Archive for the 'Walter Bagehot' Category

The Real-Bills Doctrine, the Lender of Last Resort, and the Scope of Banking

Here is another section from my work in progress on the Smithian and Humean traditions in monetary economics. The discussion starts with a comparison of the negative view David Hume took toward banks and the positive view taken by Adam Smith which was also discussed in the previous post on the price-specie-flow mechanism. This section discusses how Smith, despite viewing banks positively, also understood that banks can be a source of disturbances as well as of efficiencies, and how he addressed that problem and how his followers who shared a positive view toward banks addressed the problem. Comments and feedback are welcome and greatly appreciated.

Hume and Smith had very different views about fractional-reserve banking and its capacity to provide the public with the desired quantity of money (banknotes and deposits) and promote international adjustment. The cash created by banks consists of liabilities on themselves that they exchange for liabilities on the public. Liabilities on the public accepted by banks become their assets, generating revenue streams with which banks cover their outlays including obligations to creditors and stockholders.

The previous post focused on the liability side of bank balance sheets, and whether there are economic forces that limit the size of those balance sheets, implying a point of equilibrium bank expansion. Believing that banks have an unlimited incentive to issue liabilities, whose face value exceeds their cost of production, Hume considered banks dangerous and inflationary. Smith disagreed, arguing that although bank money is a less costly alternative to the full-bodied money preferred by Hume, banks don’t create liabilities limitlessly, because, unless those liabilities generate corresponding revenue streams, they will be unable to redeem those liabilities, which their creditors may require of them, at will. To enhance the attractiveness of those liabilities and to increase the demand to hold them, competitive banks promise to convert those liabilities, at a stipulated rate, into an asset whose value they do not control. Under those conditions, banks have neither the incentive nor the capacity to cause inflation.

I turn now to a different topic: whether Smith’s rejection of the idea that banks are systematically biased toward overissuing liabilities implies that banks require no external control or intervention. I begin by briefly referring to Smith’s support of the real-bills doctrine and then extend that discussion to two other issues: the lender of last resort and the scope of banking.

A         Real-Bills Doctrine

I have argued elsewhere that, besides sketching the outlines of Fullarton’s argument for the Law of Reflux, Adam Smith recommended that banks observe a form of the real-bills doctrine, namely that banks issue sight liabilities only in exchange for real commercial bills of short (usually 90-days) duration. Increases in the demand for money cause bank balance sheets to expand; decreases cause them to contract. Unlike Mints (1945), who identified the Law of Reflux with the real-bills doctrine, I suggested that Smith viewed the real-bills doctrine as a pragmatic policy to facilitate contractions in the size of bank balance sheets as required by the reflux of their liabilities. With the discrepancy between the duration of liabilities and assets limited by issuing sight liabilities only in exchange for short-term bills, bank balance sheets would contract automatically thereby obviating, at least in part, the liquidation of longer-term assets at depressed prices.

On this reading, Smith recognized that banking policy ought to take account of the composition of bank balance sheets, in particular, the sort of assets that banks accept as backing for the sight liabilities that they issue. I would also emphasize that on this interpretation, Smith did not believe, as did many later advocates of the doctrine, that lending on the security of real bills is sufficient to prevent the price level from changing. Even if banks have no systematic incentive to overissue their liabilities, unless those liabilities are made convertible into an asset whose value is determined independently of the banks, the value of their liabilities is undetermined. Convertibility is how banks anchor the value of their liabilities, thereby increasing the attractiveness of those liabilities to the public and the willingness of the public to accept and hold them.

But Smith’s support for the real-bills doctrine indicates that, while understanding the equilibrating tendencies of competition on bank operations, he also recognized the inherent instability of banking caused by fluctuations in the value and liquidity of their assets. Smith’s support for the real-bills doctrine addressed one type of instability: the maturity mismatch between banks’ assets and liabilities. But there are other sources of instability, which may require further institutional or policy measures beyond the general laws of property and contract whose application and enforcement, in Smith’s view, generally sufficed for the self-interested conduct of private firms to lead to socially benign outcomes.

In the remainder of this section, I consider two other methods of addressing the vulnerability of bank assets to sudden losses of value: (1) the creation or empowerment of a lender of last resort capable of lending to illiquid, but solvent, banks possessing good security (valuable assets) as collateral against which to borrow, and (2) limits beyond the real-bills doctrine over the permissible activities undertaken by commercial banks.

B         Lender of Last Resort

Although the real-bills doctrine limits the exposure of bank balance sheets to adverse shocks on the value of long-term liabilities, even banks whose liabilities were issued in exchange for short-term real bills of exchange may be unable to meet all demands for redemption in periods of extreme financial distress, when debtors cannot sell their products at the prices they expected and cannot meet their own obligations to their creditors. If banks are called upon to redeem their liabilities, banks may be faced with a choice between depleting their own cash reserves, when they are most needed, or liquidating other assets at substantial, if not catastrophic, losses.

Smith’s version of the real-bills doctrine addressed one aspect of balance-sheet risk, but the underlying problem is deeper and more complicated than the liquidity issue that concerned Smith. The assets accepted by banks in exchange for their liabilities are typically not easily marketable, so if those assets must be shed quickly to satisfy demands for payment, banks’ solvency may be jeopardized by consequent capital losses. Limiting portfolios to short-term assets limits exposure to such losses, but only when the disturbances requiring asset liquidation affect only a relatively small number of banks. As the number of affected banks increases, their ability to counter the disturbance is impaired, as the interbank market for credit starts to freeze up or break down entirely, leaving them unable to offer short-term relief to, or receive it from, other momentarily illiquid banks. It is then that emergency lending by a lender of last resort to illiquid, but possibly still solvent, banks is necessary.

What causes a cluster of expectational errors by banks in exchanging their liabilities for assets supplied by their customers that become less valuable than they were upon acceptance? Are financial crises that result in, or are caused by, asset write downs by banks caused by random clusters of errors by banks, or are there systematic causes of such errors? Does the danger lie in the magnitude of the errors or in the transmission mechanism?

Here, too, the Humean and Smithian traditions seem to be at odds, offering different answers to problems, or, if not answers, at least different approaches to problems. Focusing on the liability side of bank balance sheets, the Humean tradition emphasizes the expansion of bank lending and the consequent creation of banknotes or deposits as the main impulse to macroeconomic fluctuations, a boom-bust or credit cycle triggered by banks’ lending to finance either business investment or consumer spending. Despite their theoretical differences, both Austrian business-cycle theory and Friedmanite Monetarism share a common intellectual ancestry, traceable by way of the Currency School to Hume, identifying the source of business-cycle fluctuations in excessive growth in the quantity of money.

The eclectic Smithian tradition accommodates both monetary and non-monetary business-cycle theories, but balance-sheet effects on banks are more naturally accommodated within the Smithian tradition than the Humean tradition with its focus on the liabilities not the assets of banks. At any rate, more research is necessary before we can decide whether serious financial disturbances result from big expectational errors or from contagion effects.

The Great Depression resulted from a big error. After the steep deflation and depression of 1920-22, followed by a gradual restoration of the gold standard, fears of further deflation were dispelled and steady economic expansion, especially in the United States, resulted. Suddenly in 1929, as France and other countries rejoined the gold standard, the fears voiced by Hawtrey and Cassel that restoring the gold standard could have serious deflationary consequences appeared increasingly more likely to be realized. Real signs of deflation began to appear in the summer of 1929, and in the fall the stock market collapsed. Rather than use monetary policy to counter incipient deflation, policy makers and many economists argued that deflation was part of the solution not the problem. And the Depression came.

It is generally agreed that the 2008 financial crisis that triggered the Little Depression (aka Great Recession) was largely the result of a housing bubble fueled by unsound mortgage lending by banks and questionable underwriting practices in packaging and marketing of mortgage-backed securities. However, although the housing bubble seems to have burst the spring of 2007, the crisis did not start until September 2008.

It is at least possible, as I have argued (Glasner 2018) that, despite the financial fragility caused by the housing bubble and unsound lending practices that fueled the bubble, the crisis could have been avoided but for a reflexive policy tightening by the Federal Reserve starting in 2007 that caused a recession starting in December 2007 and gradually worsening through the summer of 2008. Rather than ease monetary policy as the recession deepened, the Fed, distracted by rising headline inflation owing to rising oil prices that summer, would not reduce its interest-rate target further after March 2008. If my interpretation is correct, the financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent Little Depression (aka Great Recession) were as much caused by bad monetary policy as by the unsound lending practices and mistaken expectations by lenders.

It is when all agents are cash constrained that a lender of last resort that is able to provide the liquidity that the usual suppliers of liquidity cannot provide, but are instead demanding, is necessary to avoid a systemic breakdown. In 2008, the Fed was unwilling to satisfy demands for liquidity until the crisis had deteriorated to the point of a worldwide collapse. In the nineteenth century, Thornton and Fullarton understood that the Bank of England was uniquely able to provide liquidity in such circumstances, recommending that it lend freely in periods of financial stress.

That policy was not viewed favorably either by Humean supporters of the Currency Principle, opposed to all forms of fractional-reserve banking, or by Smithian supporters of free banking who deplored the privileged central-banking position granted to the Bank of England. Although the Fed in 2008 acknowledged that it was both a national and international lender of last resort, it was tragically slow to take the necessary actions to end the crisis after allowing it to spiral nearly out of control.

While cogent arguments have been made that a free-banking alternative to the lender-of-last-resort services of the Bank of England might have been possible in the nineteenth century,[2] even a free-banking system would require a mechanism for handling periods of financial stress. Free-banking supporters argue that bank clearinghouses have emerged spontaneously in the absence of central banks, and could provide the lender-of-last resort services provided by central banks. But, insofar as bank clearinghouses would take on the lender-of-last-resort function, which involves some intervention and supervision of bank activities by either the clearinghouse or the central bank, the same anticompetitive or cartelistic objections to the provision of lender-of-last-resort services by central banks also would apply to the provision of those services by clearinghouses. So, the tension between libertarian, free-market principles and lender-of-last-resort services would not necessarily be eliminated bank clearinghouses instead of central banks provided those services.

This is an appropriate place to consider Walter Bagehot’s contribution to the lender-of-last-resort doctrine. Building on the work of Thornton and Fullarton, Bagehot formulated the classic principle that, during times of financial distress, the Bank of England should lend freely at a penalty rate to banks on good security. Bagehot, himself, admitted to a certain unease in offering this advice, opining that it was regrettable that the Bank of England achieved a pre-eminent position in the British banking system, so that a decentralized banking system, along the lines of the Scottish free-banking system, could have evolved. But given the historical development of British banking, including the 1844 Bank Charter Act, Bagehot, an eminently practical man, had no desire to recommend radical reform, only to help the existing system operate as smoothly as it could be made to operate.

But the soundness of Bagehot’s advice to lend freely at a penalty rate is dubious. In a financial crisis, the market rate of interest primarily reflects a liquidity premium not an expected real return on capital, the latter typically being depressed in a crisis. Charging a penalty rate to distressed borrowers in a crisis only raises the liquidity premium. Monetary policy ought to aim to reduce, not to increase, that premium. So Bagehot’s advice, derived from a misplaced sense of what is practical and prudent and financially sound, rather than from sound analysis, was far from sound.

Under the gold standard, or under any fixed-exchange-rate regime, a single country has an incentive to raise interest rates above the rates of other countries to prevent a gold outflow or attract an inflow. Under these circumstances, a failure of international cooperation can lead to competitive rate increases as monetary authorities scramble to maintain or increase their gold reserves. In testimony to the Macmillan Commission in 1930, Ralph Hawtrey masterfully described the obligation of a central bank in a crisis. Here is his exchange with the Chairman of the Commission Hugh Macmillan:

MACMILLAN: Suppose . . . without restricting credit . . . that gold had gone out to a very considerable extent, would that not have had very serious consequences on the international position of London?

HAWTREY: I do not think the credit of London depends on any particular figure of gold holding. . . . The harm began to be done in March and April of 1925 [when] the fall in American prices started. There was no reason why the Bank of England should have taken ny action at that time so far as the question of loss of gold is concerned. . . . I believed at the time and I still think that the right treatment would have been to restore the gold standard de facto before it was restored de jure. That is what all the other countries have done. . . . I would have suggested that we should have adopted the practice of always selling gold to a sufficient extent to prevent the exchange depreciating. There would have been no legal obligation to continue convertibility into gold . . . If that course had been adopted, the Bank of England would never have been anxious about the gold holding, they would have been able to see it ebb away to quite a considerable extent with perfect equanimity, . . and might have continued with a 4 percent Bank Rate.

MACMILLAN: . . . the course you suggest would not have been consistent with what one may call orthodox Central Banking, would it?

HAWTREY: I do not know what orthodox Central Banking is.

MACMILLAN: . . . when gold ebbs away you must restrict credit as a general principle?

HAWTREY: . . . that kind of orthodoxy is like conventions at bridge; you have to break them when the circumstances call for it. I think that a gold reserve exists to be used. . . . Perhaps once in a century the time comes when you can use your gold reserve for the governing purpose, provided you have the courage to use practically all of it.

Hawtrey here was echoing Fullarton’s insight that there is no rigid relationship between the gold reserves held by the Bank of England and the total quantity of sight liabilities created by the British banking system. Rather, he argued, the Bank should hold an ample reserve sufficient to satisfy the demand for gold in a crisis when a sudden and temporary demand for gold had to be accommodated. That was Hawtrey’s advice, but not Bagehot’s, whose concern was about banks’ moral hazard and imprudent lending in the expectation of being rescued in a crisis by the Bank of England. Indeed, moral hazard is a problem, but in a crisis it is a secondary problem, when, as Hawtrey explained, alleviating the crisis, not discouraging moral hazard, must be the primary concern of the lender of last resort.

            C         Scope of Banking

Inclined to find remedies for financial distress in structural reforms limiting the types of assets banks accept in exchange for their sight liabilities, Smith did not recommend a lender of last resort.[3] Another method of reducing risk, perhaps more in tune with the Smithian real-bills doctrine than a lender of last resort, is to restrict the activities of banks that issue banknotes and deposits.

In Anglophone countries, commercial banking generally evolved as separate and distinct from investment banking. It was only during the Great Depression and the resulting wave of bank failures that the combination of commercial and investment banking was legally prohibited by the Glass-Steagall Act, eventually repealed in 1999. On the Continent, where commercial banking penetrated less deeply into the fabric of economic and commercial life than in Anglophone countries, commercial banking developed more or less along with investment banking in what are called universal banks.

Whether the earlier, and more widespread, adoption of commercial banking in Anglophone countries than on the Continent advanced the idea that no banking institution should provide both commercial- and investment-banking services is not a question about which I offer a conjecture, but it seems a topic worthy of study. The Glass-Steagall Act, which enforced that separation after being breached early in the twentieth century, a breach thought by some to have contributed to US bank failures in the Great Depression, was based on a presumption against combining and investment-banking in a single institution. But even apart from the concerns that led to enactment of Glass-Steagall, limiting the exposure of commercial banks, which supply most of the cash held by the public, to the balance-sheet risk associated with investment-banking activities seems reasonable. Moreover, the adoption of government deposit insurance after the Great Depression as well as banks’ access to the discount window of the central bank may augment the moral hazard induced by deposit insurance and a lender of last resort, offsetting potential economies of scope associated with combining commercial and investment banking.

Although legal barriers to the combination of commercial and investment banking have long been eliminated, proposals for “narrow banking” that would restrict the activities undertaken by commercial banks continue to be made. Two different interpretations of narrow banking – one Smithian and one Humean – are possible.

The Humean concern about banking was that banks are inherently disposed to overissue their liabilities. The Humean response to the concern has been to propose 100-percent reserve banking, a comprehensive extension of the 100-percent marginal reserve requirement on the issue of banknotes imposed by the Bank Charter Act. Such measures could succeed, as some supporters (Simons 1936) came to realize, only if accompanied by a radical change the financial practices and arrangements on which all debt contracts are based. It is difficult to imagine that the necessary restructuring of economic activity would ever be implemented or tolerated.

The Humean concern was dismissed by the Smithian tradition, recognizing that banks, even if unconstrained by reserve requirements, have no incentive to issue liabilities without limit. The Smithian concern was whether banks could cope with balance-sheet risks after unexpected losses in the value of their assets. Although narrow banking proposals are a legitimate and possibly worthwhile response to that concern, the acceptance by central banks of responsibility to act as a lender of last resort and widespread government deposit insurance to dampen contagion effects have taken the question of narrowing or restricting the functions of money-creating banks off the table. Whether a different strategy for addressing the systemic risks associated with banks’ creation of money by relying solely on deposit insurance and a lender of last resort is a question that still deserves thoughtful attention.

About Me

David Glasner
Washington, DC

I am an economist in the Washington DC area. My research and writing has been mostly on monetary economics and policy and the history of economics. In my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform, I argued for a non-Monetarist non-Keynesian approach to monetary policy, based on a theory of a competitive supply of money. Over the years, I have become increasingly impressed by the similarities between my approach and that of R. G. Hawtrey and hope to bring Hawtrey's unduly neglected contributions to the attention of a wider audience.


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