The Unwisdom of Crowds
Financial panics still require what Walter Bagehot prescribed--that practical men violate their own principles.
Dec 22, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 14 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
Neither Barack Obama nor John McCain had much of value to say about the financial crisis as it raged through the headlines this fall. Rather than shred their campaign strategies, they played it safe, as most politicians would have. But in the name of justice we ought to recall that there was one candidate who did foresee our predicament with considerable accuracy when it still lay far in the future. Ron Paul, in almost every speech he made during the Republican primaries, spoke of bubbles, reckless credit growth, and the "unsustainability" of present policy. So why isn't there more demand for the common-sense solutions he put forward? Because common sense is not much use in a financial panic.
This was the great discovery of Walter Bagehot, the prolific 19th-century essayist and journalist, who was editor of the Economist from 1860 to 1877. (His name rhymes with gadget.) Ninety-nine percent of the time, common sense is a synonym for practicality. But in a serious banking crisis, doing the commonsensical thing--hunkering down and counting your pennies--has proved to be not practical at all. Bagehot's Lombard Street is an insider's look at the Bank of England, and at the principles on which political and financial leaders act when advanced economies come under pressure. Those principles are depressing in the extreme for anyone with an uncomplicated idea of how a democracy works. But they are effective. That is why, in the so-called Anglo-Saxon world, Bagehot's book still provides the bedrock of policy thinking during financial emergencies, including our present one.
Lombard Street was published in 1873, seven years after the sudden collapse of Overend, Gurney & Co., a bank that lost £11 million, spread panic among investors, sparked a run, and became "the model instance of all evil in business." The crisis made such a deep impression on British finance and government that the country did not have another bank run for 141 years--not until Northern Rock collapsed in the summer of 2007. (English investors must have longer memories than American ones. Most of our own noxious subprime mortgages were contracted, and the securities built on them concocted, after Enron became our own model instance of evil in 2001.) It was the Bank of England that took charge of averting panic, during the Overend, Gurney crisis and thereafter. It did so by injecting credit into the economy, by bailing people out. Bagehot approved of this. Many ordinary retailers could not pay their suppliers until they got the money for the things they sold. Without credit, they would be ruined, and the ruin would spread to those to whom they owed money. This was not a question of moral failing, it was just the way a modern economy worked.
But the modern economic system interacts with the modern political system--democracy--in a rather uncomfortable way. Indeed, at more than one juncture in Lombard Street, Bagehot framed the problem of booms and busts as part of the "increasingly democratic structure of English commerce." People in a democracy are most comfortable when their institutions do the same things that they would do as individuals. In a crisis, banks--like everyone else--reflexively hoard their money. But a central bank must do the opposite. It must lend freely.
This was the most basic affront to common sense that the Bank of England presented, but it was not the worst. The worst was that the bank could carry out its necessary duties as a lender of last resort only by breaking the law. The basis of the bank's operating procedure--and of its soundness--was the Bank Act of 1844. We would call it a regime of sound money. It included stringent caps on the ratio of notes issued to reserves held. These caps were hewed to when the economy was running smoothly. Yet at the time Bagehot was writing, a quarter century later, the law had already been suspended three times. Not just that. "No similar occasion has ever yet occurred," Bagehot wrote, "in which it has not been suspended." So the law on which the solvency of the British nation rested was ironclad, except when someone felt a need to break it.
Stranger still, never did the Bank of England acknowledge its duty as the lender of last resort. Some of its governors even denied that any such duty existed. Bagehot thought the bank should come clean about what it really was:
There should be a clear understanding between the Bank and the public that, since the Bank hold our ultimate banking reserve, they will recognise and act on the obligations which this implies--that they will replenish [the reserve] in time of foreign demand as fully, and lend it in times of internal panic as freely and readily, as plain principles of banking require.