"We consider that this head of our inquiry is not less instructive than the four by which it was preceded. They will teach us the vices we ought to avoid - this will teach us the virtues we ought to cultivate. The lessons we here gather are, that we ought not only to avoid all mismanagement, but we ought also to provide for those contingencies to which, even with good management, we are exposed. We ought to raise our capital in proportion to our business, or else keep down our business to a level with our capital - we ought to have a surplus fund adequate to meet any unforeseen loss - we ought to have a reserve of convertible securities ready to meet contingent evils; and, finally, we ought always to keep our bank in such a condition that, even if not successful, we shall still be in a condition to wind up our affairs without inconvenience to the public.
VI. We may observe, that these erroneous principles of administration have sometimes been the result of a defect in the constitution of the bank - of the appointment of incompetent persons - or of an unwise distribution of the administrative functions.
Joint-stock banking did not grow up gradually in England as in Scotland. On the introduction of this system into England, the directors were necessarily unacquainted with the practical operations of banking.1 For all the practice and experience were confined to the private bankers, whom the new system was intended to subvert. In some places there was a prejudice against directors who were in business. Hence officers in the army, barristers, solicitors, medical men, retired tradesmen, and country gentlemen, were considered as the most eligible directors. These boards of directors, all of whom were unacquainted with banking, and some of whom were destitute of business habits, had to encounter difficulties which would have tried the most experienced bankers.
The want of experience in a board of directors did not, however, produce any dangerous consequences when they appointed an efficient manager. He prudently advised and instructed them. They gradually increased their knowledge, adopted his principles, and were guided by his counsels. By their daily intercourse with him, by their own reflections, by the direction given to their thoughts, and by the experience they acquired, they became in a few years as conversant with their duties as the manager himself. We believe this was almost uniformly the case with those joint-stock banks that were formed within five or six years after they were allowed to be established in England.
1 The Chairman of the Northern and Central Bank gave the following answers to a Committee of the House of Commons: -
"Is there any one of your colleagues in the direction of the bank that had previous experience in banking business? - I do not think there was one.
"Had any of the directors of the joint-stock banks about you previous banking experience? - I do not recollect one." - Committee on Joint-Stock Banks, 1837.
But, after joint-stock banks were started as matters of speculation, they increased more rapidly than efficient managers could be found. The new banks naturally enough looked to Scotland. But the Scotch banks had the sagacity to raise the salaries of their principal officers, to prevent their emigration to England. In some cases, those Scotchmen who were appointed managers of English banks had never held office in a bank before, or else it was an office so inferior that all they knew about banking was merely the routine of the office. Wherever efficient managers were appointed, whether English or Scotch, the same effects were produced as in the former cases. The inexperienced directors acquired the knowledge and experience necessary to the discharge of their duties, and the banks prospered. But sometimes the case was reversed. The manager was inefficient, and the directors inexperienced, and then the effects were disastrous.
In some cases the manager laboured under an inconvenience from being taken from a lower social position. Not a few of the managers were previously bankers' clerks; and the appointment to the office of bank manager did not, in England (as it does in Scotland and in Ireland), raise him to the same social position as a banker. This was injurious to the bank in several ways. It lessened his influence with his directors. From the days of Solomon to the present time, the degree of deference paid to even good advice has depended upon the social rank of the party who offered it: "Wisdom is better than strength: nevertheless the poor man's wisdom is despised, and his words are not heard." 1 The public, too, had been so long accustomed to private banking, that, seeing the manager paid by a salary, they could not bring their minds to view him as the banker, but considered him as holding an office analogous to that of chief clerk in a private bank. It may be feared, that in some banks the directors took the same view, and thought that the influence and the salaries of the two offices ought to correspond. These impressions have now passed away.
In some cases the manager was superseded in his functions by the appointment of managing directors. The manager was a man of banking knowledge and experience, but he had placed over him a couple of managing directors, who had neither knowledge nor experience. Consequently, his voice was never heard in the boardroom, and, with the name of manager, he acted only in the capacity of a chief clerk. The manager was thus deprived of the opportunity of discharging the most important of his functions - that of giving advice to the directors - and was required to confine his attention to the more easy duty of obedience.
In other cases the managing directors and the manager formed a secret committee, who alone were acquainted with the actual condition of the bank. The directors of the Bank of Manchester stated, in their first report, that "two of their body, who are out of business, alone have access to the accounts, and are authorized to advise with the manager, when requisite, on the current transactions of the bank. At the same time, each of the other directors engaged, individually, to refrain entirely from inspecting any of the customers' bills or accounts; thus combining all the secrecy of a private bank with the advantages of a public institution." The Bank of Manchester had at that time the largest paid-up capital of any joint-stock bank in England. Three of its directors were examined before the bank Charter Committee, in the year 1832, they presented to the committee a list of twenty-three joint-stock banks then formed, and strongly urged that measures should be adopted to require from them an adequate amount of paid-up capital. It is somewhat remarkable that, out of these twenty-three banks, the only one that has stopped payment is the Bank of Manchester. Another has ceased to exist, but it was by a transfer of its business.
1 Eccles. viii. 16.