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The following is collection of short articles on the history of money

"Monetary Episodes From History"

Author : Paul Tustain 

    Article Table of Contents:

  • The monetary cycle

  • Ionia - Riches without strength [700BC]
  • Sparta - Gold prohibition in a collapsing economy [600BC]
  • The Carthaginian national state lottery [450BC]
  • Byzantium - Early fiscal indiscipline [410BC]
  • Athens - Housing the Gods (on borrowed money) [500 - 300BC]
  • Rome - Monetary expansion & republican militarism [200BC]
  • Chinese credit derivatives after Genghis Khan [1200AD]
  • John Law - The Royal Bank of France [1716AD]
  • Why Sweden’s central banker was beheaded [1719AD]
  • The US greenback [1870AD]
  • The Weimar inflation in Germany [1923AD]
  • What can we learn ?
  • Gold at the junction of monetary systems
  • Gold as a money of choice 
  • Back to previous page

    John Law's Royal Bank of France - 1716

    John Law was a Scot.  He was born in Edinburgh in 1671, the son of a successful banker and goldsmith.  At 14 he was apprenticed into these trades, and he re-emerged at 17 just in time to inherit from his father, who died that same year.  He was by then already known for his rare mathematical talents, and for his popularity with the ladies.

    Enriched by the family estate he set off for London where he added gambling to his abilities.  He won regularly, and earned that mixture of respect and jealousy which

    follows a man who succeeds in both the card room and the bedroom.

    Unfortunately his winnings in the bedroom carried unsuspected hidden risks.  London was in those days a place where a lady’s virtue was worth dying for (this was very long ago) and when Law was challenged to a duel he accepted and, not unreasonably, shot his challenger dead.

    Originally sentenced to hang it is generally accepted that he was given a little friendly assistance in escaping during the appeals process, and because London had become a dangerous place for him he set off for Europe.

    Getting the top job

    For some years he made his living off his wits.  He was a high-roller, and this way of life brought him into regular contact with the Duc d’Orleans.  Yet surprisingly for a gambler there were, even then, early signs of Law believing in his own higher purpose. He had without much notice already published serious pieces on economics, and had been very interested in the financing of trade which he had learned all about in Amsterdam.  So the society of the Duc, who was far more influential than Law though certainly not as clever, soon had Law expounding his views on economic management.

    History, meanwhile, was doing its normal thing with a great king.  Louis 14th was dying, and having been widely celebrated and honored throughout his life he was soon to be remembered with some bitterness for the size of the national debt he had left to his heir.  Young Louis XV was only seven, and it was the Duc d'Orleans who was appointed Regent.  His immediate problem was the 3 billion livres borrowed by the dead king.

    Devaluation quickly followed.  The government debased its coinage by 20%, which served no particular purpose other than to drive the old coins out of circulation.  Then the state decided to offer rewards to informants against hoarders.  The guilty were packed into the Bastille.

    As things deteriorated Law arrived on the Duc's doorstep in Paris.  His plan was simple.  He would be granted a bank, the management of the royal revenues, and the right to

    issue paper money.  The paper would be secured on a combination of the royal revenues and on its land – an idea he had proposed in his earnest papers many years earlier.

    The Royal Bank of France

    On the 5th of May, 1716 Law’s bank was created.  Its notes would thereafter be used in payment of taxes.  Its capital was purchased 25% in coin and 75% in oversupplied state bills at face value (at that time trading at a heavy discount).  Then by guaranteeing his paper money not with just any coin, but with the coin in issue at the time of a note's creation he quickly found his paper was preferred over the doubtful coinage, which had only recently been debased once and was expected to be debased further.  Through this impressive manoeuvre he collected most of the country’s stock of precious metal.  By the end of the year his bank notes were worth 15% more than equivalent coinage while the state’s debts were trading nearly 80% below nominal.

    He hadn’t finished.  His next plan was to leverage the optimism of France’s possessions in North America.  He persuaded the Duc to grant him an outright monopoly on France’s Mississippi trade.  Having got control of the coinage, paper money and tax collection, he now also had exclusive power over France’s great hope – trade with the New World.  He raised the capital in typical style selling the stock for a fantastic price payable in those deeply discounted state bills which no-one could wait to get rid of.

    “It was now that the frenzy of speculating began to seize upon the nation. Law's bank had effected so much good, that any promises for the future which he thought proper to make were readily believed. The Regent every day conferred new privileges upon the fortunate projector. The bank obtained the monopoly of the sale of tobacco; the sole right of refinage of gold and silver, and was finally erected into the Royal Bank of France. Amid the intoxication of success, both Law and the Regent forgot the maxim so loudly proclaimed by the former, that a banker deserved death who made issues of paper without the necessary funds to provide for them. As soon as the bank, from a private, became a public institution, the Regent caused a fabrication of notes to the amount of one thousand millions of livres. This was the first departure from sound principles, and one for which Law is not justly blameable.”  Charles Mackay – 1841.

    Before long the monopoly rights to trade with the east were also granted to the company, and in a succession of stock issues – each at higher prices than the previous one – a willing public fought for the right to surrender its increasingly valueless state bills for Law’s bank notes and the mushrooming Mississippi scrip.

    The beast had developed a momentum all its own.  Paris was booming. Luxury goods were sold out as soon as they went in the shops.  Gardens near Law’s bank had turned into a tented city which acted as an impromptu stock exchange.  Real estate values and rents soared, while the stock just rose and rose until even the speculators’ own coachmen became magnates and employed their erstwhile contemporaries.

    The Duc could only conclude that what was clearly so healthy in that particular quantity could hardly fail to be twice as healthy given twice as much.  And what with the extra trade and the sheer difficulty of supplying sufficient cash to keep pace with the frenzied exchange of company stock he took to arranging further issues of bank paper over the head of Law, who probably knew better, but may have suspended rigorous banking discipline under the widespread acclaim of his financial ingenuity.  Besides, blocking it would certainly have annoyed his boss.

    It was at about this time, as Paris fawned and worshipped, that the Prince de Conti arrived intending to buy as much corporate stock as he could lay his hands on.  He was outraged at being denied his full allocation, and as a result sent three wagons to Law’s bank to demand the immediate settlement – in coin – of his entire stock of Law’s paper.

    The Prince was paid, but was also instructed at risk of the extreme displeasure of the Duc – an unwise thing to provoke – to return two of the wagons immediately.  He complied.  But it was enough to make the smarter operators see the light.

    At first with small beginnings the professionals started to cash in their paper.  Coin, bullion, jewels and anything of transportable value were surreptitiously shipped abroad – to Belgium, Holland and England.

    Soon it became necessary to compel by decree the premium which notes had before quite naturally commanded over coin, and parliament declared that from then on coin would by law carry only 95% of the value of paper.  The decree was as useful as any similar one before or since.

    Law had no choice but to throw the last major dice of his banking career.  Gambling his remaining authority he abolished coin as a medium of exchange, and then in February 1720 declared it illegal to own more than the tiniest of sums in gold in any form.  Then he closed the borders, and sent instructions to all coach-houses to refuse fresh horses to anyone travelling to foreign lands until an inspector had examined their baggage.  The substantial fines imposed were shared with the public spirited individual who filed the report.

    By August of that year it was all over, and John Law was the most hated man in France.  Fortunately he was living in Venice.  Like all good gamblers he had gone on to the next game, by which means he continued his existence for another 9 years.  Much of the money he won at this time would have been that which had earlier escaped him in the capital flight which he had outlawed.

    Scandinavian copper money - 1600 AD to 1700 AD................................   (Click here to continue to next page) 


    Pages: 1 2  -  3  -  4  -  5  -  6  -  7      

     Copyright  © 2004 Paul Tustain

     Reprinted with permission and thanks to source-

    Gold Coins from FRANCE

    click here


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