A call for stubborn unreasonableness

Fragile by Design: The Political Origins of Banking Crises and Scarce Credit by Charles Calomiris and Stephen Haber is a fascinating exploration of the relationship between banking and politics, and raises some important questions. The bulk of the book is a series of historical narratives looking at the banking history of several countries – the US, UK, Canada, Mexico and Brazil. These histories are seen through the prism of the tight connection between finance and politics, in what the authors call the Game of Bank Bargains.

They argue that banking is inherently political because it is by design potentially unstable – pooling the money of many individuals to make loans to other people -  and depends on the enforcement of certain property rights by legal and political authorities to navigate the conflicting incentives. Three property rights challenges follow: the need for mechanisms to reduce the risk of government appropriation of banks’ assets (either outright, or through regulation, or by printing fiat money); mechanisms to protect depositors and shareholders from the banks’ managers channeling resources to themselves; and mechanisms to prevent borrowers from defaulting. Stability requires finding a balance between the conflicts of interest. It is rare – Canada is the exceptional case, having experienced no systemic crises since 1840 in contrast with the dozen in the US. Populist democracies and more autocratic governments make different types of political deal but both fail to balance the competing interests. Achieving a stable democracy with robust defences against populism is clearly a tricky tightrope act.

The historical narratives are very interesting and do underline the importance of the political context in shaping the banking system. As the final chapter points out, the narrative explanations do offer insights that general theoretical explanations of the financial crisis can not. The general theories fall into one of three categories: inherent structural mismatch of funds and the resulting liquidity risk; inter-connections between banks that give rise to spillovers and domino effects when one bank is in trouble; and the inherent operation of human nature with periods of over-optimism and myopia alternating with pessimism and retrenchment (the Kindleberger and Minsky version). What no general theory can do is explain the contrasting historical paths of the different countries. “The decisive influences determining whether the threats highlighted by these three theories will result in banking crises are political…. The extent of safety nets and prudential regulation are choices made by politicians, and in making those choices they are generally motivated by maximizing what is good for their own short-run political futures, not what is socially desirable in the long run.”

This seems completely persuasive to me. One gap in the book, however, is the part played by the globalization of finance and how that is related to the combination of national politics and international agreement. The historical narratives are entirely focused on the domestic politics of each country. However, globalization has obviously changed the political economy dynamic, even if only by making national politicians feel they face new constraints on their choices. The big global investment banks and the shadow banking sector are surely a key part of the story.

I do like the way the book ends: “As George Bernard Shaw said, ‘The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.’ Meaningful reform in a democracy depends on informed and stubborn unreasonableness.”



The Game of Bank Bargains

My progress through Fragile by Design: the political origins of banking crises and scarce credit by Charles Calomiris and Stephen Haber is ever so slow (partly because of the distraction of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s wonderful novel Americanah), but I’m enjoying it a lot.


Take these two quotations from Chapter One, ‘If stable and efficient banks are such a good idea, why are they so rare?’:

“Banking systems are susceptible to collapse only when banks both expose themselves to high risk in making loans and investments and have inadequate capital on their balance sheets to absorb the losses associated with those risky loans and investments. If a bank makes only solid loans to solid borrowers, there is little chance that its loan portfolio will suddenly become non-performing. If a bank makes riskier loans to less solid borrowers but sets aside capital to cover the possibility that its loans will not be repaid, its shareholders will suffer a loss but it will not become insolvent. These basic facts about banking crises are known.”

So the question about system instability is why are banks allowed to take risks without adequate levels of equity? Of course, Adam Admati and Martin Hellwig asked the same question in their brilliant book The Bankers’ New Clothes.

The chapter concludes:

“The fact that the property rights system underpinning banking systems is an outcome of political deal making means there are no fully ‘private’ banking systems; modern banking is best thought of as a partnership between the government and a group of bankers, a partnership that is shaped by the institutions that govern the distribution of power in the political system…. We call this process of deal making the Game of Bank Bargains.”

Exhibit number one is the stability of the Canadian banking system (zero systemic crises since 1840) versus the instability of the US (12 crises). In this light, it was interesting to read Edward Luce’s strongly worded article on finance and US democracy in this morning’s Financial Times.

Canada versus Minsky, and the politics of banking

With Eurostar journeys coming up, I anticipate making decent inroads into Piketty’s Capital, but meanwhile the enormous buzz about it makes it harder than ever to understand why the popular and intellectual anger about plutocracy has not translated (yet?) into political consequences.

This thought was underlined by browsing through Fragile By Design: The Political Origins of Banking Crises and Scarce Credit by Charles Calomiris and Stephen Haber. They write: “There is no avoiding the government-banker partnership.” The book combines history, economics and political science to analyse the nature of the state-bank relationship, within a framework of bargaining. One section compares and contrasts the US (12 systemic banking crises since 1840) and Canada (zero). Another looks at the relationship in authoritarian contexts and democratic transitions.

One important conclusion is that no general theory can explain why banking crises have not been equally likely in all countries in the recent past. For example, Hyman Minsky‘s theory of endogenous excess followed by fear has enjoyed a revival – indeed there was a recent BBC Radio 4 Analysis on it (Why Minsky Matters) that is well worth a listen – but why was Canada exempt from these oscillations arising from human nature? It isn’t that Minsky is wrong, but rather that context matters for crises too. “Useful propositions about banking generally are only true contingently, depending on historical context.” And, to mangle Tolstoy, every country (except Canada?) has its own unhappy politics.

Which brings me back to the strange absence of any political consequence of the financial crisis for banking. Bankers will complain about excess regulation but the only result has been to cause them to employ more compliance officers, and more lawyers to game the regulations. There has been little action on leverage and capital ratios, next to none on scandalous rent-seeking bonuses and none at all enforcing competition and new entry. The financial sector isn’t the only locus of the modern plutocracy, but it is one of the most significant.

One possibility is that the political classes are befuddled because – as I describe in GDP: A Brief But Affectionate History – the national accounts figures overstate the contribution of the financial sector to the economy. Maybe some politicians genuinely believe they cannot risk killing the goose that’s laying the golden eggs even if it is keeping all the eggs within its own nest. Whatever the explanation, the bargain between banks and politics is working for bankers, and not for other citizens.

Here is an excellent VoxEU interview about the book with Charles Calomiris. For now, I’m off to St Pancras and on with Piketty.

Enlightened banking

Adam Smith had firm views about the banking industry. He believed that services in general were unproductive, and would clearly have taken a dim view of claims about the contribution of banking to GDP (see my forthcoming Feb 2014 book, GDP: A Brief and Affectionate History).

I was just looking at the new Oxford Handbook of Adam Smith (editors Christopher Berry, Maria Pia Paganelli and Craig Smith) as I prepare for a panel session on banking at the Festival of Economics in Bristol later this month.

The essays in the section on money, banking and prices underline Smith’s caution. It describes a metaphor in The Wealth of Nations (I didn’t remember it) comparing banking to a wagon road through the air – immensely useful in helping business expand beyond its earth-bound confines, but in danger of melting if it gets too close to the sun. He was explicitly opposed to banks investing in real estate, and his descriptions of what they should be lending for are exactly the kind of provision of working capital to business that modern banks hardly do at all – it amounts to just 3% of UK banks’ total lending. A figure worth bearing in mind when the banks claim that higher equity capital requirements would restrict their ability to lend to business, as a small decline in next to nothing is less than next to nothing….

The Handbook, by the way, is a great resource for Smith-ites. I’ve dipped into it, and found some great chapters, including those on his Enlightenment context and (by Amartya Sen) on his contemporary relevance. One part covers economics; others are on the entire range of his work – for example on history, civil society, moral society. I also liked the introduction from Nicholas Phillipson, who write an excellent biography of Smith, Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life (which I reviewed for the New Statesman).

A room full of naked bankers

This morning I had the pleasure of attending a breakfast debate hosted by Prospect for Anat Admati, co-author of the brilliant The Bankers’ New Clothes. The book has a clear, simple message: banks should be required to  behave like normal businesses, and invest their own funds in projects with a good (risk-adjusted) return. They should not be subsidised to borrow money to invest in risky trading activities. “What is special about banks is what they get away with,” Admati says. The mechanism for moving from our world of zombie banks that can still bring down the whole economy and are still receiving massive taxpayer subsidies to a world of viable banks that finance the real economy is to require them to hold much, much more equity on the liabilities side of their balance sheet, moving towards that by not paying dividends for the foreseeable future.

The Bankers’ New Clothes: What’s Wrong with Banking and What to Do about It

The book is terrific, and if you don’t want to read a  whole book, its website has a short myth-buster addressing the most frequent objections to the proposals ( http://bankersnewclothes.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/parade-continues-June-3.pdf). For of course bankers object to being told their industry harms the economy and is not commercially viable without government subsidy. Many people – including both politicians and many bankers – don’t understand the issues. There’s a lot of jargon and few people want to look stupid by admitting they don’t understand.

The meeting this morning split between bankers and economists. I think all economists agree on the need for banks to be much better-capitalised. This includes a senior economist at one of the UK’s biggest banks, who recently told me so then pleaded with me never to reveal their identity. However, this has little political traction. Bankers are confident chaps who talk a good (confusing) game and donate funds. The GDP figures greatly overstate the contribution of banks to the economy (see my forthcoming book, or Banking Across Boundaries  by Brett Christophers). I think the best practical path in the short term is to encourage regulators and politicians to enable new entry into financial services. After all, only 3% of banks’ lending in the UK goes to business, and if start-ups including P2P and private equity can eat into that, it will be even clearer that the banks we have are not socially useful. If they are, they can prove it by raising equity and reducing their lethally dangerous leverage.