WAR-TIME FINANCIAL PROBLEMS
Works by Hartley Withers
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A Description of the Money Market, by WALTER BAGEHOT. Edited with a new Preface by HARTLEY WITHERS. "There is no city man, however ripe his experience, who could not add to his knowledge from its pages."—Financial News.
"Blest paper credit! last and best supply! That lends Corruption lighter wings to fly: Gold imp'd by thee, can compass hardest things, Can pocket States, can fetch or carry Kings; A single leaf shall waft an Army o'er, Or ship off Senates to a distant Shore; A leaf, like Sibyl's, scatter to and fro Our fates and fortunes, as the winds shall blow; Pregnant with thousands flits the Scrap unseen, And silent sells a King, or buys a Queen."
POPE, Moral Essays.
At a time when Finance is of greater importance than ever before, it is hoped that this small volume may be of interest and value to the public, and help the application of war's lessons to the problems that face us in peace.
The contents, with the exception of the last article on "Money or Goods?" (which appeared in the Trade Supplement of the Times for December, 1918), have already been published in Sperling's Journal, from September, 1917, to March, 1919; they have been left as they were written, except for a few verbal corrections.
I desire to express my thanks to the Editors of Sperling's Journal and of the Times for their kind permission to reprint the articles.
I THE OUTLOOK FOR CAPITAL The Creation of Capital—The Inducement—War and Capital
II LONDON'S FINANCIAL POSITION London after the War—A German View—The Rocks Ahead—Our Relative Position secure—Faulty Finance—The Strength we have shown—The Nature and Limits of American Competition—No other likely Rivals
III WAR FINANCE AS IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN—I Financial Conditions in August, 1914—No Scheme prepared to meet the Possibility of War—A Short Struggle expected—The Importance of Finance as a Weapon—Labour's Example—The Economic Problem of War—The Advantages of Direct Taxation—The Government follows the Path of Least Resistance—The Effect of Currency Inflation
IV WAR FINANCE AS IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN—II The Changed Spirit of the Country—A Great Opportunely thrown away—What Taxation might have done—The Perils of Inflation—Drifting stupidly along the Line of Least Resistance—It is we who pay, not "Posterity"
V A LEVY ON CAPITAL The Objects of the Levy—Its Origin and History—How it would work in Practice—The Attitude of the Chancellor—The Effects of the Scheme in discouraging Thrift—Its Fallacies and Injustices—The Insuperable Obstacles to its Application—Its Influence on Production—One of the Tests of a Tax—Judged by this Test the Proposed Levy is doomed
VI OUR BANKING MACHINERY The Recent Amalgamations—Will the Provinces suffer?—Consolidation not a New Movement—The Figures of the Past Three Decades—Reduction of Competion not yet a Danger—The Alleged Neglect of Local Interests—Shall we ultimately have One Huge Banking Monopoly?—The Suggested Repeal of the Bank Act—Sir E. Holden's Proposal
VII THE COMPANIES ACTS Another Government Committee—The Fallacy of imitating Germany—Prussianising British Commerce—The Inquiry into the Companies Acts—Will Labour Influence dominate the Report?—Increased Production the Great Need—Will it be met by tightening up the Companies Acts?—The Dangers of too much Strictness—Some Reforms necessary—Publicity, Education, Higher Ideals the only Lasting Solution—The Importance of Foreign Investments—Industry cannot take all Risks and no Profits
VIII THE YEAR'S BALANCE-SHEET The Figures of the National Budget—A Large Increase in Revenue and a Larger in Expenditure—Comparison with Last Year and with the Estimates—The Proportion borne by Taxation still too Low—The Folly of our Policy of Incessant Borrowing—Its Injustice to the Fighting Men
IX COMPARATIVE WAR FINANCE The New Budget—Our own and Germany's Balance-sheets—The Enemy's Difficulties—Mr Bonar Law's Optimism—Special Advantages which Peace will bring to Germany—A Comparison with American Finance—How much have we raised from Revenue?—The Value of the Pound To-day—The 1918 Budget an Improvement on its Predecessors—But Direct Taxation still too Low—Deductions from the Chancellor's Estimates
X INTERNATIONAL CURRENCY An Inopportune Proposal—What is Currency?—The Primitive System of Barter—The Advantages possessed by the Precious Metals—Gold as a Standard of Value—Its Failure to remain Constant—Currency and Prices—The Complication of other Instruments of Credit—No Substitute for Gold in Sight—Its Acceptability not shaken by the War—A Fluctuating Standard not wholly Disadvantageous—An International Currency fatal to the Task of Reconstruction—Stability and Certainty the Great Needs
XI BONUS SHARES A Deluge of Bonus Shares—The Effect on the Market—A Problem in Financial Psychology—The Capitalisation of Reserves—The Stock Exchange View—The Issue of Bonus-carrying Shares—The Case of the A.B.C.—A Wiser Variation from Canada—Bonus Shares on Flotation—An American Device—Midwife or Doctor?—The Good and Bad Points of both Systems
XII STATE MONOPOLY IN BANKING Bank Fusions and the State—Their Effects on the Bank of England—Mr Sidney Webb's Forecast—His Views of the Benefits of a Bank Monopoly—The Contrast between German Experts and British Amateurs—Bankers' Charges as affected by Fusions—The Effects of Monopoly without the Fact—The "Disinterested Management" Fallacy—The Proposal to split Banking Functions—A Picture of the State in Control
XIII FOREIGN CAPITAL The Difference between Aims and Acts—Should Foreign Capital be allowed in British Industry?—The Supremacy of London and National Trade—No need to fear German Capital—We shall need all we can get—Foreign Shares in British Companies—Can and should the Disclosure of Foreign Ownership be forced?—The Difficulties of the Problem—Aliens and British Shipping—The Position of "Key" Industries—Freedom to Import and Export Capital our Best Policy
XIV NATIONAL GUILDS The Present Economic Structure—Its Weaknesses and Injustices—Were things ever better?—The Aim of State Socialism—A Rival Theory—The New Movement of Guild Socialism—Its Doctrines and Assumptions—Payment "as Human Beings"—The "Degradation" of earning Wages—Production irrespective of Demand—Is that the Real Meaning of Freedom?—The Old Evils under a New Name—A Conceivably Practical Scheme for some other World
XV POST-WAR FINANCE Taxation after the War—Mr. Hoare's Scheme described and analysed—The Position of the Rentier—Estimates of the Post-War Debt—The Compulsory Loan Proposal—What Advantages has it over a Levy on Capital?—The Argument from Social Justice—Questions still to be answered—The Choice between a Levy and Stiff Taxation—Are we still a Creditor Nation?—Our Debt not a Hopeless Problem—Suggestions for solving it
XVI THE CURRENCY REPORT Currency Policy during the War—Its Disastrous Medievalism—The Report of the Cunliffe Committee—A Blast of Common Sense—The Condemnation of our War Finance—Inflation and the Rise in Prices—The Figures of the Present Position—The Break in the Old Relation between Legal Tender and Gold—How to restore it—Stop Borrowing and reduce the Floating Debt—Return to the Old System—The Committee's Sane Conservatism—A Sound Currency vital to National Recovery
XVII MEETING THE WAR BILL The Total War Debt—What are our Loans to the Allies worth?—Other Uncertain Items—The Prospects of making Germany pay—The Right Way to regard the Debt—Our Capital largely intact—A Reform of the Income Tax—The Debt to America—The Levy on Capital and other Schemes—The only Real Aids to Recovery
XVIII THE REGULATION OF THE CURRENCY Macaulay on Depreciated Currency—Its Evils To-day—The Plight of the Rentier—Mr Goodenough's Suggestion—Sir Edward Holden's Criticisms of the Currency Committee—His Scheme of Reform—Two Departments or One in the Bank of England?—Not a Vital Question—The Ratio of Notes to Gold—Objections to a Hard-and-fast Ratio—The Limit on Note Issues—The Federal Reserve Act and American Optimism—Currency and Commercial Paper—A Central Gold Reserve with Central Control
XIX TIGHTENING THE FETTERS OF FINANCE The New Meaning of Licence—The Question of Capital Issues—Text of the Treasury Regulations—Their Scope and Effect—The Position of the Stock Exchange—Wider Issues at Stake—Should Capital be set Free?—The Arguments for and against—Perils of an Excessive Caution—The New Committee and its Terms of Reference—The Absurdity of prohibiting Share-splitting—The Storm in the House of Commons—Disappearance of the Retrospective Clause—A Sample of Bureaucratic Stupidity
XX MONEY OR GOODS? "Boundless Wealth"—Money and the Volume of Trade—The Quantity Theory—The Gold Standard—How is the Volume of Paper to be regulated?—Mr Kitson's Ideal
WAR-TIME FINANCIAL PROBLEMS
THE OUTLOOK FOR CAPITAL
The Creation of Capital—The Inducement—War and Capital
One of the questions that are now most keenly agitating the minds of the investing public and of financiers who cater for its wants, and also of employers and organisers of industry who are trying to see their way into after-the-war conditions, is that of the supply of capital. On this subject there are two contradictory theories: one considers that owing to the destruction of capital during the war, capital will be for many years at a famine price; the other, that owing to the exhaustion of all the warring powers, that is, of the greater part of the civilised world, the spirit of enterprise will be almost dead, the demand for capital will be extremely limited, and consequently the supply of it on offer will go begging to find a user. It seems likely that, as usual, the truth lies somewhere between these two extreme views; but we shall best answer the question if we first get a clear idea of what we mean by capital.
On the subject of the definition of capital, economists differ with all the consistency that they only show in differing. One of the earliest descriptions of capital was given by Turgot, who thought that capital meant "valeurs accumulees." In this wide sense the word covers all goods which have value, that is, can be exchanged into other goods. From this point of view, the schoolboy who invests sixpence in marbles is a capitalist, because he has bought an asset which is not immediately consumed, but can, later on, if his fancy urges him, be exchanged into white mice or any other object of his desire. On the other hand, the schoolfellow who at the same time spends sixpence on cherries and eats them has put his money into immediate consumption, his asset is digested, and he has no capital in any sense of the word.
Later, the definition was narrowed by John Stuart Mill, for instance, into the sense of wealth set aside to increase production. From this point of view capital practically means the equipment and tools of industry in the widest sense of the word, including agriculture and transport. Lately economists have shown a tendency to go back to the wider application of the word, and an American economist, Dr Anderson, who has just published a book on the Value of Money, goes so far therein as to state that a "dollar is capital." The language of the City generally uses the word in the narrow sense adopted by Mill, and there is very much to be said for this view of the real meaning of capital. Marbles to play with, houses to live in, motor-cars to go joy-riding in—all these are assets which can be disposed of, and so, in a sense, may be called capital. But the businesslike meaning of the word is the tools and equipment of industry, because it is only by their possession that the wealth of mankind not only increases man's present enjoyment, but enhances his future output of the goods necessary for his existence.
If we take the word in this sense it becomes at once apparent that the theory is exaggerated which maintains that war is destroying capital, so that capital will long be at a famine price. The extent to which war is actually destroying the tools and equipment of industry is quite limited. On the actual battlefield that sort of destruction proceeds apace when factories are shelled into shapeless lumps of bricks, and when the surface of the earth, that man's skill had developed into great productive fertility, is torn into craters and covered with rubbish. There is also rapid destruction of a very important part of the equipment of industry owing to the submarine campaign, which is sinking so many fine ships that were meant to carry goods from one country to another. But, apart from this actual destruction on the battlefield and on the sea, the tools and equipment of industry over the greater part of the earth remain untouched. It is true that, owing to the preoccupations of the war, not so much work as usual is being put into the upkeep and repair of our railways, factories and other industrial tools. But at the same time an enormous amount of new machinery is being created for the manufacture of munitions and other stuff needed for the war, and a large part of this new machinery ought to be available as industrial capital when the war is over. Those people who talk so glibly of the enormous destruction of capital by the war are surely making a mistake common to minds which look at economic questions through a financial telescope, mistaking money for capital. They see that an enormous amount of money is being spent on the war, and they jump to the conclusion that this money, if not spent upon the war, would have been put into capital investments and so have increased the tools and equipment of industry. In fact, a great deal of the money now spent upon the war would have been spent, if there had been no war, not upon increasing the equipment of production, but upon purely frivolous and extravagant consumption. There is no need to dwell on the effect of war in reducing many kinds of expenditure on which hundreds of millions must have gone in peace time, and this restriction of extravagant consumption has to be deducted before we even admit, not that all money spent upon the war is destroyed capital, but even that all the money spent upon the war is destroying what might otherwise have become capital.
If, then, it is true that the war is not making a very terribly substantial inroad upon the mass of existing capital, how is it going to affect the supply of capital in the future? To answer this question we have to see how capital is created. The answer to this question is very simple, very obvious, and very dull. Capital can only be created by saving.
Saving is such an entirely unpopular virtue that it seems at first sight a disastrous conclusion to arrive at, that if we want to increase the supply of capital it can only be done by stimulating this unattractive habit; and there is a further question to be asked—whether it will be necessary or desirable to have a great increase in the supply of capital. As was pointed out above, one theory of after-war needs maintains that the world will be so exhausted by this great struggle that it will have no enterprise and no energy left, and that capital will go begging. If this be so, we need not trouble to inquire as to whether the supply of capital can be made plentiful. But I venture to think that this view is very probably wrong, though it is very dangerous to prophesy concerning the purely psychological question of the state of mind in which the citizens of the warring Powers will end the war. It is, however, at least probable that the prices which are then likely to rule will stimulate enterprise all over the world; that every one will see that there is a great work to be done in getting industry back on to a peace basis, and a great profit to be made by those who do this work most successfully, and that the demand for capital is likely, for some years at least, to clamour for all that can be produced.
To go back, then, to the statement that only by saving can capital be created. The man who saves, instead of spending money on his own enjoyment, hands it over to some company or Government to be spent on some industrial or national purpose. When it is put into industry it builds a factory or a ship or a railway or a canal, or clears a wilderness for cultivation, or does one of the innumerable other things which are necessary for the production and transport of the goods which mankind enjoys. And it is only by this process of handing over buying power, instead of using it for our own amusement and enjoyment, to others who will use it for furthering production that the tools and equipment of industry can be multiplied.
Something can be done by banks and financiers in supplying credit in the form of advances and acceptances; but this method is only like oiling the wheel of industry, the real driving power of which has to be saved capital. Creating credits simply means that a certain amount of buying power is manufactured and handed over to those to whom the credit is given. It does not set free any labour or goods to be put into industry. That is only done by the man who abstains from consumption and saves money by restraining his desire to spend it on himself, and puts it at the disposal of industry. The man who saves money, who has always hitherto been rather despised by his companions and resented by a certain class of social reformer and many other uneducated people as a capitalist bloodsucker, is thus, in fact, the person who leaves the world richer than he found it, having put his money, the product of his own work, into increasing the world's output, instead of spending it on such forms of enjoyment as heavy lunches and cinema shows.
The man who does this beneficent work, increasing mankind's output of goods, and providing employment as long as the factory or railway that he helps to build is running, is induced to do so, as a rule, by the purely selfish motive of providing for his old age or for those who come after him by earning the rate of interest that is paid to him for his capital. What is this rate of interest going to be, and how much effect does it have upon the creation of capital?
Some people argue that a low rate of interest makes people save more because it is necessary for them to save more in order to acquire independence. Others maintain that a high rate of interest induces people to save because they can see the direct advantage of doing so. Both these arguments are probably true in some cases. But, as a rule, people who have the instinct of saving will save, within certain limits, whatever the rate of interest may be. When the rate of interest is low they will certainly not reduce their saving because each hundred pounds that they put away brings them in comparatively little, and when the rate of interest is high the attraction of the high rate will also deter them from diminishing the amount that they put aside. Moreover, we have to consider, not only the money payment involved by the rate of interest, but its buying power in goods. In 1896 trustee securities could only be bought to return a yield of 2-1/2 per cent. for the buyer; now the investor can get 5-1/4 per cent. and more from the British Government. And yet the power that this 5-1/4 gives him over the goods and services that he wants for his comfort Is probably not greater, and very likely rather less, than the power which he got in 1896 from his 2-1/2 per cent. One of the few facts which seem to stand out clearly from a study of the movement of the prices of securities, and consequently of the rate of interest to be derived from them, is that the rate of interest is high when the price of commodities is high, and vice versa. So that the answer to the question: What is the rate of interest likely to be after the war? may be given, in Quaker fashion, by another question: What will happen to the index number of the prices of commodities? It seems fairly probable that both these questions may be answered, very tentatively and diffidently, by the expression of a hope that after a time, when peace conditions have settled down and all the merchant ships of the world have been restored to their peaceful occupations, the general level of the price of commodities will be materially lower than it is now, though probably considerably higher than it was before the war. If this be so, then it is fairly safe to expect that the rate of interest, as expressed in money, will follow the movement of prices of goods. But it must be remembered that by rate of interest I mean the pure rate of interest, that is to say, the rate earned on perpetual fixed-charge securities of the highest class. It may be that, owing to the very large amount of gilt-edged securities created in the course of the war by the various warring Governments, the rate of profit to be earned by the man who takes the risks of industry from dividends on ordinary shares and stocks will have to be made relatively more attractive than it was before the war.
If, then, capital can only be created by saving, how far will the war have helped towards its more plentiful production?
Here, again, we are faced with a psychological question which can only be answered by those who are bold enough to forecast the state of mind in which the majority of people will find themselves when the war is over. If there is a great reaction, and everybody's one desire is to throw this nightmare of war off their chests and go back to the times as they were before it happened, then all that the war has taught us about the production of capital will have been wasted. But I rather doubt whether this will be so. Saving merely means the diversion of a certain proportion of the output of industry into the further equipment of industry. The war has taught us lessons which, if we use them aright, will help us to increase enormously the output of industry. So that if these lessons are used aright, and industry does not waste its time in squabbles over the sharing of its product, its output may be so great that a comparatively smaller amount of saving in relation to the total output may produce a larger amount of capital than was made available in days before the war. There is a further point, that the war has taught a great many people who never saved at all to save a good deal. It was estimated before the war that we in this country were saving about four hundred millions a year. This figure was necessarily a guess, and must be taken for what it is worth. There can be no doubt that the amount of real saving now in progress, voluntary, owing to the patriotic effort of people who think they ought to restrict their own consumption so that the needs of our fighters may be provided, and enforced through the action of the Government in taking taxes and inflating the currency, is very much greater than it was before the war; probably at least twice as much when all allowance has been made for depreciation of the currency. Some people think that this saving lesson will have been learned, will have become a habit, will continue and will grow. If so, if people save a larger proportion of their income than they did before, and if the total output of goods is increased, as it easily may be, it becomes at once evident that there is a possibility of a freer supply of capital for industry than has ever been seen. But in looking at this hopeful and optimistic picture, we must never forget that it can only be painted by those who are prepared to leave out of the canvas all the danger of industrial strife and dislocation, and all the danger of reaction to the old habits of luxurious spending which are so strong a possibility in the other direction. The war has shown us how we can, if we like, increase production, reduce consumption, and so have a larger margin than ever before to be put into providing capital for industry. Whether we really have learned these lessons and will apply them remains to be seen.
There is also a possibility that some people may recognise that saving money and applying it to the re-equipment of the world for peace industry is a patriotically praiseworthy object not less than saving in time of war for the equipment of the Army. It may be that the benefit conferred by those who save, in increasing the output of mankind, will be more generally recognised, and that the supply of capital may, when the war is over, be increased on patriotic grounds, or on grounds even wider than mere patriotism—a desire to help a great stride forward in the material welfare of mankind.
Capital is a very tender plant, and it will be very easy, if mistakes are made, to frighten those who see the benefits of accumulation for themselves and others. Labour troubles and industrial unrest are extremely likely to have the effect of destroying capital by preventing it coming into existence. If we remember that capital can only be created by being saved, it becomes evident that if those who save are threatened with too deep an inroad into their reward for so doing, on the part of labour, they will hesitate to save; and if the action of labour has this effect, labour will be sawing off the bough on which it sits. For it is new capital that sets new industry going, and it is only by a continual supply of new industry that a continual demand for fresh labour can be maintained.
There is also at present much mischievous talk about a great tax on capital for the purpose of redeeming, or hastening the redemption of, war debt. It is clear at once that it is not possible to tax capital if we remember that capital consists of the tools and equipment of industry, or even, in the wider sense of the word, of accumulated assets which have not been consumed. Unless the Government is prepared to take payment in factory chimneys, railway sleepers, houses and fields, or the securities and mortgages that are claims on their product, it is not possible to tax capital. The only thing that the Government can tax is the output, that is to say, the annual income of the people. In other words, a tax on capital is simply a form of income tax assessed, not according to a man's income, but according to the assets of which he is possessed. The effect of such a tax would be that he who has spent everything that he has earned on his own enjoyment would go scot free in the matter of the capital tax, and would be rewarded for his improvidence by being asked to make no sacrifice; while his thrifty brother who, out of a smaller income, has set aside a certain proportion during the last twenty or thirty years, would have to hand over a portion of his current income assessed upon the value of the assets into which he has put his savings. Incidentally, it may be remarked that it would take years to make this necessary valuation, and that it would probably be done in a very inequitable manner by untrained and incompetent officials. But the important point is this, that if the Government shows a tendency to take the possession of assets as a basis for taxation it will be directly encouraging those who spend their whole income in riotous living and frivolous amusement, and discouraging those who help to increase mankind's output by adding to the capital available.
Finally, it may be added that the shyness of the saver will be greatly diminished if he can feel that there is a trustworthy machinery of company promotion, so that he can rely on any savings that he puts into industry having at least a fair chance of yielding him a fair reward. This subject is too vast to enter into at present, but it is one to which those who are responsible for the management of our financial affairs cannot give too much attention. Every time the real investor is swindled out of his money there is more than a chance that he will look upon all forms of saving as a folly to be left to the credulous. It is easy to say that it was his own fault, that he ought to have been more careful, or consulted a better broker; but he will, with equal ease, retort that If honest financiers knew their business better, they would have long ago made things easier for the ignorant investor to know whether he was putting his money into genuine enterprise or throwing it down a sink.
Like all other divagations on the subject of what may happen in the future, this attempt to forecast has necessarily consisted of "dim glimpses into the obvious," as the undergraduate said of Jowett's sermon. All that we can be sure of is this: that if the great opportunities that will lie open to mankind at the end of the war are rightly used, if we use its lessons to increase our production, restrict our frivolous consumption, and put a larger proportion of our larger production into stimulating production still further, there ought to be a great increase in the amount of capital available to supply the great increase which may be expected in the amount of capital demanded. The fact that the chief nations of the world will have enormous debts on which to pay interest is not one that need necessarily terrify us from this point of view. The arranging and imposition of the taxation necessary for meeting the interest on these debts will involve very serious political and social questions; but the payment of this interest need not necessarily diminish production, and it may probably help in checking consumption. It will not impair the total wealth of the world as a whole; it will merely affect its distribution. And since it will mean that a considerable part of the world's output will, for this reason, be handed over to the holders of the various Government debts, who, ex hypothesi, will be people who have saved money in the past, it is at least possible that they may devote a considerable amount of the spin so received to further saving or increasing the supply of capital available.
LONDON'S FINANCIAL POSITION
London after the War—A German View—The Rocks Ahead—Our Relative Position secure—Faulty Finance—The Strength we have shown—The Nature and Limits of American Competition—No other likely Rivals.
Will the prestige of the London money market be maintained when the war is over? This is a question of enormous importance, not only to every one who works in and about the City, but to all who are interested in the maintenance and increase of England's wealth. Like all other questions about what is going to happen some day, the answer to it will depend to a very great extent on what happens between the present moment and the return of peace. To arrive at an answer we have first to consider on what London's financial prestige has been based in the past, and on this subject we are able to cite in evidence the opinion of an enemy. Our own views about the reasons which gave us financial eminence may well be coloured by national and patriotic prejudice, but when we take the opinion of a German we may be pretty sure that it is not warped by any predisposition in favour of English character and achievement.
A little book published this year by Messrs. Macmillan and Co., entitled "England's Financial Supremacy," contains a translation of a series of articles from the Frankfurter Zeitung, and from this witness we are able to get some information which may be valuable, and is certainly interesting.
The basis of England's financial supremacy is recapitulated as follows by this devil's advocate:—
"The influence of history, a mighty empire, a cosmopolitan Stock Exchange, intimate business connections throughout the whole world, cheap money, a free gold market, steady exchanges, an almost unlimited market for capital and an excellent credit system, an elastic system of company legislation, a model Insurance organisation and the help of Germans, these are the factors that have created England's financial supremacy. Perhaps we have omitted one other factor, the errors and omissions of other nations."
Coming closer to detail, our critic says, with regard to the international nature of the business done on the London Stock Exchange:—
"In recent years London had almost lost its place as the busiest stock market in the world. New York, as a rule, Berlin on many occasions, could show more dealings than London. But there was no denying the international character of its business. This was due to England's position of company promoter and money lender to the world; to the way in which new capital was issued there; to its Stock Exchange rules, so independent of legislative and Treasury interference; to the international character of its Stock Exchange members, and to the cosmopolitan character of its clients,"
On the subject of our Insurance business and the fair-mindedness and quickness of settlement with which it was conducted, we can cite the same witness as follows:—
"Insurance, again, represented by the well-known organisation of Lloyds, which in form is something between a stock exchange and a co-operative partnership, is nowhere more elastic and adaptable than in London. It must be said, to the credit of Lloyds, that anyone asking to be insured there was never hindered by bureaucratic restrictions, and always found his wishes met to the furthest possible extent. The agencies of Lloyds abroad are also so arranged that both the insured and the insurer can have their claims settled quickly and equitably."
But one of the most remarkable tributes to a quality with which Englishmen are seldom credited, and one of the frankest confessions of a complete absence of this quality in our German rivals, is contained in the following passage:—
"A further bad habit, harmful to our economic development, is narrow-mindedness. This, too, is very prevalent in Germany—and elsewhere as well. And this is not surprising. Even among the generation which is active to-day, the older members grew up at a time when possibilities of development were restricted and environment was narrow. With commendable foresight many of these older men have freed themselves from this petty spirit, and are second to none in enterprise and energy. Germany can be as proud of its 'captains of industry' as America itself. But many commercial circles in Germany are still unable to free themselves from these shackles. The relations between buyer and seller are still often disturbed by petty quibbling. In those industries where cartels and syndicates have not yet been formed, too great a role is played by dubious practices of many kinds, by infringements of payment stipulations, by unjustifiable deductions, etc., while, on the other hand, the cartels are often too ruthless in their action. In this field we have very much to learn from the English business man. Long commercial tradition and international business experience have taught him long ago that broad-mindedness is the best business principle. Look at the English form of contract, the methods of insurance companies, the settlement of business disputes! You will find no narrow-mindedness there. Tolerance, another quality which the German lacks, has been of great practical advantage to the Englishman. Until recently the City has never resented the settlement of foreigners, who were soon able to win positions of importance there. Can one imagine that in Berlin an Italian or a South American, with very little knowledge of the German language, would be not only entrusted with the management of leading banks and companies, but would be allowed in German clubs to lay down—in their faulty German—the law as to the way in which Germany should be developed? Impossible! Yet this could be seen again and again in England, and the country gained greatly by it. If the English have now developed a hatred of the foreigner, it only means that the end of England's supremacy is all the nearer."
According to our German critic the great fabric that has been built up on these characteristics and qualities is threatened with ruin by the war; and the heritage which we are supposed to be losing is to fall, by some process which is not made very clear, largely into the hands of Berlin. In order that we may not be accused of taking the laudatory plums out of this German pudding and leaving out all criticisms and accusations, let us quote in full the passage in which he dances in anticipation on London's corpse:—
"Let us sum up. England's reputation for honest business dealing and for trustworthy administration has suffered. Her insular inviolability has been put in question. The ravages of war have undermined the achievements of many generations. Her free gold market has broken down. The flow of capital towards London will fall off, for those who cannot borrow there will no longer send deposits. The surplus shown in her balance-sheet will contract. Foreign trade will also decrease. Hand in hand with this fall, free trade, that mighty agent in the development of England's supremacy, will, in all probability, give place to protection. Stock Exchange business will grow less. Rates of interest will be permanently higher."
How much truth is there in all this? Has our reputation for honest dealing and for trustworthy administration suffered? Surely not in the eyes of any reasonable and unprejudiced observer. In the course of the greatest war in history, fought by Germany with weapons which have involved the violation of the most sacred laws of humanity and civilisation, England has acted with a respect for the interests of neutrals which has been severely criticised by impatient observers at home. As for our "insular inviolability" having been put in question, it certainly has not, so far, suffered any serious damage. Our Fleet has defended us from invasion with complete success, and the damage done by marine and aerial raiders to our property on shore is negligible. Our free gold market is said to have broken down. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Germany, when the war began, immediately relieved the Reichsbank from any obligation of meeting its notes in gold, and frankly went on to a paper basis. England has already shipped well over 200 millions in gold to America to finance her purchases there and those of her Allies.
It may be true that capital will not flow to London if London is not in a position to lend, but we see no reason why London should not be able to resume her position as an international money lender, not perhaps immediately on the declaration of peace, but as soon as the aftermath of war has been cleared away and the first few months of difficulty and danger have been passed. The prophecy that foreign trade will decrease may also be true for a time owing to the destruction of merchant shipping that the war is causing. This possibility, however, may be remedied between now and the end of the war if the great programmes of merchant shipbuilding which have been undertaken by the British and American Governments are duly carried out. In any case, even if foreign trade decreases, there is no reason whatever to expect that England's will decrease faster than that of other nations.
In all these problems we have to look for the relative answer and to consider not whether England has suffered by the war, for it is most obvious that she has, but whether she will have been found to have suffered more than any competitor who may threaten her after-war position.
"Free trade," says our German Jeremiah, "that mighty agent in the development of England's supremacy, will, in all probability, give place to protection." We venture to think that it will be recognised that the Free Trade policy of the past gave us a well-distributed wealth which was an invaluable weapon in time of war, and that any attempt to impose import duties when peace comes will be admitted, even by the most ardent Tariff Reformers, as untimely when there is likely to be a world-wide scramble for food and raw materials, and the one object of every nation will be to get them wherever they can and as cheaply as they can.
If Stock Exchange business will be less, though this does not by any means follow, there is no reason why it should be relatively less here than in other centres. As to rates of interest being permanently higher, the same answer applies. It may be true, but there is no reason why they should be relatively higher in London than elsewhere; and, if they are high, it will be because there will be a great demand for capital, which will mean a great trade expansion; both in the provision of capital and in meeting the demands of trade expansion England will be doing what she has done with marked success in the past and can, if she works in the right way now and after the war, do again with equal and still greater success.
There is, however, a danger that threatens our financial position after the war, on the subject of which our German critic is discreetly silent, because that danger threatens the position of Germany very much more emphatically. It consists in the way in which our Government is at present meeting the needs of war finance, not by compelling economy on the civilian population through taxation and borrowing direct from investors, but by manufacturing currency for the purposes of the war by means of the printing press and the banking machinery. The effect of this policy is seen in the enormous mass of Treasury notes with which the country has been flooded. Their total is now nearly 180 millions or perhaps 100 millions more than the gold which they were originally designed to replace.
It is also to be seen in the great increase in banking deposits which has been a feature of our financial history since the war began. Some people regard this feature as a phenomenal proof of the growth of our wealth during the war. I am afraid there is little foundation for this pleasant assumption, for these new deposits have been called into being by the banks subscribing to Government securities, whether War Loan, Treasury Bills, Exchequer Bonds or Ways and Means advances or lending their customers the wherewithal to do so. By this process the balance-sheets of the banks are swollen on both sides, by the Government securities and advances to customers among the assets, against which the banks create new deposits, so giving the community as a whole the right to draw more cheques.
Every time the bank makes an advance it gives the borrower a credit in its books, that is to say, the right to draw cheques to that amount; the borrower draws on the credit and hands it to any one to whom he owes money; but as long as the advance is outstanding there will be a deposit out against it in the books of some bank or another.
It is an easy way for the Government to finance the war by getting the banks to manufacture money for it. Nobody feels any poorer for the process, in fact, those who have new money in their pockets or in their bank balance feel richer, but the result of thus multiplying currency without any increase in the supply of goods and services to be bought inevitably helps the rise in prices which makes the war costly, puts the burden of it on to the wrong shoulders, and likewise cheapens the value of the English pound as measured in other currencies. This is why the evils involved by this process become so relevant to the question now at issue.
If the Government is allowed to go on financing the war by increasing the currency with the very reluctant help of the bankers, the difficulties of maintaining our gold standard and keeping the exchanges in favour of London will be very greatly magnified when the war is over and our gold reserves are no longer protected by the submarines and the high cost of shipping gold that they produce. It therefore follows that all who have the true interests of the City at heart should use all the influence they can to force the Government to adopt a sounder financial policy before it is too late.
It is true that our war finance has hitherto been sounder than that of any other warring Power, but it has fallen very short if we apply the rough test of the proportion of the cost of war borne out of taxation and compare our performance with the results achieved by our ancestors in the Napoleonic and Crimean wars.
If we have done better than France, Italy, Russia and Germany in this respect, it must also be remembered that the financial prestige which these countries had to maintain was not nearly so great and well established as ours, with the possible exception of France; and France, being exposed to the ravages of a ruthless invader, was in a position which put special obstacles in the way of the canons of sound finance.
If, then, there are certain dangers that threaten our financial position when the war is over, we must remember, on the other hand, that the war has already done a great deal to maintain our financial prestige and raise it to a height at which it never stood before.
When the war began we were expected to finance the Allies, to keep the seas clear and put a small Expeditionary Force to support the left flank of the French Army, and to do these things during a contest which was expected by the consensus of expert opinion to last not more than a few months. All these things we accomplished, and we were the only Power at war which did actually accomplish all that it was expected and asked to do. More than that, we also undertook a great task which was not in our programme; we created a great army on a Continental scale, and, at the same time, continued to carry out the other tasks which had been assigned to us.
All these things we did, and that we should have done them was evidence of economic strength and adaptability which have astonished the world. To have financed the Allies and ourselves as long as we did would have been comparatively easy if our population could have been left at work to turn out the stuff and services, the provision of which are implied by financing; but for us to have been able to do it and at the same time to improvise an army which is now consistently and regularly beating the Germans is an achievement which will inevitably raise the world's opinion of our economic strength, on which financial prestige is ultimately based.
But, as it has been said, in discussing this question we have to look at it all the time from the relative point of view. How will our prestige be when the war is over, not as compared with what it was before the war, but as compared with what any other rival in any other part of the world can show? Here we have to acknowledge at once, freely and frankly, that, as compared with New York, we shall have gone backward.
America will have been enormously enriched by the war, which we shall certainly have not. America will have been opening up channels of international trade and international finance, and so New York will have been gaining at the expense of London. It is certain that when the war is over America's dependence upon London for credits against the shipments of goods to and from her shores will have been very greatly lessened, if not altogether a thing of the past.
This change would have happened any way, war or no war, but it has been greatly quickened by the war. Before the war America was already making arrangements, under her new banking system, to promote the machinery for acceptance and discount, in order that goods sent to her from foreign countries should be financed by bills drawn on American banks and houses in dollars instead of on English banks and houses in sterling.
Apart from this development, which would have happened in any case, it remains to be seen how far New York will be in a position to act as a rival of London as the world's financial centre. The internal resources and potentialities of America are so enormous, and there is such a vast amount of work to be done in developing them and bringing them to full fruition, that it does not at all follow that America will yet be inclined to take the position in international trade and finance which will one day surely be hers, when she has done all the work that is waiting to be done in her own back premises.
America has a new banking and monetary system on trial which has met the difficult problems of the war with great success. These problems, however, are not nearly as complicated and various as those which are likely to arise in time of peace. When a nation is turning out an enormous amount of goods for which the rest of the world is prepared to pay any price, her finance is a comparatively simple business. Even now, when America has assumed the duty of financing a large number of Allies impoverished by three years of war which have been enriching her, she is still simplifying the problem by restricting her advances to the payment for goods bought in America.
That New York will be greatly strengthened by the war, which has brought masses of American securities back to the country of origin and has put into the hands of American bankers and investors large blocks of European promises to pay, is as clear as noonday; but whether when the war is over New York will care to be bothered much with problems of international finance remains to be seen. In the first place, the claims of her own country upon her financial resources will be insatiable and imperative, In the second place, the business of international finance is carried out on very finely cut terms; and the Americans being accustomed to the fat rates of profit which business at home has given them may not care to devote much attention to the international market, in which the risks are big, the turnover is enormous and the profits very finely cut. It has been remarked by a shrewd observer that the Americans will never do business for a thirty-second.
In the third place, it must be remembered that the geographical position of London is more favourable than that of New York as a world centre, as the world is at present constituted. England, anchored off the coast of Europe, is clearly marked as the depot for the entrepot trade of the Old and New Worlds. New York is clearly marked as the centre for the trade of the Western hemisphere, and it is likely enough that New York and London, acting together as the financial chiefs of the two hemispheres, may be gradually united into what is practically one market by the growing ties of mutual interest.
With regard to the position of other possible rivals to London's position, it need only be said that they have certainly been weakened much more rapidly than has London during the course of the war. Paris, threatened by the near approach of an invading foe, has inevitably suffered much more severely than London, and is likely to take longer in recovering the great position as a provider of capital which was given to her by the thrift of the average French citizen. Every one expects with confidence to see, when the war is over, a miraculous recovery in France produced by the same spirit which worked miracles after the war of 1871, aided and abetted by the subsequent improvement in man's control over the forces of nature, and also by the deep and world-wide sympathy which all will feel for France as the champion of freedom who has suffered most severely in its cause during the war. But it is impossible to expect, after what France has suffered, that she will be, for some time, in a position seriously to challenge London as a financial rival. All Englishmen will hope that the day when she will be in a position to challenge us again will come quickly.
As to Berlin, the only other possible rival to London in Europe, very little need be said. The German authority quoted above has already shown some of the difficulties with which Berlin has to struggle. He spoke of the narrow-mindedness of German finance, of the "petty quibbling" which often disturbs the relations between buyer and seller, of the "dubious practices of many kinds, infringements of payment stipulations, unjustifiable deductions," etc., and the "ruthless" action of the cartels. He acknowledges that though Germany had a gold standard "too much anxiety used to be shown when the gold export point was reached," and that "it was also feared that to export gold would incur the wrath of the Reichsbank."
With these disadvantages to struggle against, quoted from the mouth of a German observer, Germany has also succeeded by her ruthless policy during the war in earning the deep hostility of the greater part of mankind. Sentiment probably enters into business relations a good deal more than most business men admit, and for any country to set out to gain the leadership in trade and finance by outraging the feelings of most of its possible customers is an extraordinary piece of stupidity.
It seems, then, that apart from the relative weakening of London as compared with New York, there is very little need for us to fear any serious change in England's financial position after the war as long as the Government's faulty finance is not allowed too seriously to endanger the position of our gold standard. It is true that we shall not benefit, as much as we undoubtedly have in the past, from the "help of Germans" in developing our finance. But indirectly the Germans will still be helping us by the great stimulus that the war will have given us towards efficiency and hard work.
What we have to do in order to secure London's position after the war is to restore as soon as we can the system that had established it in the century before the war. We have to show the world that, far from any intention to abandon Free Trade, we mean to take a long step forward along the line of international activity which has been the source of our greatness in the past. We want, as soon as possible, to get back that freedom from Government control which has given us such elasticity and adaptability to our money market, our Stock Exchange and our Insurance business. A certain amount of Government control will inevitably have to continue for a time after the war, but the sooner we rid ourselves of it the sooner we shall restore to the London money market those qualities which, after the reputation that it has for honesty, soundness and straight dealing, were most helpful in building up its eminence.
Above all, we have to work hard both in finance and industry and commerce. Finance, which is the machinery for handling claims for goods and services, can only be active and effective if industry and commerce are active and effective behind it, turning out the goods and services to meet the claims that finance creates. A great industrial and commercial output, with severe restriction of unnecessary consumption so that a great margin may go into capital equipment, will soon repair the ravages of war, bring down the price of credit and of capital and make London once more the place in which these things are most cheaply and freely to be bought.
Finally, if we want to restore London as a place in which all the financial transactions of the world were centred, we must remember that we cannot do so if we restrict the facilities given to foreigners to come here and settle and do business. It is not possible to be an international centre with an insular sentiment.
WAR FINANCE AS IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN—I
Financial Conditions in August, 1914—No Scheme prepared to meet the Possibility of War—A Short Struggle expected—The Importance of Finance as a Weapon—Labour's Example—The Economic Problem of War—The Advantages of Direct Taxation—The Government follows the Path of Least Resistance—The Effect of Currency Inflation.
A legend current in the City says that the Imperial War Committee, or whatever was the august body entrusted with the task of thinking out war problems beforehand, had done its work with regard to the Army and Navy, transport and provision, and everything else that we should want for the war, and were going on to the question of finance next week, when the war intervened. Whatever may be the truth of this story, the events of the war confirm the opinion that if it was not true it ought to have been. We are continually accused of not having been ready for the war; but, in fact, we were quite ready to do everything that we had promised to do with regard to military and naval operations. Our Navy was ready in its place in the fighting line, and the dispatch with which our Expeditionary Force was collected from all parts of the kingdom, and shipped across to France, was a miracle of efficiency and practical organisation. It is true that we had not got an Army on a Continental scale, but it was no part of our contract that we should have one. The fighting on land was in those days expected to be done by our Allies, assisted by a small British force on the left flank of the French Army. That British force was duly there, and circumstances which were quite unforeseen made it necessary for us to undertake a task which was no part of our original programme and create an Army on a Continental scale, in addition to doing everything that we had promised beforehand to a much greater extent than was in the bargain.
But in finance there was no evidence that any thought-out policy had been arrived at in order to make the best possible use of the nation's economic resources for the war when it came. The acute crisis in the City which occurred in August, 1914, was a minor matter which hardly affected the subsequent history of our war finance except by giving dangerous evidence of the ease by which financial problems can be apparently surmounted by the simple method of creating banking credits. That crisis merely arose from the fact that we were so strong financially, and had so great a hold upon the finance of other countries in the world, that when we decided, owing to stress of war, to leave off lending to foreigners and to call in loans that we had made by way of accepting and bill-discounting arrangements, the whole machinery of exchange broke down because from all over the world the market in exchange went one way. Everybody wanted to buy bills on London, and there were no bills to be had.
There was also the internal problem which arose because some of the public and some of the banks took to the evil practice of hoarding gold just at the wrong moment, and consequently there was no available supply of legal tender currency except in the shape of Bank of England notes, the smallest denomination of which is L5. It is known that our bankers had long before pointed out to the Treasury that if ever a banking crisis arose there would, or might be, this demand for a paper currency of smaller denominations than L5; this suggestion got into a pigeon-hole at the Treasury and was deep under the dust of Whitehall by the time experience proved how big a gap in our financial armour had been made by its neglect. If the L1 notes, with which we are now so familiar, had been ready when the war broke out, or, still better, if the Bank of England had been empowered and instructed to have an issue of its own L1 notes ready, it may at least be contended that the moratorium, which was so bad a financial beginning of the war, might have been avoided.
But this opening crisis was a short-lived matter, and was promptly dealt with, thanks to the energy and courage of Mr Lloyd George, who was then Chancellor of the Exchequer, and saw that things had to be done quickly, and took the advice of the City as to what had to be done. The measures then employed erred, if at all, on the side of doing too much, which was certainly a mistake in the right direction if in any. What is much more evident is the fact that not only had there been no attempt to provide against just such a jolt to our financial machine as took place when the war began, but that, quite apart from the financial machinery of the City, no reasoned and thought-out attention had been given to the great problems of governmental finance which war on such a scale brought with it. There is, of course, the excuse that nobody expected the war to be on this scale, or to last so long. The general view was that the struggle would be over in a few months, and must certainly be so if for no other reason because the economic strain would be so great that the nations of Europe could not stand it for a long time. On the other hand, we must remember that Lord Kitchener, whom most men then regarded as representing all that was most trustworthy in military opinion, made arrangements from the beginning on the assumption that the war might last for three years. So, while some excuse may be made for our lack of financial foresight, it does seem to have been the duty of those whose business it is to manage our finances to have thought out a complete scheme to be adopted in case of war if at any time we should be involved in one on a European scale. Instead of which, not only would it appear that no such endeavour had been made by our Treasury experts before the war, but that no such endeavour has ever been made by them since the war began. All through the war's history many of the country's mistakes have been based on the encouraging conviction that the war would be over in the next six months. This conviction is still cherished to this day, and there can be no doubt that if those who cherish it hold on to it long enough they will come right some day.
But if delusions of this kind may be fairly excused in the man in the street, they do not seem to be any excuse for those who are responsible for our finance for their total lack of a thought-out scheme at the beginning of the war, and their total failure to produce one as the war went on. We have financed the war by haphazard methods, limping along the line of least resistance. We are continuing to do so, and we may do so to the end, though there are now growing signs of an impatience both among the property-owning classes and others of the system by which we are financing the war by piling up debt and manufacturing banking credits.
The objections to the policy on the part of the "haves" and the "have nots" are, of course, different, but as they both converge to the same point, namely, to the reform of our system of war finance, it is possible that they may in time have the effect of shaking even the confidence of our politicians and officials in the haphazard and slipshod methods which would long ago have produced financial disaster if it had not been for the great financial strength of the country.
Finance is an enormously important weapon in the hands of our rulers for gliding the economic activities of the people. This is so even in peace time to a certain extent, though the revenue then collected is so small an item in the total national income that it counts for much less than in war, when the power that the Government can wield by its policy in taxation and borrowing might have been all-powerful in keeping the nation on the right lines in the matter of spending and keeping down the cost of the war, and in maintaining our financial staying power to a far greater extent than has actually been done.
It is easy, as they say on the Stock Exchange, to job backwards, and it is also easy, and perhaps rather unprofitable, to hazard opinions about what would have happened if things had been otherwise. Nevertheless, when we look back on the spirit of the country as it was in those early days of the war, when the violation of Belgium had sent a chivalrous thrill through the hearts of all classes in the country, when we all recognised that we were faced with the greatest crisis in our history, that our country and the future of civilisation were about to be tested by the severest strain ever applied to them, that the life and fortune of the individual did not count, but that the war and victory were the only interests that any one had a right to consider—when one remembers all these things, and the use that a wise financial policy might have made of them, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the history of the war in this country and its social and political effects might have been something much finer, much cleaner and more noble if only the weapons of finance had been more boldly and wisely used. It is not a good thing to indulge in high-falutin' on this subject. It is absurd to suppose that the war suddenly turned us all into plaster saints at the beginning, and that we might have continued so to the end if the State had dealt with our money in a proper way. But without setting up any such idealistic arguments as these, looking back on those early days of the war, one can still remember the thrill of earnestness and of eagerness for self-sacrifice which has since then given way lamentably to war profiteering, war strikes, and a general struggle among many classes of the community to make as much as possible out of the war, merely because our financial leaders have never really put the country's financial problem properly before the country.
We were not plaster saints, but we were either Idealistic and perhaps foolish people who attached great importance to the freedom and security of small nations and all those items in the programme of idealistic Radicalism, or else we were good, red-hot, true-blue Jingoes with a hearty hatred for Germany, and enjoyed the thought that the big fight which we had long foreseen between the two countries was at last going to be fought out. Or, again, we were just commonplace people who did not much believe in idealistic Radicalism or anti-German bitterness, but saw that the whole future of our country was at stake, and were prepared to do anything for it. A fine example was set us in those days by the Trade Union leaders. The industrial world was seething with discontent. The Suffragettes in London and the Carsonites in Ireland had shown us how much could be done by appeals to physical force in a lazy-minded community; and hints of industrial revolution, with great organised strikes, which were going to tie up the transport industry of the country were in the air. And then, when the war came, the Labour leaders said, "No strikes until the war is over. Our country comes first."
This was the lead given to the country by those down at the bottom, who had the least to lose, and whose patriotism during the course of the war has frequently been questioned. At the top the financial and property-owning classes, having been saved by Mr Lloyd George's able adroitness from a bad crisis in the City, were entirely tame, and would have suffered anything in the way of taxation or financial conscription if the need for it had been properly put before them.
It is almost amusing to remember now that in those early days of the war the shareholders in Home Railway companies were thought lucky. The Government were taking the railways over, and were guaranteeing that their proprietors should receive the same dividends as they had had before the war. Such was the view in financial and property-owning circles of results of war that, so far from any expectation of the huge profits which war has put into the pockets of certain classes, they were only too thankful if they could be assured that their gross incomes were not going to be reduced.
Such was the spirit with which the Government of that day had to deal. A spirit in all classes earnestly patriotic, and so thoroughly frightened of the economic consequences of the war that it would have been ready to face any sacrifices that the Government had asked of it. How, then, would the Government have dealt with this spirit if it had taken the trouble really to think out the problem of war finance on a long view instead of proceeding along a haphazard line, adjusting peace methods to war without any consideration as to their adequacy? If the problem had been really thought out beforehand the Government must have seen clearly that the real economic problem in war-time is not merely a question of raising money, since that can at any time be done easily by means of a printing-press, but of diverting the industrial energy of the nation from peace to war purposes, that is to say, transferring from the enjoyment of the individual citizen the goods and services that used to contribute to his comfort and amusement, and turning them over to the provision of the things needed for the war. War's needs can only be met out of the current production of the world as it is at present. All the warring powers begin a war with certain accumulated war stores consisting of battleships, ammunition, guns and all other forms of war material. Apart from these stores with which they begin, the whole work of providing the armies with the fighting materials that they require, and the food and clothes that they consume, has to be done during the course of the war, that is to say, out of the current production of the moment.
Therefore the real economic problem that any Government has to face in war-time is that of inducing its citizens to reduce their purchase of goods and services, that is to say, to spend less, so that all the things required for the Army and Navy may be obtained by the Government. It is true that some of the goods and services required for carrying on war can be obtained from foreign countries by any belligerent which is able to communicate with them freely. In that case the current production of the foreigner can be called in to help. But this can only be done if the warring country is able to ship goods to the foreigner in payment for what it buys, or if it is able to obtain a loan from the foreigner, or some other foreign country, in order to pay for its purchases abroad, or again, if, as in our case, it holds a large accumulation of securities which foreign countries are prepared to take in exchange for goods that they send for the purposes of the war. By these two last-named processes, raising money abroad, and selling securities to foreign nations, the warring country impoverishes itself for the future. When it borrows abroad it pledges itself to export goods and services in future to meet interest and sinking fund on the money so raised, so getting no goods and services in return. When it ships its accumulated wealth in the form of securities it gives up for the future any claim to goods and services from the debtor country which used to come to it to meet interest and redemption. It is only by shipping goods in return for goods imported for the war that a country can keep its financial staying-power on an even keel.
Thus the problem which a statesman who had thought out the economics of war beforehand would have recognised as the keystone of his policy, would have been that of diverting the activities of the country from providing itself with comforts and amusements to turning out goods required for war, and of doing so with the least possible friction, the least possible alteration in the economic equilibrium of the country, and, above all, with the least possible cost to the national finances. We arrive at the true aspect of this problem more easily if we leave out the question of money altogether and think of it in units of energy. When a nation goes to war it means to say that it has to apply so many units of energy to the business of fighting, and to provide the fighters with all that they need. If at the beginning of the war its utmost capacity of output was, to mention merely a fanciful figure, a thousand million units of energy, and if it was clear that the fighting forces of the country would need for their proper maintenance five hundred million units of energy, then it is clear that the nation's ordinary consumption of goods and services would have to be reduced to the extent of five hundred millions of units of energy, which would have to be applied to the war, that is, assuming that its possible output remained the same.
In other words, the spending power of the citizens of the country had to be reduced so that the industrial energy that used to go into meeting their wants might be made available for the purposes of fighting forces. Now what was the straightest, simplest and cleanest way of bringing about this reduction in buying power on the part of the ordinary citizen which has been shown to be necessary for the purposes of war finance? Clearly the best way of doing it is by taxation equitably imposed. When the State taxes, it says in effect to the citizens, "Your country needs certain goods and services, you therefore will have to go without those goods and services, and the simplest way to make you do this is to take away your money and so ration your buying power. Whatever is needed for the Army and Navy will be taken away from you by taxation, and the result of this will be that, instead of your indulging in comforts and luxuries, to the extent of the war's needs the Government will use your money for paying for what is needed for the Army and Navy."
If such a policy had been carried out the cost of the war to the community would have been enormously cheapened. There need have been no general rise in prices because there would have been no increase in demand for goods and services. Anything that the Government spent would have been counter-balanced by decreased spending by the individual; any work that the Government needed for the war would have been counter-balanced by a reduction in demand for work on the part of individual citizens. There would have been no multiplication of currency owing to enormous credits raised by the Government; there would have been merely a transfer of buying power from individuals to the State. The process would have been gradual, there need have been no acute dislocation, but as the cost of the war increased, that is to say, as the Government needed more and more goods and services for its prosecution, the community would gradually have shed one after another the extravagances on which it spent so many hundreds of millions in days before the war. As it shed these extravagances the labour and energy needed to produce them would have been automatically transferred to the service of the war, or to the production of necessaries of life. By this simple process of monetary rationing all the frantic appeals for economy, and most of the complicated, tangled problems raised by such matters as Food Control or National Service would have been avoided.
But, it may be contended, this is setting up an ideal so absurdly too high that you cannot expect any modern nation to rise up to it. Perhaps this is true, though I am not at all sure that if we had had a really bold and far-sighted Finance Minister at the beginning of the war he might not have persuaded the nation to tackle its war problem on this exalted line. At least it can be claimed that our financial rulers might have looked into the history of the matter and seen what our ancestors had done in big wars in this matter of paying for war costs out of taxation, with the determination to do at least as well as they did, and perhaps rather better, owing to the overwhelming scale of modern financial problems. If they had done so they would have found that both in the Napoleonic and the Crimean wars we paid for nearly half the cost of the war out of revenue as they went on, whereas in the present war the proportion that we are paying by taxation, instead of being 47 per cent., as it was when our sturdy ancestors fought against Napoleon, is less than 20 per cent. Why has this been so? Partly, no doubt, owing to the slackness and cowardice of our politicians, and the apathy of the overworked officials, who have been too busy with the details of finance to think the problem out on a large scale. But it is chiefly, I think, because our system of taxation, though probably the best in the world, involves so many inequities that it cannot be applied on a really large scale without producing a discontent which might have had serious consequences on our conduct of the war.
[Footnote 1: See Economist, August 4, 1917, p. 151.]
It is not possible nowadays, now that the working classes are conscious of their strength, to apply taxation to ordinary articles of general consumption with anything like the ruthlessness which in former days produced such widespread misery. Indirect taxation of this kind carries with it this inherent weakness that its burden falls most heavily on those who are least able to bear it, consequently it is bound to break in the hand of those who attempt to apply it with anything like vigour to a community which is prepared to stand up for fair treatment. A tax on bread or salt obviously hits the wage-earner at 30s. a week infinitely harder than it hits the millionaire, and so the country would not tolerate taxes on bread or salt. Direct taxes, such as Income Tax and Death Duties, have this enormous advantage, that they can really be regulated so as to press with continually increasing severity upon those who are best able to bear them. Unfortunately our Income Tax is still so unjustly imposed that it was clearly impossible to make full use of it without its being first reformed. That two men, each earning L1000 a year, should pay the same Income Tax, in spite of one having a wife and five children, while the other is a careless bachelor, is such a blot upon this otherwise excellent tax that it is generally agreed that the present rate of 5s. is as high as it can be made to go unless some reform is introduced into its incidence. The need for its reform is made the excuse for a sparing use of the tax, and we have been on several occasions assured that, as soon as the war is over, this reform will be set about.
In the meantime the Government falls back on funding about 80 per cent. of its requirements of the war on a system of borrowing. In so far as the money subscribed to its loans is money that is being genuinely saved by investors this process has exactly the same effect as taxation, that is to say, somebody goes without goods and services and hands over his power to buy them to the State to be used for the war. Borrowing of this kind consequently does everything that is needed for the solution of the immediate war problem, and the only objection to it is that it leaves later on the difficulties involved by raising taxes when the war is over, and economic problems are much more complicated in times of peace than in war, for meeting the interest and redemption of debt. But, in fact, it is well known that by no means all that the Government has borrowed for war purposes has been provided in this way. Much of the money that the Government has obtained for war purposes has been got not out of genuine savings of investors, but by arrangements of various kinds with the banking machinery of the country, or by the simple use of the printing-press, with the result that the Government has provided itself with an enormous mass of new currency which has not been taken out of anybody else's pocket, but has been manufactured by or for the Government.
The consequence of the profligate use of this dishonest process is that general rise in prices, which is in effect an indirect tax on the necessaries of life, involving all the injustice and ill-feeling which arises from such a measure. It is inevitable that the working classes, finding themselves subjected to a rise in prices, the cause of which they do not understand, but the result of which they see to be a great decrease in the buying power of their wages, should believe that they are being exploited by profiteers, that the rich classes are growing richer at their expense out of the war, and that they and the country are being bled by a set of unpatriotic capitalist blood-suckers. It is also natural that the property-owning classes, who find themselves paying an Income Tax which they regard as extortionate, should consider that the working classes by their continuous demands for higher wages to meet higher cost of living, are trying to exploit the country in their own interests in a time of national crisis, and displaying a most unedifying spirit. The social result of this evil policy of inflation, in embittering class against class, is a matter which it is difficult to exaggerate. Some people think that it was inevitable. This is too wide a question to be entered into now, but at least it must be contended that if it is inevitable the extent to which it is being practised might have been very greatly diminished.
Do we mean to go on to the end of the war with this muddling policy of bad finance? If we still insist on believing that the war cannot last another six months, and there is therefore no need to pull ourselves up short financially and put things in order, then we certainly shall do so. But we should surely recognise that there is at least a chance that the war may go on for years, that if so our present financial methods will leave us with a burden of debt which is appalling to consider, and that in any case, whether the war lasts another six months or another six years, a reform of our financial methods is long overdue, is inevitable some time, and will pay us better the sooner it is set about.
WAR FINANCE AS IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN—II
The Changed Spirit of the Country—A Great Opportunity thrown away—What Taxation might have done—The Perils of Inflation—Drifting stupidly along the Line of Least Resistance—It is we who pay, not "Posterity."
In the November number of Sperling's Journal I dealt with the question of how our war finance might have been improved if a longer view had been taken from the beginning concerning the length of the war and the measures that would be necessary for raising the money. The subject was too big to be fully covered in the course of one article, and I have been given this opportunity of continuing its examination. Before doing so I wish to remind my readers once more of the great difference in the spirit of the country with regard to financial self-sacrifice in the early days of the war and at the present time, after three years of high profits, public and private extravagance, and successful demands for higher wages have demoralised the public temper into a belief that war is a time for making big profits and earning big wages at the expense of the community. In the early days the spirit of the country was very different, and it might have remained so if it had been trained by the use made of public finance along the right line. In the early days the Labour leaders announced that there were to be no strikes during the war, and the property-owning classes, with their hearts full of gratitude for the promptitude with which Mr Lloyd George had met the early war crisis, were ready to do anything that the country asked from them in the matter of monetary sacrifice. Mr Asquith's grandiloquent phrase, "No price is too high when Honour is at stake," might then have been taken literally by all classes of the community as a call to them to do their financial duty. Now it has been largely translated into a belief that no price is too high to exact from the Government by those who have goods to sell to it, or work to place at its disposal. In considering what might have been in matters of finance we have to be very careful to remember this evil change which has taken place in the public spirit owing to the short-sighted financial measures which have been taken by our rulers.
Thus, when we consider how our war finance might have been improved, we imply all along that the improvements suggested should have been begun when the war was in its early stages, and when public opinion was still ready to do its duty in finance. The conclusion at which we arrived a month ago was that by taxation rather than by borrowing and inflation much more satisfactory results could have been got out of the country. If, instead of manufacturing currency for the prosecution of the war, the Government had taken money from the citizens either by taxation or by loans raised exclusively out of real savings, the rise in prices which has made the war so terribly costly, and has raised so great a danger through the unrest and dissatisfaction of the working classes, might have been to a great extent avoided, and the higher the rate of taxation had been, and the less the amount provided by loans, the less would have been the seriousness of the problem that now awaits us when the war is over and we have to face the question of the redemption of the debt.