Why Bagehot wrote Lombard Street

A recent exchange made me think for the first time about the events preceding the publication of Lombard Street. The financial crisis of 1866 had rocked the financial system dramatically without really destabilizing it. But Bagehot saw in that crisis the possibility of total financial collapse. (A detailed description of financial collapse takes up much of Chapter 7, part II of Lombard Street.) For this reason he thought it was important to explain what made it possible for the British economy to survive such brutal storms — and thus to make it clear to politicians and to the Governors of the Bank of England what their obligations were in a crisis.

After 1844 politicians played an important role in the Bank of England’s lender of last resort activities. The Banking Act of 1844 (Peel’s Act) restricted the issue of Bank Notes. It was, however, written with an escape clause, allowing the law to be suspended by executive order (i.e. bypassing Parliament). And in every subsequent crisis 1847, 1857, 1866, the law had to be suspended in order for the Bank of England to act as lender of last resort to the banking system. That is, without suspension of the law the Bank would have run out of Bank Notes.

Peel’s Act was so controversial that Bagehot states: “Two hosts of eager disputants on this subject ask of every new writer the one question — Are you with us or against us? and they care for little else.” For this reason Bagehot chooses not to take sides in the debate, but instead to explain clearly (without condemning the law itself) why Peel’s Act had to be suspended in 1847, 1857 and 1866.

Bagehot’s main concern in Lombard Street is to put an end to any controversy over:
(i) the importance of suspending Peel’s Act in a financial crisis
(ii) the importance of copious lending by the Bank of England in a crisis.
Chapter 7 is dedicated to explaining that public uncertainty about either of these two actions in a crisis is dangerous. He concludes:

The best palliative to a panic is a confidence in the adequate amount of the Bank reserve, and in the efficient use of that reserve. And until we have on this point a clear understanding with the Bank of England, both our liability to crises and our terror at crises will always be greater than they would otherwise be.

Note the subtle reference to Peel’s Act in the first sentence. Bagehot avoids controversy, but makes his point clear. In the second sentence he calls on the Bank to publicly acknowledge its role as lender of last resort to the financial system.

One thing needs to be emphasized: Bagehot is concerned about uncertainty — but that uncertainty references explicitly whether or not a lender of last resort exists and will step in to provide liquidity in a crisis. Thus Bagehot wants the Bank of England to reduce uncertainty in the financial system, but only by promising to lend copiously against high quality assets.

He is entirely at ease with the fact that the Bank of England allowed Overends Gurney, a systemically important bill broker, to fail despite the fact that the failure rocked the financial system with uncertainty, as illustrated by the following two quotes:

In 1866 undoubtedly a panic occurred, but I do not think that the Bank of England can be blamed for it. They had in their till an exceedingly good reserve according to the estimate of that time—a sufficient reserve, in all probability, to have coped with the crises of 1847 and 1857. The suspension of Overend and Gurney—the most trusted private firm in England—caused an alarm, in suddenness and magnitude, without example.

… no cause is more capable of producing a panic, perhaps none is so capable, as the failure of a first-rate joint stock bank in London. Such an event would have something like the effect of the failure of Overend, Gurney and Co.; scarcely any other event would have an equal effect.

Thus, Bagehot does not argue that the lender of last resort should act to eliminate general uncertainty, he argues only that a lender of last resort should eliminate uncertainty about the actions it will take in the midst of a financial panic.

(cross posted here)

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