IN EACH OF THE FIVE Central American countries, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, the sound monetary policies which have in general been pursued in recent years have been helpful in promoting internal and external stability and in ensuring balanced and orderly economic development.1 Since 1950, both agricultural and industrial production have expanded in each of these countries. In several of the countries, the imports of food which formerly were necessary are no longer required, and in normal crop years there now are actually small export surpluses. Social capital has been expanded rapidly. New and better roads have been constructed, more electric power has been produced, and more schools and hospitals have been built since 1950 than in the whole of the preceding 20 years. This expanded social capital will facilitate an even more rapid increase of production in the future.


IN EACH OF THE FIVE Central American countries, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, the sound monetary policies which have in general been pursued in recent years have been helpful in promoting internal and external stability and in ensuring balanced and orderly economic development.1 Since 1950, both agricultural and industrial production have expanded in each of these countries. In several of the countries, the imports of food which formerly were necessary are no longer required, and in normal crop years there now are actually small export surpluses. Social capital has been expanded rapidly. New and better roads have been constructed, more electric power has been produced, and more schools and hospitals have been built since 1950 than in the whole of the preceding 20 years. This expanded social capital will facilitate an even more rapid increase of production in the future.

IN EACH OF THE FIVE Central American countries, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, the sound monetary policies which have in general been pursued in recent years have been helpful in promoting internal and external stability and in ensuring balanced and orderly economic development.1 Since 1950, both agricultural and industrial production have expanded in each of these countries. In several of the countries, the imports of food which formerly were necessary are no longer required, and in normal crop years there now are actually small export surpluses. Social capital has been expanded rapidly. New and better roads have been constructed, more electric power has been produced, and more schools and hospitals have been built since 1950 than in the whole of the preceding 20 years. This expanded social capital will facilitate an even more rapid increase of production in the future.

These increases in capital investment and in production have been achieved without recourse to inflation. Despite the effects of rising world prices for coffee, the leading export commodity of these countries, upon bank lending and private spending, remarkable stability has been maintained in the cost of living, except in Nicaragua. Such increases as have occurred in prices and the cost of living have been moderate; this attests the soundness of the monetary policies adopted. Moreover, the fact that a rapid rate of development was maintained without undue pressure on the balance of payments shows that the authorities did not forget the importance of external payments equilibrium as a primary objective of monetary policy.

It cannot, of course, be maintained that the rapid progress made by the Central American countries in recent years stems exclusively from their sound monetary policies, although experience shows clearly that economic progress is often retarded by inadequate monetary policies. Nor can it be claimed that the monetary techniques developed by the Central American countries completely eliminate any risk of monetary disturbance in the future. It is true, however, that the monetary policies pursued in these countries have been an important part of the favorable environment in which orderly economic development has gone on. They have also been a factor in the development of a public opinion favorable to the economic integration of the Central American region. The record is sufficiently impressive to justify a careful examination of recent developments in the banking institutions of the area.

This examination will necessarily take account of the important differences which exist between the Central American countries. Their circumstances and traditions are sufficiently different to warrant the expectation that their development will not be along uniform lines. Honduras is the least developed of the Central American countries, but it appears to be on the threshold of important economic progress as a result of basic improvements in transportation and electric power. In El Salvador, on the other hand, which has a high population density, there is already a well developed industrial sector. The highest level of general education and of per capita purchasing power is to be found in Costa Rica, and the largest urban center in Central America is in Guatemala. Nicaragua has expanded its agriculture very rapidly in recent years. However, geographical proximity and historical ties, the similarity of their economic structures, and especially the movement in Central America toward economic cooperation and integration, make it appropriate, before attempting any detailed analysis of the development of banking and monetary policy in the individual countries, to make some general observations that are applicable to more than one country or to the region as a whole. A brief summary of the development of banking in each of the five countries, and some comments on the history of their monetary policy up to the end of 1955, are given in later sections of this paper.

Monetary policy is, in this context, to be understood as being applied by means of the instruments used by the government, acting through its specialized agencies, and in particular through the central or national banks, to influence the volume, the availability, and the cost of credit. Fiscal policy, on the other hand, acts upon other variables in the economic system, such as the volume of income and employment, the price level, the distribution of income between classes and sectors, the allocation of productive resources to various economic activities, the composition of investment, etc. Monetary policy, of course, has many possible objectives; for example, it may aim at a high level of real income and employment, at stability of the general price level or of some sector of the price level, or at balance of payments equilibrium and the defense of foreign exchange reserves. In some circumstances, these objectives may be incompatible, and one of them will then have to be sacrificed for the sake of others which are regarded as more important. The duty of the monetary authorities is to develop policies which will ensure the most satisfactory compromise between competing objectives. In some circumstances, even though there is no conflict between objectives, monetary policy by itself may be quite ineffective; it normally has to be applied in conjunction with other appropriate policies, and in particular with fiscal policy. Indeed, in countries with characteristics similar to those usually found in Central America, fiscal action is more than an indispensable condition for the success of monetary policy. There is a wide scope for its effective action, and it may by itself achieve substantial results.

The best single measure of the current effectiveness of monetary policy in Central America is the contribution it has made to the achievement of the objective of economic development without the generation of inflationary pressures. This objective, however, has had to be related, as far as possible, to the wider objectives listed above, the achievement of which also requires simultaneous appropriate fiscal action.

Central Bank Development in Central America

The development of effective monetary policy in Central America has been made easier by the establishment of modern central banking institutions and the increasing use of the up-to-date instruments of credit control with which these institutions have been equipped. In 1945, the Bank of Guatemala became a central bank; and in 1950, central banks were established in Costa Rica and Honduras. The establishment of a central bank in Honduras was part of the transition from a monetary system in which U.S. silver coins, Guatemalan quetzales, and Salvadoran colones formed most of the means of payment to a modern system in which the central bank could exercise close control over monetary developments.2 The privately owned Central Reserve Bank of El Salvador, established in 1934, has acquired considerable prestige as a result of its long record of efficient management. The government-owned and government-controlled National Bank of Nicaragua, which was reorganized in 1940, was not originally designed to be exclusively a central bank. Up to 1953 it did practically all the banking business of the country, and no strong need was felt for a central bank. Through its Issue Department it performed many central bank functions, and its Banking Department supplied all the most important commercial bank services. With the development of additional credit institutions since 1953, the need for an independent central bank has become more evident, and the National Bank has itself recently engaged in a more active monetary policy. Studies relating to the establishment of a central bank in Nicaragua are well advanced.

The growth of efficient central banks has proceeded in close relation to the growth of other specialized credit institutions, which have made possible a more efficient use of credit within a program of balanced development. Increases in the capital of the Central Bank of Costa Rica and of the National Bank of Nicaragua have also enabled these institutions to take a more active interest in economic development. In general, active monetary policy has been synchronized with more positive fiscal policies with a view to accelerating development and assisting the execution of government development plans.

The central banks of Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Honduras, being of recent origin, have modern statutes that embody many of the recent advances in central bank theory. They have been endowed with broad powers of monetary control, including the power to vary commercial bank reserve requirements and to influence commercial bank lending by establishing differential rediscount rates, prescribing credit ceilings for commercial banks, etc. The formal powers of the Central Reserve Bank of El Salvador, which was established earlier, are less extensive. However, in recent years the bank has, by means of moral suasion, effectively influenced the policy of the commercial banks, and reforms instituted in 1952 have greatly strengthened the instruments for credit control which are at its disposal.

The activities of each of the three recently established central banks are restricted by law to transactions with commercial banks. Although the Central Reserve Bank of El Salvador is authorized to deal with members of the public, most of its operations are with the banking system. The National Bank of Nicaragua, on the other hand, grants loans directly to the public through its Banking Department. The direct access to central bank facilities thus made available to the public has increased the difficulties of controlling credit in Nicaragua, especially since two private commercial banks were established in 1953. As long as the Banking Department of the National Bank has permanent access to rediscount facilities with the Issue Department, it is difficult to deny a similar right to the private commercial banks, even at a time when the need for credit restraint is clear.

A high degree of coordination between fiscal policy and monetary policy is assured in all of the Central American countries except El Salvador, by the legal provision which makes the Finance Minister a member of the board of governors of the central bank. In El Salvador the Government has the right of veto over the appointment of the President of the Central Bank. In each country the principal sectors of the economy are represented on the governing bodies of the central bank, and central bank management has maintained a high degree of independence from the executive branch of the government. The banking laws, moreover, limit in each country the right of the national treasury to obtain advances from the central bank.

The central bank in each of the Central American countries is responsible for managing the country’s money supply and its foreign exchange reserves. This has been done in such a way that for each of the local currencies full convertibility has, for all practical purposes, been established and maintained at stable exchange rates. Each one of these countries is highly dependent on one or two staple exports for the greater part of its exchange earnings, and the world prices of these commodities therefore play a decisive role in relation to the maintenance of monetary stability. In recent years, receipts of foreign exchange have, in general, been sufficient to enable the central banks not only to maintain stable exchange rates, but also to finance an adequate inflow of imports. The improvement in the terms of trade, however, has sometimes presented a threat to monetary stability. In some of the large coffee producing countries, it has not always been possible fully to protect the economy against the monetary pressures generated by good export prices, and thus to avoid exchange disequilibrium and even exchange depreciation. Most Central American countries, however, have had a fair measure of success in maintaining monetary stability and have been able to carry out effective monetary policies without frequent recourse to central bank credit. Some of them averted an undue expansion of their international reserves by promoting their utilization for development purposes. The expansion of money income was thus avoided or slowed down, while capital equipment and productivity were increased.

There have been occasions when Central American governments, desiring more rapid development, have superimposed extensive investment programs upon the ordinary budget, and then in order to cover budgetary deficits have had to rely on extensive central bank credit, thus impairing the ability of the monetary authorities to control the supply of money and credit. In recent years, however, balanced budgets have been the rule in Central America and deficits the exception. The debt of the Nicaraguan Government to the banking system has been practically repaid. At the time of the last constitutional change of Presidents in El Salvador, the Government that was completing its term left a surplus in the Treasury equal to at least 40 per cent of the annual budget. Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Honduras have found it possible to make increasing use of external credit to finance highway construction and other development projects. The influence of monetary policy in these countries cannot be precisely measured, but among all the circumstances and policies that are relevant, sound monetary policies always have an important role in rapid economic development.

Economic and Institutional Obstacles to the Application of Monetary Policy

Certain special characteristics which are to be found in varying degree in all the Central American economies present special problems for the direction of monetary policy. Reference has already been made to the fact that each of these economies is highly dependent on exports of a few primary commodities for the greater part of its foreign exchange earnings and a substantial part of its national income. In 1953, for example, 86 per cent of El Salvador’s exports, 77 per cent of Guatemala’s, 44 per cent of Costa Rica’s, 39 per cent of Nicaragua’s, and 17 per cent of those of Honduras consisted of coffee. Bananas accounted for 65 per cent of the exports of Honduras, and 42 per cent of Costa Rica’s. These two commodities, coffee and bananas, accounted for nearly 80 per cent of the total exports of Central America. In Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Honduras banana plantations have been extensively developed by foreign capital.

Wide swings in the volume and value of these exports cause correspondingly wide variations in the exchange earnings and international reserves of the countries which export these goods, and the resulting variations in the money supply are difficult to control. The comparatively remunerative level of coffee prices since 1950 has influenced the effectiveness of monetary policies in recent years. Some countries have had a certain success in restraining the inflationary effects of export booms; when as a result of reduced crops the trend was in the opposite direction, however, as in Nicaragua and Costa Rica in 1956, it was difficult to stimulate business activity by monetary measures, for credit expansion led to serious pressure on international reserves.

More than half of the economically active population of Central America is engaged in agriculture, the proportion ranging from a little more than 50 per cent in Costa Rica to some 65 per cent in El Salvador and Nicaragua, nearly 75 per cent in Guatemala, and more than 80 per cent in Honduras. Only some 12 per cent of the economically active population is engaged in industry; however, in Honduras the proportion so engaged is but 6 per cent. The conditions under which agriculture has developed in Central America, and in particular the uneven distribution of land (except in Costa Rica) and the low level of capitalization, have always placed limitations upon the effective application there of monetary policy.

The volume of savings and investment in Central America is, in any event, severely restricted by the low average level of personal income. Commercial banks have often confined their activities to short-term foreign trade financing, and have refrained from making domestic loans or investments. In particular, small farmers have almost no access to banking facilities and are sometimes obliged to sell their output at crop time at very low prices. Scientific methods of production are out of their reach. The use of credit has at times been concentrated on the small number of farmers who have extensive holdings of land. But even though these farmers may use credit for soil conservation, the use of fertilizers and selected seeds, irrigation, and mechanization, it has been the custom of many of them, at least in the past, to prefer investment in real estate and inventory holdings.

The effectiveness of monetary policy is clearly limited if, in important sectors of the economy, there is little or no use of money. In this respect there are considerable differences between the countries of Central America. Large sections of the population still remain outside the market economy. In Guatemala, for example, a large indigenous population is almost entirely self-sufficient and uses money for only a few transactions. In Honduras also, a considerable part of the population is occupied in growing its own food and has few commercial contacts. The per capita money supply is accordingly less in Guatemala and Honduras than in other Central American countries. Even where the use of money has become general, there are considerable differences in the extent to which banking facilities and banking traditions have developed. This considerably limits the scope for using the traditional central bank techniques, and in particular open market and discount operations, to influence the cost and availability of credit.

Banking habits are widespread in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, where bank deposits constitute more than 50 per cent of the money supply. In Guatemala, on the other hand, more than two thirds of the money supply consists of notes and coins. In El Salvador, the ratio of currency in circulation to the total money supply fell from 67 per cent in 1948 to 50 per cent in 1955. This movement may have been in part a result of the rapid growth in El Salvador of the incomes of those who make use of the banking system, but probably it was also due in part to a wider use of banking facilities. The relative importance of checks is now much the same in El Salvador as in Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

Instruments of Credit Policy

The recent date at which most of the Central American central banks were established has made it possible to ensure that the instruments of credit control entrusted to them should be equal, or even superior, in variety and flexibility to those available in most other parts of the world.3 The formal powers granted to a central bank are, however, less important than the way in which their powers are used, and it is on this question that attention should be concentrated. The instruments most likely to be effective in countries whose financial structure is comparatively undeveloped will then be more easily identified.

Commercial bank reserve requirements

The basic laws of each of the Central American central banks require commercial banks to maintain with the central bank reserves equal to specified percentages of their demand and time deposits. In Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Honduras these reserve ratios may be varied by the central bank between the limits of 10 per cent and 50 per cent; in El Salvador, the percentage is fixed at 20.

The outstanding illustration of the use of this instrument of credit control in Central America was in Honduras early in 1955. Up to 1953, Honduras had not only maintained a balanced budget but actually had fiscal surpluses. In that year, the Central Bank encouraged some expansion of loans in order to stimulate development and to offset the somewhat deflationary effects of the surplus. Later, however, and particularly in 1953, there was a fiscal deficit, and the prevention of the secondary expansion which this deficit might have caused became one of the objectives of central bank policy. Early in 1955, the prescribed ratio of commercial bank reserves was raised from 25 per cent to 35 per cent, and it was ruled that the increased reserves that commercial banks were thus required to maintain might be invested by them in government bonds. The trend toward increased commercial bank liquidity led at the beginning of December 1956 to reducing the rediscount ceilings to the volume of rediscounts outstanding at that time, raising the rate of interest on the public debt, and increasing from 3 per cent to 4 per cent the maximum rate of interest on savings deposits. The Central Bank of Honduras also prevailed upon the banks to agree to limit their loan portfolios to the amounts outstanding on November 30, 1956, except for loans considered by the Central Bank to be for productive purposes, e.g., for financing the coffee crop or for industry or agriculture.

Advance deposits on imports

At the end of 1950, use was made for the first time in Central America of the requirement that importers should make advance deposits on goods imported by them. This is a comparatively new instrument for curbing inflationary pressures to which several countries in Latin America and elsewhere have resorted in recent years.4 The requirement of such advance deposits was part of a new system of exchange control established in Nicaragua in substitution for the quantitative import controls that had been in operation since 1931, and the administration of which had involved an arbitrary distribution of import licenses.

Fiscal deficits and a policy of expanded commercial credit brought about continued balance of payments deficits in Nicaragua, which by the end of 1949 had almost exhausted its exchange resources. The sound credit and fiscal policies which were adopted from 1950 and the advance deposit requirement associated with them had beneficial effects upon the Nicaraguan economy. At first, the advance deposit required in national currency on imports of all kinds was equal to 100 per cent of their value. As the payments position improved in 1952 and 1953, this requirement was made more flexible. Imports were classified in three lists, according to the degree of essentiality, and deposits of 100 per cent were maintained only for nonessential imports. Imports in an intermediate class were subject to a deposit of 75 per cent, and essential imports to one of 50 per cent. The advance deposit requirement was subsequently eliminated for a list of essential imports, such as agricultural machinery, fumigators, ploughs, insecticides, and fertilizers, but in 1956 a further revision of the lists increased the number of imports subject to the requirement.

During the first two years of the imposition of the advance deposit requirement in Nicaragua, the volume of credit was maintained more or less unchanged, the contraction which was desired in the money supply being produced by the deposit requirement. Later, and especially in 1955 and 1956, when the Issue Department of the National Bank considerably increased the volume of its rediscounts, the anti-inflationary effect of the advance deposit requirement was counteracted, to some extent. It was argued, however, that, by discouraging nonessential imports, advance deposits helped the National Bank to make effective the policy of selective credit control which was intended to encourage credit for productive purposes.

Credit ceilings and selective credit controls

All the Central American central banks have made vigorous efforts to influence the allocation of resources in the directions preferred by them, and to check the expansion of credit in such directions as luxury building, inventory accumulation, real estate investment, etc., which are regarded as undesirable. Variable rediscount rates, with preferential treatment for certain types of commercial paper, have been used by nearly all of them to encourage productive activity in agriculture and industry. The evolution of policy in Costa Rica is of special interest.

The chief instrument of credit policy in Costa Rica has, for some years, been the imposition of credit ceilings, i.e., quantitative limits on bank loans and advances, either in the aggregate or for individual banks. By this means, credit has been directed into such productive activities as agriculture and industry, instead of into speculative or commercial activities, such as import trade (Table 1).

Table 1.

Credit Ceilings for Commercial Banks in Costa Rica, 1950–56

(In millions of colones; data as of end of year)

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Sources: Banco Central de Costa Rica, Memoria Anual (San José, Costa Rica), 1952 to 1956.

At the end of 1950, a general credit ceiling of 271.6 million was established with the intention of influencing the quantity of bank credit rather than its distribution among different sectors of the economy. In the circumstances which prevailed a year later, it was thought desirable to limit any increase in total bank credit to 4 per cent. There were, however, special demands from the Rural Credit Boards for credit to increase agricultural production for the local market, and from the National Production Council for credit to enable remunerative and stable prices to be maintained for these commodities. Additional credit was accordingly authorized for these purposes, but at the same time commercial credit was correspondingly reduced, to keep the increase in total bank credit down to 4 per cent. Similar adjustments were made in later years. Higher prices produced a demand for increased credit for coffee production, and in general credit for productive purposes was allowed to expand at a faster rate than credit for commercial purposes.

Utilization of international reserves as instruments of general credit control

It has already been pointed out that, since 1950, the international reserves of all the Central American countries have been managed in such a way that for all practical purposes full convertibility has been established and maintained at stable exchange rates for each of the local currencies. In each country the central bank acts as custodian of the international reserves; and, by operating as the residual buyer and seller of gold and foreign exchange, it maintains effective convertibility for its currency. El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have assumed the obligations of Article VIII, Sections 2, 3, and 4, of the Articles of Agreement of the International Monetary Fund, and impose no exchange restrictions on foreign payments. The central banks have thus used international reserves for the classical purpose of providing the international means of payment required to maintain the convertibility of domestic currencies into foreign currencies at stable exchange rates.

In Costa Rica, where the authorities have acted experimentally on the principle that, when exchange receipts are high, they should be used in appropriate amounts to finance development, there has been a departure from the classical principle of accumulating reserves in prosperous times for use in times of depression. “The best way to prepare a country for a period of low exchange receipts and import stringency” it has been stated by the Costa Rican authorities, “is to open new sources of production within the country and to reinforce those already in existence.”5 In accordance with this principle, a plan was devised for a special type of loan to finance imports of capital goods when the Central Bank’s foreign assets were quadrupled between the end of 1950 and the end of 1953—mainly because of good coffee prices—and the money supply rapidly expanded. From 1952 to 1956, about $4 million was used in this way for imports of capital goods. Such use of reserves in periods of expansion, moreover, checked an increase in the money supply and therefore also had anti-inflationary implications. When a loan for imports of capital goods to be financed from accumulated international reserves is made, the borrower is required at once to make a deposit equal to at least 20 per cent of the total value of the loan. These loans are for periods of from three to seven years. In 1956, financing from the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development was used for further loans of a similar kind.

Development of a capital market

In several Central American countries, steps have been taken by the central banks to encourage saving and to facilitate the development of domestic capital markets so that savings may be channeled toward productive investment. With the latter purpose in view, the central bank statutes of Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Honduras, for example, authorize the banks to engage in open market operations. The efforts of the Central Reserve Bank of El Salvador—by issuing its own bonds, Certificados de Participacion—to induce private banks to participate more actively in promoting production are of special interest in this connection and are described in detail below.

In almost all the Central American countries, new taxation patterns have been established which make possible more extensive government investment directed toward a larger volume of production and of exports. Specialized agricultural and industrial credit institutions have been established to meet the credit needs of the domestic sector of the economy and to bridge the gap between its less developed sections and the national monetary and banking system. Most progress has been made in this connection in Costa Rica and in El Salvador, where monetary stability has provided a favorable environment for the development of a market in government securities. Part of the credit traditionally available for trade has been diverted to agriculture; and institutional intermediaries, e.g., social security and insurance funds, have helped to make part of the community’s savings available for productive purposes. In El Salvador, sizable bond issues have been placed both with the public and with financial institutions by the Mortgage Bank and the Lempa River Commission. The Instituto de Fomento de la Produccion (INFOP), established in Guatemala in 1948, has become mainly an agricultural credit bank specializing in small agricultural loans and the financing of special crops, e.g., cotton. In Honduras, the National Development Bank combines with its lending activities the direct financing of agricultural and industrial projects which are regarded as important, but for which private equity capital is either not available or available only in insufficient amounts. A similar institution was established in Nicaragua in 1953. The activities of these institutions extend beyond the limits, strictly interpreted, of central bank policy. They illustrate the variety of means used in Central America to promote development by a harmonious synthesis of credit and fiscal policies.

Banking in Costa Rica

The banking system of Costa Rica includes the Central Bank of Costa Rica (Banco Central de Costa Rica), the National Bank of Costa Rica, and three commercial banks, which were nationalized in 1948—the Anglo-Costa Rican Bank, the Agricultural Bank of Cartago, and the Lyon Bank. When these three banks were nationalized, private shareholders received the book value of their shares, and the ownership of the banks was transferred to the Government. The banks remained under the same administration as before, and public confidence in them has not declined. In fact, private deposits have increased since 1948.

The Board of Directors of the Central Bank is composed of seven members appointed by the Government. The Government, however, does not interfere with the administration of the Bank; and, under the law, the Bank is assured of functional and administrative autonomy.

The Bank is charged with the duty of promoting the orderly development of the Costa Rican economy, with a view to attaining full employment of its productive resources and avoiding or moderating any inflationary or deflationary tendencies that may arise in the money and credit market. It also has to maintain the internal stability of the colon as well as to assure its convertibility. The law states that the Bank will receive the aid and cooperation of the Government and of all the government agencies and institutions. The Minister of Economy and Finance is an ex officio member of the Bank’s Board. The Bank acts as the financial agent, advisor, and depository of the Government. Its actions should be in conformity with the requirements of any international monetary and banking agreements signed by the Government; in relation to such agreements, it acts as the Government’s legal and financial agent. It may also act as agent or correspondent of other central banks or international monetary and banking institutions and of first-class foreign banks, as well as designate such institutions to act as its agent or correspondent abroad.

The Central Bank’s capital of 5 million has been provided by the Government. The Bank has the exclusive right of note issue, and has the custody and administration of Costa Rica’s monetary reserves. The law regulates the form and the investment of the international reserves, but it does not require any statutory minimum.

The Bank has the functions of guiding, supervising, and coordinating the whole banking system, and of promoting conditions favorable for the strengthening and proper functioning of that system. It holds the legal reserves of the other banks (deposit reserves) and acts as a clearing house for them. It also has authority to grant permits for the establishment of private banks. It sets the interest rates for different types of paper admitted for rediscount and also the interest rates charged by the banks for different types of transaction. It rediscounts credit instruments with maturities not exceeding one year that are presented by the commercial banks, provided that the documents are related to the production, processing, or warehousing of agricultural or industrial products, cattle, or exports or imports of goods that are readily salable.

The commercial banks are required to maintain with the Central Bank minimum reserves against their deposits, but they may be authorized to keep part of their reserves in cash in their own vaults. For each class of deposit, the Central Bank is authorized to fix a legal minimum reserve within the limits of 10–50 per cent, and in certain circumstances to establish even higher percentages. This may be done, for example, for new deposits after a date specified by the Board of the Central Bank; however, interest up to 3 per cent must then be paid on supplementary reserves in excess of 50 per cent of deposits. Minimum reserve requirements are 20 per cent for sight deposits and time deposits withdrawable in less than 30 days and 10 per cent for time deposits of more than 30 days. In addition, a bank is required to keep an 80 per cent supplementary reserve if its deposits exceed five times its capital.

The National Bank of Costa Rica and the three commercial banks are the country’s sources of short-term credit. The National Bank is the main source of agricultural credit. To make its services available in every part of the Republic, it has developed and strengthened a network of 33 branch offices capable of rendering credit assistance and full banking services. The Bank also provides special credit facilities for small farmers through a large number (40) of local agencies, called Rural Agricultural Credit Boards. These Boards operate in the more isolated rural areas. To promote the activities of small farmers, the Bank has developed a Department of Cooperatives.

The National Production Council (Consejo Nacional de Producción) was established in 1948 to promote the production of basic foodstuffs. It was entrusted with the following functions: (1) coordination of the work of the government departments and the banks in order to develop and improve the production of basic consumer goods, raw materials, and any other commodity of vital importance to the national economy; (2) fixing minimum prices at which the Council will buy these products in order to guarantee the returns necessary for their continued production; (3) financing, entirely or in part, specific projects for the production or distribution of the products; and (4) financing any other project designed to meet emergencies that might affect the national economy. The Council maintains warehouses and storage plants in different places in the country, in order to facilitate the expansion of agricultural output.

There are also auxiliary credit institutions to facilitate the concentration of savings and the channeling of investments: The National Institute of Private Insurance (Instituto Nacional de Seguros), the Social Security Bank (Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social), the low-cost housing authority (Instituto Nacional de Vivienda Urbana), and the Costa Rican Electrical Authority (Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad).

The Central Bank is authorized to lend to the Commercial Department of the National Bank up to 80 per cent of the total portfolio of the Rural Credit Boards. It is also authorized to make loans with a maturity of up to 90 days to commercial banks, accepting government bonds as collateral (up to 80 per cent of their value), and special loans to the National Production Council against collateral of the agency’s stockpiles and with additional government guarantee.

The Central Bank is authorized to establish credit ceilings for banks and for special categories of investment activity. These ceilings do not mean that the commercial banks have access to the Central Bank for rediscount facilities of equivalent amounts. Rather, they are maximum quantitative and qualitative limits set by the Central Bank Board on the loan and investment portfolios of the commercial banks. For each bank, a general loan and investment ceiling is set; for special categories of economic activity, e.g., the Rural Credit Boards, the National Production Council, or the financing of the coffee crop, specific ceilings are set. These specific ceilings are supplementary ceilings designed to encourage the channeling of bank credit toward productive activities. Ceilings are changed periodically to take account of seasonal needs.

The principles that guide the Central Bank in establishing credit ceilings in Costa Rica are simple. As a general rule, the Bank takes the outstanding current account deposits of a commercial bank and adds to them the capital and reserves of the bank. Then it subtracts the minimum legal reserve requirement, and the ceiling is fixed as a percentage of the amount of net resources thus calculated. When conditions have permitted an expansion of credit, the ceiling has been fixed at 133 per cent of net resources. At other times, it has been set at 125 per cent. If a policy of credit restriction is believed to be advisable, the net total ceiling is set at an amount lower than net resources. In practice, this is equivalent to an increase in reserve requirements, the difference between the two methods being that an increase in reserve ratios may compel a bank to use rediscount facilities if its profits are to be maintained, while a credit ceiling as applied in Costa Rica permits a commercial bank to use its own resources. When, on the contrary, it seems advisable to expand credit, the Central Bank establishes special additional ceilings, generally on a selective basis.

The Central Bank is not permitted to negotiate government credit instruments (except in respect of open market operations) or documents related to long-term investments. It is authorized, however, to engage in open market operations in first-class securities (backed by physical assets) and treasury bills. It is empowered, when necessary for monetary reasons, to issue to the public monetary stabilization bonds with whatever terms it wishes.

A banking coordination committee which functions in accordance with the Central Bank law is composed of the managers of the commercial banks, the general bank auditor, and the manager of the Central Bank. This committee formulates recommendations for the functional and administrative coordination of the banks.

Some of the commercial banks are authorized to sell to the public bonds with maturity of five to ten years and to use the proceeds in medium-term and long-term operations for productive purposes. Since the bonds are regularly serviced by the banks, investors find them attractive. The Central Bank, however, sets a limit upon this kind of loan, which automatically sets a ceiling for the bond issue. The Central Bank’s purpose in fixing these ceilings is to maintain at all times a certain equilibrium between the supply and demand of savings and bonds, so that the value of the latter will be kept at par. The Central Bank has also promoted an increased capitalization of the commercial banks to enlarge credit facilities in a sound way. Through their own profits and through grants and capital increases which have been given at various times by governmental decrees, the capital of the commercial banks has been increased every year since their nationalization. As the credit ceilings are related to bank capital, the increases in capital in recent years have allowed the ceilings to rise. This has, in fact, been the most important factor in determining movements of the credit ceilings.

Since 1950, when the Central Bank was established, an environment of economic stability has been maintained in Costa Rica, although monetary developments have passed through different stages. During 1951–53, the Government had a substantial surplus, which gave the banking system increased resources for its operations; these resources were used only in part, however, to expand bank credit, so that there was also a significant increase in foreign reserves. During 1954–55, the Government was utilizing bank resources; but at the same time, these resources were expanding through increases in savings and other deposits, sales of bonds to the public, and substantial additions to bank capital. The policies of the Central Bank permitted an expansion of bank loans at the same rate as in earlier years, and reserves continued to increase, although at a slower rate than before.

From 1951 to 1955, the money supply increased by approximately 25 million per year. The expansion represented, on the whole, the normal increase in the money requirements of a rapidly growing economy, since there were no substantial price increases and foreign reserves continued to expand. Bank resources were augmented in 1951–53 by increases in government deposits and amortization and purchases of bank-held bonds of about 25 million per year. In 1954–55, on the other hand, when the Government no longer added to bank resources, savings deposits, other deposits, and bank capital were increasing by 30 million a year, and the banks were also selling bonds to the public in the amount of about 9 million per year.

Banking in El Salvador

In El Salvador, both the Central Reserve Bank (Banco Central de Reserva de El Salvador) and the Banco Hipotecario de El Salvador, which is the largest bank in the country and deals primarily with the public, are privately owned but have some government participation in their management. The six private banks are Banco Salvadoreño, Banco del Comercio de El Salvador, Bank of London & South America, Banco Agrícola Comercial de El Salvador, Banco de Credito y Ahorro, and Capitalizadora de Ahorros. The Banco Agrícola Comercial was established in 1955; and in that year, the Banco de Credito y Ahorro and the Capitalizadora de Ahorros, which were savings institutions, were converted into commercial banks. There is also the Federación de Cajas Rurales de Crédito, a government-sponsored cooperative organization, with a network of branches throughout the country, which extends loans of limited size to small farmers. An autonomous Instituto de Fomento de la Producción (Production Development Institute), with an initial capital set at 3 million, was established by the Government late in 1955. It reportedly supplements the credit and financial facilities of the other institutions.

The Central Reserve Bank was created in 1934. It is the only bank that may issue currency in El Salvador, and it has the function of controlling and regulating the volume of credit in order to ensure the stability of the external value of the colón and to strengthen the liquidity of the commercial banks.6 The Bank’s capital is owned primarily by the Asociación Cafetalera de El Salvador (Coffee Association) and the private banks, but some private individuals are also shareholders. The Board of Directors consists of five members, one of whom is the President of the Asociación Cafetalera, and the others are elected by the general assembly of stockholders. The Board elects its president, who holds office for five years and is responsible for administering the bank. The only means whereby the Government can intervene in the operation of the Bank is through the provision that the person elected as president of the Board requires approval by the President of the Republic. The Bank’s main office is in San Salvador. It has branches in Santa Ana and Sonsonate, and eight correspondents elsewhere in the country.

The Central Reserve Bank has not been granted the right to impose variable reserve requirements upon the commercial banks as an instrument of credit control. The legal reserve of 20 per cent for sight, time, and savings deposits originally prescribed in 1934 has not been changed. The Bank is authorized in conditions of emergency to grant exemptions from the minimum reserve requirement, but this authority has never been used.

The Banco Hipotecario is second in importance to the Central Reserve Bank. Of its total shares, 75 per cent is owned by the Asociacion Cafetalera, 20 per cent by the Cattle Producers Association, and the remainder by private stockholders. The Government has provided the Bank with appropriations totaling about 10 million; but this sum is a contribution to the Bank rather than a part of its capital. The Government does not share in the profits of the Bank, and it elects only one of the five members of the Board of Directors. The main source of funds for the Bank is the sale of securities to the public. It also has access to rediscounting at the Central Reserve Bank. The bonds issued by the Bank pay interest at 5 per cent for 5-year issues, 5½ per cent for 10-year issues, and 6 per cent for 20-year issues. They are tax exempt and may be used as collateral for bank loans at 4 per cent, up to 90 per cent of their face value. As a result of these highly attractive features, the bonds have proved popular with the public. To some extent, they are also held by corporations and the other banks.

Most of the credit operations of the Banco Hipotecario consist of long-term urban and rural mortgage loans to prosperous property owners. As of June 30, 1956, the Bank had about 70 million in mortgage loans; of this total, 55 million represented cédulas in the hands of the public. The Bank has also helped to finance the Urban Housing Institute, a government agency in charge of low-cost housing projects.

In recent years, and especially since 1952, certain important banking reforms have been inaugurated. The Central Reserve Bank has been authorized to make cash advances to the Government up to 10 per cent of the annual average of treasury cash receipts in the previous three fiscal years (formerly advances to the Government were limited to 10 per cent of receipts from customs duties). It has also been authorized to make advances up to 90 per cent of their market value (formerly 76 per cent) on treasury bills issued by the Government with maturities not exceeding one year, and on fixed interest credit titles guaranteed by the Government and declared eligible by the Board of Directors of the Bank. A Securities Regulatory Fund (Fondo Regulador de Bonos) was created to promote a wider and more active market for securities and to stimulate the investment of savings in fixed-interest bearing securities. The main sources of finance for this Fund are (1) one half of the Central Reserve Bank’s profits after deduction of reserves and dividends (which may not exceed 6 per cent per annum); (2) the portion of the Bank’s special reserve fund which the general assembly of stockholders assigns to it temporarily; (3) idle government funds from budget surpluses or idle balances assigned by the Board of Directors of the Bank; and (4) profits realized from the Fund’s operations. Another interesting new feature is that the Central Reserve Bank has been authorized to issue its own bonds, Certificados de Participación, which represent a transfer to the private sector of government indebtedness to the Central Reserve Bank. This system gives to the Government access to Central Reserve Bank financing for public works projects without inflationary effects; to private investors, an opportunity to buy securities issued by the Central Reserve Bank, a private institution; and to the Central Reserve Bank, a tool for open market operations. Between 1952 and 1956 13.1 million, or 44 per cent of the total amount of 29.8 million invested by the Bank in government securities, was matched by the issue of these certificates.

The money supply in El Salvador has increased steadily since early in the postwar period; by the end of 1956 it amounted to 225.5 million, almost twice the money supply at the end of 1950 128 million). Increases in the domestic price level, however, have been less marked than the increase in the money supply; the wholesale price index (1950 = 100) was 106 in 1951, 100 in 1952, and 112 at the end of 1956. During these years, a stable and fully convertible currency was maintained.

The increase in the money supply has been due to two factors: the accumulation of reserves and the more active role played by the banks in extending credit. The increase in reserves may be attributed mainly to the better prices received for coffee. With expanded reserves, more credit has been available, but the monetary authorities have succeeded in channeling such expanded credit to those activities that are of greatest benefit to the economy.

The accumulation of reserves has continued since the beginning of World War II, when increased demand for coffee resulted in greater exchange receipts and the difficulties of transportation and the lack of market supplies reduced imports. Prior to 1952, however, the banking system increased deposits faster than credit, and the Central Reserve Bank exerted contractionary force. In certain periods, even the commercial banks maintained reserves that exceeded their loans.

Since 1952, both the Central Reserve Bank and the commercial banks have permitted credit expansion of such a magnitude that active steps have been taken to channel the expansion of credit toward economic development. Because of the participation of the banking system, savings have played an important role in the increase of electric power and in the program of low-cost housing construction. Through the use of credit, El Salvador has assured adequate supplies of staple foodstuffs in recent years and has increased its cotton exports.

Public participation in the purchase of mortgage bonds has facilitated the promotion of agriculture. In June 1956, a 10 million issue of government bonds was purchased entirely by Salvadoran investors to finance the construction of a new port in Acajutla. It may be concluded that the monetary policy followed has made it possible to raise capital for well-planned projects in industry and agriculture. The cement factory, the soluble coffee plant, and the Banco Agricola Comercial are striking examples.

Banking in Guatemala

The banking system of Guatemala includes the Bank of Guatemala (Banco de Guatemala), four privately owned commercial banks, and four state-financed institutions. The four private banks are Banco Agrícola Mercantil, Bank of London & South America, Banco de Occidente, and Banco Popular, which has been operating since 1955; a new private bank (Banco de América) is in process of organization. The four state-financed banks—Crédito Hipotecario Nacional de Guatemala, Instituto de Fomento de la Producción, Banco Nacional Agrario, and Banco del Agro—have specialized functions and, in one way or another, undertake banking operations.

The banking system was reorganized in 1945, and a series of laws was issued which had been drafted with the assistance of specialists from the Federal Reserve System of the United States. The main features of the laws have been summarized as follows:7 “The new monetary legislation embraces a basic system, supplemented and qualified by emergency provisions to be applied only in cases of extreme shortage of international reserves. The features of the permanent part of the law which are probably of greatest interest are the following: (1) unification of monetary responsibility, for subsidiary coinage as well as for note issue, under a single authority; (2) provisions for changes in the parity of the currency in the case of fundamental external disequilibria in the economy of the country, and in accordance with the International Monetary Fund Agreement; (3) sterilization of revaluation profits and losses in mere bookkeeping accounts, in order to remove a strong bias toward currency depreciation, and to prevent the development of automatic domestic expansionary or deflationary pressures from a mere change in currency parity; (4) extension of the same principle to the commercial banks, in order to strengthen their position and discourage interest on their part in exchange speculation; (5) translation into concrete operational terms of the obligation assumed by the country, of the International Monetary Fund Agreement, to base gold and foreign exchange transactions on the par value of the currency. The emergency system of international transfers permits the application of some exchange restrictions, but only under concretely defined conditions, for strictly monetary purposes, and in nondiscriminatory forms preserving to a large extent the essential and automatic features of a free exchange market.”

The salient characteristics of the central banking legislation have been summarized 8 as “(1) broad definition of the objectives of central banking policy, distinguishing between domestic and international aims; (2) guidance of monetary policy primarily by analysis of domestic developments, rather than in automatic response to changes in international reserves; (3) determination of open market powers and policies based on domestic requirements for monetary stability, provided that international reserves are adequate to meet external pressures; if international reserves are inadequate, reconsideration either of domestic policies or of the external parity of the currency; (4) introduction of a ‘net international reserves concept’; and investment of international reserves designed to assure the prompt availability of any amount needed to finance deficits in the balance of payments while still providing the Bank, especially at times when anti-inflationary action is necessary, with sources of earning power other than domestic credit expansion; (5) definition of ‘critical’ level of reserves, related to balance of payments needs, rather than to domestic note issue or sight obligations, and avoidance of any rigid requirement which would make reserves legally unavailable in times of need; (6) distinction between temporary disequilibria in the balance of payments calling for compensatory action, and fundamental disequilibria calling for corrective action; (7) creation of an independent Monetary Board, in close coordination with the Ministries responsible for the formulation of governmental economic and financial policies, and endowed with policy making functions rather than with detailed responsibilities for individual operations; and corresponding decentralization of operating responsibilities; (8) integration of policies relating to money, credit (including bank supervision), and exchange (including the administration of emergency restrictions) under the authority and responsibility of the Monetary Board; and coordination of official and semi-official borrowings with monetary policy; (9) broad techniques of monetary control; (10) broad and flexible provisions with relation to reserve requirements, and power to apply special reserve requirements against growth in aggregate deposits; (11) provision for the issue by the Bank of ‘Stabilization Bonds,’ designed to withdraw excess cash temporarily from the market, in times of inflationary pressures; (12) capital requirements varying in relation to risk-assets of the Bank, all excess profits to accrue to a Fund for the Regulation of the Official Bond Market; (13) development of a Government bond market through the operations of a special Fund for the Regulation of the Official Bond Market; (14) management of official accounts with a view to reinforcing monetary stabilization policies; (15) liberalization of rediscounting rules from strict and highly controversial ‘commercial loan theory’ criteria, in order to permit greater flexibility in the discharge of the Bank’s responsibility as ‘lender of last resort.’”

The legislation under which the Bank of Guatemala operates as a central bank is modern and complete. As defined by law, the main purpose of the Bank is to promote and maintain monetary, exchange, and credit conditions that are most favorable to the orderly progress of the national economy. Within the domestic economy, the Bank should adapt the money supply and credit policy to the legitimate needs of the country and to the development of productive activity, and prevent any inflationary, speculative, or deflationary tendencies detrimental to the general interests; promote the liquidity, solvency, and sound operation of the national banking system, and a distribution of credit adequate to the general interests of the national economy; effect the necessary coordination between the various economic and financial activities of the Government which influence the monetary and credit market, and especially between fiscal and monetary policy. In the international sphere, the Bank particularly must maintain the external value and convertibility of the quetzal, administer the international reserves of the country and the system of international transfers with the object of protecting the country from undue monetary pressures, and reduce, as far as adequate monetary and credit policies permit, the harmful effects that may be caused by seasonal, cyclical, or erratic disequilibria of the balance of payments upon the money supply, credit, prices, and economic activities in general, and safeguard the international economic equilibrium of the country and the competitive position of national producers in the domestic and foreign markets.9

The Bank operates under the direction of a Monetary Board composed of six members. The President and Vice-President are named for six-year terms by the President of the Republic; the Ministers of Finance and of Economy are also members of the Board. Of the remaining two members, one is named for six years by the University of San Carlos and the other for one year by the private banks. The Board names the Manager of the Bank and is fully responsible for supervision of the Bank as well as for the formulation of national monetary and credit policies.

In carrying out its obligations to apply broad techniques of monetary control, the Bank of Guatemala may determine its rediscount and interest rates, and it has authority to accept or reject applications for credit presented to it. It may influence the banking system as a whole by establishing minimum bank reserves; regulating the minimum proportions of capital and surplus which the banks must maintain in relation to specific classes of assets; establishing the maximum rates of interest; controlling the issue of obligations by the banks; and restricting the granting of bank credit. It has authority to guide the general policy of banking institutions of an official or semiofficial character; and to intervene in the open market, through the purchase, sale, or retirement of Stabilization Bonds issued by the Bank and the negotiation of securities issued by other entities. The Bank also manages the Securities Regulatory Fund and other official deposits. It is authorized to intervene in the credit operations of the Government and of public entities and it has a general authority as the Government’s advisor and fiscal agent.10

The Crédito Hipotecario Nacional, the second most important banking institution of the country, was created in 1929 and operates principally as a commercial bank, with most of its credit going to agriculture on a short-term basis. It is a multipurpose institution with two main Departments—the Mortgage Department and the Commercial Department. The Mortgage Department includes a savings section, an urban housing section, and part of an agricultural section. The Commercial Department includes a general deposit warehouse and another part of the agricultural section. Other Departments are the Capitalization Department, which functions as a capitalization bank; the Insurance Department, which underwrites life and casualty risks; the Surety Department, which underwrites personal bonding contracts; and a Pawn-Shop Department.

The Instituto de Fomento de la Produccion, a development bank, was established in 1948, and it is growing in importance. It has three Departments: Agricultural and Industrial Credit, Development, and Housing. The Banco Nacional Agrario was set up in mid-1953 to help finance the agrarian reform program; it was reorganized in 1956 as an instrument for the extension of credit to small-scale agricultural producers in general.

Most of the private banks’ operations with the public in Guatemala consist of short-term lending. As in other countries of the same degree of development, the resources available to the banking system for medium-term and long-term lending are limited.

The money supply in Guatemala increased by about 68 per cent between the end of 1950 and the end of 1956. This increase was accompanied by an expansion in output, and the rise in prices was less than 1 per cent per year. After changing very little between 1950 and 1954, foreign assets increased substantially during 1955 and 1956; by the end of 1956, they were almost double what they had been in 1950. Credit policies traditionally have been sound and cautious. In 1955, when the Government was entering into a phase of expanded public and private investments, studies were undertaken on the promotion of economic development through a more active monetary policy. An analysis of the total resources likely to be available to financial institutions through government and private savings was made in order to determine a satisfactory balance between adequate domestic credit and international reserves and an acceptable level of domestic prices.

At the end of 1956, a new scale of discount rates was approved by the Monetary Board, in order to encourage more intensively certain kinds of credit operation. Interest on loans for agricultural purposes was lowered. This was the first substantial change of interest rates since the beginning of 1954.

Banking in Honduras

The banking system of Honduras includes the Central Bank of Honduras (Banco Central de Honduras), three privately owned commercial banks—the Banco Atlántida, the Banco de Honduras, and the Banco de Occidente, a state-financed institution with a specialized purpose—the Development Bank (Banco Nacional de Fomento), and four privately owned savings institutions—the Banco de la Propiedad, Capitalizadora Hondureña, Ahorro Hondureño, and Capitalizadora de Ahorros. The last is a branch of a Salvadoran savings bank.

Until the establishment of the Central Bank, the right of note issue was vested in the two principal commercial banks, the Banco Atlántida and the Banco de Honduras. The former was originally established with U.S. capital in close cooperation with the Standard Fruit and Steamship Company, which still maintains a controlling interest. In September 1953, this bank moved its headquarters from La Ceiba to Tegucigalpa; it has branches in San Pedro Sula, Tela, and Puerto Cortes. As a result of wartime and postwar developments and the rigid reserve requirements to which these two institutions were subject, they were unable to meet the country’s need for currency, and the U.S. dollar was declared legal tender. U.S. fifty-cent silver coins—called lempiras in Honduras—constituted 70 per cent of the total currency in circulation, and Salvadoran colones and Guatemalan quetzales also circulated widely in the western provinces. This situation, as well as the long-felt need for a central monetary authority, led to the establishment of the Central Bank of Honduras in 1950.11

The Central Bank of Honduras and the Development Bank are wholly government owned. The legislation under which both organizations operate is modern and complete. It was drawn up with the technical assistance of the International Monetary Fund. The primary objective of the Central Bank, according to its by-laws, is “the promotion of such monetary, credit, and exchange conditions as are most favorable to the development of the national economy.” The Central Bank has the traditional functions of a central bank, such as the sole right of note issue, the ability to act as bank of last resort for the commercial banks, the role of fiscal agent of and, within limits, lender to the national Treasury, and the right to centralize the country’s gold and foreign exchange reserves. A noteworthy feature of the Central Bank legislation is the authorization given to its Board of Directors to act as government advisor on economic policy. The Development Bank is an autonomous institution whose purpose is to contribute to the development of production, so as to raise the living standards of the population.

The initial capital of the Central Bank of Honduras was fixed at L 500,000, all supplied by the Government. The Board of Directors is the supreme authority in the Bank. It considers and decides credit applications from the Government and from official entities, authorizes open market operations, etc. Half of the profits are devoted to capital increases and half to the establishment of a Securities Fund. The Bank has no minimum reserve requirements set by law. The Board of Directors is composed of five members, the President of the Bank, the President of the Development Bank, the Minister of Finance, one representative of private banks, and one representative of commerce, agriculture, and industry. The Government appoints the Presidents of the Central and Development Banks, as well as the Minister of Finance. The Central Bank serves as banker, fiscal agent, and economic and financial counsel for the Government. It receives government deposits and handles such banking transactions as the Government requires. According to the law, the Government must request the Bank’s opinion before it can undertake domestic or foreign credit operations.

In addition, the Bank is endowed with broad powers of monetary management. It may establish maximum interest rates and fix the commissions that banks may charge in their operations with the public; it may require the banks to establish reserves against their deposit liabilities, and it may vary these requirements between 10 per cent and 50 per cent of total deposits. It may also establish reserve requirements against increases in deposits that occur after a certain date, up to the full amount of such increases.

The Central Bank is empowered to channel bank lending in directions which it believes to be in the national interest. Thus, it may establish differential rediscount rates, with lower rates for transactions that it wishes to encourage, and it may directly influence commercial bank lending by establishing fixed ratios between the capital and reserves of the commercial banks and the permissible volume of their lending in specific fields. The Bank is also authorized to engage in open market operations with a view to developing a capital market.

Exchange transactions may be carried out in Honduras only through the Central Bank or its authorized agents. Private citizens may hold, but not trade in, foreign exchange. The law assumes full exchange freedom, although there is an escape clause which would permit exchange control if needed.

The credit operations of the Central Bank consist of the discount, rediscount, purchase, and sale of all types of credit document held by banks, on condition that they have originated in transactions beneficial to the country’s economy. The law specifies that the Central Bank may establish certain rules and regulations with respect to credits, but only within the limits laid down by the law. The law permits rediscounts of documents with maturities up to one year, and even rediscounts of longer maturities which are amortized, provided that the discount applies only to the portion of the loan maturing within one year. Rediscounting facilities are not automatic; the Board of Directors acts “with a view to the country’s monetary situation, the conditions and needs of the credit market, and the situation and composition of the portfolios of the banks and of the Central Bank.” No limit is set to the volume of rediscounts by any one bank.

The Central Bank may buy securities for its own account or for the account of the Securities Fund. Securities bought for its own account are in the nature of extraordinary aid to the Government. The Bank may purchase government securities to a total of 15 per cent of average government receipts during the preceding three years. Such security purchases are made only when there is an abnormal decline in one of the main sources of government revenue or an abnormal increase in expenditures because of emergency. The percentage may be increased to 30 in extreme circumstances, when the Government needs to carry out compensatory fiscal policy. The Bank also may buy short-term treasury notes (maturing no later than one month after the end of the fiscal year in which they are issued) to a total of 15 per cent of average government receipts during the preceding three years. For investments in the Securities Fund, the Central Bank is to keep in mind two primary purposes—the development of a capital market and the development of economic activity. The Securities Fund receives part of the Bank’s profits and may receive additional resources of the Government and official and semiofficial entities.

The Development Bank was capitalized by the Government with resources that were available in an accumulated fund. It receives each year from the Government 10 per cent of the customs surcharge and 15 per cent of revenues from the income tax. It is empowered to effect short-term (crop), medium-term (equipment), and long-term (mortgage) loans, receive deposits, issue securities, and effect all types of banking operations in general; to participate in the formation of all or part of the capital of private, public, or mixed enterprises, as well as to buy or guarantee obligations issued by such enterprises; to sell and market stocks and bonds of such enterprises as are cited above; to import, export, buy, sell, lease, store, and transport machinery, tools, working equipment, seeds, fertilizer, fruits, and products in general; and to perform any other activity or operation which contributes directly to the better accomplishment of its purposes.

Since the establishment of the Central Bank, natural and human factors have provided a significant test of the use of effective monetary policies in Honduras. From 1950 to 1953, balance of payments surpluses and the gradual replacement of foreign currency by lempiras as the principal means of payment brought about an expansion of the money supply with a subsequent increase in the price level. The Central Bank then restrained inflationary credit expansion and obtained government cooperation in the adoption of conservative fiscal policies, as a result of which part of the surpluses was offset by the accumulation of considerable deposits in the Central Bank. Price increases were slowed down. Later, there was some expansion of loans, and government investments were stimulated when the government surplus had a deflationary effect.

The Central Bank guaranteed some of the government bonds with a repurchase obligation at par. To make these papers attractive, special interest rates were approved by the Bank. When bonds are held by private banks, for example, the interest rate is lower than when they are held by the public, because the banks may use these bonds to replace cash as part of their legal reserves. As soon as the bonds are sold to the public, however, the rate of interest increases. In 1955 and 1956, the monetary policies of the Central Bank were aimed at curbing secondary expansion. The unusually severe weather in the winter of 1954 had destroyed plantations and brought about a considerable reduction of exchange receipts and a decline in fiscal revenue. When the need for rapid repairs of the damage caused by the winter was most urgent, a strike of agricultural workers—the most severe in Hon-duran history—paralyzed labor activities and delayed essential work. Notwithstanding these pressures, credit and monetary growth was restrained. Early in 1955, bank reserve requirements against sight deposits were raised from 25 per cent to 35 per cent. The 10 per cent increase could be held in government bonds. In 1956, there was again a trend toward an increase in liquidity of commercial banks, largely connected with fiscal financing operations; and at the end of the year, the Central Bank became concerned and acted to curb any secondary expansion of credit. Measures taken at the beginning of December included a lowering of the rediscount ceilings to the level of rediscounts then outstanding, except for coffee loans, and an increase in the interest rate on savings deposits, accompanying an increase in interest on the public debt decreed by the Government. At the same time, the Central Bank prevailed upon the banks to agree to limit their loan portfolios to the amounts outstanding on November 30, 1956, except for those loans which are considered by the Central Bank as being for productive purposes, such as financing of the coffee crop or of industry and agriculture. The general conclusion is that the Central Bank collaborated closely with the commercial banks in indicating the need for adequate credit policies which would not add to the inflationary or deflationary pressures generated in the public sector.

Banking in Nicaragua

The banking system of Nicaragua is composed of the National Bank of Nicaragua (Banco Nacional de Nicaragua), which is government owned, three private banks, two private banking houses, and several other financial institutions. Two of the three private banks, the Banco Nicaragüense and the Banco de America, are Nicaraguan; the third is a branch of the Bank of London & South America. The banking activities of the two private banking houses—J.R.E. Tefel and Caley & Dagnall & Co. Ltd.—are very limited, as these institutions are concerned primarily with other matters to which their banking functions are subsidiary. One of them is engaged mainly in importing and, on a smaller scale, exporting. The other was incorporated as a commercial bank only in 1954 and is engaged almost exclusively in exporting coffee; advances are made to its producer clients in connection with its export business. The other financial institutions are the Institute of Economic Development (Instituto de Fomento Economico), the Mortgage Bank (Banco Hipotecario de Nicaragua, founded in 1931 with nominal capitalization, but expanded in 1933 with capital of C$3 million provided by the National Bank), the Popular Credit Bank (Caja Nacional de Crédito Popular), and the National Insurance Company (Compañia Nacional de Seguros); with the exception of the last, these institutions are government owned. The Institute of Economic Development is authorized to receive savings deposits and to make loans for productive purposes, but its operations began to be important only in 1956. During the last three years, seven small private institutions to finance private housing construction and promote savings have been established; two of these are also local insurance companies.

The National Bank of Nicaragua dominates the country’s banking system. Through its Issue Department, it performs some of the functions of a central bank, particularly with regard to the issue of currency and the regulation of credit. It is also responsible for all foreign exchange operations, but it has authorized other banks to act as its agent in this respect. Through its Banking Department, it is the principal commercial bank of the country. It is also the banker of the Government and, by means of short-term and medium-term credits, it finances the greater part of the agricultural and livestock production for export and for domestic consumption. It operates an export and import department, the Overseas Mercantile Company, which in recent years has played an important part in Nicaragua’s foreign trade, particularly in relation to coffee and cotton exports. Most of the remaining commercial banking is done by the three private banks, the Banco Nicaragüense, the Banco de América, and the Bank of London & South America. The two Nicaraguan banks, which came into existence in 1953, had about 20 per cent of the business in 1955; and the Bank of London & South America, which concerns itself primarily with the financing of foreign trade through documentary bills, had about 5 per cent. (The National Bank controlled about 75 per cent.)

The Issue Department of the National Bank is empowered to issue currency, both notes and coins, against gold, foreign exchange, or specified documents maturing in 90 to 180 days, or against documents with a maturity of up to one year, subject to a limit of 20 per cent of its total assets. Currency may also be issued against government securities subject, in ordinary circumstances, to a limitation of 10 per cent of the Issue Department’s assets, but in extraordinary circumstances, without limit. (During the last six years there has been a steady reduction of government obligations to the National Bank.) The Issue Department does not hold government deposits, except for certain deposits denominated in foreign currency and other special deposits.

The Board of the Issue Department does not have the power to change the reserve requirements of commercial banks, which are set by law, but it does have the power to raise or lower the discount rate. The Department did not originally have capital of its own; the Bank’s yearly profits were used to capitalize the Banking Department. The Exchange Law of 1950, however, provided that some of the exchange profits arising from the multiple exchange mechanism should be used to increase the capital of the Issue Department. Up to 1954, more than C$30 million was obtained from this source. This amount was doubled in 1955, when the par value was changed from C$5.00 per U.S. dollar to C$7.00 and the depreciation profits were added to the capital of the Bank. At present, the portfolio of the Issue Department is composed almost exclusively of rediscounts from the Banking Department and the private commercial banks. The deposits of the Issue Department represent the only legal reserve of the banking system, which is 16 per cent of demand deposits and 8 per cent of term deposits for private banks and 12 per cent of demand deposits and 6 per cent of time deposits for the Banking Department. The Exchange Law of 1950 required that advance deposits for imports be deposited in the Issue Department and thus provided some degree of monetary control.

The Banking Department—which, as noted above, is the principal commercial bank of the country—receives deposits from the Government and the private sector; it operates with these deposits and with rediscounts obtained from the Issue Department. Its agricultural and stock-raising loans considerably exceed its commercial loans. In contrast to the practice in many other countries more or less similarly situated, the Banking Department of the National Bank grants a substantial amount of agricultural credit—the so-called habilitation loans—and, as most of its deposits are repayable on demand, it relies heavily on rediscounts in the Issue Department. The Banking Department operates in fields that in other countries are financed entirely or substantially by private capital. A heavy demand for this credit arises yearly, to finance a considerable part of the crops, especially those for export. A high proportion of total bank assets in Nicaragua, especially in the National Bank, consists of this type of loan, with a consequent serious inflexibility in bank credit.

When the National Bank of Nicaragua received official status in 1940, a new law gave it more specific functions, but not more resources. Since the Banking Department was to be a commercial, industrial, and agricultural bank, terms for loans were set as follows: 90 to 180 days for commercial loans, up to 360 days for agricultural loans, and up to three years for industrial loans. The Banking Department could operate with deposits from the Government and the public, except that 12 per cent had to be maintained with the Issue Department as a legal reserve. Paper of up to 180 days’ maturity could be rediscounted at the Issue Department without limit, provided the funds were to be used for commercial or agricultural purposes. The main principle underlying the new law was the so-called organic issue doctrine, under which the central bank issues money in accordance with the needs of trade, the idea being that money issued in response to actual needs does not have inflationary effects. It was the 1940 law which incorporated the habilitation loans policy as an important part of the Nicaraguan banking legislation.

During World War II, Nicaragua faced, for the first time, demands for agricultural products other than coffee; and, with the aid of habilitation loans, some new products, among them sesame and rice, began to be produced and exported. The construction of the Pan-American Highway brought additional dollars to the country, and the lack of availability of consumer goods caused the easing of import control. Balance of payments surpluses during the war years were reflected in the accumulation of international reserves.

The end of the war again brought exchange difficulties. International reserves, which had increased to a peak of $9.7 million in 1944, began to be used rapidly as soon as consumer goods again became available abroad. A considerable part of the habilitation loans had become frozen, and early in 1947 the National Bank borrowed $4.5 million from the Bank of America in San Francisco, with collateral of an equivalent amount of gold. It was intended that the proceeds of this loan would be used to increase the loanable funds of the Mortgage Bank. The National Bank, however, transferred to the Mortgage Bank only 50 per cent of the proceeds of the loan in liquid resources, and the other 50 per cent in frozen credits. In this way, the liquidity of both banks was increased. Credit was then expanded rapidly. By the end of 1947, the international reserves of the National Bank were not more than $500,000. The National Bank made extensive use of its power to grant commercial, agricultural, and industrial loans, and the Mortgage Bank granted credits for up to ten years. It appears that the Mortgage Bank was always interested in the type of property pledged for the loan, rather than in its use. The Government began using the resources of the National Bank to finance budgetary deficits in 1947, 1948, and 1949. A bad coffee crop in 1949 brought a renewed crisis. Unpaid import obligations were accumulated, and the National Bank, without adequate resources of its own, used its overdraft facilities with its foreign correspondents.

In April 1949, the credit policies of the National Bank were substantially revised. Commercial credit was curbed markedly, and other devices, such as advance deposits for imports and exchange surcharges, were established. At that time, it was realized that the National Bank law did not provide adequate tools for monetary control, and special measures were therefore enacted for that purpose.

Credit control measures were adopted in 1949 on the recommendation of an International Monetary Fund mission; the Nicaraguan authorities had already, on their own initiative, instituted in 1945 a requirement of prior advance deposits against licensed imports in order to avoid undue expansion of the money supply. This measure was maintained up to 1947. At that time, however, advance import deposits were made at the Banking Department of the National Bank, where they served as a basis for further credit expansion. It was only in 1949, when the Fund mission recommended that these deposits be turned over to the Issue Department, that it became clear that the old system defeated the anti-inflationary purposes for which the advance deposit requirement had been established.

The Decree of April 1949 classified commercial credits into four groups: import credits, credits for purchases of locally produced goods, credits for the mobilization of export commodities, and ordinary personal credits. For import credits and ordinary personal credits, terms were reduced to 90 days, and no renewals were permitted. For these credits, the National Bank set a ceiling, which was reduced gradually to levels not exceeding 50 per cent of the loans outstanding as of April 4, 1949. Maximum terms for credits to purchase locally produced goods were set at 180 days, and no renewal could be authorized. No ceilings were established for credits to obtain export commodities, but loans could not exceed 70 per cent of the value of the product, and collateral of the product was an indispensable requisite. These regulations have been maintained up to the present, and in the Exchange Law of 1950 another provision was enacted, under which private commercial banks are not permitted to increase credit for imports beyond the levels prevailing at the end of 1950. To the extent to which commercial credit was restricted by the implementation of these regulations, habilitation loans increased. Since 1950, on the other hand, budgetary surpluses have been accumulated, and the expansion of agricultural credit has not caused any undue expansion of the money supply.

The expansion of cotton production since 1951–52 has required considerable financing. The National Bank arranged the purchase of 263 tractors with financial help from the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and in 1953 it financed 161 more tractors from its own resources. These tractors were sold to cotton producers by financing their cost under three-year and five-year loans. Through the use of these tractors and other equipment, the area devoted to cotton cultivation was approximately doubled between 1952 and 1953, and again between 1953 and 1954.

On April 1, 1954, the National Bank informed the private banks that its discount rate for commercial credits would be immediately raised from 5 per cent to 6 per cent, thereby inducing the commercial banks to hold larger amounts of commercial paper in their own portfolios. It also ordered commercial banks to reduce their portfolios of commercial credit for imports over a period of three months to the level prevailing in each bank at the end of 1953. Nevertheless, the rapid expansion of credit continued in 1954 and 1955, and with it production of cotton was further increased. In 1955 cotton exports reached their highest level, but the 1956 crop was reduced by unfavorable weather conditions. Credit could not be reduced in time and exchange resources had to be used. The credit policies of Nicaragua were being carefully revised in 1957 with a view to rebuilding reserves.


Mr. Laso, Advisor, Western Hemisphere Department, is a graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles, and of the Central University of Ecuador. He was formerly a member of the faculty of the Central University of Ecuador, Minister of Economy of Ecuador, and Chief of the Economic Research Department of the Central Bank of Ecuador.


This is a revised version of a paper presented to the Fifth Meeting of Technicians of Central Banks of the American Continent held in Bogota in November 1957.


See Paul Vinelli, “The Currency and Exchange System of Honduras,” Staff Papers, Vol. I (1950–51), pp. 420–31.


“Monetary Policy in Latin America,” Monthly Review of Credit and Business Conditions (Federal Reserve Bank of New York), April 1956, p. 50.


See Jorge Marshall, “Advance Deposits on Imports,” Staff Pavers, Vol. VI (1957–58), pp. 239–57.


“Uso de las Reservas Interaacionales para Propósitos de Desarrollo Economicó,” Proceedings, Fourth Meeting of Technicians of Central Banks of the American Continent (Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, Washington, D. C, 1955), pp. 682–83. This paper was presented by the Costa Rican delegation to the Fourth Meeting, May 1954.


Decree No. 65 (June 19, 1934), Article 3; see Ley de FundaciAsociaciónn y Estatutos del Banco Central de Reserva de El Salvador (San Salvador, El Salvador), p. 34,


“Monetary and Banking Reform in Guatemala,” Federal Reserve Bulletin (Washington, D.C.), March 1946, p. 257.


Ibid, p. 257.


Ibid, p. 270.


Ibid, p. 283.


For a fuller account of the events that preceded the establishment of the Central Bank of Honduras, see Paul Vinelli, op. cit.