The 19th c. bank “bailout” that never happened

I’ve just read Eugene White’s Bank Underground post on the Baring liquidation in 1890. He is notable in getting the facts of what he calls the “rescue” mostly right. He accurately portrays the “good bank-bad bank” structure and the fact that the partners who owned the original bank bore the losses of the failure. What he doesn’t explain clearly is the degree to which the central bank demanded insurance from the private sector banks before agreeing to extend a credit line that would allow the liquidation of the bad bank to take place slowly.

These facts matter, because a good central banker has to make sure that the incentives faced by those in the financial community are properly aligned. In the case of Barings macroeconomic incentives were aligned by making it clear to the private banks that when a SIFI fails, the private banking sector will be forced to bear the losses of that failure. This brings every bank on board to the agenda of making sure the financial system is safely structured.

In the 19th c. the Bank of England understood that few things could be more destabilizing to the financial system than the expectation that the government or the central bank was willing to bear the losses of a SIFI failure. Thus, the Bank of England protected the financial system from the liquidity consequences of a fire sale due to the SIFI, but was very careful not to take on more than a small fraction (less than 6%) of the credit losses that would be created by the SIFI failure.

This is the comment I posted:

While this is one of the better discussions of the 1890 Barings liquidation, for some reason modern economic historians have a lot of difficulty acknowledging the degree to which moral hazard concerns drove central bank conduct in the 19th c. White writes:

The Barings rescue or “lifeboat” was announced on Saturday November 15, 1890. The Bank of England provided an advance of £7.5 million to Barings to discharge their liabilities. A four-year syndicate of banks would ratably share any loss from Barings’ liquidation. The guarantee fund of £17.1 million included all institutions, and some of the largest shares were assigned to banks whose inattentive lending had permitted Barings to swell its portfolio.

Clapham (cited by White), however makes it clear that the way the Bank of England drummed up support for the guarantee fund was by making a very credible threat to let Barings fail. Far from what is implied by the statement “The Bank of England provided an advance of £7.5 million to Barings to discharge their liabilities”, the Bank of England point blank refused to provide such an advance until and unless the guarantee fund was funded by private sector banks to protect the central bank from losses, Clapham p. 332-33.

In short, treating the £7.5 million (which is actually the maximum liability supported by the guarantee fund over a period of four years, Clapham p. 336) as a Bank of England advance may be technically correct because of the legal structure of the guarantee fund (which was managed by the Bank), but gets the economics of the situation dead wrong.

19th century and early 20th century British growth could only take place in an environment where central bankers in London were obsessed with the twin problems of aligning incentives and controlling moral hazard. Historians who pretend that anything else was the case are fostering very dangerous behavior in our current economic climate.

Note: Updated to make the last paragraph specific to Britain.

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.

“Real bills” banking prevented Minsky moments

The “real bills” approach to banking is profoundly misunderstood, as I explain in this paper. What I’ve just recently realized is that Minsky’s financial instability hypothesis is probably derived from real bills. In particular, Minsky cites Schumpeter, who was I believe familiar with contemporary banking theory.

A real bill is a short-term loan that arises out of a commercial transaction. These bills circulated as money in the commercial cities of Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries because banks stood ready to buy the bills. In accounting terms a real bill monetizes an asset that is earned, but not yet realized. What very few modern writers understand is that if a bank, instead of demanding payment on a real bill, rolls it over, the resulting line of credit is not a real bill. There are many names for this kind of loan including fictitious bill, accommodation bill, and finance bill. Finance bill is the term that stuck and lasted into the 20th century.

Limiting credit to real bills is very constricting, so in Britain finance bills were made negotiable (so they too could circulate easily as money) in the 1830s. Through a series of subsequent crises Britain learned about the dangers of zombie banks and loose credit more generally. By the third quarter of the 19th century, however, the Bank of England had learned how to manage the brave new world of finance bills, and Britain experienced a century of banking stability.

What was the key to banking stability in Britain? The principle that money market instruments should not be used to (i) finance the purchase and carry of capital market assets (or land) or (ii) be rolled over to such a degree that they were effectively playing the same role as an equity stake in a firm. This is the real “real bills” approach to banking.

What I’ve just realized is that the same principle underlies Minsky’s financial instability hypothesis (probably through Schumpeter). In fact, when the early Fed was worried about credit markets, it discusses the problem of an excessive growth of speculative bills. (See the Fed’s 10th annual report.) And the Fed uses the term “speculative” in exactly the same sense that Minsky does.

Recall that Minsky defines three types of finance:

Hedge finance takes place when the borrower is able to pay both interest and principal out of cash flows. This is not destabilizing.

Speculative finance takes place when the borrower only has expectations of paying interest on the loan and thus the loan has to be rolled over repeatedly. Just like the Fed in 1923, Minsky argued that the growth of speculative finance was a sign of destabilization building up in the economy.

Ponzi finance takes place when the borrower’s cash flow leaves the borrower unable even to pay interest, so the borrower must either sell assets or rely on increases in asset value together with new loans to stay current on the debt. Minsky argued that this is what is going on right before a crash.

Overall, the real bills approach to managing the banking system should be understood as a policy of controlling the growth of speculative and Ponzi finance in the economy. The evidence indicates that the Bank of England was actually very good at doing this for many, many years.

A Counterproposal to “Shifts and Shocks”

Martin Wolf in Shifts and Shocks does a remarkable job of taking a comprehensive view of all the moving parts that have played a role in creating our current financial malaise and ongoing risks to financial stability. He also does a wonderful job of laying them out clearly for readers. Furthermore, I am entirely convinced by his diagnosis and prognoses of the Eurozone’s problems. When it comes to the question of the financial system more generally, however, even though I’m convinced that Wolf understands the symptoms, I don’t think he’s on target with either his diagnosis or his solutions. In fact, I think he too shows signs of being hampered by the problem of intellectual orthodoxy.

This post is therefore going to combine commentary on Shifts and Shocks with an introduction to my own views of how to understand the boondoggle that is the modern financial system. (I have nothing to say about the Eurozone’s grief except that you should read what Martin Wolf has to say about it.) For the long form of my views on the structural reform of the financial system, see here.

First, let me lay out the many things that Wolf gets right about the financial system.

  • The intellectual failures are accurately described:
    • orthodox economics failed to take into account the banking system’s role in creating credit, and thus failed to understand the instability that was building up in the system.
    • this has led to a dysfunctional and destabilizing relationship between the state and the private sector as suppliers of money
  • His basic conclusion is correct:
    • the system is designed to fail because banks finance long-term, risky and often illiquid assets with short-term, safe and highly liquid liabilities.
  • The inadequacy of the solutions currently being pursued is also made clear. Combining macro-prudential policy and “unlimited crisis intervention” with resolution authorities
    • just worsens the dysfunctional relationship between the state and the private sector
    • forces rulemaking that is designed to preserve a system that the regulators don’t trust and that is so complex it is “virtually inconceivable that it will work” (234)
  • His focus on the need for more government expenditure to support demand instead of attempts to induce the private sector to lever up yet again is correct.
  • The key takeaways from his conclusion are also entirely correct (349)
    • The insouciant position – that we should let the pre-crisis way of running the world economy and the financial system continue – is grotesquely dangerous.”
    • “leveraging up existing assets is just not a particularly valuable thing to do; it creates fragility, but little, if any, real new wealth.”

I think Wolf makes a mistaking in diagnosing the problem, however. One can view our current financial system as simply exhibiting the instability inherent in all modern economies (a la Minsky), or as exhibiting an unprecedented measure of instability even taking Minsky into account, or something in between. Wolf takes the hybrid position that while the basic sources of instability have been present in financial systems since time immemorial, “given contemporary information and communication technologies, modern financial innovations and globalization, the capacity of the system to generate complexity and fragility, surpasses anything seen historically, in its scope, scale and speed.” (321) This, I believe, is where the argument goes wrong.

To those familiar with financial history the complete collapse of a banking system is not a particularly unusual phenomenon. The banking system collapsed in Antwerp in the mid-15th century, in Venice in the late 16th century, in France in the early 18th century, and in Holland in the late 18th century. What is remarkable about 19th and 20th century banking is not its instability, but its lack of total collapse.

Indeed, the remarkable stability of the British banking system was founded in part on the analysis of the reasons behind 18th century financial instability on the continent. (There is no important British banking theorist who does not mention John Law and his misadventures in France.)  In particular, a basic principle of banking used to be that money market assets — and bank liabilities — should not finance long-term assets; capital markets should have the limited liquidity that derives from buyers and sellers meeting in a market. Thus, when Wolf finds that our modern system is “designed to fail” because money market assets are financing risky long-term assets, and that market liquidity is a dangerous illusion that breeds overconfidence and is sure to disappear when it is most needed (344), he is simply rediscovering centuries-old principles of what banks should not do.

By arguing that the structural flaws of modern finance are as common to the past as to the present, Wolf embraces the modern intellectual orthodoxy and sets up his radical solution: that our only option for structural reform that stabilizes banking is to take away from banks the ability to lend to the private sector and require that all debt be equity-financed. Thus, Wolf obfuscates the fact that the 19th and 20th century solution to banking instability was to limit the types of lending to the private sector that banks were allowed to engage in. Britain had a long run of success with such policies, as did the U.S. from the mid-1930s to the 1980s. (Recall that the S&Ls were set up in no small part to insulate the commercial banks from the dangers of mortgage lending — as a result the S&L crisis was expensive, but did not destabilize the commercial banks, and was compared to 2007-08 a minor crisis.) Thus, there is another option for structural reform — to stop viewing debt as a single aggregate and start analyzing which types of bank lending are extremely destabilizing and which are not.

The real flaw, however, in Wolf’s analysis is that he doesn’t have a model for why banking lending is important to the economy. Thus, when he acknowledges that it is possible that the benefits of “economic dynamism” due to banking exceed the massive risks that it creates (212-13), he doesn’t have a good explanation for what those benefits are. As a result, Wolf too is intellectually constrained by the poverty of modern banking theory.

19th c. bankers were far less confused about the benefits of banking. When everybody is willing to hold bank liabilities, banks have the ability to eliminate the liquidity constraints that prevent economic activity from taking place. The merchant who doesn’t have enough capital to buy at point A everything he can sell at point B, just needs a line of credit from the bank to optimize his business activities. This problem is ubiquitous and short-term lending by banks can solve it. Furthermore, because they solve it by expanding the money supply, and not by sourcing funds from long-term lenders, the amount of money available to borrow can easily expand. Of course, there are problems with business cycles and the fact that the incentives faced by banks need to be constantly monitored and maintained, but these are minor issues compared with the asset price bubbles that are created when banks get into long-term lending and that destabilized the financial system in 2007-08.

Overall, banks can do a lot to improve economic efficiency without getting into the business of long-term lending. And a recipe for financial stability should focus on making sure that long-term lending, not all bank lending, is funded by equity.

Notes on the History of Monetary Thought

I’m working on a series of papers on traditional banking theory as an alternative framework for understanding the relationship between banking, finance and the macroeconomy, (part 1 is here) and in this post I’m just jotting down some thoughts on the history of economic thought.

As my papers argue by the early 20th century there was a fairly coherent theory of the relationship between banking, economic activity, the price level, and the guidance of these factors using the central bank policy rate — I call this “traditional banking theory.” With the growth of the “quantity (of money) theorists,” this school was sometimes described as “qualitative,” but it’s proponents pointed out (Beckhart, AER 1940) that the two schools didn’t differ in the importance they placed on the use of data, but rather in the value of using aggregate quantities to determine policy.

There are two points to make here:

After the Depression (and I believe massive policy influence in the 1930s), this traditional school of monetary thought was entirely displaced by two aggregate theory approaches: Monetarists and Keynesians. The histories I am familiar with focused on the debate between the two macro schools and the view that macro cannot be understood without a micro-understanding of debt disappeared from academic discourse. (I still don’t understand how this happened, but maybe the “invention” of macro played a role in it.)

Traditional banking theory didn’t really disappear. Instead it became part of the vast gulf that developed between market practitioners and academic theorists. For example, Marcia Stigum’s Money Market, a textbook written based on interviews with practitioners, reflects aspects of traditional banking theory.

On “How the world economy shifted”

This is a commentary on Chapter 5 of Martin Wolf’s book, The Shifts and the Shocks.

Martin Wolf’s explanation of the euro zone crisis, and of the problems created for the currency union by countries that are determined to run a surplus is clear and convincing. (Indeed, if my memory serves me correctly, his reasoning echoes the initial rationale for the IMF, with its deliberate penalties for countries that run a surplus.)

The discussion of the savings glut is however less effective. The problem is that there are two aspects to this story: first the policies of emerging market countries that undervalue their currencies and make it easy for them to run current account surpluses and, second, the uncharacteristic movement of the U.S. business sector into surplus around the same time period.

Wolf makes it clear that the latter played an important role in the savings glut. The problem faced by Wolf and other advocates of the savings glut view is, however, that there is a coherent explanation for the surplus only in the case of the emerging market countries. Not surprisingly the text focuses on the explainable aspects of the glut and restricts its discussion of the U.S. business sector surplus mostly to remarks on the significance of its size.

This omission is extremely important, because Wolf makes it clear that an important factor in the crisis was the dysfunctional manner in which U.S. markets responded to both the savings glut and the subsequent reduction in the federal reserve’s policy rate which was designed to stimulate the U.S. economy and offset the adverse effects on U.S. employment of the combination of a huge trade imbalance and a deficit of business borrowing. U.S. financial markets responded to these two phenomena by creating unsustainable leverage and balance sheet deterioration in the household sector.

My concern is with the causality that Wolf assumes. Let me propose an alternative interpretation of the facts. We know that when a bubble pops there is a transfer of resources away from those who purchased at the peak and to those who buy at the nadir. One function of the massive extension of credit to households was to ensure that there was a lot of underinformed, “dumb” money buying into the peak of the bubble. To the degree that corporate decision-makers have access to investment funds where knowledgeable financiers either can navigate the bubble successfully or are just successful at convincing the decision-makers that they can do so, a profit maximizing corporate decision maker may prefer to invest in financial assets than to risk money on the production of products that need to be marketed to the already over-extended household sector. In short, the possibility that (i) the U.S. business sector was the important factor in the savings glut “at the margin,” and that (ii) the causality for the U.S. business sector’s participation in the savings glut runs from the overindebtedness of the U.S. household sector and a general tendency of the modern financial sector to misallocate resources to the financialization of the U.S. business sector’s use of funds, at least needs to be entertained and evaluated.

In short, I am uncomfortable with the assumption of causality implied by sentences like the following: “What the market demanded the innovative financial sector duly supplied . . . By creating instruments so opaque that they were perfectly designed to conceal (credit) risk.” (at 172). Given how difficult it is to establish causality, should we not be asking whether financial innovation, and in particular the ability of the financial sector to create assets that one side of the transaction did not understand, drove a demand to take the other side of transactions with such “dumb” money (of course, giving a substantial cut of the returns to the innovators and originators of these assets)?

Thus, while Wolf argues that household leverage and balance sheet deterioration were necessary to offset the massive demand deficiency created by the savings, he doesn’t really address the problem that a big chunk of this demand deficiency was endogenously created by the business sector itself. Blaming the crisis on foreign lenders who were only interested in riskless assets is too easy. Any genuine explanation of what was going on needs to include an explanation of the behavior of the U.S. business sector, and Martin Wolf does not offer such an explanation.

Overall, this chapter does a very good job of describing the trends that fed into the financial crisis. This careful description, however, is what made this reader see a gap in the explanation that made me question the causal story as it was presented. On the other hand, Wolf also draws the conclusion that a financial system capable of such extraordinary dysfunction is in need of serious reform. So perhaps my criticism of this chapter will turn out to be only a quibble with the full book. I’ll let you know.