By Dan Rohde
Who would’ve guessed that the sudden failure of a state-chartered, regional bank would’ve inspired fundamental reckonings with the nature of money and banking? Yet, this is exactly what we see today. The failure of Silicon Valley Bank (“SVB”) and its $200 billion of mostly-uninsured deposits has spurred renewed debates about not only whether and when banks should be allowed to fail, but what role they play, or ought to play, in modern society.
The ongoing SVB episode has laid bare two fundamentally opposed views of banks. First, there are those who regard banks primarily as private businesses. This orthodox camp largely (though not entirely) opposes the present rescue efforts, insisting that the market be allowed to discipline banking enterprises. Poorly run banks, they argue, should generally be allowed to fail, unless their size and systemic importance dictate otherwise. This business approach to banking lies behind the current design of deposit insurance, which only insures deposits up to $250,000 per account on the presumption that only small account holders should be protected; holders of larger accounts are presumed capable of monitoring their bank and moving money to a safer institution if necessary. The market should thereby privilege safer banking institutions. Such thinking similarly underpins much of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which attempts to isolate banks that are “too big to fail,” while leaving smaller institutions more to the discipline of so-called “market forces.”
But, as the events of this weekend underline, this is an increasingly strained perspective. SVB’s largest depositors plainly did not adequately supervise its practices, and this is not particularly surprising. And, in spite of being a regional, state-chartered bank not identified as systemically important under Dodd-Frank, within 72 hours of the panic beginning, Treasury, the Fed and the FDIC, through some creative and surprising legislative maneuvering, pooled their resources to engineer a rescue of all SVB’s deposits – both insured and uninsured.
Such apparent failures and exceptions from the orthodox perspective are much less surprising to those who understand banks to be public institutions. As laid out in a recent editorial by Morgan Ricks and Lev Menand calling to remove the cap on deposit insurance altogether, this position holds that banks are best understood as privately-owned entities charged with a fundamental public function: issuing the vast majority of the deposits we use as money. Eliciting language from Saule Omarova and Robert Hockett, they describe a bank charter as “an outsourcing arrangement, a franchise, to issue money on behalf of the government.” Eliminating the cap on deposit insurance “would underscore the fact that banks exist to serve the public interest, not to privatize gains and socialize losses.”
To gain greater perspective on the present debate, it’s useful to consider the historical foundations of modern banking – both in the US and elsewhere. My forthcoming paper in the Osgoode Hall Law Journal offers one example. There, I explore the introduction of banks into Canada – a period when, even if privately owned, banks were openly and explicitly conceived as public institutions. (Accordingly, they also marked a central site of political contestation.) Elite monetary engineering on behalf of one partisan camp was met with opposition from another, followed by direct, democratic contestation. Returning to this past can help us in at least two ways. First, it helps clarify the role that banks were meant to serve and still serve today in our monetary system, foregrounding the actions of the state in creating and backing them. Second, narratives like this can help us conceptually to imagine and work toward creating a more democratic monetary architecture, both today and in the future.
The Chaos of Canadian Colonial Money
Money in colonial British North America was a mess. And the colonies were in a tight spot trying to fix it. The law generally forbid colonies from issuing their own money, either through establishing their own mints or issuing bills of credit. Further, as of the 1820s, the British government required that all colonial accounts be denominated in sterling. All the while, continuous growth and a trade balance favoring England constantly tapped the money supply, leading to near constant calls for more liquidity.
The colonies responded to this with legislative ingenuity. With jurisdiction over their own revenue and courts, they would declare coinage of various nations “current” within their borders, meaning that such designated coins would both satisfy debts to the colony and count as legal tender. They would then “rate” those varieties of coin under their own unit of account – granting each a domestic value that differed from (and typically exceeded) either its face value or what value it would acquire in foreign markets. While the official unit of account was English, many goods were priced in dollars, and most actual coins in people’s pockets were Spanish. This process, known as “overrating” coinage, fomented a currency mélange throughout the colonies that immensely complicated even basic everyday transactions.
Still, the colonies enjoyed a brief reprieve from this complexity during the war of 1812. To fund that conflict, the British forces issued legal-tender “Army Bills” directly to soldiers and suppliers.
These bills not only serviced the war effort but also were widely adopted and appreciated by the settler population at large. Typically denominated in both dollars and pounds, they greatly simplified everyday exchange, offering settlers a paper currency that was, more or less, worth the value listed on its face. Significantly, the bills were issued in good supply, reaching a peak of £1.5 million in 1814. The result granted the colonies a level of liquidity they would not know again until for decades. Exposed to their first paper money in good supply, the colonists thus experienced previously unparalleled liquidity through public money–even if a money, of course, issued for military conflict.
Enter the Banks
In spite of such achievements, the British fully redeemed the Army Bills after the war. Retiring the bills led to a deep and profound monetary contraction. And it was this specific moment that directly inspired the chartering of Canada’s earliest banks. First was the Bank of Montreal in 1817, followed by the Bank of Quebec in 1818, the Bank of Upper Canada at Kingston in 1819, the Bank of New Brunswick in 1820, and, as will be discussed below, the Bank of Upper Canada founded in the town of York (later incorporated as Toronto) in 1821.
The first Canadian banks were universally run by wealthy, politically connected and conservative individuals, often with direct ties to England. And they were chartered to offer a public service. They could store varieties of legal tender coinage and issue notes that, like the Army Bills, listed their value on their face. While not legal tender, these banknotes could thereby replace legal tender coin for much everyday exchange. Banks could additionally issue more notes than the amount of coin they kept in reserve, thereby directly increasing the money supply for the still liquidity-starved colonies. Thus while certainly commercial enterprises driven by private profits and interests, the early Canadian banks (as with many chartered corporations at that time) were not merely commercial institutions, but expressly political ones. They were individually chartered and empowered by statute, run by politically-connected colonial elites, and specifically charged with a public service in simplifying and augmenting the money supply.
Crucially, such elite banks “of issue, discount and deposit” were not primarily held out as savings institutions or mere intermediaries, but money issuers. Generally, they built their reserve of specie by selling shares rather than attracting depositors, and their primary purpose was to clean up the colonial money supply and expand monetary circulation. Banknotes almost immediately became the predominant currency for everyday use in the colonies.
Where government had receded, government-supported for-profit enterprises were called in. But private bank money came with very new terms. Whereas Army Bills offered payment to individuals, banknotes were issued through loans, meaning that they came at a cost and with a commitment. To many, this new money felt less a monetary expansion, than a shift of obligations – away from the state and towards these new, undemocratic corporations.
The Bank and the Government
In Toronto and much of Upper Canada, nearly all banknotes were issued by one especially partisan institution, the Bank of Upper Canada. The first chartered bank in the Canadian colonies, the Bank of Upper Canada was founded by Anglican archdeacon John Strachan and his followers in the “Family Compact” – a close-knit conservative political faction that wielded an outsized influence in the colony. Indeed, the bank inscribed its ruling position directly on its notes. The notes proudly announced that the bank was “chartered by parliament.” They bore images of St. George and Britannia, unabashedly mimicking iconography from the Bank of England.
While it never took on exactly the role that ‘The Old Lady’ played in England, the Bank of Upper Canada was explicitly established to represent elite interests and, for a considerable period, it was the only bank chartered in the region. During that period, anyone who needed money would have to either borrow from that bank (in which case they owed it a debt) or work for someone who had previously borrowed from that institution. In either case, money was issued in Upper Canada with lines of obligation running directly to a single, unapologetically anti-egalitarian institution.
This bank’s anti-egalitarian activities were particularly egregious to Upper Canada’s “Reformers” – a political movement directly opposed to the Family Compact that advocated to make the colonial government more responsive to the electorate. To Reformers, banking institutions like the Bank of Upper Canada benefitted from public legitimacy and support, but lacked democratic accountability. If banks were in a fundamental sense government agents, then their control was a political cause. The interest on their loans, furthermore, was akin to taxation, only not paid into public coffers. With this, banking reform became a central plank in the Reform movement.
The Reformers began by attempting to make the Bank of Upper Canada more accountable, and then by proposing alternate public monetary bodies. Failing in this, a group of Reformers then established their own (unchartered) institution in 1835 named the “Bank of the People.” As with the Bank of Upper Canada, the Bank of the People was erected overtly as a political institution. Its board was made up exclusively of established Reformers, and the bank issued money largely to communities excluded by the Bank of Upper Canada. (Indeed, one of its first loans was to future leader of the Upper Canada Rebellion, William Lyon Mackenzie, to establish his newspaper, the Constitution.) In house, too, the bank joined the politics of credit issuance to the politics of publicity by hosting a newsroom on its premises featuring “the leading liberal Journals.”
Bank of the People notes differed starkly from the Bank of Upper Canada’s, reflecting the different political community to which the bank spoke and the alternative values it sought to express. In the place of British monarchial imagery, its notes feature bustling cityscapes and ports, alongside generic symbols of industry, such as Vulcan and Demeter.
Despite its judicious management, the Bank of the People did not last long. We know it was well run, because it managed to be both profitable and to be the only bank in British North America to not suspend payments during the banking panic of 1837. Still, the Bank lost many of its supporters after the failed Upper Canada Rebellion, and competition with the Bank of Upper Canada led its founders to sell to the Bank of Montreal in 1840.
From the Bank of the People to Banks Today
Obviously, the Bank of the People was established in a very different era from the present moment. There were few banks then, and they carried their association with government on the face of their notes. But much is also the same, as the discourse around SVB’s collapse makes evident. Privately-owned, for-profit banks are still tasked with issuing the vast majority of our money, and this remains, in many regards, a very public mandate.
Banks today are critical public infrastructure, which stand upon a massive edifice of government infrastructure and support. Because we use bank credits as money, when they fail, the consequences can lead to massive economic fallout with a very real, human cost. They also act as a primary vector through which government intervenes in a crisis. (This includes even our recent global health crisis that did not originate in the financial sector.) No wonder they are among the quickest institutions to receive government support when under threat. No wonder also that, in the wake of SVB’s collapse, explicit government support has been offered not only to “too big to fail” banks, but to smaller banks as well – an experience Canada also went through in 1985.
The monetary system that the Bank of the People actively contested is now the norm, but, all the while, its public nature has become less visible to us. Revisiting such democratizing efforts reminds us of the indelibly public role that banks play, and that they were intended to play, since their very introduction into North America. The Reformers movement equally reminds us that monetary systems that appear resistant to change, may yet be subject to contestation. Faced with the legal inability to make the existing monetary order more accountable, the Reformers turned to establishing their own institution. While short-lived and little-known today, the Bank’s example and influence lived on through its participants to influence Canada’s future monetary order. Similarly, today, current public banking efforts (in, for example, California, New York, Massachusetts, & Pennsylvania) remind us that, regardless of how hard it might be to see at times, there is always the possibility of alternatives to elite, private, and for-profit means of issuing money. Times like this, looking to the past may help us to more clearly see our present, and to imagine our future.