Owe Your Banker £1,000 and You Are at His Mercy; Owe Him £1 Million and the Position Is Reversed

John Maynard Keynes? Paul Bareau? John Paul Getty? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The relationship between bankers and borrowers is symbiotic and occasionally counter-intuitive. Here is a pertinent adage:

If you owe the bank $100, that’s your problem; if you owe the bank $100 million, that’s the bank’s problem.

The prominent economist John Maynard Keynes apparently made a similar remark using pounds sterling instead of dollars. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match known to QI occurred in a memo that Keynes circulated to the British War Cabinet in 1945; however, the attribution was anonymous. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

On such conditions, by cunning and kindness, we have persuaded the outside world to lend us upwards of the prodigious total of £3,000 million. The very size of these sterling debts is itself a protection. The old saying holds. Owe your banker £1,000 and you are at his mercy; owe him £1 million and the position is reversed.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1942 H. L. Mencken included a thematically related adage in his remarkable compendium “A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources” 2

If you owe a bank enough money you own it.
Author unidentified

In 1943 “Esar’s Comic Dictionary” by Evan Esar included the same adage listed in Mencken’s work. 3

In 1945 Keynes circulated a memo containing the expression under analysis as mentioned previously. The memo appeared in volume 24 of “The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes” which was published in 1979.

In February 1947 “Time” magazine credited Keynes with a slightly different phrasing of the quip: 4

Before his death, Lord Keynes had spoken his mind about those sterling debts: “If you owe your bank manager a thousand pounds, you are at his mercy. If you owe him a million pounds, he is at your mercy.”

Four days later the saying was printed in the “San Francisco Chronicle” of California with an ascription to Keynes: 5

Britain owes India £1,250,000,000, a sum which must be paid in British products if at all.

The late Lord Keynes said in this connection: “If you owe your bank manager a thousand pounds, you are at his mercy. If you owe him a million pounds, he is at yours.”

In April 1947 the periodical “Nation’s Business” published a version using dollars instead of pounds sterling: 6

Some one revived a conclusion reached by one of the early Americans:
“If you owe a banker $100 he’s got you. If you owe him $100,000 you’ve got him.”

In 1951 economist Paul Bareau employed the saying while delivering a speech at the Insurance Institute of London: 7

To-day it is the customer, the debtor, who has the upper hand, although that in itself need not be a reason for immediate weakness. I always remember Keynes’s saying: “When you owe your bank manager £1,000 you are at his mercy. But if you owe him £1,000,000 he is at your mercy.”

In 1959 a newspaper in Salt Lake City, Utah published a variant involving the bank’s board of directors: 8

SAM, THE SAD CYNIC, SAYS:
Owe a bank $1,000 an it’ll foreclose, owe it a million and it’ll elect you to the board of directors!

In 1963 the “Edwardsville Intelligencer” of Illinois printed another instance that did not mention precise amounts of currency: 9

Keynes once said that if you owe your bank manager a modest debt you are in his power; if you owe a huge debt, he is in yours.

In 1975 a newspaper in Binghamton, New York printed another variant reminiscent of the saying in Mencken’s compendium: 10

Beame was operating on this principle: If you owe the bank $100, the bank owns you; if you owe $1 million, you own the bank.

In 2000 the fanciful tabloid “Weekly World News” assigned the saying to business titan John Paul Getty: 11

If you owe the bank $100, that’s your problem. If you owe the bank $100 million, that’s the bank’s problem. — John Paul Getty

In conclusion, John Maynard Keynes helped to popularize this expression when he included it in a 1945 memo, but he disclaimed credit by calling it an “old saying”. The originator remains anonymous.

Image Notes: Illustration of money flying through the air from PublicDomainPictures at Pixabay. Image has been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to George Mannes and Adam Rose whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Both of them noted that the expression had been attributed to J. Paul Getty and John Maynard Keynes. Thanks to the volunteer editors of Wikiquote who presented the important 1945 citation in “The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes”. Thanks to Barry Popik for his helpful research. Many thanks to Rand Hartsell of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign for precisely locating and verifying the citation in the “Journal of the Insurance Institute of London”.)

Notes:

  1. 1979, The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes: Volume 24: Activities 1944-1946: The Transition to Peace, Edited by Donald Moggridge, Section: Overseas Financial Policy in Stage III (Revised memorandum circulated to British War Cabinet on May 15, 1945), Start Page 256, Quote Page 258, Macmillan and Cambridge University Press, New York, For the Royal Economic Society. (Verified with hardcopy)
  2. 1942, A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources, Selected and Edited by H. L. Mencken (Henry Louis Mencken), Topic: Bank, Quote Page 82, Alfred A. Knopf. New York. (Verified on paper)
  3. 1943, Esar’s Comic Dictionary by Evan Esar, Entry: bank, Quote Page 21, Harvest House, New York. (Verified on paper)
  4. 1947 February 17, Time, Foreign News: Whose Mercy?, Time Inc, New York. (Verified via online archive at time.com on April 21, 2018)
  5. 1947 February 21, San Francisco Chronicle, Editorial: Indian Problem Headed For a Showdown, Quote Page 12, Column 1, San Francisco, California. (GenealogyBank)
  6. 1947 April, Nation’s Business, Volume 35, Number 4, On the Lighter Side of the Capital, Journalistic thermostats, Quote Page 94, Column 2, Chamber of Commerce of the U.S., Washington D.C. (Accessed Internet Archive at Archive.org on April 23, 2019)
  7. 1953, Journal of the Insurance Institute of London, Volume 40, Session 1951-1952, The Place of Sterling in the Modern World by Paul Bareau (Economist, Asst. City Editor, News Chronicle), Description: An Address delivered to the Insurance Institute of London, 8th October 1951, Start Page 54, Quote Page 58, Published by The Insurance Institute of London, London, England. (Verified with scans; thanks to Oak Street Library of University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign)
  8. 1959 August 14, The Salt Lake Tribune, Dan Valentine’s Nothing Serious, Quote Page B1, Column 2, Salt Lake City, Utah. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1963 December 17, Edwardsville Intelligencer, Credits for the U.S.S.R., Quote Page 4, Column 2, Edwardsville, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)
  10. 1975 June 18, The Evening Press, N.Y. City Rescue Has Price by George F. Will, Quote Page 6A, Column 3, Binghamton, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  11. 2000 May 23, Weekly World News, Just For Laughs, Quote Page 5, Column 4, Weekly World News Inc., Lantana, Florida. (Google Books Full View) link