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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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.