The Depression Of The 1780s And The Banking Struggle

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It has been alleged—from that day to this—that the depression which hit the United States, especially the commercial cities, was caused by “excessive” imports by Americans beginning in 1783. But this kind of pseudo-explanation merely betrays ignorance of economics: a boom in imports reflects voluntary choices and economic improvement by consumers, and this expression of choice can scarcely be the cause of general depression. In short, an improved standard of living for the bulk of consumers reflects improvement and not depression. It is impossible for consumers to buy “too many” imports, for they must pay for them with something, and this payment is financed from exports or from previously accumulated specie. Specie, indeed, had been accumulated in the colonies by the end of the war from British and French war expenditures. In either case, the payments reflected affluence rather than destitution, and these purchases were an enormous help after the ravages of the war. A specie drain is also the result of consumer desires and obviously cannot continue indefinitely. Clearly, Americans could not merely buy from abroad and not sell; indeed, if they could have done so they would have found a utopian cornucopia in which one need only consume without having to produce or sell in exchange.

There was, however, an excess of imports, but this was not caused by the free choices of American consumers. In the first place, as we have seen above, many manufacturers were artificially expanded during the war and with the resumption of peace these businesses now had to compete with the more efficient British, who at the same time restricted American exports. In addition, there was inflationary credit expansion by the Bank of North America, headed by wealthy Philadelphia merchant and former economic czar Robert Morris, and by two new banks which sprang up in 1784 to take advantage of the large profits of this new-found occupation: the Bank of Massachusetts in Boston and the Bank of New York in New York City, the latter organized mainly by large public creditors. Each institution enjoyed a monopoly on banking in its region. Inflationary expansion of bank credit leads bank clients to believe that they have more real money than they actually possess, and this leads to an artificial expansion of imports, which must be paid for in specie. The consequent drain of specie from the expanding banks, and increased calls for payment of their notes and deposits in specie, inevitably creates difficulties for the banks and forces them into hasty contraction, which in turn leads to deflation and depression. It is this boom-bust cycle of bank credit expansion and contraction that occurred in the immediate postwar period and brought a depression in mid-1784 and 1785. This trade cycle was superimposed on an aggravated the inevitable postwar distress of over-expanded wartime manufacturers by increasing imports more than would have otherwise been the case.

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