How Banking Created the Wealth of Nations: A Riff on Desan’s Making Money

How banking created the wealth of nations
Did the British reforms constrain sovereign power over money excessively?
Was the “liberal” market vision born of “good” banking?
Did the British reforms grant excessive power to the banks?

How banking created the wealth of nations

A closing sentence of Desan’s Making Money encapsulates what I find truly extraordinary about her book: “Arguably capitalism … constructed a money [based on] individual exchange for profit, institutionalizing that motive as the heart of productivity.” In her closing chapters Desan effectively argues that Britain’s reconstruction of its monetary system over the course of a long 18th century (starting in 1694) by transferring the “making of money” to the private sector and constraining the role of the government to that of an “administrator that standardized money and stabilized it” also had the effect of generating an enormous flow of liquidity that was tied to real economic activity. Desan aptly observes that the famed “commitment” to private property rights of the British polity was in many ways less a matter of constitutions and more a matter of the closely interrelated development over the course of the 18th century of the monetary and fiscal systems.[1] While her focus tends to be on a critique of these changes, she in effect explains how the reform of the monetary system may have set the stage for modern economic growth.

In short, in my view Desan’s greatest contribution in Making Money is a clear explanation of how monetary reform set the stage for modern economic performance. On the other hand, Desan is so critical of these changes that I believe her argument needs to be reframed in order to set forth a more positive view of these transformative events. This is what I would like to do here.

In the process of reframing Desan’s thesis, I am going to position the reforms of the long 18th century in the context of European banking history with an emphasis on the private issue of money. This contrasts with Desan’s approach which builds on a fascinating and very detailed history of England’s currency and argues that even at its founding Bank of England notes were effectively public, not private, liabilities. As will be seen below, my analysis raises the possibility that the reformers of the long 18th century knew what they were doing – not in the sense that they could predict the details of its transformative effect, but in the sense that they were deliberately laying the foundations of transformative change by transferring control over the money supply to the private sector – with the acquiescence of the government.[2]

The Bank of England was established in 1694 by sophisticated financiers who were familiar with the European money market of their day. The contemporary European money market was centered in Amsterdam and together with earlier incarnations of the money market had been using “bank money” rather than any sovereign money as its unit of account for more than a century and half prior to the Bank’s founding. Bank money, unlike sovereign money, had a fixed value in terms of gold and could on this basis be converted into any sovereign coin.[3] In the mid-16th century the money market had been centered on fairs in Lyons where the imaginary ecu de marc was the unit of account (see Boyer-Xambeu et al. 1994). At the end of the 16th century Venice made a successful play for the European money market by establishing the Banco della Piazza di Rialto which used the imaginary bank ducat as its unit of account. Amsterdam’s Wisselbank was modeled on the Venetian bank and anchored the European money market by the time the Bank of England was founded.

Thus, the merchant elite of Europe preferred to use bank money rather than a sovereign currency as the unit of account for their liabilities. Bank money was preferred, because the Bank was run by people who were a part of the network of European merchants and could be trusted to maintain bank money’s value whereas no king or politician could be trusted to do so. Thus, when we study the founding of the Bank of England from the point of view of the bank origins of money, we find that Bank liabilities circulated because they were issued by a merchant-run corporation that was immediately integrated into the European money market and the network of merchants that operated the money market.

In fact, of course, the full explanation for the circulation of Bank notes probably lies somewhere between the public origins and the bank origins explanation. The Bank of England’s structure likely was shaped by the lessons learned in Venice and Amsterdam. When the European money market left Venice, the circulating currency of the Venetian bank was replaced in domestic trade within a short period of time by the liabilities of the Banco del Giro, which was essentially a fund of public debts.[4] And the managers of the Wisselbank had probably already found that the Dutch government turned to it (in secret) for resources when exigent circumstances loomed. By designing a bank that had a very public and clearly delineated relationship with the government – like the Banco del Giro, the European merchant elite were able to combine the benefits of an internationally-recognized bank money with a form of public support that the merchants, as lenders, could at least to some degree control. The Bank of England was truly a public-private partnership and extraordinary emphasis should be placed neither on the public nor the private aspects of the partnership.[5]

Evidence of this interdependence is to be found in a form government debt that is often presented as a purely public liability of the British government in the late 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, the Exchequer bill (Desan, p. 369). When first issued, the government had difficulty getting these bills into circulation – even after making them acceptable in payment of taxes (Clapham v. I, pp. 54 to 71). Only after the management of the bills including the business of “exchang[ing] all Exchequer bills for ready Money upon demand” was transferred to the Bank, was the government able to get them widely accepted. Indeed, because of the onus place on the Bank of England by the issue of such bills, the government was by law required to first obtain the consent of the Bank before any increase in the supply of Exchequer bills (Clapham v. I, p. 65). Thus, even Exchequer bills should be viewed as public-private instruments and not as “purely” public instruments.

This banking history-based perspective on the origins of the Bank of England also allows us to reevaluate the role played by John Locke in the Great Recoinage which commenced just two years after the Bank of England was founded. Locke persuaded the British government to reform the silver coinage by taking the unusual step of maintaining its current value and demonetizing undervalued coins. Locke argued that the value of coin is – and should be – measured by its intrinsic value or by the quantity of silver that public authorities warrant to be in the coin.[6] This is, of course, the same standard that the merchant elite where using when they denominated their transactions in bank money, and it is this standard for bank money that Paterson proclaimed was necessary in order for a banking system to operate. Thus, from the perspective of banking history Locke appears to have been deliberately laying the intellectual foundations for a world in which the European merchant elite’s bank money would have the political support to become the measure of the unit of account for a sovereign nation, and would be insulated from the sovereign’s authority to revalue the unit of account.[7] Desan astutely observes that when this structure evolved in the 19th century into the Gold Standard, the purpose was “to discipline the amount of bank currency in circulation” (p. 409, emphasis in original). This is certainly correct and is, indeed, made explicit in Paterson’s 1694 definition of bank money.

Did the British reforms constrain sovereign power over money excessively?

Desan criticizes this reform of the monetary system for two reasons. First, the gold standard committed the sovereign not to devalue the unit of account in terms of gold and, thus, removed from the government an important tool for readjusting the distribution of wealth in society and for improving overall welfare (p. 381). Second, the power to expand the paper money supply was transferred to the banking system, giving it too much power and profit while at the same time requiring periodic subsidies from the state (pp. 418-19, 428-29).

The first criticism is very interesting, because Desan – who does not have training in economics – does not apparently realize that one of the most robust results in economics is that when an agent gains the ability to commit to a future action the set of choices available to that agent expands dramatically. Britain’s 18th century reforms did commit the country to prioritize creditors over other government uses of funds, but it also enabled the government to fund far greater expenditures than had previously been imaginable while at the same time enabling the domestic economy to foster an Industrial Revolution. In short, from a theoretic point of view the fact that Britain’s commitment to a gold-based monetary system preceded one of the most extraordinary and unexplained phenomena in all of economic history could potentially be more than a coincidence. Overall, given Britain’s subsequent economic performance it does not seem unreasonable to conclude that even though commitment tied the government’s hands, this policy may well have been advantageous for society as a whole.

An interesting question is whether the architects of England’s monetary reform understood the value of commitment. Desan argues that the reformers were “unfamiliar” with the mechanisms by which domestic currencies were issued and functioned (p. 347), but given the merchant background of many reformers this seems unlikely. Surely it is possible that they wanted to promote a monetary principle which they believed to be superior to the old-fashioned domestic currencies – while at the same time understanding that this system would also be advantageous to them personally as creditors. While this issue will not be settled here, Europe’s merchant elite in the late 17th century certainly viewed commitment to a specie standard as a necessary foundation for a banking system (e.g. Paterson), and a century later the Bullion Committee would express a similar view (Desan, pp. 414-15). Through experience they had apparently seen how such commitment can underpin the credit necessary to support robust trade. Indeed, Paterson’s proposal is testimony to the fact that the reformers understood that their actions would promote economic activity (pp. 14-15).

Was the “liberal” market vision born of “good” banking?

From this perspective the relationship between banking and Locke’s “liberal” vision of the market is also worth exploring. As Desan explains medieval markets – where strangers traded – were dependent on the sovereign to provide a unit of account, means of exchange, and legal infrastructure. Medieval markets were thereby shaped by sovereign decisions. Locke, however, frames markets, trade, contracts, and even the emergence of money as phenomena that required only “mutual consent” and could take place in the absence of sovereign money and law. Desan explains that Locke’s vision was of “a world that worked on the basis of real exchange alone” where “law depended on convention, much like the customs that drew longtime trading partners together” (p. 359). The latter is, of course, also a reasonable approximation of the economic environment in which the merchant elite who managed Europe’s money market operated. This money market did not just use bank money as its unit of account, but centered in those cities which applied to the merchants’ activities the Law Merchant with its deference to the customs of merchants and juries that were carefully balanced in terms of nationality (Rogers 1995 Ch. 1). (Update 2-2-2017: Note that the Law Merchant as used by Rogers and medieval lawyers refers to a set of legal procedures and not to a body of substantive or autonomous law.) Furthermore, as Desan emphasizes, Locke’s approach to money is a good description of the use of money in international trade – according to Desan the flaws of this approach lie in its application to a domestic unit of account and the domestic economy.

This raises questions: Was Locke’s liberal vision of a market where only real exchange mattered and where money did not constrain market activity also a good description of the environment in which Europe’s international banking elite operated? The neoclassical model, which is the modern realization of Locke’s vision, makes it clear that an environment where only real exchange matters effectively assumes a credit system that operates perfectly (Sissoko 2007). Is it then possible that it was because the European money market in the 17th century was so effective at financing the trade of Europe’s merchant elite that it was possible for them to conceive of a “liberal” market where only real exchange mattered? That is, was it because European banking was so highly developed that the model of a “liberal” market economy which abstracts from money became imaginable? Does this model assume that liquidity does not constrain market activity, because the development of banking had created a world where it was possible to imagine trading in a world without liquidity constraints?

Desan’s critique of this liberal vision of the market is that, once it grew to be the predominant theory through which the economy was understood, money became invisible in a way that had never been possible in medieval economies beset with a shortage of coin (p. 421). The “market” in the modern economy is often discussed as if it were operating independent of money. In fact, money and liquidity constraints are central to much that takes place in the modern economy, just as they were central to transactions in the medieval economy. Desan is almost certainly correct that by obfuscating the centrality of money to everything that takes place in a modern economy, this liberal vision has likely played a role in the development of our current economic problems of troubled currency unions and hard-to-stabilize banking systems.

Did the British reforms grant excessive power to the banks?

Desan’s second critique of Britain’s 18th century monetary reform focuses on the power granted to the banking system over the money supply. She is certainly correct that banking constitutes a “distributive decision about money design” (p. 429), but in my view Desan underestimates the extraordinary value created by the shift from sovereign coinage to bank money. This error is a function of her basic monetary framework which is essentially monetarist, and treats cash in the form of claims on the government as the ultimate form of liquidity.[8] This framework fundamentally underestimates the transformative nature of banking and the role that bank money plays in supporting modern economic growth. By contrast, both the promoters of the Bank of England and the Directors who determined its policies a century later understood that the value of a monetary system based on bank money lay in its ability to respond dynamically to the needs of the real economy in a way that no centralized sovereign authority could possibly achieve.[9]

When criticizing this power granted to the banking system, Desan emphasizes that the State allowed the banking system to reap excessive profits from its role and was forced to subsidize it at significant cost. These concerns have much more relevance to the modern monetary system than to the one that grow out of the monetary reforms of the long 18th century, because an important principle of liberalism in the early centuries of its development was that subsidies from the government to the private sector had adverse effects on economic performance. Thus, banks in 18th and most of 19th century Britain operated with unlimited liability. Liquidity support to the banking system during panics was made available on paper that had at least three private sector guarantees of payment, and as a result through the first two centuries of its existence the Bank of England had to write off only a trivial fraction of bills (Bignon et al. 2012, p. 602).[10] Even in those rare cases, such as the Baring Crisis of 1890, where a “bailout” of a bank was organized, the Bank was very careful to place the burden of the losses first personally on the bankers who required bailout, and secondly on those members of the banking system that were most exposed to the defunct bank.[11] For a more detailed analysis of how the British banking system was structured so that it was both stable and effective in keeping the costs of banking to society quite low I refer the reader to Sissoko 2016.

Desan also argues that the modern monetary system can be understood through the lens of Britain’s long 18th century reforms and finds that in the modern system, too, banking is subsidized at significant cost to the government. I agree with her entirely on these points. Our modern monetary system is a direct descendent of 19th century British banking. Unfortunately the evolution of the banking system over the past century has left us with a monetary system that is extraordinarily unstable and remarkably dependent on government support. Indeed, the evidence that Desan cites with respect to the costliness of banking system bailouts is far more relevant to the modern banking system than to its 19th century forebear (Reinhart and Rogoff 2009; Ricks 2011; Gorton 2012; Calomiris and Haber 2014 cited at 417, 419, 429).[12]


Thus, the lesson that I draw from Desan’s Making Money is this: whereas the challenge faced by those who sought to reform the monetary system in the late 17th century was how to constrain the authority of the sovereign over the money supply, the challenge faced by modern reformers is how to constrain the power of the banks over the money supply. I believe that monetary history demonstrates that a bank-based monetary system can be well-structured so that its benefits far exceed its costs. I am in perfect accord with Desan, however, in condemning the modern bank-based monetary system as a costly boondoggle.

[1]pp. 288-292. cf. North and Weingast (1989), “Constitutions and Commitment.” Desan also observes that reform was not really a matter of a general commitment to property rights but more of a deliberate policy of favoring certain property rights over others, p. 293.

[2] Desan argues that many of the effects of these reforms were “unforeseen,” p. 376.

[3] Indeed, William Paterson’s 1694 proposal for the Bank of England is explicit on this point, pp. 9-10: “in the first place it is necessary to premise … 1. That all Money or Credit not having an intrinsick value, to answer the Contents or Denomination thereof, is false and counterfeit, and the Loss must fall one where or other. 2. That the Species of Gold and Silver being accepted and chosen by the Commercial World, for the Standard or Measure of other Effects; every thing else is only counted valuable, as compared with these. 3. Wherefore all Credit not founded on the Universal Species of Gold and Silver, is impracticable, and can never subsist neither safely nor long; at least till some other Species of Credit be found out and chosen by the Trading part of Mankind, over and above, or in lieu thereof.  Thus having said what a Bank ought to be, it remains to shew what this is designed, and wherein it will consist”

[4] We see this knowledge reflected in Paterson’s proposal where he refers repeatedly to the “Banks and Publick Funds” of Europe.

[5] This is a very different view not just with comparison to Desan, but also with respect to Calomiris and Haber 2014.

[6] Locke “Further considerations concerning raising the value of money”, p. 415 cited in Desan p. 347.

[7] Desan observes that it’s hard to tell whether Locke’s intellectual convictions derived from his political goals or vice versa, p. 345. In addition, while Desan acknowledges that an important goal of the revaluation was to “legitimate public credit” p. 374, the implications of this are much more limited than the implications of a sovereign legitimating bank money.

[8] An analysis of the monetary framework used throughout Making Money is presented elsewhere [link to be added].

[9] Paterson 1694; Bullion Committee Report 1810 quoted in Desan p. 418.

[10] Vincent Bignon, Marc Flandreau, & Stefano Ugolini, Bagehot for beginners: the making of lender-of-last-resort operations in the mid-nineteenth century, 65 Econ. Hist. Rev. 580, 602 (2012).

[11] A Baring partner and family member who had retired some years prior to the crisis set aside money to support those members of the family who were impoverished by the crisis, Ziegler 1988 p. 251.

[12] Desan cites at length Bullion Committee Report comments to the effect that profits that accrued to banks during the Suspension were improper, pp. 419-20, but fails to note that subsequent suspensions (of Peel’s Act during crises) were accompanied by the transfer of any profits from any excess note issue to the British government.


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