|by Alex Schaefer|
Most of the world’s money is currently in the form of deposits created by banks. After the 2008 credit crisis, which instilled a strong suspicion of banks among the public, it became fashionable to ask what money would look like in an economy without these organizations. Burn them to the ground or shutter them, what would take their place? One vision is to pursue pure centralization: have the state monopolize all money creation, say by providing universally-available accounts at the nation’s central bank. Positive Money is an example of this. Another alternative, by way of Satoshi Nakamoto, is to pursue radical decentralization: replace bank IOUs with digital commodity money in the form of bitcoin and other private cryptocoins.
I’m going to provide a few historical examples that sketch out a third option for replacing banks; bills of exchange. A system underpinned by bills of exchange is capable of converting illiquid personal IOUs into money using a distributed method of credit verification, as opposed to a centralized method patched through a banking organization. Unlike bitcoin, however, these are IOUs, not mere bits of digital ledger-space. While few people these days are familiar with the bill of exchange, in its hey day this instrument was responsible for executing a large chunk of the Western world’s transactions.
The first story is of cheques, an instrument that while not precisely a bill of exchange gets pretty close. Last week in my homage to the cheque I brought up the Irish bank strike of 1970, described by Antoin Murphy (from whom I steal the title of this blog post). When the nation’s banks shuttered their windows for half the year, Irish citizens re-purposed uncleared cheques as personal IOUs, these cheques circulating as a cash substitute. The system was decentralized in that banking institutions no longer served as creators of the medium for making payments; instead, everyone became their own unique money issuer. As Tim Harford recently wrote, pubs and corner shops were able to vouch for the creditworthiness (or not) of each cheque.
Irish cheque money only circulated for six months. After the banks reopened in November 1970, mounds of cheques were cleared & settled and the system returned to normal. Luckily, we have historical examples that lasted much longer than this.
Let’s go back in time to Antwerp in the late 1400s. The institution of banking had been present in Europe for a few centuries, but according to Meir Kohn (who I get much of this material from) it began to go into decline at the end of the 15th century as waves of bank failures broke out across the continent, due in part to coin shortages. In Antwerp, the authorities went so far as to ban the practice of banking in 1489. In lieu of bank deposits, coins could of course be used to make payments, but this would have been a step backward since deposit banking had emerged, in part, to solve the problems related to coins, specifically the fact that they are expensive to store, awkward to transport, and heterogeneous, some coins containing more precious metals than others.
Similar to the Irish five hundred years later, Antwerp’s financiers adapted to the death of bank money by innovating a decentralized alternative. Where the Irish chose cheques as their payments instrument, Antwerp settled on a related paper-based order called the bill of exchange. A bill of exchange was a popular way to remit money in medieval times. Say you were a citizen of Florence and you needed to get 20 gold coins to a relative in Venice. Rather than incur the cost and danger of transporting the coins yourself, you might try and strike a deal with a merchant who had offices—and gold—in both cities. By paying the merchant some gold in Florence, your home city, he would issue you a bill of exchange. This bill ordered his colleague in Venice to pay out 20 gold coins to whoever happened to be the bill bearer. You’d then send the bill to your relative in Venice, and he’d bring it into the office and collect the money. The merchant would earn a commission on the deal. No actual gold would travel between the two cities, just a secure and light paper instrument. It was a fantastic technology for saving on the costs of shipping and handling heavy coins.
While bills of exchange started out as remittance instruments, they were later used by merchants as a form of credit. A merchant might want to sell some wool to a manufacturer who in turn required three months to convert the wool into cloth and sell it. To finance the purchase of wool, the manufacturer could always turn to a banker. Absent a banker, the merchant himself might provide the manufacturer with a loan by drawing up a bill of exchange. On its face this bill contained written instructions ordering the manufacturer to pay x coins three months hence to the bearer of the bill. The merchant would keep it in his desk, and when the requisite amount of time had passed he would bring the bill to the manufacturer and collect on his debt, earning interest in the meantime.
The common denominator of a bill of exchange, whether used as a remittance or as credit, is that a private citizen has issued their own personal IOU, to be redeemed for cash after some time has passed. Then Antwerp happened.
In its original form, a bill of exchange could only be used by a small group of people, the initial drawer of the bill, the payor, and the payee. Antwerp’s financiers took the bill of exchange and converted it into a fully transferable instrument, or money. They pried open the closed circuit so that if merchant A owned a bill of exchange that was to be paid out in coin by merchant B next month, merchant A could in the meantime transfer this IOU to merchant C as payment, and merchant C could transfer it to merchant D, and D to E etc. These transfers, or assignments, could occur without asking the original debtor, merchant B, for permission. This would have dramatically increased the liquidity of bills of exchange, allowing them to fill the vacuum left in Antwerp by the banning of bank deposits,
To further protect anyone who received a bill of exchange in payment, Kohn tells us that these instruments were granted currency status by Antwerp’s merchants. As I wrote here, this meant that even if the bill of exchange had been stolen from merchant B and paid to merchant C (who had innocently accepted it), merchant B could not sue merchant C to get the bill back. This legal upgrade would have further promoted the liquidity of bills of exchange, since merchants needn’t bother setting up burdensome verification processes to ensure that bills of exchange presented to them were not stolen. In the eyes of merchant law, all bills of exchange were considered “clean.”
There was still one last barrier to creating a truly decentralized medium of exchange; how to overcome stranger danger. Say that you and I are acquaintances and I owe you $20. I tell you I’m going to settle my debt by giving you an IOU issued by another party. Banks are a great way to solve the stranger problem, since everyone will agree to settle debts using the IOUs of a well-known and trusted intermediary like a bank. But say instead I offer you a $20 bill of exchange that I’ve received from a friend. If you know that person you’ll probably accept the deal, but in an economy like Antwerp’s with thousands and thousands of actors, you might not know the name of the debtor written on the bill. And without enough knowledge to accept the credit, you’d have probably refused it.
According to Kohn, the final innovation developed in Antwerp solved the stranger problem—the ability to endorse a bill of exchange. I simply signed my name to the back of $20 bill of exchange, or endorsed it, and handed it to you. By signing it, I was agreeing to accept the debt as my own. So if the original debtor failed to pay you for the bill when it came due, you could flip the bill over and pursue the first name on the list of endorsees—me—for payment. And since you knew and trusted me, it was now possible for you to evaluate the credibility of a $20 bill of exchange that had originally been issued by a stranger. Bills could in turn be re-endorsed on by others, a long chain of transactions being made before the bill finally expired. Indeed, Henry Dunning Macleod once remarked that bills might sometimes have “150 indorsements on them before they became due.”
From Antwerp, the practice of using negotiable bill of exchange would spread to the rest of Europe, in particular Britain. Below is an example of a bill of exchange from 1815 that ordered Pickford’s, an English canal company, to pay £72 11s 1d to Richard Vann. You can see first hand how the stranger problem is solved. The bill has multiple endorsements on its reverse side (pictured below), including that of Richard Vann, William Alcock, T S Marriott, William Whittles, Jones & Mann, Thomas Whalley & Sons, James Mitchell and Richard Williams. To see the front side of the bill, click through to the original link:
Not only did this chain of cosigning individuals solve the stranger problem. It also created an incredibly safe instrument. Bills of exchange were effectively secured not only by the original person whose name was inscribed on the front, Vann, but by all the others who had cosigned the back; Alcock, Marriott, Whittles, etc. The odds of everyone on the list failing would have been quite low. It was an ingenious system.
Another interesting anecdote on bills of exchange comes from the county of Lancashire in north west England in the 1800s. By then, banknotes had long since been invented and were a popular payments medium in England. Typically issued by small private “country banks,” banknotes were a centralized payments technology insofar as their value depended on the good credit of one issuer, the bank. Inhabitants of Lancashire were particularly suspicious of these instruments which explains why there were almost no note-issuing banks in the county. T.S. Ashton speculates that this wariness was due to the 1788 failure of Blackburn-based Livesay, Hargreaves and Co, a banknote issuer: “generations after, when proposals were made for local notes, men’s minds turned back to the events of 1788.”
In the absence of a system of banks providing transferable deposits or notes, bill of exchange circulated in Lancashire, even dominated, so much so that they were often “covered with endorsements” and become famous for their dirty appearance. Indeed as late as the 1820s, Ashton tells us that some “nine-tenths of the business of Manchester was done in bills, and only one-tenth in gold or Bank of England paper.” Bills were used even in small denominations, say to pay piece workers. This is surprising because bills of exchange had typically been used by merchants and wholesalers, and therefore tended to be issued in large denominations.
Alas, according to Ashton the Lancashire bill of exchange was done in by the increase in stamp duties, which effectively made it more cost-effective to use bank-issued forms of payment that didn’t require a stamp.
Just a few random thoughts in closing.
While Ireland, Lancashire, and Antwerp all provide a sketch of an alternative, distributed form of converting personal IOUs into money, do we really need a replacement for banks? While the U.S. banking system certainly had its difficulties in 2008, Canadian banks skated smoothly through the crisis. Maybe banks only need a face lift.
Even if we need to burn the suckers down, a paper-based backup like bills of exchange or cheque just won’t cut it—we need digital money. But is it possible to digitally replicate the features of a bill of exchange? And even if an online bills of exchange system could be built, we live in an age where money transmitting is a highly regulated industry—how legal would it be for individuals to take over the role of money creator, transmitter, and verifier? (I once thought that Ripple was the answer to digitally replicating bills of exchange. But they decided to serve banks instead. Maybe Trustlines fits the *ahem* bill?)