Bank deposits as short positions: the details

So I’ve finally posted the paper I’ve been working on — a New Monetarist model of bank money — on SSRN. Warning for non-economists: lots of Greek  in this one.

Here’s the title and introduction.

The Nature of Money in a Convertible Currency World

This paper studies the nature of money in an environment where the means of payment is convertible at a fixed rate into the numeraire consumption good. By focusing on this environment we eliminate the possibility that the means of payment changes value over time, and deliberately construct a situation where the price level is disabled as a means of equilibrating the supply of money with the demand for it. To our knowledge no one else has studied such an environment in a Lagos-Wright-type framework. Our goal in this paper is to demonstrate that in this environment the first-best can still be attained – if the means of payment is effectively a naked short of the unit of account.

A naked short has the effect of creating a “phantom” supply of the shorted object that disappears when the short is closed out. We demonstrate here that banks can create this “phantom” supply of the unit of account in the form of acceptances of private debt.[1] This type of bank liability is issued when the bank stamps a private commercial bill “accepted,” and the bank obligation is put into circulation when the borrower makes purchases. Then, when the borrower pays off the loan, the phantom supply of the unit of account along with the outstanding, but contingent, bank liability that was used to create it is closed out.

Why do we model the means of payment as a naked short of the unit of account? We argue, first, that this is the best way to understand the nature of the banking system in its developmental stages. Second, by modelling the means of payment in this way our model demonstrates the efficiency gains that can be created through the introduction of a banking system. Third, by carefully evaluating the incentive feasibility conditions for our bank money equilibria, we are able to relate the monetary system to banking stability. We find that the implementation of central bank monetary policy via interest rates can be explained by the need to stabilize the banking system. Finally, we also find support for the use of usury laws as a means by which policymakers choose amongst multiple equilibria to favor the interests of non-banks over those of banks.

The monetary system modelled in this paper is based on the 18th century British monetary system as described in Henry Thornton (1802) An enquiry into the nature and effects of the paper credit of Great Britain. Privately issued bills function as a means of payment because they are “accepted” as liabilities by the banks that underwrite the monetary system. While these bills were denominated in a gold-based unit of account,[2] as a practical matter there was no expectation that they would be settled in gold. Instead, they were used as a means of transferring bank liabilities from one tradesman to another. Thus, bills that are simultaneously private IOUs and bank liabilities are used to make payment. The non-bank debtor pays off her debt by depositing someone else’s bank-certified liability into her account. (The 18th century monetary system was the precursor of the checking account system and operates just like a system of overdraft accounts.) The bank’s liability on a deposited bill is extinguished when funds are credited to the depositor’s account.

In our model productivity is stochastic, and as a result the demand for money is stochastic. We show that the bank-based money described in our model can accommodate this stochastic money demand so that a first best is attained. Thus, our model can be viewed as a model of the “banking school” view where money is issued on an “as needed” basis at the demand of non-banks.

We argue that the convertible currency environment forces a reconsideration of the nature of money. Typically the monetary literature views money as “an object that does not enter utility or production functions, and is available in fixed supply” (Kocherlakota 1998). Shifts in the price of money equilibrate the economy in these environments. Historically, however, stabilization of the price of money by tying it to a fixed quantity of gold was a foundation of economic success in the early modern period (van Dillen; Bayoumi & Eichengreen 1995). Thus, we consider how money functions in an environment where its price is “anchored”. We show that a solution is for the means of payment to be a debt instrument that is denominated in the anchored unit of account and is certified by a bank. This solution is based on actual market practice in the early modern period.

This approach allows us to reinterpret general results such as Gu, Mattesini, and Wright (2014)’s finding that when credit is easy, money is useless, and when money is essential, credit is irrelevant. While their conclusion is correct given their definitions of money and credit, we argue that this standard definition of money is not the correct definition to apply to an environment with banks. We argue that the means of payment in an environment with banks is a naked short of the unit of account, which would be categorized in GMW’s lexicon as “credit”.

This paper employs the methods of new monetarism. Our model combines an environment based on Berentsen, Camera, and Waller (2007) with an approach to banking that is more closely related to Gu, Mattesini, Monnet, and Wright (2013) and Cavalcanti and Wallace (1999a,b). Our model of banking is distinguished from GMMW because non-bank borrowing is supported not by collateral, but by an incentive constraint alone, and from Cavalcanti and Wallace because our banks don’t issue bank notes, but instead certify privately issued IOUs. We find that for values of the discount rate that accord with empirical evidence, such a payments system can be operated with no risk of default simply by setting borrowing constraints.[3] We start by finding the full range of incentive feasible equilibria of the model, and then discuss how, when there are multiple equilibria, a policymaker may choose between these equilibria.

In this environment competitive banking is incentive feasible only when enforcement is exogenous. In the case of endogenous enforcement, competition in banking typically drives the returns to banking below what is incentive feasible and the only equilibrium will be autarky. This result is consistent with many other papers that have found that the welfare of non-banks is improved when there is a franchise value to banking (Martin and Schreft 2005, Monnet and Sanches 2015, Huang 2017. See also Demsetz et al. 1996).

Thus, the challenge for a policymaker is how to regulate competition in the banking sector so that banking is both incentive compatible – and therefore stable – and also meets the policymaker’s goals in terms of serving non-banks. One solution is to treat banking as a natural monopoly, allowing an anti-competitive structure while at the same time imposing a cap on the fees that can be charged by banks. This solution explains usury laws, which by capping interest rates at a level such as 5%, the rate in 18th century Britain, is able to generate both a robust franchise value for the banks that provide payments system credit and at the same time to ensure that a significant fraction of the gains created by the existence of an efficient means of payment accrue to non-banks. An alternate solution is to impose a competitive structure on the banking industry, but also to set a minimum interest rate as a floor below which competition cannot drive the price. We argue that this is the practice of modern central banks and thus that monetary policy should be viewed as playing an important role in preventing competition from destabilizing the banking sector.

Section I introduces the model of a convertible currency. Section II describes the equilibria of the model. Section III presents the equilibria using diagrams. Section IV discusses the means by which policymakers choose between the difference equilibria of the bank-based monetary system. Section V concludes.

[1] While it would be easy to reconfigure the means of payment to be deposits or bank notes, we believe the monetary function of bank liabilities in this paper is sufficiently different from the existing literature that it useful to present it using an unfamiliar instrument.

[2] For the purposes of keeping the exposition simple, assume that we model the monetary system prior to 1797 (when gold convertibility was suspended).

[3] Indeed, we argue elsewhere that the credit based on precisely such constraints constituted the “safe assets” of the monetary system through the developmental years of banking (Sissoko 2016). Treasury bills, the modern financial world’s safe assets, were introduced in 1877 and modeled on the private money market instruments of 19th century Britain (Roberts 1995: 155).

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In search of financial stability: A comparison of proposals for reform

I. The liquidity view
a. Solution: Expansive LOLR
b. Solution: Narrow banking

II. The solvency view
a. Solution: PFAS – the dealer of last resort meets narrow banking
b. Solution: Controls on credit

The vast literature on the financial crisis includes a segment comprised of books that propose reforms to the financial system that are designed to promote financial stability. The initial goal of this post was to evaluate and compare some of the more recent contributions to this literature: Morgan Ricks’ The Money Problem (2015), Adair Turner’s Between Debt and the Devil (2015), and Mervyn King’s The End of Alchemy (2016). In order to help balance the discussion, I am also including Perry Mehrling’s The New Lombard Street (2011), Hal Scott’s Interconnectedness and Contagion (2012), and John Cochrane’s Toward a Run-Free Financial System (2014).

A first basic organizing principle for comparing these proposals is to separate the works by their view of the essential problem to be solved: some argue that we should focus on panics or on avoiding liquidity droughts, whereas others see the fundamental problem as one of solvency or too much private sector debt. Those who take the liquidity view make proposals that fall into two broad categories: the establishment of an expansive lender of last resort, and narrow banking proposals where the government backstops short-term debt. While some proponents of the solvency view also put forth narrow banking proposals, their proposals typically attempt to address the potential danger of too much government support for short-term debt and therefore are distinguished from the liquidity-based narrow banking proposals. Finally some advocates of the solvency view argue that financial stability necessitates controls that limit the private sector’s ability to originate debt.

This post addresses each of these arguments in turn.

The liquidity view

The list of authors who argue that the key to addressing financial stability is to focus on liquidity crises and their prevention is long. Here we will discuss the proposals put forth by John Cochrane, Perry Mehrling, Morgan Ricks, and Hal Scott.

Each of these authors is explicit that in his view the key to financial stability is the prevention of liquidity crises. For example, Morgan Ricks writes: “when it comes to financial stability policy, panics— widespread redemptions of the financial sector’s short- term debt— should be viewed as ‘the problem’ (the main one, anyway). More to the point: panic-proofing, as opposed to, say, asset bubble prevention or ‘systemic risk’ mitigation, should be the central objective of financial stability policy” (p. 3). This view is echoed by both John Cochrane: “At its core, our financial crisis was a systemic run. … The central task for a regulatory response, then, should be to eliminate runs” (p. 197); and Hal Scott: “Contagion occurs when short-term creditors run on solvent institutions, or institutions that would be solvent but for the fire sale of assets that are necessary to fund withdrawals” (CNBC comment) and “contagion, rather than asset or liability interconnectedness, was the primary driver of systemic risk in the recent financial crisis” (p. 293). Perry Mehrling also frames the crisis as fundamentally a matter of liquidity, acknowledging first that it was catalyzed by the decline in collateral valuations, but then explaining: “from a money view perspective, price is first of all a matter of market liquidity, and this perspective focuses attention on the dealer system that translated funding liquidity into market liquidity.” (p. 125).

All four of these authors focus on the fact that the financial system that faced crisis in 2007-09 was constructed upon a foundation of short-term liabilities of non-banks. They differ, however, on the question of whether central bank policy was a cause or a consequence of this financial structure. Both Mehrling and Scott focus on what the Federal Reserve did to address the 2007-09 crisis, whereas Cochrane and Ricks argue that lender of last resort support played an important role in moral hazard and the deterioration of financial institution balance sheets in the decades leading up to the crisis (Cochrane pp. 231-32; Ricks p. 195). Indeed Ricks argues against not just the implementation of last resort lending in the lead-up to the crisis, but even against the traditional lender of last resort, because, first, in his view it functions as a distortionary subsidy to financial institutions and, second, it will fail if these institutions do not have enough of the right sort of collateral (pp. 186-87).

Threading a path between these views I would argue that during the decades preceding and fostering the growth of this financial system built on the short-term liabilities of non-banks, a naïve view of the lender of last resort was promoted by Federal Reserve officials. Alan Greenspan declared that: “The management of systemic risk is properly the job of the central banks. Individual banks should not be required to hold capital against the possibility of overall financial breakdown. Indeed, central banks, by their existence, appropriately offer a form of catastrophe insurance to banks against such events” (speech 1998). And through these formative decades Timothy Geithner, who would be President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and then Treasury Secretary during the crisis, was learning to ignore moral hazard concerns when dealing with crises (Geithner 2014).

Before exploring the details of the “panic-proofing” proposals, let’s briefly preview the contrary view that the crisis was a solvency crisis, and the critiques that the solvency proponents have to offer of the liquidity view. Mervyn King references Keynes’ exposition of uncertainty, animal spirits, and the fact that “a market economy is not self-stabilizing” to explain that sometimes an interim period of disequilibrium may be part of a necessary adjustment process as it becomes clear that the current pattern of behavior is no longer sustainable and that “the debts and credits that have built up … will eventually have to be cancelled” (pp. 294-323). In short, due to radical uncertainty, liquidity neither is nor should be “a permanent feature of financial markets” (p. 151). He remarks that: “Political pressures will always favor the provision of liquidity: lasting solutions require a willingness to tackle the solvency issues” (p. 368).

Adair Turner is more direct in his critique. His view that modern economies are reliant on too much private sector debt is supported by extensive empirical research (Jorda, Schularick & Taylor 2014, Mian & Sufi 2014), and he argues that those who deny that too much private sector debt has been originated are misled by a “presumption in favor of … as many financial contracts as possible as widely traded as possible [that] was an accepted article of faith” prior to the crisis (p. 29). Thus, from the perspective of Between Debt and the Devil, proponents of the liquidity view are likely to be captive minds who simply cannot conceive of the possibility that the debt that was originated prior to the crisis was in fact unsustainable and will at some time in the future end up in default.[1]

Only Ricks directly addresses and rejects the solvency view. His discussion does not, however, reach the question of whether a systemic panic is a necessary consequence of an environment with an unstable build-up of debt. Instead he focuses on how damaging the panic itself was. Thus, while one can read Ricks as arguing that the problem can be addressed either at the level of the debt bubble or at the level of the panic, the fact that he chooses to address the problem at the latter stage because it is only then that the problem becomes acute indicates that he considers “too much debt” to be a distinctly secondary concern.[2] This approach lends credence to Turner’s view that current modes of thought about finance preclude serious discussion of the problem of too much debt.

Unsurprisingly, neither King nor Turner supports the broad government guarantees that underlie all of the solutions proposed by the liquidity view proponents. Despite the common reliance of all four liquidity view authors on government guarantees to prevent crises, the form that these guarantees take is very different. Perry Mehrling and Hal Scott would implement these guarantees through expansive access to the lender of last resort without requiring major structural reform to the financial system. John Cochrane and Morgan Ricks, by contrast, propose complete transformation of the financial system before they would advocate government liquidity support.

Solution: Expand the role of the lender of last resort

Perry Mehrling’s argument in support of an expansive role for the lender of last resort is premised on the assumption that complete transformation of the financial system is not a practical solution. He writes: the “capital-market-based credit system … is now a more important source of credit than the traditional banking system. I take it as given that this brave new world is here to stay.” (p. 113). Similarly, even though Hal Scott does discuss proposals that place a cap on short-term funding for banks (p. 160 ff), he does not clearly address the possibility that such caps could be applied to non-banks as an alternative to lender of last resort support. In short, Scott implicitly, though not explicitly, adopts Mehrling’s approach: financial stability is a problem of stabilizing a financial system constructed upon a foundation of short-term liabilities of non-banks. (As we will see below, Cochrane and Ricks do not share this view.)

The most famous proponent of the lender of last resort as a form of “panic-proofing” is probably Timothy Geithner, who views 2007-09 as fundamentally a liquidity crisis and argues that the right way to deal with such a crisis is by providing government support to the financial institutions involved until such time as their balance sheets are repaired and they can function without government support.[3] This naïve view of the lender of last resort treats the moral hazard concerns of this central bank function as something that must be ignored during a crisis.[4]

Mehrling and Scott seek to lay analytic foundations for an expansive lender of last resort as a solution to panics. Scott in his book recounts the aggressive actions that did indeed have the effect of saving the financial system from contagion (though many have observe that economic performance subsequent to this bailout of dysfunctional finance has left much to be desired, e.g. Mian and Sufi 2014) and argues that: “History has taught us that contagion is an unavoidable risk of financial intermediation and that a strong lender of last resort is necessary to prevent it” (CNBC). In fact, Scott views the Lehman bankruptcy as a lesson that “to be effective, a central bank lender-of-last-resort must be unlimited and non-discretionary. The current [post Dodd-Frank] regime leaves open the risk that lender-of-last-resort assistance will be withheld from a distressed financial institution at a critical moment, and thus short-term creditors remain incentivized to withdraw in the face of such distress. An explicit guarantee, as opposed to the implied guarantee that existed before Lehman’s failure, assures short-term creditors that they will recover all of their funds, thus removing their incentive to run in anticipation of large losses” (p. 292). He makes clear in a later article that “the ability to lend to non-banks in a crisis is a crucial matter, and will become even more important, as over regulation of banks fuels the further growth of the shadow banking sector” (CNBC).

Perry Mehrling does not advocate for an “unlimited and non-discretionary” lender of last resort. Instead he argues that the Federal Reserve should convert into a regular facility the Primary Dealer Credit Facility, which was a program the Federal Reserve put into place during the crisis to support the value of private sector assets that were used as collateral in the tri-party repo market. (At its peak this facility held more than $60 billion of equities. See PDCF data .) Mehrling argues that the modern capital-market-based financial system needs such a “dealer of last resort” to set a price floor on private sector assets and that any moral hazard concerns created by this proposal can be addressed by careful pricing (pp. 134, 137-38).[5] Mervyn King doubts that central banks can implement such a policy successfully: “one of the most difficult issues in monetary policy today is the extent to which central banks should intervene in these asset markets – either to prevent an ‘excessive’ rise in asset prices in the first place or to support prices when they fall sharply. … I am not sure that their track record justifies an optimistic judgment of the ability of central banks [to do this]” (p. 265).

Overall, proponents of an expansive lender of last resort as a solution to the problem of liquidity crises generally start with the assumption that the existing financial structure cannot change and do not address the argument the existing financial structure is in fact a product of the expansion of central bank guarantees in the 1980s and 1990s. Adair Turner (likely with substantial agreement from Charles Goodhart, Mervyn King, and Martin Wolf) would probably argue that proponents of this view are captivated by pseudo-economic delusions and mistaken ideas that forestall an understanding of the fundamental problem of “too much debt.” In short, critics of the expansive lender of last resort proposal argue that far from stabilizing the financial system, the policy has a history of being destabilizing.

Solution: Narrow banking

John Cochrane and Morgan Ricks are united in their view that, even though excessive origination of debt is a predictable consequence of misguided government support for the financial system, the correct way to address this problem is to focus on run-prone (or short-term) financial claims and to design a monetary system backed by government obligations that will put an end to runs. While both authors favor structural financial reform that would effectively end – or at least severely restrict – private short-term debt, the monetary frameworks that the two authors adopt as they formulate their solutions are very different: Cochrane’s view of money is a fairly direct distillation of Milton Friedman’s approach, whereas Ricks develops more of a practitioner’s view that owes as much to Marcia Stigum and Diamond-Dybvig-type coordination problems as to any particular monetary theorist. The only common ground in the two views of money is that both treat money issued by the government as the anchor of their systems (Cochrane p. 224, Ricks p. 146).[6]

Both Cochrane and Ricks would transform the financial system by aggressively restricting the ability of both banks and non-banks to issue short-term, run-prone debt. In Cochrane’s proposal “demand deposits, fixed-value money-market funds, or overnight debt must be backed entirely by short-term Treasuries”(p. 198). Cochrane would restrict the degree to which any other short-term debt (except for trade credit) could be used to finance intermediaries by imposing a tax on such liabilities (p. 199). The result would be that “Intermediaries must raise the vast bulk of their funds for risky investments from run-proof securities [i.e. equity]” (p. 198). Ricks’ plan is more comprehensive because it would entirely prohibit nonbank issue of short-term debt, but somewhat less restrictive because it relies on government guarantees of bank liabilities rather than a mandate that banks hold government debt. Specifically, Ricks restricts the issue of short-term debt (except for trade credit) via “unauthorized banking provisions” that only permit banks to issue such debt, and requires that all short-term bank liabilities be explicitly guaranteed by the government (pp. 201, 235). Ricks’ proposal also imposes bank regulation similar to, but more strict than, what we have today including portfolio restrictions and capital requirements (p. 211). Ricks indicates that this proposal can be viewed as making explicit government guarantees that were formerly implicit (p. 25).

Both Cochrane and Ricks argue that government backing of short-term debt will eliminate the danger of runs (with of course the caveat that we are talking about the right sort of government). Whereas Ricks focuses in some detail on the structure of the monetary system, Cochrane’s emphasis is on the value of ensuring that most financial assets are backed by equity: “For the purpose of stopping runs, what really matters is that the value of investors’ claims floats freely and the investors have no claim on the company which could send it into bankruptcy” (p. 215). Ricks’ critique of Cochrane’s proposal is that he underestimates the demand for money-claims on banks and thus ties the supply of money to the quantity of short-term Treasuries available to back them. The advantage of Ricks’ sovereign guarantees of bank liabilities is that it allows the money supply to be backed in part by private sector assets and thus makes it possible for monetary policy to operate independent of fiscal policy (p. 182).

This significant difference in the two proposals is a consequence of the different monetary frameworks that the two authors employ. As noted above, Cochrane’s approach derives directly from Friedman’s and thus bank money, when it exists, is simply a function of government constraints. Ricks, by contrast, views banks as creating money and thus as playing an important part in determining the money supply. It is this latter approach that motivates Ricks to design a “narrow banking” system that nevertheless can allow for expansion of the money supply independent of government debt. Ricks observes that proposals like Cochrane’s (and Friedman 1960’s) envision a monetary system without a significant role for banks (p. 171).

In short, when Cochrane argues that the costs of his transformational plan are not too large, he does so without first modeling why money claims issued by banks are backed by private sector assets. Not only Ricks, but also Adair Turner, Martin Wolf and Charles Goodhart have argued that there are “positive benefits to private rather than public creation of purchasing power” and indeed, that this structure may play a role in “investment mobilization and thus economic growth” (Turner 188-89; see also Wolf 212-13).

Given that Cochrane – and all those who rely on Friedman’s monetary framework – have not thought through why we have the monetary and banking system that we have, his assertions appear “mystical and axiomatic” to use his own words (p. 223). For example, Cochrane writes that by limiting finance to equity finance “we can simply ensure that inevitable booms and busts, losses and failures, transfer seamlessly to final investors without producing runs” (p. 202). “Liquidity is now provided by the liquid markets for these securities, not by banks’ runprone redemption promises.” 226 This Friedman-esque vision of markets plus government as providing all the liquidity that an economy needs is combined with the remarkable claim that we no longer have a transactions need for bank liabilities.[7] Cochrane asseverates that “technology renders this ‘need’ [for short-term bank debt in transactions] obsolete. … We can now know exactly the prices of floating-value securities. Index funds, money market funds, mutual funds, exchange-traded funds, and long-term securitized debt have created floating-value securities that are nonetheless information-insensitive and thus extremely liquid. Consumers already routinely make most transactions via credit cards and debit cards linked to interest-paying accounts, which are in the end largely netted without anyone needing to hold inventories of runnable securities” (p. 222).

In short, Cochrane, because his theoretic framework is devoid of liquidity frictions, does not understand that the traditional settlement process whether for equity or for credit card purchases necessarily requires someone to hold unsecured short-term debt or in other words runnable securities. This is a simple consequence of the fact that the demand for balances cannot be netted instantaneously so that temporary imbalances must necessarily build up somewhere. The alternative is for each member to carry liquidity balances to meet gross, not net, demands. Thus, when you go to real-time gross settlement (RTGS) you increase the liquidity demands on each member of the system. RTGS in the US only functions because the Fed provides an expansive intraday liquidity line to banks (see Fed Funds p. 18). In short RTGS without abundant unsecured central bank support drains liquidity instead of providing it. (See Kaminska 2016 for liquidity problems related to collateralized central bank support.) In fact, arguably the banking system developed precisely in order to address the problem of providing unsecured credit to support netting as part of the settlement of payments.

Just as RTGS systems can inadvertently create liquidity droughts, so the system Cochrane envisions is more likely to be beset by liquidity problems, than “awash in liquidity” (p. 200) – unless of course the Fed is willing to take on significant intraday credit exposure to everybody participating in the RTGS system. (Here is an example of a liquidity frictions model that tackles these questions, Mills and Nesmith JME 2008). Overall the most important lesson to draw from Cochrane’s proposal is that we desperately need better models of banking and money, so we can do a better job of evaluating what it is that banks do.[8]

Another aspect of money that Ricks takes into account, but Cochrane with his simple Friedman-based monetary framework barely addresses is that banks are able to expose themselves to runnable, short-term debt even when they aren’t financing their balance sheets. Ricks argues: “Our monetary theory of banking … suggests that derivatives dealing is properly the domain of nonbank financial firms,” because “the amount of cash exchanged upfront [and therefore the money provided] is almost always very small in relation to the risk taken” (p. 208). Cochrane would not restrict such off-balance-sheet activities, and argues that “a few regulators” will be able to detect any dangerous behavior since leverage ratios will be very low (p. 216). Of course, one of the lessons of the crisis is that off-balance-sheet bank liabilities can be very large: Citibank (as well as UBS and Merrill Lynch) had to recognize upwards of $50 billion of derivatives exposures in the form of super-senior CDOs when its “liquidity puts” were drawn down (FCIC  Report, p. 260).

When we combine Cochrane’s casual approach to the danger of off-balance-sheet bank exposures with the view that “invoices [and] trade credit … are not runprone contracts” (p. 202), we find that his formulation of narrow banking leaves open the possibility that after his reforms the financial system could regenerate a very old – but not necessarily very stable – form of banking, acceptance banking. Whatever is classified as trade credit in Cochrane’s regime may be accepted or guaranteed by banks or unacknowledged shadow banks – and these acceptances may circulate as money just as they did in the 19th century with destabilizing effect. In fact, Ricks’ proposal is also permissive of trade credit and therefore is subject to a similar critique: nothing prevents nonbanks from guaranteeing trade credit obligations and this is an avenue through which a new, unstable banking system can develop. This analysis points to another common criticism of narrow banking proposals: they may be impossible to design due to the “remarkable ability of innovative financial systems to replicate banklike maturity transformation” (Turner p. 189).

Overall, narrow banking proposals raise very important questions about whether our monetary system can be better designed to avoid liquidity crises, but (i) will be very hard to formulate in a way that precludes their circumvention, and (ii) are probably best read as evidence that we need much better models of money and banking, so that we can actually understand what the connections are between money, bank liabilities and private sector bank assets, before pursuing transformative change.

The solvency view

Transformational reform is also proposed by scholars who believe that the essential problem that must be addressed in modern financial systems is not liquidity, but solvency. “The fundamental problem is that modern financial systems left to themselves inevitably create debt in excessive quantities, and in particular debt that does not fund new capital investment, but rather the purchase of already existing assets” (Turner p. 3-4). Turner argues that when banks expand the money supply by creating debt that is used to purchase existing assets, the result is an increase in the prices of the assets thus purchased, which then justifies an increase in the debt collateralized by the asset – and thus an expansion of the money supply. The ultimate consequence of this “self-reinforcing credit and asset price cycle” is an asset price bubble (p. 6). When the bubble bursts, as eventually it must, the problem is not liquidity, but solvency. The economy is then burdened with an overhang of debt that is either bad in the sense that repayment is not feasible or uneconomic, because the debtor is servicing debt that is greater than the value of the asset. This basic critique of modern finance – and in particular of the finance of real estate – is advocated not just by Turner, but also by Martin Wolf 2014 and Charles Goodhart & Enrico Perotti 2015.

Mervyn King in The End of Alchemy takes a slightly different approach. He argues that “the most serious fault line in the management of money in our societies today” is “the alchemy of banking” or the system by which money “is created by private sector institutions” and then used to finance illiquid and risky investments (pp. 86, 104). In his view, however, it is important to emphasize that the causal force generating “too much debt” was not the banks themselves, but the demand for borrowing to finance real estate investment due to the savings generated by the structural current account surpluses of Asian countries and Germany together with the decline in real interest rates that resulted from deficit countries’ efforts to keep their economies growing when faced by these surpluses (p. 319, 325).[9] In short, while King agrees that we are currently faced with a state of disequilibrium characterized by too much debt, he explains this outcome via a change in our understanding of the state of the world, not via an inherently unsustainable asset price bubble (pp. 356-57).

Proponents of the solvency view believe that not only does financial stability require that our financial structure be transformed, but also that the only path forward will require debt forgiveness of some sort (King p. 346, Turner p. 225ff). Because the focus of this essay is on proposals for transformational reform of the financial system, devices to deal with the debt overhang will not be discussed. Instead we evaluate King’s proposal for a pawnbroker for all seasons and Turner’s argument that direct controls on the financial sector’s origination of debt instruments are necessary.

Solution: PFAS – the dealer of last resort meets narrow banking

Like John Cochrane and Morgan Ricks, Mervyn King focuses his attention on the design of a more stable monetary system. His proposal for a pawnbroker for all seasons (PFAS) combines aspects of the dealer of last resort and narrow banking proposals. In particular, he would allow the central bank to lend against risky collateral, but only upon terms that are specified well in advance, and he would combine this policy with a restriction that all short-term unsecured liabilities of a bank must be backed by a combination of cash, central bank reserves, and the committed central bank credit line.

King motivates his proposal as an improvement over the traditional lender of last resort, which he (like Ricks) views as suffering from a time inconsistency problem: “The essential problem with the traditional LOLR is that, in the presence of alchemy, the only way to provide sufficient liquidity in a crisis is to lend against bad collateral – at inadequate haircuts and low or zero penalty rates. Announcing in advance that it will follow Bagehot’s rule … will not prevent a central bank from wanting to deviate from it once a crisis hits. Anticipating that, banks have every incentive to run down their holdings of liquid assets” (p. 269). But in contrast to some proponents of an expansive lender of last resort, King argues that moral hazard concerns must be addressed ex ante: “It is not enough to respond to the crisis by throwing money at the system … ensuring that banks face incentives to prepare in normal times for access to liquidity in bad times matters just as much” (p. 270).

Specifically, under King’s proposal, as under the dealer of last resort, the central bank provides liquidity against risky assets and does so subject to a haircut, but importantly the PFAS would not just specify the haircut in advance, but would specify it with the expectation of not changing it for years (p. 277). Thus, the first step of the PFAS proposal is that assets must be pre-positioned as collateral for a specific loan amount. The second step of the proposal caps the short-term unsecured debt of the bank by the sum of the cash, the central bank reserves held by the bank, and the amount that the bank can draw from the central bank on the basis of pre-positioned collateral (p. 272). “The scheme would apply to all financial intermediaries, banks and shadow banks, which issued unsecured debt with a  maturity of less than one year above a de minimis proportion of the balance sheet” (p. 274).

King’s proposal addresses two important design concerns. First, even though banks can create money, “only the central bank can create liquidity” or “the ultimate form of money” (pp. 190, 259). For this reason, King finds that “liquidity regulation has to be seamlessly integrated with a central bank’s function as the lender of last resort” (p. 259).[10] This is achieved by using the credit line commitment of the central bank as a determinant of the cap on a bank’s runnable assets. Second, when a central bank increases its collateralized lending to a bank, the bank’s unsecured lenders are disadvantaged and this form of central bank liquidity support can have the effect of reducing the availability of – or even generating a run on – unsecured market-based lending to the bank. For this reason what is needed is a “single integrated framework within which to analyze the provision of money by central banks in both good time and bad times” (p. 208). Because unsecured lenders will know in advance that the pre-positioned collateral will be used to draw from the central bank, they will not expect it to be available to support their own claims and will demand to be paid a rate on the unsecured debt that compensates them for this fact.

This proposal achieves stability in much the same way that narrow banking does: “all deposits are backed by either actual cash or a guaranteed contingent claim on reserves at the central bank” (p. 271). Unlike Cochrane’s narrow banking, however, only indirect control is exercised over the bank’s asset portfolio. In comparison with Morgan Ricks’ proposal, the public guarantee is provided not with respect to the liabilities of a bank but instead with reference to its assets, and it is the central bank – or the ultimate provider of liquidity – not bank regulators who will make the decisions that affect the bank’s asset portfolio.

The issue of the degree of control exercised by the PFAS is, in fact, an interesting question. One of King’s goals is to “design a system which in effect imposes a tax on the degree of alchemy in our financial system” (p. 271). While each bank nominally is left to determine how to allocate its asset portfolio, the central bank has almost total control over how the tax is structured and, in particular, over which assets will be highly taxed and which will not. According to King the central bank “should be conservative when setting haircuts and, if in doubt, err on the high side. … on some assets they may well be 100%. … It is not the role of central banks to subsidize the existence of markets that would not otherwise exist” (p. 277-78). At least to the degree that a financial intermediary finances itself with deposits and other forms of unsecured short-term debt, it would appear that the PFAS will exercise a great deal of control over the assets that are thus financed.

Unsurprisingly End of Alchemy includes a robust defense of central bank discretion (p. 167). Thus, whether or not this proposal is subject to Ricks’ criticism of narrow banking as serving as an excessive constraint on the money supply will depend on the decisions of central bankers and how they exercise the control over the banking system granted to them by the PFAS proposal.

Solution: Controls on credit

Control over the types of assets that are financed by bank credit creation is also the solution that Adair Turner proposes. It is Turner who advocates most strongly for the view that “too much debt” explains the increasing instability of modern economies. Thus, for Turner “the amount of credit created and its allocation is too important to be left to the bankers; nor can it be left to free markets in securitized credit” (p. 104); instead it is necessary for bank regulators to control the growth of credit. Turner argues more specifically that the most important driving force behind instability was the “interaction between the potentially limitless supply of bank credit and the highly inelastic supply of real estate and locationally specific land. … Credit and real estate price cycles … are close to the whole story [of financial instability in advanced economies]” (p. 175).

Thus, Turner proposes that bank regulation should directly constrain certain types of finance including lending against real estate and shadow banking (p. 195). He would also constrain borrowers’ access to credit and slow international capital flows, which when they took the form of short-term debt simply increased the excess of funds flowing into “hot” real estate markets (p. 196).

Constraints on shadow banking are necessary because in the run-up to the recent crisis it had the effect of “turbocharg[ing] the [credit] cycle, [and] increasing the danger of the wrong sort of debt” (p. 90). Like Ricks and King (p. 94), Turner emphasizes that it was shadow banks that caused bank funding markets to seize up when “wholesale secured funding markets went into a meltdown driven by the very risk management tools that were supposed to make them safe” (p. 103).

While Adair Turner does not promote any version of narrow banking, he draws inspiration from narrow banking’s vision of a system where financial assets are financed by equity. Because “in principle the more that contracts take an equity and not a debt form, the more stable the economy will be,” “implicit taxes on credit creation can be a good thing” (p. 192) and “free market approaches to [credit markets] are simply not valid” (p. 190).

Turner’s focus is, however, very different. Whereas John Cochrane argues that there is no need to differentiate between the different types of credit markets (p. 213), Turner emphasizes the importance of the real estate market: Nowadays “most bank lending … finances the purchase of real estate. … [This] also reflects a bias for banks to prefer to lend against the security of real estate assets … [which] seems to simplify risk assessment” (p. 71). As “banks, unless constrained by policy, have an infinite capacity to create credit, money, and purchasing power … [this combination results in] credit and asset price cycles [that] are not just part of the story of financial instability in modern economies, they are its very essence” (p. 73).

Overall, Turner’s bottom line is that “we should not intervene in the allocation of credit to specific individuals or businesses, but we must constrain the overall quantity of credit and lean against the free market’s potentially harmful bias toward the ‘speculative’ finance of existing assets.” This policy “does not mean less growth, since a large proportion of credit is not essential to economic growth” (p. 208).

Conclusion

Discussions of financial stability and how to achieve it are characterized by a remarkable breadth of views. At one extreme are those who believe that modern finance is here to stay and that its stabilization requires a lender of last resort which plays a much expansive role than in the past. Critics of this approach argue that on the contrary, the expansion of the lender of last resort’s responsibilities over the course of the last three or four decades is what generated the modern financial system which is so very unstable.

Some of these critics of the modern financial system emphasize the liquidity problems it generates and others the solvency problems. All, however, are in agreement that, if financial stability is the goal, substantial reform of the modern financial system is necessary.

Proponents of the solvency view explain that the design of the modern financial system is so flawed that the origination of too much debt is a structural problem. As a result proponents of the solvency view find that either regulators or the central bank must constrain the capacity of all financial intermediaries to finance certain forms of debt – and real estate loans, in particular – using short-term instruments.

The proponents of the liquidity view who propose transformational reform of the financial system argue that only government backing of short-term liabilities can stabilize them. They differ on the degree to which banks have a role to play in a reformed financial system, however. And the comparison of these proposals leads me to conclude that we are in desperate need of better – formal, economic – models of money and banking in order to evaluate these questions.

So what’s my bottom line? I’ve been working on a model of money, bank liabilities, and private sector debt that speaks to all these issues. This model demonstrates that banks’ economic function is to underwrite the unsecured debt that makes the payments system work. By doing so banks bring agents who would otherwise be anonymous and autarkic into the economy. In effect, banks are paid enforcers of intertemporal budget constraints – and it is only because they provide this service that you and I can participate in the payments system and therefore in a modern economy. In short, I think we need a “banking school” model to help us tackle these problems. (Warning to Friedmanites: banking school is the devil that it was Friedman’s agenda to exterminate.) The details will, however, have to wait for another day.

[1] While Hal Scott’s opus has been described as showing “that none of the banks that fell or were rescued were important enough to another big institution to cause its failure” (Authers 2016), this fails to address the question of whether the whole system was beset by too much debt. The danger to the financial system of a “bad equilibrium” in which every participant underwrites too much debt has been recognized for decades (Goodhart 1988 p. 48).

[2] He writes: “this chapter offers reason to doubt that debt-fueled bubbles and the like pose a grave threat to the real economy in the absence of a panic” (p. 106) and “my claim is not that debt-fueled bubbles are insignificant … Rather, my claim is that panics appear to pose a far graver threat to the broader economy” (p. 141). This certainly seems to imply that is possible to have debt-fueled bubbles without also having a panic.

[3] In an interview Geithner states: “What’s unique about panics, and most dangerous, is the amount of collateral damage they do to the innocent, to people who had borrowed responsibly, who weren’t overexposed. The banking system is the lifeblood of the economy. It’s like the power grid. You have to make sure the lights stay on, because if the lights go out, then you face the damage like what you saw in the Great Depression … That requires doing things that are terribly unfair and look deeply offensive. It looks like you are rewarding the arsonist or protecting people from their mistakes, but there is no alternative. We didn’t do it for the banks. We did it to protect people from the failures of banks” (Wessel 2014).

[4] For a view of the lender of last resort which is more nuanced see Sissoko 2016. In fact, the origins of the term “lender of last resort” itself indicates that the central bank is rightly the “court of last appeal” which makes the ultimate determination of whether a financial firm is solvent or not. Implicit in the moniker is the idea that central banks should sometimes uphold the market’s death sentence for a financial firm – just as courts must sometimes uphold real-life death sentences (Sissoko 2014).

[5] Cochrane’s dry comment on the expansion of policy to the regulation of prices is: “What did the old lady eat after the horse?” (p. 238).

[6] This is unsurprising given that almost all modern academic analyses of money, including the heterodox literature, also emphasize the role of government in the money supply. Whether or not this consensus is well-founded is a topic for a different post.

[7] Perhaps Cochrane’s view of the capacity of markets to provide liquidity has changed in recent years. He writes in an October 2016 essay titled Volume and Information: “Information seems to need trades to percolate into prices. We just don’t understand why.” which would seem to imply that markets both demand liquidity and provide it.

[8] Indeed, this is clearly Morgan Ricks agenda (see p. 210). The weakness of Ricks’ approach is that he is a legal scholar and the agenda calls for formal economic analysis.

[9] Note that Turner and Wolf both agree that current account imbalances played an important role in generating the asset price bubbles.

[10] Here King is apparently questioning whether the liquidity coverage ratio specified by the Basel III accords makes sense.

Collateral and Monetary Policy: A Puzzle

A stylized fact about post-crisis economies is that asset markets have become segmented with “safe assets” trading differently from assets more generally. I have argued elsewhere that the collateralization of financial sector liabilities has played an important role in this segmentation of markets.

I believe that this creates a puzzle for the implementation of monetary policy that provides at least a partial explanation for why we are stuck at the zero lower bound. Consider the consequences of an increase in the policy rate by 25 bps. This has the effect of lowering the price of ultra-short-term Treasury debt, and particularly when combined with a general policy of raising the policy rate over a period of months or years this policy should have the effect of lowering the price of longer term Treasuries as well (due to the fact that long-term yields can be arbitraged by rolling over short-term debt).

A decline in the price of long-term Treasuries will have the effect of reducing the dollar value of the stock of outstanding Treasuries (as long as the Treasury does not have a policy of responding to the price effects of monetary policy by issuing more Treasuries). But now consider what happens in the –segmented — market for Treasury debt. Assuming that demand for Treasuries is downward sloping, then the fact that contractionary monetary policy tends to shrink the stock of Treasuries itself puts upward pressure on the price of Treasuries that, particularly when demand for Treasuries is inelastic, will tend to offset and may even entirely counteract the tendency for the yield on long-term Treasuries to rise. (Presumably in a world where markets aren’t segmented demand for Treasuries is fairly elastic and shifts into other financial assets quash this effect.)

In short, a world where safe assets trade in segmented markets may be one where implementing monetary policy using the interest rate as a policy tool is particularly difficult. Can short-term and long-term safe assets become segmented markets as well? Given arbitrage, it’s hard to imagine how this is possible.

These thoughts are, of course, motivated by the behavior of Treasury yields following the Federal Reserves 25 bp rate hike in December 2015.fredgraph

 

Lenders of Last Resort have duties in normal times too

I have a paper forthcoming in the Financial History Review that studies the role played by the Bank of England in the London money market at the turn of the 20th century. The Bank of England in this period is, of course, the archetype of a lender of last resort, so its activities shed light on what precisely it is that a lender of last resort does.

The most important implication of my study is that the standard understanding of what a lender of last resort does gets the Bank’s role precisely backwards. It is often claimed that the way that a lender of last resort functions is to make assets safe by standing ready to lend against them.

My study of the Bank of England makes it clear, however, that the duties of a lender of last resort go far beyond simply lending against assets to make them safe. What the Bank of England was doing was monitoring the whole of the money market, including the balance sheets of the principal banks that guaranteed the value of money market assets, to ensure that the assets that the Bank was engaged to support were of such high quality that it would be a good business decision for the Bank to support them.

In short, a lender of last resort does not just function in a crisis. A lender of last resort plays a crucial role in normal times of ensuring that the quality of assets that are eligible for last resort lending have an extremely low risk of default. This function of the central bank was known as “qualitative control” (although of course quantitative measures were used to predict when quality was in decline).

Overall, if we take the Bank of England as our model of a lender of last resort, then we must recognize that that the duty of such a lender is not just to lend, but also to constantly monitor the money market and limit the assets that trade on the money market to those that are of such high quality that when they are brought to the central bank in a crisis, it will be a good business decision for the bank to support them.

A central bank that fails to exercise this kind of control over the money market, can expect in a crisis to be forced, as the Fed was in 2008, to support the value of all kinds of assets that it does not have the capacity to value itself.

Note: the forthcoming paper is a new and much improved version of this paper.

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.

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.

Discount Markets, Liquidity, and Structural Reform

Bengt Holmstrom has a paper explaining the “diametrically opposite” foundations of money markets and capital markets.* This dichotomy is also a foundation of traditional banking theory, and of the traditional functional separation that was maintained in the U.S. and Britain between money and capital markets.

Holmstrom explains that “the purpose of money markets is to provide liquidity,” whereas price discovery is an important function of capital markets. In a paper I extend this view a step further: money markets don’t just provide liquidity but a special form of price stable liquidity that is founded on trade in safe short-term assets; by contrast capital markets provide market liquidity which promotes price discovery, not price stability.

A century ago in Britain privately issued money market assets were, like capital market assets, actively traded on secondary markets. The two types of assets traded, however, on completely different markets with completely different structures that reflected the fact that money market assets needed to be “safe.”

To understand why the markets had different structures consider this question: how does one ensure that the safety of the money market is not undermined by asymmetric information or more specifically by the possibility that when the owners of money market assets have information that the assets are likely to default they do not use the market to offload the assets, adversely affecting the safety of the market itself, and therefore its efficacy as a source of price stable liquidity? The answer is to structure the market as a discount market.

In a discount market, every seller offers a guarantee that the asset sold will pay in full. (You do this yourself when you endorse a check, signing its value over to a bank — while at the same time indemnifying the bank against the possibility that the check is returned unpaid.) This structure was one of the foundations upon which the safety of the London money market was built. The structure ensures that the owner of a dubious asset has no incentive to attempt to sell it, and in fact is very unlikely to sell it in order to hide from the public the fact that it is exposed to such assets.

From their earliest days it was well-understood that discount markets were designed to align the incentives of banks originating money market assets and to promote the safety of the assets on the money market. (See van der Wee in Cambridge Economic History of Europe 1977.) Any bank that originates or owns a money market asset can never eliminate its exposure to that asset until it is paid in full. For this reason a discount market is specifically designed to address problems of liquidity only. That is, a bank that is illiquid can get relief by selling its money market assets, but if it has originated so many bad assets that it is insolvent, the money market will do nothing to help.

Contrast the structure of a discount market with that of an open market. On an open market, the seller is able to eliminate its exposure to the risks of the asset. This has the effect of attracting sellers (and buyers) with asymmetric information and as a result both increasing the riskiness of the market and creating the incentives that make the prices of the risky assets that trade on open market informative. Thus, it is because price discovery is important to capital markets, that they are structured as open markets. Capital markets can only offer market liquidity — or liquidity with price discovery — rather than the price stable liquidity of the money market. On the other hand, an entity with asymmetric information about the assets that it holds can use the open market structure of capital markets to improve its solvency as well as its liquidity position.

Historically it appears that in order for a money market to have active secondary markets, it must be structured as a discount market. (Does anyone have counterexamples?) That is, it appears that when the only option for secondary trading of money market instruments is an open market, then secondary markets in such instruments will be moribund. This implies not only that the absence of incentives to exploit asymmetric information plays an important role in the liquidity available on money markets (cf. Holmstrom) — but also that price stable liquidity is an important benefit of the discount market structure.

Both discount markets and open markets can be adversely affected by extraordinary liquidity events. But only one of the two markets is premised on safe assets and price stable liquidity. Thus, the lender of last resort role of the central bank developed in Britain to support the money (discount) market only. (In fact, I would argue that the recognized need for a provider of liquidity support to the discount market explains why the Bank of England was structured as it was when it was founded, but that goes beyond the scope of this post. See Bowen, Bank of England during the Long 18th c.) One consequence of the fact that the central bank supported only assets that traded on a discount market is that it was able to support the liquidity of the banks, without also supporting their solvency.

Given the common claim that one hears today that it is unreasonable to ask a central bank to distinguish illiquidity from insolvency in a crisis, perhaps it is time to revisit the discount market as a useful market structure, since acting through such a market makes it easier for a central bank to provide liquidity support without providing solvency support.

 

*His focus is actually money markets and stock markets, but in my view he draws a distinction between debt and equity that is far less clear in practice than in theory. In a modern financial system unsecured long-term bonds are not meaningful claims on the assets of a firm, because as the firm approaches bankruptcy it is likely to take on more and more secured debt leaving a remnant of assets that is literally unknowable at the time that one buys an unsecured long-term bond.