A question for our times: the role of the central bank

Peter Conti-Brown and Philip Wallach are having a debate that cuts right to the heart of what appears to me to be the most important economic question of the current era: what is the proper role of the central bank?

Conti-Brown takes what I think is a fairly mainstream view of the central bank’s role as lender of last resort: In a crisis, the central bank should intervene to rescue a troubled bank as long as, given Fed support, the bank can over time be restored to solvency. He writes:

in a systemic crisis, the problem of determining whether a specific asset class is sufficiently valuable to justify its temporary exchange for cash isn’t just “murky,” it can be impossible to determine. This is true for two reasons: first, the reason the systemic crisis exists at all is because the line between illiquidity and insolvency has become a mirage. And second, whatever line is left is endogenously determined: what the central bank does in response to the crisis has immediate consequences on both liquidity and solvency. There is essentially no way, in the depth of a crisis, to draw the line meaningfully between solvency and illiquidity. After Lehman, the Fed recognized this and extended loans through 13(3) so quickly on so many different kinds of collateral that we saw an explosion in its 13(3) lending.

The clear implication here is that if there is doubt as to whether a firm is illiquid or insolvent, the Fed should err on the side of supporting the firm.

Wallach responds that if one follows this logic to its end, there appear to be no limits to the Fed’s powers:

If I’m understanding him correctly here, Peter means to put in the Fed’s mouth some version of an infamous 2004 pronouncement of a Bush administration aide: “when we act, we create our own reality.” Amidst the chaos of crisis, it is for the Fed to decide which firms are solvent and which kinds of assets are really valuable as collateral and, whatever they decide, the markets will follow, allowing the central bank to benefit its own balance sheet and the larger financial system through self-fulfilling optimistic prophecy. As they forge this new reality, making the security on loans satisfactory to themselves will be the least of their miracles.

Teasing aside, I think that’s far from crazy, but one can get carried away. It can’t be the case that the Fed is capable of rescuing any institution through this kind of heroic thinking: if a firm is in a downward spiral, and the only collateral it has is rotten, then the Fed does not have the legal authority to funnel money into it.

I think that there are actually three question raised by this exchange: First, what are the Fed’s potential powers; that is, what is it feasible for the Fed to do? Second, what were the Fed’s powers in 2008; or alternatively, what was both legal and feasible for the Fed to do? And, third, what should the Fed have legal authority to do? Conti-Brown and Wallach are debating the second question, but I think it’s important to explore the first question regarding what the Fed can do, before moving on to the second and third questions regarding what the Fed is legally authorized to do.

A little history on the concept of the lender of last resort is useful in exploring the first question. A previous post makes the point that the term lender of “last resort” was initially coined, because the central made the self-fulfilling determination of whether or not a bank was solvent and worthy of support. The fact that the central bank has the alternative of saving a bank, but chooses not to is what defines the power of a lender of “last resort.” From the earlier post:

The term “lender of last resort” has its origins in Francis Baring’s Observations on the Establishment of the Bank of England and on the Paper Circulation of the Country published in 1797. He referred to the Bank of England as the “dernier resort” or court of last appeal. The analogy is clear: just as a convicted man has no recourse after the court of last appeal has made its decision, so a bank has no recourse if the central bank decides that it is not worthy of credit. In short, the very concept of a “lender of last resort” embodies the idea that it is the central bank’s job to determine which banks are sound and which banks are not — because liquidity is offered only to sound banks. And the central bank’s determination that a financial institution is insolvent has the same finality as a last court of appeal’s upholding of a lower court’s death sentence.

In short, for a partial reserve bank “solvency” is a state of affairs that exists only as long as the bank has access to central bank support. Solvency in the banking system does not exist separate and apart from the central bank – and this concept was fundamental to the 18th and 19th century understanding of banking in Britain [where the concept of lender of last resort was developed].

There is a long list of banks that were deliberately allowed by the Bank of England to fail in Britain, including the Ayr Bank in 1772, and Overend, Gurney, & Co. in 1866. The latter was, second to the Bank of England, the largest bank-like intermediary in England at the time, and its failure triggered a Lehman-like financial crisis — that was, however, followed by only a short, sharp recession of unexceptional depth. Bagehot made it very clear in Lombard Street that he did not believe that the Bank of England had mishandled Overend Gurney. He argued, on the contrary, that it was always a mistake to support a “bad bank.”

In short, just as it is in some cases the job of a court of last appeal to uphold the law in the form of a death sentence, so it is in some cases the job of a central bank to pronounce a death sentence on a bank in order to promote healthy incentives in financial markets. The fact that the bank would still be alive in the absence of the death sentence is as obvious and irrelevant in the case of the lender of last resort as it is in the case of the court of last appeal.

So let’s go back to the original question: What are the potential powers of the Fed? Can it in fact determine “which firms are solvent and which kinds of assets are really valuable as collateral” and expect markets to follow that determination? We have a partial answer to this question: from past experience we know that a central bank can choose not to support a bank in a crisis in which case it is almost certain the bank will fail, or that a central bank can choose to support a bank and with equal certainty carry it through a crisis of limited duration. We also know that sometimes a bank that was saved fails a few years or a decade after it was saved (e.g. City of Glasgow Bank). The British history also indicates that it is possible for a central bank to have a similar effect on assets (see here).

Thus, the fact that ex post the Fed did not lose money on any of the Maiden Lane conduits — or more generally on the bailout — is not evidence that the Fed exercised its lender of last resort role effectively. Instead this fact is simply testimony to powers of a central bank that have been recognized from the earliest days of central banking.

What we don’t know are the limits of a central bank’s ability to “create it own reality.” Can a central bank continue to support banks and assets for a prolonged period of time and still be successful in leading markets? At what point, if ever, does the central bank’s intervention stop being a brilliant act of successful alchemy, and end up looking like fraud?

What makes a lot of people in the financial industry nervous about the current state of central bank intervention (see for example here, here or here) is that they are not sure that the central banks will be able to exit their current policies without causing a crash in financial markets of the sort that none of us has ever seen before. Of course, we are sailing uncharted waters and literally nobody knows the answer. Let’s just hope that Janet Yellen and Mario Draghi are brilliant and creative helmsmen. (Should that be helmspeople?)

In summary, the term lender of “last resort” itself makes it clear that a fundamental aspect of a central bank’s duties is to refuse to support firms such as Lehman. Thus, in my view Conti-Brown, even though he gives a description of a lender of last resort that many modern scholars would agree with, envisions a lender of last resort that is very different from that of Bagehot and 19th century bankers. Whereas Conti-Brown appears to argue that, because the line between solvency and insolvency is so murky in a crisis, if a bank can be saved, it should be saved, Bagehot clearly understood that even though Overend Gurney could have been saved (ch X, ¶ 11), it was correct for the Bank of England to choose not to save it.

This very traditional view of the central bank, as the entity that determines which banks are managed in such a way that they have the right to continue operating, indicates that the Fed’s error in 2008 was not the decision to let Lehman fail, but the failure to prepare the market for that decision beforehand. The Bank of England announced its policy of not supporting bill-brokers such as Overend, Gurney & Co. in 1858, fully eight years before it allowed Overend to fail. This failure was followed by a full century of financial stability. The Federal Reserve, by contrast, never clearly stated what the limits of its lender of last resort policy would be in the decades preceding the 2007-08 crisis. Indeed, the Fed was busy through those decades expanding the expectations that financial institutions had of support from the Fed. Thus, the post-Lehman crisis was decades in the making, and was further aggravated by the inadequate warning signs provided to markets subsequent to the Bear Stearns bailout.

The definition of the proper role of the central bank is probably the most important economic question of our times. We are learning through real-time experimentation what are the consequences of extensive central bank support of the financial system — and whether financial stability is better promoted by a 19th century lender of last resort that very deliberately allows mismanaged banks to fail or by a 21st century lender of last resort that provides much more extensive support to the financial system.

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