In some cases a bank has been ruined by its manager; in others, by the manager and the managing directors conjointly; in others, by the managing directors without the manager; and in others, by one, two, or three directors, who, though not formally appointed managing directors, have, by their influence with the board, virtually monopolized that office, and discharged its functions. It may be questioned whether any case has occurred in England of a bank being ruined by the acts of its whole board, where all the directors were honest and intelligent men, and each was accustomed to think and judge for himself.
VII. We may observe, that sometimes joint-stock banks have been led into erroneous principles of administration by the proceedings of the proprietors.
The constitution of joint-stock banks appears theoretically absurd. The manager - the banker - who is presumed to have some knowledge and experience in banking, is placed under the command of a board of directors, whose knowledge and experience are supposed to be inferior to his own. These directors are again placed under the control and instruction of a body of proprietors, whose knowledge of banking is much less than that of the directors. Practically, however, the system works well. But when an attempt is made to carry out the theory, the effects are injurious; and some joint-stock banks have fallen into danger through the operations being too much regulated by the proceedings of the proprietors.
Sometimes the directors have been influenced by the applauses of the shareholders.
It is natural to all shareholders to wish for large dividends upon the capital they have invested. Hence they applaud most loudly those directors who contrive to declare the highest dividends, to make the largest bonuses, to keep up the shares at the highest premiums in the market, and then to distribute more shares at par. The directors, knowing these to be the feelings of the shareholders, very naturally attempt to gratify them. But those transactions that yield a large immediate profit are either attended with a risk of loss, or a lock-up of capital. But the profit is immediate: the danger is remote. With the applauses of the shareholders ringing in their ears, the directors become too giddy for reflection, and recklessly engage in a course of action that ends in ruin. This evil is increased when there are two joint-stock banks of about equal strength in the same place. The spirit of rivalry is natural to man. The competition between the two boards of directors is not which bank shall be governed with the greatest prudence, and with the strictest regard to sound banking principles, but which shall produce the most glowing reports - which shall declare the longest dividends - and which shall keep up its shares at the highest price in the market. A strong competition is carried on, which ends in the destruction of one or both of the rival banks. Such feelings are said to have prevailed at Manchester; and at that place several boards of directors were presented with services of plate, by their respective shareholders, within a short time of the stoppage of their banks.
Sometimes directors are induced to act unwisely from the censures of their shareholders.
Every one who knows anything of banking must know that it cannot be carried on without occasional losses. A bank that is so conducted as never to make a loss, will seldom make much profit. And sometimes these losses will be so great as to absorb a large portion of the profits of the year. The object of having a surplus fund is to provide for these contingencies, so that the usual dividend may be maintained. But when an occasion arises for making use of a portion of this fund, there is often what is called "a stormy meeting," and the shareholders walk away sulky and dissatisfied. This produces a bad effect on the minds of the directors. It is a great mistake to suppose that boards of directors are indifferent to the applauses or censures of their shareholders. As a general rule, the fact is lamentably the reverse. In some cases they have had so much dread of "the general meeting" that they could not muster courage enough to make honest reports. Had they done so in the first instance, their banks might have been saved from destruction.
Sometimes directors are in danger of being led astray by the admonitions and instructions of their shareholders.
A very prudent class of proprietors exhort the directors to practise the strictest economy. "When rightly understood, this exhortation is worthy of the rounds of applause with which it is usually attended. But it is liable to be misunderstood. In banking, as in housewifery, the lowest priced article is not always the cheapest. The largest portion of the expenditure of a bank consists of salaries. Hence an exhortation to economy amounts to - "Keep down the salaries of your officers;" and as the manager has the largest salary, he will most likely be the heaviest sufferer.
A more mischievous recommendation, when thus understood, can hardly be conceived. Next to having a dishonest manager, the greatest evil is to have one that is badly paid. If he is known to be poor, his advice will have less weight in the board-room; the directors individually will treat him with less respect, his wealthy customers will not disclose to him their private affairs; the needy class, when refused discount, will insult him by threatening to complain to the directors, and his inferior officers will be less prompt in their obedience. But worse than all this will be the effect produced upon his own mind. He will not be, and he cannot be, so efficient a manager when badly paid, as he would be if he received a liberal remuneration. It is the besetting sin of men of business, that they never pay attention to mind, though among no class are mental phenomena more strikingly exhibited. The amount of his salary is the only tangible means by which a manager can judge how far his character and his services are appreciated. It is not the money alone, but the feelings, of which the money is an indication, that produces an effect on the mind. It is a law of our nature, that the kindness, liberality, and generosity of others will produce corresponding feelings in ourselves. And it is another law of our nature, that when the mind is under the influence of such feelings, it is capable of intellectual efforts of a higher order. But we forget; - we were writing about pounds, shillings, and pence, and our pen has darted off into philosophy. We will now return.