The Magazine

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
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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.

But there was a reason for the central bankers' dissembling. If the bank ever acknowledged a duty to rescue banks by generous extensions of credit, it would create a form of moral hazard. Thomson Hankey, a Bank of England director whom Bagehot much admired (and to whom the financial writer James Grant devotes an admiring essay in his new book Mr. Market Miscalculates), called Bagehot's lender-of-last-resort views "the most mischievous doctrine ever broached in the monetary or banking world in this country."

In practice, Bagehot was right and Hankey was wrong. The bank was beyond question the lender of last resort. In principle, Hankey was right and Bagehot was wrong. Unless there was a real, credible threat that a bank would be allowed to fail, the guarantee of rescue would simply get priced into any financial bubble that developed, making things worse when the bubble popped. The situation required what we would now call "strategic ambiguity"--both Hankey's doctrine and Bagehot's practice, which contradicts it.

The situation today requires the same mix. Central banking is thus often a high-stakes game of chicken. And sometimes, when banks enter the game insufficiently scared, it will be played out to the end. It certainly was in September when the U.S. Treasury terrified the financial world by not coming to the rescue of Lehman Brothers. This was a catastrophe in terms of Bagehot's practice, but it will produce benefits in terms of Hankey's principle. It will discourage people from paying more than is reasonable for assets on the belief that they come equipped with an insurance policy (the promise of a central bank rescue) that has been underwritten by taxpayers. The Republicans who nearly derailed the Treasury's Troubled Assets Relief Program in September played a similar role.

A final problem is that there are limits to how accountable a central bank can be. Everyone is always hollering for clear rules and transparency. But a dirty secret of regulation is that it frequently influences conduct most effectively when it is capricious and opaque. Any regulatory system will reveal its vulnerabilities over long use. If it addresses economic problems in a predictable way, savvy investors will find a way to "game" that predictability. You can draw an analogy with antidepressant drugs. There is no permanent right match of medication for a depressive. Antidepressants work only until the mind (or is it the brain?) finds a way around them, at which point a new, unfamiliar drug must be substituted. In the same way, no matter how good the content of a regulatory regime, it must change periodically if big market players are to be kept from profiting off it.

As Bagehot outlined his system, he was conscious that the practical realities of banking required him to heap paradox upon paradox. There is a hint of both Andrew Jackson and Thomas Aquinas in the way he referred to central banking as an "unnatural" thing in its very conception. "The business of banking ought to be simple," he wrote. "If it is hard it is wrong." If it is hard, the banker is either delegating poorly or has entangled his institution in complex transactions where it has no business. According to Bagehot, "Adventure is the life of commerce, but caution, I had almost said timidity, is the life of banking."

Centralizing a society's cash reserves is complicated, reckless, and artificial:

A republic with many competitors of a size or sizes suitable to the business, is the constitution of every trade if left to itself, and of banking as much as any other. A monarchy in any trade is a sign of some anomalous advantage, and of some intervention from without. .  .  . The natural system of banking is that of many banks keeping their own cash reserve, with the penalty of failure before them if they neglect it.

In his ideas of company size, Bagehot harkened back to the 18th century rather than ahead to our own. To modern eyes, Bagehot is, as a factual matter, simply wrong. The natural tendency under free-market conditions is towards consolidation, and even monopoly. If you want small firms, you must protect them through government--whether this means Teddy Roosevelt-ian trust-busting, French-style subsidies to tobacconists, the EU's hounding of Microsoft, or the NIMBY anti-Wal-Mart campaigns aimed at preserving Mom-and-Pop stores. Bagehot sometimes contradicted himself on this point, noting also that "a large bank always tends to become larger, and a small one tends to become smaller," but his application of the word unnatural to a large central bank was frequent and must be taken as his settled view. It is curious that Bagehot, a contemporary of Marx, came to the opposite (and false) conclusion about how firms evolve.

Where Bagehot would agree with Marx is in his belief that there is something predictably destabilizing about modern economies. You don't need banks to have a precarious economy, or one liable to speculation--Bagehot noted that there were no banks, as we would understand them, in 1720, at the time of the South Sea Bubble and the Mississippi Scheme. But modern banking is precarious by design. "In exact proportion to the power of this system is its delicacy," he wrote. "I should hardly say too much if I said its danger." The power, delicacy, and danger all have the same source. In fact they are just different names for the same thing: leverage.

At the very opening of the book, Bagehot illustrates with exquisite simplicity how, at least in a boom economy, traders on margin can "harass and press upon, if they do not eradicate, the old capitalist." The old capitalist in question is the poor sap who believes all this stuff about neither-a-borrower-nor-a-lender-be and is foolish enough to be using his own cash:

If a merchant have £50,000 all his own, to gain 10 per cent on it he must make £5,000 a year, and must charge for his goods accordingly; but if another has only £10,000, and borrows £40,000 by discounts (no extreme instance in our modern trade), he has the same capital of £50,000 to use, and can sell much cheaper. If the rate at which he borrows be 5 per cent, he will have to pay £2,000 a year; and if, like the old trader, he make £5,000 a year, he will still, after paying his interest, obtain £3,000 a year, or 30 per cent, on his own £10,000. As most merchants are content with much less than 30 per cent, he will be able, if he wishes, to forego some of that profit, lower the price of the commodity, and drive the old-fashioned trader--the man who trades on his own capital--out of the market.

Later, Bagehot showed that this need for leverage is no different for those selling money than it is for those selling dry goods. The banker can no more choose not to lend than the merchant can choose not to borrow:

The bill-broker has, in one shape or other, to pay interest on every sixpence left with him, and that constant habit of giving interest has this grave consequence: the bill-broker cannot afford to keep much money unemployed. He has become a banker owing large sums which he may be called on to repay, but he cannot hold as much as an ordinary banker, or nearly as much, of such sums in cash, because the loss of interest would ruin him.

In finance, once you can have leverage, you must have leverage. Once you have some leverage, getting more of it than your competitors is a matter of survival. And when governments and central banks debate whether to loosen or tighten up money, they face a constant clamor from the financial world to permit more leverage still. That is why, even in democracies, the instruments of monetary policy tend to be kept far from the influence of voters, and even hidden from view. Otherwise, credit tends to spiral. Bubbles result.

Nothing could be more foolish than to assume that this process of spiraling speculation is unleashed by "greed," unless by greed you mean human nature. Credit spirals are a darker aspect of the world Adam Smith described in The Wealth of Nations and Bernard de Mandeville did in the Fable of the Bees. Just as society can be improved by the uncoordinated action of the selfishly motivated, an economy can collapse for reasons having nothing to do with anybody's cupidity.

We should be moral in the way we think about money, but a credit system tends to make a mess of moral accounting. Bagehot described London's financial district as "a sort of standing broker between quiet saving districts of the country and the active employing districts." Decent, puritanical Suffolk farmers want to put their money in a safe place; Lancashire entrepreneurs want money to put to work. Thanks to London bankers, both can follow their wishes and make a profit in the process. We have an idea that the Suffolk dairyman is the "moral" party here (he's saving) and the Lancashire speculator the "immoral" one (he's gambling). But, once a banking system intervenes, they are both gambling and they are both saving. In good times you are welcome to mouth the folkloric cliché that holds farmers to be better people than financiers. When depression looms, you had better realize that the rain falls on the just and the unjust.

Many Americans who have wound up underwater on their houses and maxed out on their credit cards are greedy, climbing, brand-intoxicated, materialistic shopaholics who thought the world owed them a living. But just as many of them are not. They are trapped, as surely as financial institutions are, in a system based on wild borrowing. Participation in this system is not exactly required, but it is not exactly optional, either. One's quality of life is determined not just by one's purchasing power but also by one's relative economic standing. Chagrin at seeing one's neighbors get richer faster may be a sign of bad character, but do not for a minute assume there is nothing to feel chagrin about! When it comes to the very goods people deem most essential--the proper mate; the schooling of one's children; the size, location, elegance, and comfort of one's house--relative standing is more important than absolute wealth.

Those who kept their money in savings banks in the 1990s lost out to those who did things we are supposed to disapprove of, like "spending money they didn't have," borrowing profligately to invest in stocks and even bonds, which appreciated at an average of 15 percent a year over the decade. Among rich people, how one entered the present decade had more to do with how one had done in the stock market than with how one had done in the labor market. Is that just? Of course it's not! It's easy to see now. But while the boom was going on there was all sorts of rationalizing about why it was okay that the social hierarchy should be reordered through stock and housing speculation. One line of argument was that people who did not have a ton of money in stocks, as well as those who rented rather than bought the houses they lived in, were foolish. This line of argument peaked at the turn of the decade, when Americans elected a president who had argued that the public was foolish for not launching its retirement savings onto the open seas of the stock market.

Bagehot saw that a speculative mania eventually sweeps up everyone in its path. "Every great crisis reveals the excessive speculations of many houses which no one before suspected," he wrote, "and which commonly indeed had not begun or had not carried very far those speculations, till they were tempted by the daily rise of price and the surrounding fever." Avaricious people get hurt, but it is in the nature of crashes that they are not the ones who get hurt most. A tragic figure present in almost every historic account of speculation and collapse in history is the person who believed, year after year, that the boom was an illusion, and held himself aloof until, at the very last minute, whether out of self-doubt or deference to the opinions of his fellow man, he entered the fray and was (having bought at the top, rather than the bottom, of the market) wiped out. What a wicked irony! His punishment is as much for his long and wise forbearance as for his momentary weakness.

So the "cultural contradictions of capitalism" run deeper than we thought. The classic idea, as laid out in their different ways by the economist Joseph Schumpeter and the sociologist Daniel Bell, is that capitalism rewards diligence; diligence produces wealth; wealth begets idleness; and idleness undermines capitalism. But when, as now, push comes to shove, we can ask whether there is really anything particularly capitalist about the virtues of diligence and self-restraint. The real capitalist virtues appear to be optimism and luck. From a central-banking perspective, the cultural contradictions are not results of capitalism but elements of it.

The problem with central banking is that it reacts to a system that has been mismanaged by rewarding the managers. That is why objections to central banking, although they can come from the right (Ron Paul, Jim Bunning) or the left (Barney Frank, William Greider), tend to be populist. Bagehot was no populist. He was comfortable with the idea that what some people think should be more important than what other people think:

Almost all directors who bring special information labor under a suspicion of interest; they can only have acquired that information in present business, and such business may very possibly be affected for good or evil by the policy of the Bank. But you must not on this account seal up the Bank hermetically against living information.

Although he would surely fault Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson for many things, the criticism most often heard at present--that Paulson is too close to former colleagues on Wall Street, where he worked for years as CEO of Goldman Sachs--would strike Bagehot as misplaced.

Because it is on Wall Street, alas, that "the state of credit" is to be determined:

The state of credit at any particular time is a matter of fact only to be ascertained like other matters of fact; it can only be known by trial and inquiry. And in the same way, nothing but experience can tell us what amount of "reserve" will create a diffused confidence.

To be blunt, credit is successfully reestablished when financial elites say, "When." Credit is close to a synonym for the mood of the ruling class. To say an economy is based on credit is to say it is based on animal mysteries. Glamour, prestige, élan, sprezzatura, cutting a figure .  .  . that is what the economy is made of. It is a rather terrifying thought. Viewed as Bagehot viewed it, from the perspective of a central bank in a crisis, an advanced economy looks an awful lot like a primitive economy.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD. His Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West will be published by Doubleday in July.