The Early Bank of England and its Contemporaries

In the Journal of Economic Literature, William Roberds reviews Christine Desan’s “Making Money: Coin, Currency, and the Coming of Capitalism” and he provides his own perspective on European monetary history.

… the transition of the Bank of England’s notes from the status of experimental debt securities (in 1694) to “as good as gold” (1833) required more than a century of legal accommodation and business comfort with their use.

Desan emphasizes England’s traditions of nominalism (as opposed to metallism) and monetary restraint as well as early experiments in monetary substitution in laying the foundations for the Bank of England’s success. Lobbying played its role, too.

Roberds discusses the experience of note issuing institutions in other countries.

At the time of the Bank’s founding, there were about twenty-five publicly owned or sponsored banks operating in Europe. These institutions are largely forgotten today; most were dissolved by the early nineteenth century and only one continues in existence, Sweden’s Riksbank. …

These banks were run by and for the merchant communities in their respective cities [Amsterdam, Genoa, Hamburg, and Venice] … The existence of the early municipal banks depended on a form of nominalism more extreme than what prevailed in contemporary England. Merchants in these “banking cities” were required by law and by custom to settle all bills of exchange (the dominant form of commercial credit) with transfers of money on the ledgers of the local public bank. The practical advantage of such a restriction was that it reduced or eliminated the possibility of settlement in the debased coins … the municipal banks’ ledger money was often seen as more reliable than the typical coin in circulation …

Most of these banks failed after getting involved in speculative episodes, hyperinflation, or political turmoil. The Bank of England was lucky.