Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Accounting System #9: Checking and Credit Card Virtualization

Previous: The Accounting System #8

It is really not much of a leap from letters of credit and a system of loans and deposits backed by a reserve of coin or cash to a checking system. Checking accounts did not become common until the 20th century, but they extended the accounting system in a very convenient way. Most people, most of the time, did not write checks for more money than they had on deposit. Merchants had ways of deciding whether or not to trust the check writer. Long before the advent of credit cards it was possible to make do with almost no cash or coin, if you were willing to use a check book for purchases.

This again added portability to the accounting system. Many people kept a careful record of the checks they wrote, the deposits they made, and their balances, thus manually doing their own accounting. That helped the banks and merchants by reducing the number of bad checks that had to be dealt with. At the same time, with checks being written all the time by millions of people, the number of transactions banks had to process became a major factor in the cost of banking. First adding machines, then tabulating machines, and finally computers were used to speed up the accounting process. At the national level the Federal Reserve System facilitated the transfer of checks so that you could send a check to anywhere in the nation and eventually it would be turned into your bank for collection.

With a systematic, universal checking system it would have been possible to eliminate coin and cash from the economy. The accounting system would have been universal, at least for monetary transactions. A dollar would have been whatever the central bankers at the Fed said it was, unrelated to the antiquated silver dollars of yesteryear. But many people did not have checking accounts. The banks did not want to deal with untrustworthy or unprofitable customers, so the cash system remained in use.

People who are used to modern credit cards, which are used to make transactions through point of sale terminals, personal computers, and smartphones, may not realize that for years credit cards were part of a system that still relied on paper. While a card could be checked for available credit by telephone, a credit card purchase was made on a receipt with a copy for the purchaser, one for the merchant, and one for the bank. The receiving bank then debited the card holders account and credited the merchants account. By the time credit cards were coming into general use, so were computers (mainframe computers). Again the accounting system extended its tentacles. A credit transaction was a small loan. If not paid off immediately it carried a high rate of interest. But it meant that the customer need do no bookkeeping: if there was no credit left, the merchant would decline the card. Shop 'till you drop took on a new meaning.

Again, with credit cards you did not need coins or cash, at least until your credit limit was reached.

Next: #10: The Federal Reserve and Accounting Money

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