Wool is another "heavy article," as it is called; that is, it costs a great deal of money, and the bills are usually for large amounts. Occasionally there is much speculation in this article.
Builders are generally a speculative class. Banks that advance money to parties engaged in this trade have usually to take possession of the buildings. We have already noticed an instance of this in the conduct of a joint-stock bank.
People who speculate in railway and other companies are dangerous customers to a bank.
It may be remarked, that it is generally bad policy in a bank to make a very large permanent advance to any one customer. The word "large" is a relative term, and must be understood with reference to the extent of business that the customer is carrying on, and to the means of the bank. It is not the business of bankers to supply their customers with capital to carry on their trade. But it is their business to make temporary advances, and these advances may sometimes be large. In such cases, the banker should have a kind of security, that shall not only secure the debt, but shall prevent its becoming permanent. Almost every bank that has failed can point to some one, two, or three large accounts, to which it mainly ascribes its failure.
But the worst form of illegitimate advance is that which is made by a bank to one of its own directors.
A bank that is known to act imprudently in making large advances will occasion a suspicion that its smaller advances are made with, at least, equal imprudence. A large number of imprudent small transactions may be as fatal to a bank as a smaller number of a larger amount. A sum which appears small as a loan will appear large as a loss. A manager who accustoms himself to examine all the circumstances connected with the small bills he discounts, will acquire a habit of investigation that will guide him with safety in dealing with large transactions. But if he get into a laxity of manner in regard to small amounts, he will ultimately deal less carefully with large sums, and be in danger of making great losses. In every case the rules of sound banking should be strictly applied.
IV Some banks have become involved in difficulties through a general want of system and discipline in conducting its affairs. This laxity usually shows itself in two ways - the absence of a good system of book-keeping, and the want of a proper control over its branches.
We could not adduce a more striking illustration of this observation than has been furnished in the history of the Agricultural and Commercial Bank of Ireland, as related before a Committee of the House of Commons in the year 1837. The following are extracts from this evidence: - "The books at the head office had not been posted for four months. There were no stock books, showing the amount each shareholder had paid on his share. There were no books showing the amount of the circulation." An auditor states: - "They showed us no general account - their books were in a perfect chaos. They had no account at the head office by which they could check any transaction at the branches. Bills were sent away to be rediscounted without any entry of them being made in the bank books. At the branches there was no regular system of accounts. At no one branch was there a system of accounts that formed an adequate check upon the amount of notes in circulation. From one branch we were told that returns had not been made to the head office for fourteen months, and from another for six weeks, and there was no question about it from the head office."
We will not intimate that anything like this has ever existed in a joint-stock bank in England. We never heard that any one has had any difficulty in making out a statement of its affairs. With some banks, however, there has been a laxity in regard to the government of their branches. The system of inspection was not well understood - the returns from the branch were not so ample as they should have been - and the orders of the head office were not rigorously enforced. We could mention the names of several fallen banks that lost very considerably by their branches. In some cases the banks had opened branches in towns that required an amount of capital disproportionate to the means of the bank, and their administration had been entrusted to parties who had neither banking nor local knowledge.
A good system of book-keeping cannot be too highly valued. Its object is not merely to secure accuracy of accounts between the bank and its customers. A farther object is to classify and arrange all the transactions in such a way as easily to produce a weekly balance-sheet, showing the actual condition of the bank. Nor must it be supposed that such abstracts or balance-sheets are intended merely for the use of the directors. They are of the utmost use to the manager, and should be the subject of his constant study. A manager who, day after day, attends only to individual transactions, and that, too, possibly in a state of mental excitement, may involve his bank in difficulty, even though each transaction may, upon its own ground, be perfectly justifiable, unless he attends to those summaries and classifications of his transactions which are presented in the weekly balance-sheet. He will there see on one side the means of the bank, and on the other the way in which his funds are employed. He will notice if his loans, or over-drawn accounts, or past-due bills, are unduly increased. If a good system of book-keeping does not prevent a manager from going wrong, it will prevent his going wrong without knowing it. If he act unwisely, his balance-sheet will stare him in the face and remind him of his faults.
It is a great defect not to take an accurate estimate of the losses every half-year before striking the balance of profit and loss. It is clear that common sense and common honesty require that the loss should be taken into account as well as the profit. Yet some of the banks that failed went on, year after year, exhibiting a balance-sheet to their shareholders showing a respectable profit, which enabled the directors to declare a fair dividend, and to make an addition to the reserved fund. While the annual balance-sheets thus showed a steady increase of profit, the bad debts had actually eaten up the whole of the capital.