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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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.