How Amsterdam Got Fiat Money
Texas Christian University – Department of Economics
Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta
We investigate a fiat money system introduced by the Bank of Amsterdam in 1683. Using data from the Amsterdam Municipal Archives, we partially reconstruct changes in the bank’s balance sheet from 1666 through 1702. Our calculations show that the Bank of Amsterdam, founded in 1609, was engaged in two archetypal central bank activities — lending and open market operations — both before and after its adoption of a fiat standard. After 1683, the bank was able to conduct more regular and aggressive policy interventions, from a virtually nonexistent capital base. The bank’s successful experimentation with a fiat standard foreshadows later developments in the history of central banking.
How Amsterdam Got Fiat Money
Financial innovation consists of doing more (trading) with less (collateral). A key innovation, present in all modern economies, is the use of fiat money—a kind of virtual collateral whose value derives only from the force of law and custom. Conventional wisdom says that fiat money can enhance liquidity through “credit policy”—the directed relaxation of collateral constraints through a central bank’s lending operations, and through “monetary policy”—the beneficial manipulation of economic aggregates through variation of the money stock.
Fiat money, and its implications for policy, are usually seen as the twentieth-century developments. This paper analyzes an earlier and less well known experiment with fiat money, undertaken by the Bank of Amsterdam (Amsterdamsche Wisselbank, henceforth AWB or simply “bank”). The Amsterdam experience with fiat money is noteworthy for its originality, its prominence in European financial history, and its compatibility with price stability over a long period (roughly a century: 1680 through 1780). The AWB opened in 1609 as a municipal exchange bank, an institution for facilitating settlement that was common in Early Modern Europe. Our focus is on the period around 1683 when the bank limited its depositors’ ability to withdraw coin, and so effectively became a fiat money provider. The fiat money regime remained in place until the bank’s collapse in 1795.3
The AWB’s transition from exchange bank to fiat bank has been described by economic historians (e.g., Mees 1838, van Dillen 1934, Neal 2000, Gillard 2004, van Nieuwkerk 2009), but these contributions do not fully explain the motivation for the transition. If fiat money did indeed lower and smooth the costs of collateral in Amsterdam markets, how were these changes manifested and who benefited? To lapse into modern terminology, how did an early central bank alter its monetary and credit policies after limiting the right of withdrawal?
To shed some light, we examine historical data on the AWB. Using ledgers available from the Amsterdam Municipal Archives, we have compiled partial balance sheets, at a daily frequency, for the AWB from 1666 through 1702, a period centered on the fiat money transition. When combined with information from other sources, these data present a revealing picture of the bank’s activities.
First, the data clearly show that the fiat money regime facilitated the AWB’s lending to a preferred customer, the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Ostindische Compagnie or VOC, a government-sponsored enterprise employing approximately 50,000 people during our period of interest). The bank lent to the Company both before and after 1683; but afterward this lending becomes more seasonal and regular in nature. Seasonality means that this lending often does not show up in the annual AWB balance sheets assembled by van Dillen (1925) nor in the annual balance sheets of the VOC assembled by de Korte (1984). Lending was cheaper and less risky for the AWB after 1683 because liquid claims on the bank were limited and chances of a run were ameliorated. Lending activities were extensive but, over the period considered, never exposed the bank to substantial credit risk. We find that the 1683 changes also freed the City of Amsterdam to frequently take the bank’s retained earnings from this profitable activity.
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