Property rights and banking crisis – towards a “Financial Constitution”

I just found a great paper – “A Coasean Approach to Bank Resolution Policy in the Eurozone” - on banking resolution by Gregory Connor and Brian O’Kelly. Here is the abstract:

“The Eurozone needs a bank resolution regime that can work across seventeen independent nations of diverse sizes with varying levels of financial development, limited fiscal co- responsibility, and with systemic instability induced by quick and low-cost deposit transfers across borders. We advocate a Coasean approach to bank resolution policy in the Eurozone, which emphasises clear and consistent contracts and makes explicit the public ownership of the externality costs of bank distress. A variety of resolution mechanisms are compared including bank debt holder bail-in, prompt corrective action, and contingent convertible bonds. We argue that the “dilute-in” of bank debt holders via contingent convertibility provides a clearer and simpler Coasean bargain for the Eurozone than the more conventional alternatives of debt holder bail-in or prompt corrective action.”

I found the paper as I was searching the internet for papers on banking regulation and property rights theory. If we fundamentally want to understand banking crisis we should understand incentives and property rights.

Who owns “profits” and “liability”? Who will be paying the bills? The banks’ owners, the clients, the employees, the bank management or the taxpayers? If property rights are badly defined or there are incentive conflicts we will get banking troubles.

In that sense banking crisis is a constitutional economics problem. Therefore, we cannot really understand banking crisis by just looking at specific issues such as how much capital or liquidity banks should hold. We need to understand the overall incentives facing all players in the “banking game” – owners, clients, employees, bank managements, regulators and politicians.

Inspired by Peter Boettke’s and Daniel Smith’s for a “Quest for Robust Political Economy” of monetary policy we could say we need a “Robust Political Economy of Financial Regulation”. I believe that Connor’s and O’Kelly’s paper contributes to this.

Another paper that helps use get a better understanding of the political economy of financial regulation and crisis is Josh Hendrickson’s new paper “Contingent Liability, Capital Requirements, and Financial Reform” (forthcoming in Cato Journal). Here is the abstract:

“Recently, it has been argued that banks hold an insufficient amount of capital. Put differently, banks issue too much debt relative to equity. This claim is particularly important because, all else equal, lower levels of capital put banks at greater risk of insolvency. As a result, some have advocated imposing capital requirements on banks. However, even if one accepts the proposition that banks hold too little capital, it does not neces- sarily follow that the correct policy response is to force banks to hold more capital. An alternative to higher capital requirements is a system in which banks have contingent liability. Under contingent liability, shareholders are liable for at least some portion of depositor losses. This alternative is not unprecedented. Historical evidence from the United States and elsewhere suggest that banks with contingent liability have more desirable charac- teristics than those with limited liability and that depositors tend to pre- fer contingent liability when given the choice. Successful banking reform should be aimed at re-aligning bank incentives rather than providing new rules for bank behavior.”

Lets just take the last sentence once again – “Successful banking reform should be aimed at re-aligning bank incentives rather than providing new rules for bank behavior.” 

Hence, if we want to “design” good banking regulation we fundamentally need a property rights perspective or even in a broader sense a “Financial Constitution” in the spirit of James Buchanan’s “Monetary Constitution”.

Concluding, yes we might learn something about banking crisis and banking regulation by studying finance theory, but we will probably learn a lot more by studying Law and Economics and Public Choice Theory.

Related posts:

“Fragile by design” – the political causes of banking crisis
Beating the Iron Law of Public Choice – a reply to Peter Boettke

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The last brick – RIP James M. Buchanan

Nobel Prize winning economist and founding father of the Public Choice school James M. Buchanan has died at age 93. His friends and students have already offered many kind words in his memory. Here I quote two of my friends professors Steve Horwtiz and Peter Kurrild-Klitgaard.

Here is Pete:

James M. Buchanan, RIP. If making a difference is what matters, he was one of the five most influential thinkers of the last 50 years. Sharp as a knife into his 90s and always the scholar.

And Steve:

There is much that one can say about him (Buchanan), not the least of which is that he was still intellectually sharp and active into his 90s. In short: he changed the face of economics and politics and advanced the cause of liberty as much as anyone in the second half of the 20th century…

…No one who wishes to talk responsibly about politics can be ignorant of public choice theory. No one should ever invoke the language of market failure (including externalities) without having digested his work on government failure. And people who run around talking about the constitution better be able to understand something of constitutional political economy.

Beyond all of that, he was a role model of the old school scholar: widely read and properly skeptical of turning economics into an engineering discipline. He was, at bottom, a humanist and a liberal in the oldest and best senses of the terms. And best of all: he was utterly unimpressed by degrees from fancy schools.

Buchanan produced an enormous amount of scholarly works including numerous books in his long life. Best known is probably The Calculus of Consent which he co-authored with Gordon Tullock. However, the works that had the biggest influence on my own thinking undoubtedly was “What should economists do?” and “Cost and Choice”.

Even though Buchanan primarily was a constitutional economist and a Public Choice theorist he also contributed to monetary thinking. His so-called brick standard was particularly intriguing. Here is Pete Boettke and Daniel Smith on Buchanan and the brick standard:

James Buchanan, sought to bring his extensive work on rule-making to bear in envisioning a monetary regime that could operate within a contemporary democratic setting. From the start, Buchanan (1999[1962]) eschewed the ‘presuppositions of Harvey road’ that held that economic policy would be crafted and implemented by a group of benevolent and enlightened elites. Buchanan set out to make the case for a monetary regime using comparative institutional analysis that compared monetary regimes in real, not ideal settings.

Buchanan (1999[1962]) believed that it was not so much the specific type of monetary regime adopted, but the set of rules that defined that regime. Buchanan argued that the brick standard, a labor standard, or a manager confined by well-defined rules, would all put a stop to the government growth let loose by the fiscal profligacy encouraged by the wide scale acceptance of Keynesian ideas in the political realm (see Buchanan and Wagner (2000[1977]). The brick standard, as defined by Buchanan, would be a monetary regime that allowed anyone to go to the mint with a standard building brick of a specified quality and exchange it for the monetary unit, and vice versa. As the general price level fluctuated, market forces would cause automatic adjustments as people would exchange money for bricks when the price level rose above the equilibrium level, and bricks for money when the price level fell below the equilibrium level. Under this regime, market actors, guided by profits and losses would be the mechanism that achieved price predictability, not a government-entity entrusted with the goal of achieving it. In addition, a brick standard would, most likely, divorce domestic monetary policy from international balance of payment and exchange rate policies due to the fact that a brick standard would be unsuitable for those purposes.

For Buchanan (1999[1962], 417), it came down to a toss-up between a brick type standard and a limited manager. What mattered most for monetary predictability was that the rules that set up the monetary regime must be of the ‘constitutional’ variety. In other words, the rules must be set to be ‘relatively absolute absolutes’ in order to protect them from tampering.

R.I.P. James M. Buchanan


Update – other economists and scholars on James Buchanan:

Steve Horwitz

Daniel Kuehn

Eamonn Butler

Don Boudreaux (also from Don in 2005 and Don in WSJ)

Mark D. White

Grover Cleveland

Mario Rizzo

David Boaz

Robert Higgs

David Henderson

Alex Tabarrok

Randall Holcombe

Peter Boettke

Ryan Young

Bill Woolsey

Veronique de Rugy

Nick Gillespie

Arnold Kling

Brad DeLong

Christian Bjørnskov (in Danish)

Tyler Cowen (more from Tyler Cowen)

Lenore Ealy

Garett Jones

Charles Rowley

Edward Lopez

The Economist: Free Exchange


Is Market Monetarism just market socialism?

The short answer to the question in the headline is no, but I can understand if somebody would suspect so. I will discuss this below.

If there had been an internet back in the 1920s then the leading Austrian economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek would have had their own blogs and so would the two leading “market socialists” Oskar Lange and Abba Lerner and in many ways the debate between the Austrians and the market socialists in the so-called Socialist Calculation Debate played out as debate do today in the blogosphere.

Recently I have given some attention to the need for Market Monetarists to stress the institutional context of monetary institutions and I think the critique by for example Daniel Smith and Peter Boettke in their recent paper “Monetary Policy and the Quest for Robust Political Economy” should be taken serious.

Smith’s and Boettke’s thesis is basically that monetary theorists – including – Market Monetarists tend to be overly focused on designing the optimal policy rules under the assumption that central bankers acts in a benevolent fashion to ensure a higher good. Smith and Boettke argue contrary to this that central bankers are unlikely to act in a benevolent fashion and we therefore instead of debating “optimal” policy rules we instead should debate how we could ultimately limit central banks discretionary powers by getting rid of them all together. Said in another way – you can not reform central banks so they should just be abolished.

I have written numerous posts arguing basically along the same lines as Boettke and Smith (See fore example here and here). I especially have argued that we certainly should not see central bankers as automatically acting in a benevolent fashion and that central bankers will act in their own self-interests as every other individual. That said, I also think that Smith and Boettke are too defeatist in their assessment and fail to acknowledge that NGDP level targeting could be seen as step toward abolishing central banks altogether.

From the Smith-Boettke perspective one might argue that Market Monetarism really is just the monetary equivalent of market socialism and I can understand why (Note Smith and Boettke are not arguing this). I have often argued that NGDP targeting is a way to emulate the outcome in a truly competitive Free Banking system (See for example here page 26) and that is certainly a common factor with the market socialists of the 1920s. What paretian market socialists like Lerner and Lange wanted was a socialist planned economy where the allocation would emulate the allocation under a Walrasian general equilibrium model.

So yes, on the surface there as some similarities between Market Monetarism and market socialism. However, note here the important difference of the use of “market” in the two names. In Market Monetarism the reference is about using the market in the conduct of monetary policy. In market socialism it is about using socialist instruments to “copy” the market. Hence, in Market Monetarism the purpose is to move towards market allocation and about monetary policy not distorting relative market prices, while the purpose of market socialism is about moving away from market allocation. Market Monetarism provides an privatisation strategy, while market socialism provides an nationalisation strategy. I am not sure that Boettke and Smith realise this. But they are not alone – I think many NGDP targeting proponents also fail to see these aspects .

George Selgin – who certainly is in favour of Free Banking – in a number of recent papers (see here and here) have discussed strategies for central bank reforms that could move us closer to Free Banking. I think that George fully demonstrates that just because you might be favouring Free Banking and wanting to get rid of central banks you don’t have to stop reforms of central banking that does not go all the way.

This debate is really similar to the critique some Austrians – particular Murray Rothbard – had of Milton Friedman’s proposal for the introduction of school vouchers. Rothbard would argue that Friedman’s ideas was just clever socialism and would preserve a socialist system rather than break it down.

However, even Rothbard acknowledged in For a New Liberty that  Friedman’s school voucher proposal was “a great improvement over the present system in permitting a wider range of parental choice and enabling the abolition of the public school system” (I stole the quote from Bryan Caplan)Shouldn’t Free Banking advocates think about NGDP level targeting in the same way?


Posts on central bank as (or not) central planning:

Maybe Scott should talk about Hayek instead of EMH
It’s time to get rid of the ”representative agent” in monetary theory
Guest blog: Central banking – between planning and rules
When central banking becomes central planning

Boettke and Smith on why we are wasting our time

I am beginning to get a serious problem in keeping up with all the interesting papers, which are being published at the moment. The latest paper that I clearly have to read is a rather impressive paper (124 pages!) by Peter Boettke and Daniel Smith.

The topic of Pete’s and Daniel’s paper – which I still have not read – is basically a discussion of the public choice aspects of central banking. This is a topic I find extremely interesting and I look very much forward to reading the paper in the near future (I will be on vacation next week – so maybe…).

Here is the abstract of the paper “Monetary Policy and the Quest for Robust Political Economy”:

The economics profession not only failed to predict the recent financial crisis; it has been struggling in its aftermath to reach a consensus on the cause(s) of the crisis. While competing narratives are being offered and evaluated, the narrow scope of the debate on the strictly technical aspects of monetary policy that have contributed to and prolonged the crisis has precluded the a broader examination of questions of political economy that may prove to be of greater import. Attempting to find the technically optimal policy is futile when the Federal Reserve’s independence is undermined by the political influences of contemporary democracy. Nobel Laureates F.A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, and James Buchanan each sought ways to constrain and protect a monetary authority from political pressures in their research. Each one ended up rejecting the possibility of doing so without a fundamental restructuring of our monetary regime. Hayek turned to denationalization, Buchanan to constitutionalism, and Friedman to binding rules. We incorporate their experiences to make a case for applying the concepts of robust political economy to the Federal Reserve. Robust political economy calls for relaxing idealized assumptions in order to seek out institutional regimes that can overcome both the epistemic and motivational hurdles that characterize contemporary democratic settings.

Even though I have not read the paper yet I have a pretty good idea where Pete and Daniel are going – they are questioning whether we can convince central bankers to do the right thing. Market Monetarists want central banks to target the nominal GDP level. We want central banks to follow rules. However, we are up against the powers of public choice theory. One can easily argue that central bankers will never give up their discretionary powers and politicians will always interfere with the conduct of monetary policy. It is simply in their selfish interest to do so and therefore the project to convince central bankers to do the right thing – NGDP level targeting – is just a waste of time. We should rather focus on fundamental institutional reforms.

This is fundamentally the issue that any reformist in any area will have to struggle with – how can we expect those in power to give up that power? How can we implement reforms? A way to beat the logic of public choice theory is through the powers of ideas. Milton Friedman was in the business of ideas all his life. The powers of governments – and central banks – can be rolled back through the sheer power of strong arguments and good ideas. It is never going to be easing, but when Scott Sumner started to blog about NGDP targeting nobody listened. Now Federal Reserve scholars are serious talking about it and doing research about it and even the FOMC has debate NGDP targeting. There is therefore reason to be optimistic. But I will be the first to admit that I find it unlikely that the Federal Reserve or the ECB will start targeting the NGDP level anytime – neither do I find it likely that these institutions will give up their discretionary powers. That said I never had any illusions that they would and I do agree that we need to talk about the fundamental institutional issues of central banking.

We need to debate whether we should abolish central banks altogether as Free Banking proponents are favouring and I certainly do not rule out that it fundamentally is a more fruitful strategy than to continue to talk about how central banks should ideally conduct monetary policy when we full well know that central banks never can be convinced to do the right thing. Or as Boettke and Smith write in the conclusion to their paper:

“What in our contemporary history of the Federal Reserve should give us any reason to not follow Friedman and tie the hands of the monetary authority so tightly that the bonds cannot be broken to juggle, let alone Hayek and point out that the only robust political economy option when it comes to central banking is to abolish it by taking away the juggler’s balls?”

PS Boettke and Smith does not explicitly mention Market Monetarists or NGDP targeting in paper, but a draft version of the paper was presented at the 2010 Southern Economic Association Annual Meeting Session “Are There Public Choice Problems with Nominal Income Targeting?” Pete has earlier written a blog post on this issue directly challenging the Market Monetarist position: “Political Economy Questions Which Even Market Monetarists Might Want to Think About”. Here is my response to that post.

PPS I have often argued that there is certainly no conflict between favouring NGDP level targeting for central bank and favouring Free Banking as NGDP level targeting in the same way as school vouchers can be seen as a privatization strategy


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