An egregious error on the history of central bank actions in crises

Brad DeLong, who is a brilliant economic historian and whose work I greatly respect, has really mistaken his facts with respect to the history of the Bank of England. And in no small part because DeLong is so respected and so deserving of respect, this post is pure siwoti.

DeLong writes: “central banks are government-chartered corporations rather than government agencies precisely to give them additional freedom of action. Corporations can and do do things that are ultra vires. Governments then either sanction them, or decide not to. During British financial crises of the nineteenth century, the Bank of England repeatedly violated the terms of its 1844 charter restricting its powers to print bank notes. The Chancellor the Exchequer would then not take any steps in response to sanction it.”

DeLong gets the facts precisely backwards. In 19th century crises prior to any breach of the 1844 Act, the Act was suspended by the British government, which promised to indemnify the Bank for legal liability for any breach of the restrictions in the 1844 Act. The text of the 1847 letter was published in the Annual Register and was the model for subsequent letters. It read:

”Her Majesty’s Government have come to the conclusion that the time has arrived when they ought to attempt, by some extraordinary and temporary measure, to restore confidence to the mercantile and manufacturing community; for this purpose they recommend to the Directors of the Bank of England, in the present emergency, to enlarge the amount of their discounts and advances upon approved security, but that in order to retain this operation within reasonable limits, a high rate of interest should be charged. In present circumstances they would suggest, that the rate of interest should not be less than 8 per cent. If this course should lead to any infringement of the existing law, her Majesty’s Government will be prepared to propose to Parliament, on its meeting, a bill of indemnity. ”

In the kabuki show that took place during each of these events, the Bank typically denied that action on the part of the government was necessary. In 1847 it was the mercantile community that depended for existence on the support of the Bank, which sent a delegation to Downing Street to ask that the 1844 Act be suspended (Clapham, II, 208-09). Thus, the Bank most certainly did not act ultra vires. Instead, the terms of its charter were explicitly relaxed by the government each and every time the Bank breached the terms of the 1844 Act.

The relevant part of the 1857 Bill of Indemnity reads:

“the said Governor and Company, and all Persons who have been concerned in such Issues or in doing or advising any such Acts as aforesaid, are hereby indemnified and discharged in respect thereof, and all Indictments and Informations, Actions, Suits, Prosecutions, and Proceedings whatsoever commenced or to be commenced against the said Governor and Company or any Person or Persons in relation to the Acts or Matter aforesaid, or any of them, are hereby discharged and made void.” (See R.H. Inglis Palgrave, Bank Rate and the Money Market, 1903 p. 92)

In short, far from delegating to the central bank the authority to make the decision to take ultra vires actions, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister were important participants in every single crisis — and they signed off on extraordinary actions by the Bank, before the Bank’s actions were taken.

Indeed, to the degree that the Bank issued notes beyond the constraints of the 1844 Act, the government was paid the profits from the issue of those notes. Effectively this was the quid pro quo for the government’s indemnity of the Bank. (See e.g., George Udny, Letter to the Secretary of State for India dated January 1861 pp. 25-26).

Note: updated 8-3-15 3:25 pm PST.

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3 thoughts on “An egregious error on the history of central bank actions in crises”

  1. It seems to me that you are confused about what a suspension letter is. If it is not–as I said–a promise from the Chancellor of the Exchequer to overlook *ultra vires* actions by the Bank of England, what is it?

    Brad DeLong

    1. Thank you for the reply, Brad.

      I’m a little confused though. You clearly stated in your initial post that the Bank of England acted first and then the Chancellor chose to overlook those actions. Which is very different from the actual sequence of events in which the Bank acted at the behest of the government and for this reason was indemnified for following the government’s instructions.

    2. I should add that a suspension letter is clearly not “a promise from the Chancellor of the Exchequer to overlook ‘ultra vires’ actions by the Bank of England,” since that description implies that the Bank could take any ‘ultra vires’ action and have it be overlooked by the government. Instead, the Bank was instructed to take a specific action — indeed the government even dictated Bank Rate while the action was being taken — and indemnified for taking that specific action.

      The discretion of the Bank was not just limited by the government, it was entirely circumscribed by the government.

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