A brief history of the shadow banking collapse in 2007-08

A large number of “market-based” financing vehicles that developed in the years leading up the the 2007 crisis were designed to exploit the fact that some investors were only worried about AAA-ratings (or for commercial paper A1/P1-ratings) and didn’t bother to understand the products they were investing in. Several of these vehicles were literally designed to blow up — they had liquidation triggers that when breached in an adverse market could result in complete loss of the investment. Others were designed to draw down bank liquidity lines when the economic situation became more difficult. (The latter could only exist because of a reinterpretation of a 2004 final rule promulgated by the Joint Bank Regulators that had the effect of gutting the regulation. See here.) Others would expose investors in AAA rated assets to massive losses if mortgage default rates were significantly higher what was expected and/or exhibited more correlation than was expected.

None of these products was viable once investors and bank regulators had seen how they worked in practice. Thus, these products had a very short life and markets for them collapsed entirely in 2007-08. This post briefly reviews this history.

A. In 2007 the commercial paper segment of the shadow banking system collapsed.

The first commercial paper issuers to go were structured vehicles that didn’t have committed bank lines of liquidity support, but instead supported their commercial paper issues by contractual terms that could force liquidation in order to pay up on the commercial paper. Structured Investment Vehicles (SIVs) are examples. Shortly thereafter structured vehicles that did have bank lines of liquidity support, such as CDOs and MBS (only a small fraction of which were financed with commercial paper), drew down the bank liquidity lines with dramatic effects on the balance sheets of the banks involved. To protect the banks from catastrophe the Federal Reserve gave them special regulatory exemptions (see the Supervisory Letters to Citibank, Bank of America, and JP Morgan Chase dated August 20, 2007 and to other banks in subsequent months) and permitted banks to pledge at the discount window ABCP for which they provided back up lines of credit (WSJ Aug 27 2007). These exemptions together with the Term Auction Facility made it possible for the ABCP market to deflate slowly over the course of three years, rather than collapsing quickly and taking a few banks with it.

In short in 2007 the Federal Reserve let a variety of different shadow bank models collapse, while protecting the banks and stabilizing the money supply by keeping the ABCP market from collapsing too quickly. These decisions were classic lender of last resort decisions that had the effect of allowing some entities to fail and other to survive with central bank support. They are also fairly uncontroversial: just about everybody agrees that the Fed acted appropriately at this point in the crisis.

B. From 2007 to 2008 a huge number of structured finance vehicles went Boom

At the same time some of the more esoteric structured vehicles that issued longer term obligations but also relied on liquidation triggers to support their issues blew up. Examples of this category include Leveraged Super Senior CDOs and Constant Proportion Debt Obligations. In a leveraged super senior CDO investors pay, for example, $60 million to earn 1.5% per annum spread over safe assets by selling an insurance policy (that is, CDS protection) on the $750 million most senior tranche of a CDO. Because the investors are putting up so little money the LSS CDO has a liquidation trigger, so that if the insured tranche falls by, for example, 4% in value, the structured liquidates, and an alternate insurance policy is purchased on the market. The investors then get whatever is left after the insured party is protected. These structures all blew up in 2007.

The Constant Proportion Debt Obligation was an even crazier product. Instead of insuring only the senior most tranche of a CDO, it sold insurance on a high grade bond index, including 125 names. Because there were no subordinated tranches to protect it from losses, the insurance premium was higher. The CPDO was structured to take the excess insurance premium (i.e. that which was not paid out as a bond yield to the marks who “invested” in this AAA-rated product) and put it aside. If everything goes well in three years the CPDO can stop insuring debt and pay the promised yield by just investing in safe assets. Of course, if everything goes badly, liquidation triggers are hit and the investor loses. Guess what happened in 2007?

CDO squared and ABS CDO’s are similarly products that pay an investor a bond-like yield to take an equity-like risk. They, however, had tranches that were rated up to AAA by the rating agencies, and in some cases even the brokers selling the products appeared to believe that they were just another kind of bond. Cordell, Huang & Williams (2012) found that the AAA-rated ABS CDO bonds lost more than half their value. More specifically they found that median junior AAA-rated ABS CDO bond lost 100% of its value, and that senior AAA-rated ABS CDO bonds did better, but also lost more than half of their value. And virtually every bond rated below AAA lost all of its value (Table 12). Now that investors understand this product, they won’t touch it with a ten foot pole.

C. Private Label Mortgage Backed Securitization evaporates

Underlying the losses on ABS CDOs were losses on private label mortgage backed securities. 75% of ABS CDO issuance was in the years 2005-2007 and over these years 68-78% of the collateral in ABS CDOs was private label mortgage collateral
(again from the great paper by Cordell, Huang and Williams Figure 2).

Cordell, Huang and Williams also finds that the lower tranches of subprime MBS were apparently never sold in any significant numbers to investors. Instead they were placed into CDOs (p. 9). This inability to place the lower rated tranches as well as other structural problems with the treatment of investors may explain the complete collapse of the private label MBS market, which is documented in Goodman 2015.

 

In short, SIVs, CDOs, and private label MBS were all effectively shadow banks that provided financing to the real economy during their lifetimes, but were not structured in a way that made them viable long term products. Thus, they disappeared as soon as they were exposed to an adverse environment. When this happened, the funding they had provided to the real economy disappeared (see Mian and Sufi 2018). This showed up as funding stress on the market.

Despite the stress the failures of these vehicles put on markets, the consensus seems to be universal that the Federal Reserve’s job was to protect the regulated banks, not to worry about the disappearance of the “market-based” lending structures. On the other hand, the liquidation and deterioration of these products sent waves through financial markets from August 2007 on that the Federal Reserve and the other central banks had to navigate.

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Brokers, dealers and the regulation of markets: Applying finreg to the giant tech platforms

Frank Pasquale (h/t Steve Waldman) offers an interesting approach to dealing with the giant tech firms’ privileged access to data: he contrasts a Jeffersonian — “just break ’em up” approach — with a Hamiltonian — regulate them as natural monopolies approach. Although Pasquale favors the Hamiltonian approach, he opens his essay by discussing Hayekian prices. Hayekian prices simultaneously aggregate distributed knowledge about the object sold and summarize it, reflecting the essential information that the individuals trading in the market need to know. While gigantic firms are alternate way of aggregating data, there is little reason to believe that they could possibly produce the benefits of Hayekian prices, the whole point of which is to publicize for each good a specific and extremely important summary statistic, the competitive price.

Pasquale’s framing brings to mind an interest parallel with the history of financial markets. Financial markets have for centuries been centralized in stock/bond and commodities exchanges, because it was widely understood that price discovery works best when everyone trades at a single location. The single location by drawing almost all market activity offers both “liquidity” and the best prices. The dealers on these markets have always been recognized as having a privileged position because of their superior access to information about what’s going on in the market.

One way to understand Google, Amazon, and Facebook is that they are acting as dealers in a broader economic marketplace. That with their superior knowledge about supply and demand they have an ability to extract gains that is perfectly analogous to dealers in financial markets.

Given this framing, it’s worth revisiting one of the most effective ways of regulating financial markets: a simple, but strict, application of a branch of common law, the law of agency was applied to the regulation of the London Stock Exchange from the mid-1800s through the 1986 “Big Bang.” It was remarkably effective at both controlling conflicts of interest and producing stable prices, but post World War II was overshadowed and eclipsed by the conflict-of-interest-dominated U.S. markets. In the “Big Bang” British markets embraced the conflicted financial markets model — posing a regulatory challenge which was recognized at the time (see Christopher McMahon 1985), but was never really addressed.

The basic principles of traditional common law market regulation are as follows. When a consumer seeks to trade in a market, the consumer is presumed to be uninformed and to need the help of an agent. Thus, access to the market is through agents, called brokers. Because a broker is a consumer’s agent, the broker cannot trade directly with the consumer. Trading directly with the consumer would mean that the broker’s interests are directly adverse to those of the consumer, and this conflict of interest is viewed by the law as interfering with the broker’s ability to act an agent. (Such conflicts can be waived by the consumer, but in early 20th century British financial markets were generally not waived.)

A broker’s job is to help the consumer find the best terms offered by a dealer. Because dealers buy and sell, they are prohibited from acting as the agents of the consumers — and in general prohibited from interacting with them directly at all. Brokers force dealers to offer their clients good deals by demanding two-sided quotes and only after learning both the bid and the ask, revealing whether their client’s order is a buy or a sell. Brokers also typically get bids from different dealers to make sure that the the prices on offer are competitive.

Brokers and dealers are strictly prohibited from belonging to the same firm or otherwise working in concert. The validity of the price setting mechanism is based on the bright line drawn between the different functions of brokers and of dealers.

Note that this system was never used in the U.S., where the law of agency with respect to financial markets was interpreted very differently, and where financial markets were beset by conflicts of interest from their earliest origins. Thus, it was in the U.S. that the fixed fees paid to brokers were first criticized as anti-competitive and eventually eliminated. In Britain the elimination of fixed fees reduced the costs faced by large traders, but not those faced by small traders (Sissoko 2017). By adversely affecting the quality of the price setting mechanism, the actual costs to traders of eliminating the structured broker-dealer interaction was hidden. We now have markets beset by “flash-crashes,” “whales,” cancelled orders, 2-tier data services, etc. In short, our market structure instead of being designed to control information asymmetry, is extremely permissive of the exploitation of information asymmetry.

So what lessons can we draw from the structured broker-dealer interaction model of regulating financial markets? Maybe we should think about regulating Google, Amazon, and Facebook so that they have to choose between either being the agents in legal terms of those whose data they collect, or of being sellers of products (or agents of these sellers) and having no access to buyer’s data.

In short, access to customer data should be tied to agency obligations with respect to that data. Firms with access to such data can provide services to consumers that help them negotiate a good deal with the sellers of products that they are interested in, but their revenue should come solely from the fees that they charge to consumers on their purchases. They should not be able to either act as sellers themselves or to make any side deals with sellers.

This is the best way of protecting a Hayekian price formation process by making sure that the information that causes prices to move is the flow of buy or sell orders that is generated by a dealer making two-sided markets and choosing a certain price point. And concurrently by allowing individuals to make their decisions in light of the prices they face. Such competitive pricing has the benefit of ensuring that prices are informative and useful for coordinating economic decision making.

When prices are not set by dealers who are forced to make two-sided markets and who are given no information about the nature of the trader, but instead prices are set by hyper-informed market participants, prices stop having the meaning attributed to them by standard economic models. In fact, given asymmetric information trade itself can easily degenerate away from the win-win ideal of economic models into a means of extracting value from the uninformed, as has been demonstrated time and again both in theory and in practice.

Pasquale’s claim that regulators need to permit “good” trade on asymmetric information (that which “actually helps solve real-world problems”) and prevent “bad” trade on asymmetric information (that which constitutes “the mere accumulation of bargaining power and leverage”) seems fantastic. How is any regulator to have the omniscience to draw these distinctions? Or does the “mere” in the latter case indicate the good case is to be presumed by default?

Overall, it’s hard to imagine a means of regulating informational behemoths like Google, Amazon and Facebook that favors Hayekian prices without also destroying entirely their current business models. Even if the Hamiltonian path of regulating the beasts is chosen, the economics of information would direct regulators to attach agency obligations to the collection of consumer data, and with those obligations to prevent the monetization of that data except by means of fees charged to the consumer for helping them find the best prices for their purchases.

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.