The Spectator

The Spectator at war: Maintaining the machinery of commerce

From The Spectator, 5 September 1914:

THE general public is quite excusably befogged by the repeated references in the Press to the financial difficulties which are blocking the way to a general resumption of international trade. The sea has been opened by the power of our Navy, but commerce still hesitates to resume its normal course. At the same time, our Stock Exchange remains rigidly closed, and the mora- torium has been extended for another month. These two facts alone suffice to prove that there must be some very grave interruption to the ordinary machinery of finance and commerce. Yet it is known that the Government have taken the unprecedented step of guaranteeing an enormous number of financial transactions with the very object of putting the machinery of finance again in motion. It is estimated that this guarantee of the Government covers a liability of something like £500,000,000, and might conceivably involve actual losses of anything from £50,000,000 to £100,000,000.

To make these facts generally intelligible is no easy matter, for the finance of commerce, though in normal times marvellously efficient, is necessarily intricate. It is as if an inquiring person were suddenly to ask why a big piece of electrical machinery had been brought to a stop. No doubt an expert electrician could give an accurate explanation, but the chances are that not one layman in a thousand would be any the wiser. The machinery of commerce- is not quite so far removed from ordinary experience as electrical machinery, nor can it be brought to a stop quite so easily by a trivial interruption. It is, however, necessarily complicated, and is liable to break down when a grave external cause affects its ordinary working.

In the hope of making the matter clear to our readers, let us begin at the beginning by briefly explaining the nature of a bill of exchange, which is the basis of the machinery of commerce.

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