Underlying the whole business of foreign exchange is the way in which obligations between creditors in one country and debtors in another have come to be settled—‌by having the creditor draw a draft directly upon the debtor or upon some bank designated by him. A merchant in New York has sold a bill of goods to a merchant in London, having thus become his creditor, say, for $5,000. To get his money, the merchant in New York will, in the great majority of cases, draw a sterling draft upon the debtor in London for a little over £1,000. This draft his banker will readily enough convert for him into dollars. The buying and selling and discounting of countless such bills of exchange constitute the very foundation of the foreign exchange business.

Not all international obligations are settled by having the creditor draw direct on the debtor. Sometimes gold is actually sent in payment. Sometimes the debtor goes to a banker engaged in selling drafts on the city where the obligation exists, gets such a draft from him and sends that. But in the vast majority of cases payment is effected as stated—‌by a draft drawn directly on the buyer of the goods. John Smith in London owes me money. I draw on him for £100, take the draft around to my bank and sell it at, say, 4.86, getting for it a check for $486.00. I have my money, and I am out of the transaction.

Obligations continually arising in the course of trade and finance between firms in New York and firms in London, it follows that every day in New York there will be merchants with sterling drafts on London which they are anxious to sell for dollars, and vice versa. The supply of exchange, therefore, varies with the obligations of one country to another. If merchants in New York, for instance, have sold goods in quantity in London, a great many drafts on London will be drawn and offered for sale in the New York exchange market. The supply, it will of course be apparent, varies. Sometimes there are many drafts for sale; sometimes very few. When there are a great many drafts offering, their makers will naturally have to accept a lower rate of exchange than when the supply is light.

The par of exchange between any two countries is the price of the gold unit of one expressed in the money of the other. Take England and the United States. The gold unit of England is the pound sterling. What is the price of as much gold as there is in a new pound sterling, expressed in American money? $4.8665. That amount of dollars and cents at any United States assay office will buy exactly as much gold as there is contained in a new British pound sterling, or sovereign, as the actual coin itself is called. 4.8665 is the mint par of exchange between Great Britain and the United States.

The fact that the gold in a new British sovereign (or pound sterling) is worth $4.8665 in our money by no means proves, however, that drafts payable in pounds in London can always be bought or sold for $4.8665 per pound. To reduce the case to a unit basis, suppose that you owed one pound in London, and that, finding it difficult to buy a draft to send in payment, you elected to send actual gold. The amount of gold necessary to settle your debt would cost $4.8665, in addition to which you would have to pay all the expenses of remitting. It would be cheaper, therefore, to pay considerably more than $4.8665 for a one-pound draft, and you would probably bid up until somebody consented to sell you the draft you wanted.

Which goes to show that the mint par is not what governs the price at which drafts in pounds sterling can be bought, but that demand and supply are the controlling factors. There are exporters who have been shipping merchandise and selling foreign exchange against the shipments all their lives who have never even heard of a mint par of exchange. All they know is, that when exports are running large and bills in great quantity are being offered, bankers are willing to pay them only low rates—‌$4.83 or $4.84, perhaps, for the commercial bills they want to sell for dollars. Conversely, when exports are running light and bills drawn against shipments are scarce, bankers may be willing to pay 4.87 or 4.88 for them.

For a clear understanding of the mechanics of the exchange market there is necessary a clear understanding of what the various forms of obligations are which bring foreign exchange into existence. Practically all bills originate from one of the following causes:

1. Merchandise has been shipped and the shipper draws his draft on the buyer or on a bank abroad designated by him.

2. Securities have been sold abroad and the seller is drawing on the buyer for the purchase price.

3. Foreign money is being loaned in this market, the operation necessitating the drawing of drafts on the lender.

4. Finance-bills are being drawn, i.e., a banker abroad is allowing a banker here to draw on him in pounds sterling at 60 or 90 days' sight in order that the drawer of the drafts may sell them (for dollars) and use the proceeds until the drafts come due and have to be paid.

1. Looking at these sources of supply in the order in which they are given, it is apparent, first, what a vast amount of foreign exchange originates from the direct export of merchandise from this country. Exports for the period given below have been as follows:

1913 $2,465,884,000
1912 2,204,322,000
1911 2,049,320,000
1910 1,744,984,000
1909 1,663,011,000

Not all of this merchandise is drawn against; in some cases the buyer abroad chooses rather to secure a dollar draft on some American bank and to send that in payment. But in the vast majority of cases the regular course is followed and the seller here draws on the buyer there.

There are times, therefore, when exchange originating from this source is much more plentiful than at others. During the last quarter of each year, for instance, when the cereal and cotton crop exports are at their height, exchange comes flooding into the New York market from all over the country, literally by the hundreds of millions of dollars. The natural effect is to depress rates—‌sometimes to a point where it becomes possible to use the cheaply obtainable exchange to buy gold on the other side.

In a following chapter a more detailed description of the New York exchange market is given, but in passing, it is well to note how the whole country's supply of commercial exchange, with certain exceptions, is focussed on New York. Chicago, Philadelphia, and one or two other large cities carry on a pretty large business in exchange, independent of New York, but by far the greater part of the commercial exchange originating throughout the country finds its way to the metropolis. For in New York are situated so many banks and bankers dealing in bills of exchange that a close market is always assured. The cotton exporter in Memphis can send the bills he has drawn on London or Liverpool to his broker in New York with the fullest assurance that they will be sold to the bankers at the highest possible rate of exchange anywhere obtainable.

2. The second source of supply is in the sale abroad of stocks and bonds. Here again it will be evident how the supply of bills must vary. There are times when heavy flotations of bonds are being made here with Europe participating largely, at which times the exchange drawn against the securities placed abroad mounts up enormously in volume. Then again there are times when London and Paris and Berlin buy heavily into our listed shares and when every mail finds the stock exchange houses here drawing millions of pounds, marks, and francs upon their correspondents abroad. At such times the supply of bills is apt to become very great.

Origin of bills from this source, too, is apt to exert an important influence on rates, in that it is often sudden and often concentrated on a comparatively short period of time. The announcement of a single big bond issue, often, where it is an assured fact that a large part of it will be placed abroad, is enough to seriously depress the exchange market. Bankers know that when the shipping abroad of the bonds begins, large amounts of bills drawn against them will be offered and that rates will in all probability be driven down.

Announcements of such issues, as well as announcements that a block of this or that kind of bonds has been placed abroad with some foreign syndicate, are apt to come suddenly and often find the exchange market unprepared. For the supply of exchange originated thereby, it must be remembered, is not confined to the amount actually drawn against bonds sold but includes also all the exchange which other bankers, in their anticipation of lower rates, hasten to draw. The exchange market is, indeed, a sensitive barometer, from which those who understand it can read all sorts of coming developments. It often happens that buying or selling movements in our securities by the foreigners are so clearly forecasted by the action of the exchange market that bankers here are able to gain great advantage from what they are able to foresee.

3. The third great source of supply is in the drafts which bankers in one country draw upon bankers in another in the operation of making international loans. The mechanism of such transactions will be treated in greater detail later on, but without any knowledge of the subject whatever, it is plain that the transfer of banking capital, say from England to the United States, can best be effected by having the American house draw upon the English bank which wants to lend the money. In the finely adjusted state of the foreign exchanges nowadays, loans are continually being made by bankers in one country to bankers and merchants in another. Very little of the capital so transferred goes in the form of gold. A London house decides to loan, say, $100,000 in the American market. The terms having been arranged, the London house cables its New York correspondent to draw for £20,000, at 60 or 90 days' sight, as the case may be. The New York house, having drawn the draft, sells it in the exchange market, realizing on it the $100,000, which it then proceeds to loan out according to instructions.

The arranging of these loans, it will be seen, means the continuous creation of very large amounts of foreign exchange. As the financial relationships between our bankers and those of the Old World have been developed, it has come about that European money is being put out in this market in increasing volume. Conditions of money, discount, and exchange are constantly being watched for the opportunity to make loans on favorable terms, and the aggregate of foreign money loaned out here at times reaches very large figures. In 1901 Europe had big amounts of money outstanding in the New York market, and again in 1906 very large sums of English and French capital were temporarily placed at our disposal. But in the summer of 1909 all records were surpassed, American borrowings in London and Paris footing up to at least half a billion dollars. Such loans, running only a couple of months on the average and then being sometimes paid off, but more often shifted about or renewed, give rise to the drawing of immense amounts of foreign exchange.

4. Drawing of so-called "finance-bills," of which a complete description will be found in chapters IV and VI, is the fourth source whence foreign exchange originates. Whenever money rates become decidedly higher in one of the great markets than in the others, bankers at that point who have the requisite facilities and credit, arrange with bankers in other markets to allow them (the bankers at the point where money is high) to draw 60 or 90 days' sight bills. These bills can then be disposed of in the exchange market, dollars being realized on them, which can then be loaned out during the whole life of the bills. The advantages or dangers of such an operation will not be touched upon here, the purpose of this chapter being merely to set forth clearly the sources from which foreign exchange originates.

And when money is decidedly higher in New York than in London an immense volume of foreign exchange does originate from this source. A number of firms and banks, with either their own branches in London or with correspondents there to whom they stand very close, are in a position where they can draw very large amounts of finance bills whenever they deem it profitable and expedient to do so. Eventually, of course, these 60 and 90 day bills come due and have to be settled by remittances of demand exchange, but in the meantime the house which drew them will have had the unrestricted use of the money. In a market like New York this is only too often a prime consideration. With money rates soaring as they do so frequently here, a banker can pay almost any commission his correspondent abroad demands and still come out ahead on the transaction.

These are the principal sources from which foreign exchange originates—‌shipments of merchandise, sales abroad of securities, transfer of foreign banking capital to this side, sale of finance-bills. Other causes of less importance—‌interest and profits on American capital invested in Europe, for instance—‌are responsible for the existence of some quantity of exchange, but the great bulk of it originates from one of the four sources above set forth. In the next chapter effort will be made to show whence arises the demand which pretty effectually absorbs all the supply of exchange produced each year.