Quebec.  Normally the soldiers in this expedition took a portion of the spoils they brought back for payment.  But when the French repulsed them and they came back empty handed the government printed paper money backed by no specie.  For there was nothing more dangerous than disgruntled and unpaid soldiers.  The idea was to redeem them with future taxation.  But they never did. 

Thomas Jefferson believed that the Combination of Money and Politics was the Source of all Evil in Government 

During the American Revolutionary War the Americans were starving for specie.  They were getting some from the French but it was never enough.  So they turned to printing paper money.  Backed by no specie.  They printed so much that it became worthless.  The more they printed the more they devalued it.  And the fewer people would take it in payment.  Anyone paying in these paper Continentals just saw higher and higher prices (while people paying in specie saw lower prices).  Until some just refused to accept them.  Giving rise to the expression “not worth a Continental.”  And when they did the army had to take what they needed from the people.  Basically giving them an IOU and telling the people good luck in redeeming them.

Skip ahead to the War of 1812 and the Americans had the same problem.  They needed money.  So they turned to the printing presses.  With the aid of the Second Bank of the United States (BUS).  America’s second central bank.  Just as politically contentious as the First Bank of the United States.  America’s first central bank.  The BUS was not quite like those early bankers.  The goldsmiths.  Whose deposits were backed by a 100% specie reserve.  The BUS specie reserve was closer to 10%.  Which proved to be a problem because their bank notes were redeemable for specie.  Which people did.  And because they did and the BUS was losing so much of its specie the government legislated the suspension of the redemption of bank notes for specie.  Which just ignited inflation.  With the BUS.  And the state banks.  Who were no longer bound by the requirement to redeem bank notes for specie either.  Enter America’s first economic boom created by monetary policy.  A huge credit expansion that created a frenzy of borrowing.  And speculation.

When more dollars are put into circulation without a corresponding amount of specie backing them this only depreciated the dollar.  Making them worth less, requiring more of them to buy the same stuff they did before the massive inflation.  This is why prices rise with inflation.  And they rose a lot from 1815 to 1818.  Real estate prices went up.  Fueling that speculation.  Allowing the rich to get richer by buying land that soared in value.  While ordinary people saw the value of their currency decline making their lives more difficult.  Thanks to those higher prices.  The government spent a lot of this new money on infrastructure.  And there was a lot of fraud.  The very reason that Thomas Jefferson opposed Alexander Hamilton’s first Bank of the United States.  The combination of money and politics was the source of all evil in government.  And fraud.  According to Jefferson, at least.  Everyone was borrowing.  Everyone was spending.  Which left the banks exposed to a lot of speculative loans.  While putting so much money into circulation that they could never redeem their notes for specie.  Not that they were doing that anyway.  Bank finances were growing so bad that the banks were in danger of failing.

Most Bad Recessions are caused by Easy Credit by a Central Bank trying to Stimulate Economic Activity 

By 1818 things were worrying the government.  And the BUS.  Inflation was out of control.  The credit expansion was creating asset bubbles.  And fraud.  It was a house of cards that was close to collapsing.  So the BUS took action.  And reversed their ruinous policies.  They contracted monetary policy.  Stopped the easy credit.  And pulled a lot of those paper dollars out of circulation.  It was the responsible thing to do to save the bank.  But because they did it after so much inflation that drove prices into the stratosphere the correction was painful.  As those prices had a long way to fall.

The Panic of 1819 was the first bust of America’s first boom-bust cycle.  The first depression brought on by the easy credit of a central bank.  When the money supply contracted interest rates rose.  A lot of those speculative loans became unserviceable.  With no easy credit available anymore the loan defaults began.  And the bank failures followed.  Money and credit of the BUS contracted by about 50%.  Businesses couldn’t borrow to meet their cash needs and went bankrupt.  A lot of them.  And those inflated real estate prices fell back to earth.  As prices fell everywhere from their artificial heights.

It was America’s first depression.  But it wouldn’t be the last.  Thanks to central banking.  And boom-bust cycles.  We stopped calling these central banking train wrecks depressions after the Great Depression.  After that we just called them recessions.  And real bad recessions.  Most of them caused by the same thing.  Easy credit by a central bank to stimulate economic activity.  Causing an asset bubble.  That eventually pops causing a painful correction.  The most recent being the Great Recession.  Caused by the popping of a great real estate bubble caused by the central bank’s artificially low interest rates.  That gave us the subprime mortgage crisis.  Which gave us the greatest recession since the Great Depression.  Just another in a long line of ‘real bad’ recessions since the advent of central banking.

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