Thursday, December 31, 2020

The unbanked, the post office, and fintech in the 1880s

"A large population of people are excluded from the financial system because they don't have bank accounts. Fintechs compete to connect them and parallel plans emanate from the government to reach the unbanked, including postal banking."

What year am I describing in the above paragraph? 

It could be 2021. But it also describes 1870s. 

It's 2021 and the U.S. still has a large population of unbanked, those who have so little money that banks would rather not serve them. An astonishing 5.4% of Americansthat's 7.1 million householdsdo not have bank accounts.

Financial technology companies (aka fintechs) like PayPal and Facebook's Libra have well-meaning plans to connect the American unbanked population. Government-run proposals abound too. Postal banking is probably the most popular option, but more exotic solutions like central bank digital currency (CBDC) have also been floated. But many economists are wary that these government efforts will cripple the private sector.

None of this is new. Concerns over the unbanked, fintech, and a government participation in the payment system were all present back in England in the 1880s. Since I enjoy when the past resurfaces in the present, I'll tell the story.


Britain in the 1870s had a very sophisticated chequing system. Because banks were the only way for people to access cheques, and banks preferred to limit accounts to rich people and wealthy merchants, the poor and middle class were often left out. 

Luckily, the 1870s version of fintech came to the rescue. The PayPal of the day was something called the Cheque Bank. Established in 1873, the Cheque Banklike PayPal todaywas a bank-on-top-of-a- bank. What do I mean by this?

PayPal is a customer of Wells Fargo, a large commercial bank. Wells Fargo provides PayPal with banking and payments services. PayPal in turn passes these services on to PayPal account holders, folks who might not otherwise qualify as customers of Wells Fargo or, if they could, prefer the way PayPal rebundles underlying Wells Fargo services.

Stock certificate for the Cheque Bank, Limited

The Cheque Bank operated on the same principles. It opened accounts at bank branches all across United Kingdom and overseas. Like PayPal, it passed through underlying banking services to its unbanked customers. The Cheque Bank's main product was cheques, which today might seem quaint. But back then they were cutting edge.

Anyone could buy a book of Cheque Bank cheques at a stationer or cigar store, the Cheque Bank redepositing the cash it received with its bankers. The customer could then spend those cheques at stores, send them to family via the mail, or hold them as a form of saving in lieu of cash (which was always at risk of being stolen). People who accepted a Cheque Bank cheque as payment could promptly take the document to any bank and cash it.

Much like PayPal does today, the Cheque Bank held 100% reserves. That is, for every $1 in cheques it issued, it kept $1 locked up with its bankers. And so its cheques were considered to be as safe as cash. Put differently, regular banks engage in both lending and payments. But fintechs like PayPal and the Cheque Bank don't lend at all. They deposit all of their assets at an underlying bank and focus on offering the payments side of the banking business to their customers.

The Cheque Bank attracted the attention of William Stanley Jevons, one of the most important economists of the day and still very much a household name among economists today. Jevons was one of three economists (along with Carl Menger and Leon Walras) to discover the principle of marginal utility, a key economic principal which had eluded even Adam Smith. 

In his 1875 book Money and the Mechanism of Exchange, Jevons devotes a full chapter to the Cheque Bank, describing it as a "very ingenious attempt" to "extend the area of banking to the masses." Here is what one of the Cheque Bank's cheques looks like:

1899 cheque issued by the Cheque Bank [source]

The cheques could only be filled to an amount printed on the document, writes Jevons. So the above cheque, which had been purchased for £5, could be written out for anything up to £5, although in this particular case the cheque writer (H.L. Stevens) chose the sum of 3 pounds 3 shillings. 

Jevons isn't the only notable economist to write about the Cheque Bank. It also pops up over a hundred years later in economist Edward S. Prescott's work, who describes it as a "highly interesting experiment in extending the use of checks to the lower and middle classes." Prescott suggests that the ability to write a specific amount on the face of one of these cheques would have greatly facilitated payments through the postal service since there was no need for change. Unlike a regular cheque, which also offered this flexibility, the recipient of one of the Cheque Bank's cheques needn't worry about it bouncing.

Jevons was excited by the Cheque Bank. But he was not a fan of a subsequent competing payments innovation, the postal order.

The British Post Office, owned by the government, had long been engaged in the business of transmitting money orders, unofficially since 1792 and officially since 1838. A customer would walk into any money order office, put down, say, £2 and 2 shillings, and get a £2 2s money order. The recipient's name was then written on the order. It could then be sent via post to a distant office, upon which the recipient could take the money order to the counter to be cashed. The officer would first confirm the payment by referring to a separate letter of advice. This letter, sent from post office to post office, served an an extra layer of security against fraud. Only then would the £2 and 2 shillings be paid out.

The problem, according to then Postmaster General Henry Fawcett, is that the money order wasn't very useful to people who only wanted to send small amounts. "If a boy wanted to send his mother the first shilling he had saved, he would have to pay twopence for the order and a penny for postage," wrote Fawcett. In other words, to send a 12 penny (i.e. one shilling) money order, three penniesa massive 25%had to be sacrificed in fees. (A shilling in 1880 was worth around US$8 today.) And so it would have been an expensive payments option for the poor.

Prior to his appointment as Postmaster General in 1880, Fawcett had been both parliamentarian and the first professor of political economy at Cambridge. And while he wasn't as illustrious an economist as Jevons (he hasn't left us any bits of economic theory), Fawcett did write what was one of the popular textbooks of the day.

But if Fawcett wasn't going to change the study of economics, he did intend to change the payments system. As Postmaster General, Fawcett proposed complementing the money order with a new product called a postal note, or postal order. (The postal order had been earlier conceived of by George Chetwynd, the Receiver and Accountant General of the Post office). Like the cheques issued by the Cheque Bank founded just seven years before, postal orders would have a fixed denomination printed on them. These increments were to start at 1 shilling and go up to 20 shillings (US$8 to US$160 in 2019 dollars).

By contrast the post office's traditional payment product, the money order, was open-faced and had no denomination. Because postal orders would be issued in smaller amounts, the Post Office needn't bother sending separate letters of advice as a security measure, which meant that they would be far cheaper to process. And so the fees could be lower for postal orders than money orders, broadening the pool of customers.

In an 1880 essay, William Stanley Jevons blasted the idea of postal orders, which hadn't yet received legislative assent. Singling out Fawcett, Jevons wrote:

"The fact of course is that not only from the time of Adam Smith, but from a much earlier date, it has always been recognized that a Government is not really a suitable body to enter upon the business of banking. It is with regret that we must see in this year 1880 the names of so great a financier as Mr. Gladstone, and so sound an economist as Professor Fawcett, given to schemes which are radically vicious and opposed to the teachings of economic science and economic experience."
So that lays out the cast of characters in 1880. It includes exclusionary banks, hoards of unbanked, a set of opposed economists in Jevons and Fawcett, fintechs like the Cheque Bank, and a post office on the verge of issuing a novel product; postal orders.

2020 seems very much like 1880. To help connect the large population of American unbanked to the financial system, a number of modern day Fawcetts (Morgan Ricks, Mehrsa Baradaran, Rohan Grey) have floated public payments solutions including a return of postal banking, central bank digital currency (CBDC), or central bank-accounts-for-all.

Our modern day equivalents to the Cheque Bank includes non-banks such as prepaid debit card issuers Walmart and Netspend, both of which are trying to reach unbanked Americans. Online wallet companies like PayPal and Chime are also in the mix. And stablecoin issuers such as Facebook's upcoming Libra project talk a big game when it comes to financial inclusion. To round things out you've got your modern day Jevonses; economists who don't buy the idea that the government should get into banking (Larry White, George Selgin, Diego Zuluaga).

So how did things end up in 1880? Despite opposition from Jevons and the Economist, Fawcett's postal order dream came to fruition. After receiving legislative approval, the world's first postal orders were issued in 1881:

Postal orders would go on to become very popular. They largely displaced money orders, except for large amounts. Other postal systems including that of New Zealand, Canada, Australia, and the U.S. would go on to copy the idea. The UK's modern day incarnation of the post, the Post Office, still offers a version of the product.

And what about the Cheque Bank? Digging through old documents, Edward Prescott discovered that the Cheque Bank failed in the late 1890s. According to liquidation proceedings reported in the Banker’s Magazine, it was plagued by forgery problems and increased competition for less wealthy depositors from banks. Perhaps the emergence of the postal order also played a part.

I'm not invoking the 1880s as a prediction of what will occur in the 2020s. Rather, it fascinates me because it reveals how old these payments dilemmas are. The same tensions between public and private payments were present then as they are now. And it's also interesting to see how economists have always been engaged in questions of financial inclusion. Not just Fawcett but Jevons too, who we know primarily for his work on monetary theory. 

And over a hundred years later, Edward Prescott delved into the topic, too. In a 1999 paper (which mentions the Cheque Bank), Prescott discusses the idea of opening up an inexpensive type of bank account called an Electronic Transfer Account (ETA) so that all Americans, particularly the unbanked, might receive Federal benefit payments digitally. (Prescott was skeptical that ETAs might work out. The program, introduced in 1999, was discontinued in 2018 and has been replaced with a prepaid debit card program.)

In closing, the topic of how to help the unbanked is a complicated one with many moving parts. Which is why we should explore how things played out in different times. Perhaps history can get us to see the debate in a new light.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

P.S. If you're interested in learning more about Jevons's thinking on payments, he was a big champion of the idea of creating an international coin standard. I wrote about it here. Think of it as a proto-version of the Euro. Jevons came up with a "tidy English solution" for fitting Britain into this proposed international coin union. The project never came to fruition.


  1. I'm not quite sure I follow how you got your money back as the person who bought the cheques, but then wrote one for less than the maximum amount on the check. Did the drug store take down your name for the company? If people routinely wrote checks for less than the maximum amount, but had to put down the maximum amount they might not have been as cheap as you might think given the foregone interest on the deposit (though if you can't make a deposit at a bank, that particular use of the money would obviously have been hard to come by). You describe it as "Anyone could buy a book of Cheque Bank cheques at a stationer or cigar store, the Cheque Bank redepositing the cash it received with its bankers." which again a book rather than one sounds like more expensive in terms of foregone uses for a larger sum of money. At any rate, this was fascinating but I don't follow how they did the accounting when the amount written was less than the maximum and wonder whether like PayPal the costs were more hidden.

    1. Anon, you make a good point and unfortunately I haven't been able to find enough information to be able to explain how this precisely worked.

      Prescott writes that:

      "The Cheque Bank would maintain two balances for each account, the amount in the account, and the amount of credit extended by the checks. When a check was paid, both balances would be adjusted" -

      So somehow the Bank was keeping track of each user's balance such that if the user wrote out a 4 pound payment order on a 5 pound cheque and thus had 1 pound left over, they were still entitled to the remaining amount. Mind you, if customers were buying cheques at a local stationer (which Jevons claims), then I'm not sure how this information was collected.

  2. Ducky McDuckfaceMarch 6, 2021 at 2:09 PM

    Probably by numbering the books and the cheques, and maintaining the account at the book level, not the user level. And sale or return would probably help here.

    Result is, buy a book of cheques for £20, write £19 worth of cheques, and use the very last cheque in the book to cash for the remaining quid.