Chapter 26 — The Goldsmith Who
a Banker — A True Story



(An article of Louis Even, first published in the October, 1936 issue of “Cahiers du Crédit Social.”)

If you have some imagination, go back a few centuries to a Europe already old, but not yet progressive. In those days, money was not used much in everyday business transactions. Most of those transactions were simple direct exchanges, barter. However, the kings, the lords, the wealthy, and the big merchants owned gold, and used it to finance their armies' expenses or to purchase foreign products.

But the wars between lords or nations, and armed robberies, were causing the gold and the diamonds of the wealthy to fall into the hands of pillagers. So the owners of gold, who had become very nervous, made it a habit to entrust their treasures for safekeeping with the goldsmiths who, because of the precious metal they worked with, had very well protected vaults. The goldsmith received the gold, gave a receipt to the depositor, and took care of the gold, charging a fee for this service. Of course, the owner claimed his gold, all or in part, whenever he felt like it.

coffre orThe merchant leaving for Paris or Marseille, or travelling from Troyes, France, to Amsterdam, could provide himself with gold to make his purchases. But here again, there was danger of being attacked along the road; he then convinced his seller in Marseille or Amsterdam to accept, rather than metal, a signed receipt attesting his claim to part of the treasure on deposit at the goldsmith's in Paris or Troyes. The goldsmith's receipt bore witness to the reality of the funds.

It also happened that the supplier, in Amsterdam or elsewhere, managed to get his own goldsmith in London or Geneva to accept, in return for transportation services, the signed receipt that he had received from his French buyer. In short, little by little, the merchants began to exchange among themselves these receipts rather than the gold itself, so as not to move the gold unnecessarily and risk the attacks from robbers. In other words, a buyer, rather than getting a gold plate from the goldsmith to pay off his creditor, gave to the latter the goldsmith's receipt, giving him a claim to the gold kept in the vault.

Instead of the gold, it was the goldsmith's receipts which were changing hands. For as long as there were only a limited number of sellers and buyers, it was not a bad system. It was easy to follow the peregrinations of the receipts.

The gold lender

But the goldsmith soon made a discovery, which was to affect mankind much more than the memorable journey of Christopher Colombus himself. He learned, through experience, that nearly all of the gold that was left with him for safekeeping remained untouched in his vault. Hardly more than one-in-ten of the owners of this gold, using their receipts in their business transactions, ever came to withdraw any precious metal.

The thirst for gain, the longing to become rich more quickly than by handing jeweller’s tools, sharpened the mind of our man, and he made a daring gesture. “Why,” he said to himself, “would I not become a gold lender!” A lender, mind you, of gold which did not belong to him. And since he did not possess a righteous soul like that of Saint Eligius (or St. Eloi, the master of the mint of French kings Clotaire II and Dagobert I, in the seventh century), he hatched and nurtured the idea. He refined the idea even more: “To lend gold which does not belong to me, at interest, needless to say! Better still, my dear master (was he talking to Satan?), instead of the gold, I will lend a receipt, and demand payment of interest in gold; that gold will be mine, and my clients' gold will remain in my vaults to back up new loans.”

He kept the secret of his discovery to himself, not even talking about it to his wife, who wondered why he often rubbed his hands in pure joy. The opportunity to put his plans into motion did not take long in coming, even though he did not have “The Globe and Mail” or “The Toronto Star” in which to advertise.

One morning, a friend of the goldsmith actually came to see him and asked for a favour. This man was not without goods — a home, or a farm with arable land — but he needed gold to settle a transaction. If he could only borrow some, he would pay it back with an added surplus; if he did not, the goldsmith would seize his property, which far exceeded the value of the loan.

The goldsmith got him to fill out a form, and then explained to his friend, with a disinterested attitude, that it would be dangerous for him to leave with a lot of money in his pockets: “I will give you a receipt; it is just as if I were lending you the gold that I keep in reserve in my vault. You will then give this receipt to your creditor, and if he brings the receipt to me, I will in turn give him gold. You will owe me so much interest.”

voûteThe creditor generally never showed up. He rather exchanged the receipt with someone else for something that he required. In the meantime, the reputation of the gold lender began to spread. People came to him. Thanks to other similar loans by the goldsmith, soon there were many times more receipts in circulation than real gold in the vaults.

The goldsmith himself had really created a monetary circulation, at a great profit to himself. He quickly lost the original nervousness he had when he had worried about a simultaneous demand for gold from a great number of people holding receipts. He could, to a certain extent, continue with his game in all security. What a windfall; to lend what he did not have and get interest from it, thanks to the confidence that people had in him — a confidence that he took great care to cultivate! He risked nothing, as long as he had, to back up his loans, a reserve that his experience told him was enough. If, on the other hand, a borrower did not meet his obligations and did not pay back the loan when due, the goldsmith acquired the property given as collateral. His conscience quickly became dull, and his initial scruples no longer bothered him.

The creation of credit

Moreover, the goldsmith thought it wise to change the way his receipts were set out when he made loans; instead of writing, “Receipt of John Smith...” he wrote, “I promise to pay to the bearer...”. This promise circulated just like gold money. Unbelievable, you will say? Come on now, look at your dollar bills of today. Read what it written on them. Are they so different, and do they not circulate as money?

A fertile fig tree — the private banking system, the creator and master of money — had therefore grown out of the goldsmith's vaults. His loans, without moving gold, had become the banker's creations of credit. The form of the primitive receipts had changed, taking that of simple promises to pay on demand. The credits paid by the banker were called deposits, which caused the general public to believe that the banker loaned only the amounts coming from the depositors. These credits entered into circulation by means of cheques issued on these credits. They displaced, in volume and in importance, the legal money of the Government which only had a secondary role to play. The banker created ten times as much paper money as did the State.

The goldsmith who became a banker

The goldsmith, transformed into a banker, made another discovery: he realized that putting plenty of receipts (credits) into circulation would accelerate business, industry, construction; whereas restriction of credits, which he practised at first in circumstances in which he worried about a run on the bank for gold, paralyzed business development. There seemed to be, in the latter case, an overproduction, when privations were actually great; it is because the products were not selling, due to a lack of purchasing power. Prices went down, bankruptcies increased, the banker's debtors could not meet their obligations, and the lenders were seizing the properties given as collateral. The banker, very clear-sighted and very skillful when it came to gain, saw his chances, his marvellous chances. He could monetize the wealth of others for his own profit: by doing it liberally, causing a rise in prices, or parsimoniously, causing a decrease in prices. He could then manipulate the wealth of others as he wished, exploiting the buyer in times of inflation, and exploiting the seller in times of recession.

The banker, the universal master

The banker thus became the universal master, keeping the world at his mercy. Periods of prosperity and of depression followed one another. Humanity bowed down before what it thought were natural and inevitable cycles.

Meanwhile, the scholars and technicians tried desperately to triumph over the forces of nature, and to develop the means of production. The printing press was invented, education became widespread, cities and better housing developed. The sources of food, clothing, and comforts increased and were improved. Man overcame the forces of nature, and harnessed steam and electricity. Transformation and developments occurred everywhere — except in the monetary system.

And the banker surrounded himself with mystery, keeping alive the confidence that the captive world had in him, even being so audacious as to advertise in the media, of which he controlled the finances, that the bankers had taken the world out of barbarism, that they had opened and civilized the continents. The scholars and wage-earners were considered, but secondary in the march of progress.

For the masses, there was misery and contempt; for the exploiting financiers, wealth and honours! Like his worthy successor Herbert Holt (the chairman of a large Canadian bank in 1936), honoured, flattered, he demanded respect from the people that he bled: “If I am rich and powerful, while you are suffering the stranglehold of poverty and the humiliation of social assistance; if I was able, at the peak of the Depression, to make 150% profits each year, it is foolishness on your part, and as for me, it is the fruit of a wise administration.”



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