The Project Gutenberg EBook of Lombard Street: A Description of the Money Market, by Walter Bagehot
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Title: Lombard Street: A Description of the Money Market
Author: Walter Bagehot
Posting Date: October 29, 2010
Release Date: August, 2003 [Etext #4359]
[This file last updated November 5, 2010]
*** START OF THIS PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK LOMBARD STREET ***
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A Description of the Money Market.
By WALTER BAGEHOT
I venture to call this Essay 'Lombard Street,' and not the 'Money Market,' or any such phrase, because I wish to deal, and to show that I mean to deal, with concrete realities. A notion prevails that the Money Market is something so impalpable that it can only be spoken of in very abstract words, and that therefore books on it must always be exceedingly difficult. But I maintain that the Money Market is as concrete and real as anything else; that it can be described in as plain words; that it is the writer's fault if what he says is not clear. In one respect, however, I admit that I am about to take perhaps an unfair advantage. Half, and more than half, of the supposed 'difficulty' of the Money Market has arisen out of the controversies as to 'Peel's Act,' and the abstract discussions on the theory on which that act is based, or supposed to be based. But in the ensuing pages I mean to speak as little as I can of the Act of 1844; and when I do speak of it, I shall deal nearly exclusively with its experienced effects, and scarcely at all, if at all, with its refined basis.
For this I have several reasons,—one, that if you say anything about the Act of 1844, it is little matter what else you say, for few will attend to it. Most critics will seize on the passage as to the Act, either to attack it or defend it, as if it were the main point. There has been so much fierce controversy as to this Act of Parliament—and there is still so much animosity—that a single sentence respecting it is far more interesting to very many than a whole book on any other part of the subject. Two hosts of eager disputants on this subject ask of every new writer the one question—Are you with us or against us? and they care for little else. Of course if the Act of 1844 really were, as is commonly thought, the primum mobile of the English Money Market, the source of all good according to some, and the source of all harm according to others, the extreme irritation excited by an opinion on it would be no reason for not giving a free opinion. A writer on any subject must not neglect its cardinal fact, for fear that others may abuse him. But, in my judgment, the Act of 1844 is only a subordinate matter in the Money Market; what has to be said on it has been said at disproportionate length; the phenomena connected with it have been magnified into greater relative importance than they at all deserve. We must never forget that a quarter of a century has passed since 1844, a period singularly remarkable for its material progress, and almost marvellous in its banking development. Even, therefore, if the facts so much referred to in 1844 had the importance then ascribed to them, and I believe that in some respects they were even then overstated, there would be nothing surprising in finding that in a new world new phenomena had arisen which now are larger and stronger. In my opinion this is the truth: since 1844, Lombard Street is so changed that we cannot judge of it without describing and discussing a most vigorous adult world which then was small and weak. On this account I wish to say as little as is fairly possible of the Act of 1844, and, as far as I can, to isolate and dwell exclusively on the 'Post-Peel' agencies, so that those who have had enough of that well-worn theme (and they are very many) may not be wearied, and that the new and neglected parts of the subject may be seen as they really are.
The briefest and truest way of describing Lombard Street is to say that it is by far the greatest combination of economical power and economical delicacy that the world has even seen. Of the greatness of the power there will be no doubt. Money is economical power. Everyone is aware that England is the greatest moneyed country in the world; everyone admits that it has much more immediately disposable and ready cash than any other country. But very few persons are aware how much greater the ready balance—the floating loan-fund which can be lent to anyone or for any purpose—is in England than it is anywhere else in the world. A very few figures will show how large the London loan-fund is, and how much greater it is than any other. The known deposits—the deposits of banks which publish their accounts—are, in
London (31st December, 1872) 120,000,000 L
Paris (27th February, 1873) 13,000,000 L
New York (February, 1873) 40,000,000 L
German Empire (31st January, 1873) 8,000,000 L
And the unknown deposits—the deposits in banks which do not publish their accounts—are in London much greater than those many other of these cities. The bankers' deposits of London are many times greater than those of any other city—those of Great Britain many times greater than those of any other country.
Of course the deposits of bankers are not a strictly accurate measure of the resources of a Money Market. On the contrary, much more cash exists out of banks in France and Germany, and in all non-banking countries, than could be found in England or Scotland, where banking is developed. But that cash is not, so to speak, 'money-market money:' it is not attainable. Nothing but their immense misfortunes, nothing but a vast loan in their own securities, could have extracted the hoards of France from the custody of the French people. The offer of no other securities would have tempted them, for they had confidence in no other securities. For all other purposes the money hoarded was useless and might as well not have been hoarded. But the English money is 'borrowable' money. Our people are bolder in dealing with their money than any continental nation, and even if they were not bolder, the mere fact that their money is deposited in a bank makes it far more obtainable. A million in the hands of a single banker is a great power; he can at once lend it where he will, and borrowers can come to him, because they know or believe that he has it. But the same sum scattered in tens and fifties through a whole nation is no power at all: no one knows where to find it or whom to ask for it. Concentration of money in banks, though not the sole cause, is the principal cause which has made the Money Market of England so exceedingly rich, so much beyond that of other countries.
The effect is seen constantly. We are asked to lend, and do lend, vast sums, which it would be impossible to obtain elsewhere. It is sometimes said that any foreign country can borrow in Lombard Street at a price: some countries can borrow much cheaper than others; but all, it is said, can have some money if they choose to pay enough for it. Perhaps this is an exaggeration; but confined, as of course it was meant to be, to civilised Governments, it is not much of an exaggeration. There are very few civilised Governments that