Selgin on Haber and Calomiris

There is no doubt that I very much like Stephen Haber and Charles Calomiris’ great book “Fragile by Design” on the constitutional origin of banking crisis (take a look at my earlier posts on the book here and here)

I do, however, not agree with everything in the book and now George Selgin has a review of “Fragile by Design” that addresses some of these issues. It is a great review. The read the read book and read the review.

Here is the abstract from George’s review:

 In Fragile by Design (2014), Charles Calomiris and Stephen Haber argue that banking crises, instead of being traceable to inherent weaknesses of fractional-reserve banking, have their roots in politically-motivated government interference with banking systems that might otherwise be robust. The evidence they offer in defense of their thesis, and their manner of presenting it, are compelling. Yet their otherwise persuasive work is not without significant shortcomings. These shortcomings consist of (1) a misleading account of governments’ necessary and desirable role in banking; (2) a tendency to overlook the adverse historical consequences of government interference with banks’ ability to issue paper currency; (3) an unsuccessful (because overly deterministic) attempt to draw general conclusions concerning the bearing of different political arrangements on banking structure; and (4) an almost complete neglect the of role of ideas, and of economists’ ideas especially, in shaping banking systems, both for good and for evil. The last two shortcomings are especially unfortunate, because they suffuse Fragile by Design with a fatalism that is likely to limit its effectiveness in sponsoring needed change.

PS my recent presentation of monetary and currency reform in Iceland was very much in the spirit of Fragile by Design.

Book of the day – “Fragile by Design”

I have waited for this book for a while, but yesterday it finally arrived in the mail. It is Fragile by Design by Charles Calomiris and Stephen Haber.

I have only read a couple of pages, but so far it is very good. Extremely well-written. I look forward to reading the rest of the book soon. Fragile by Design

This is the book description:

Why are banking systems unstable in so many countries–but not in others? The United States has had twelve systemic banking crises since 1840, while Canada has had none. The banking systems of Mexico and Brazil have not only been crisis prone but have provided miniscule amounts of credit to business enterprises and households. Analyzing the political and banking history of the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Brazil through several centuries, Fragile by Design demonstrates that chronic banking crises and scarce credit are not accidents due to unforeseen circumstances. Rather, these fluctuations result from the complex bargains made between politicians, bankers, bank shareholders, depositors, debtors, and taxpayers. The well-being of banking systems depends on the abilities of political institutions to balance and limit how coalitions of these various groups influence government regulations.

Fragile by Design is a revealing exploration of the ways that politics inevitably intrudes into bank regulation. Charles Calomiris and Stephen Haber combine political history and economics to examine how coalitions of politicians, bankers, and other interest groups form, why some endure while others are undermined, and how they generate policies that determine who gets to be a banker, who has access to credit, and who pays for bank bailouts and rescues.

Recenly Charles and Stephen talked to the legendary EconTalk host Russ Roberts about their new book. Listen to the interview here.

I do not agree with everything Charles and Stephen are saying, but I fully agree with the general idea that we cannot understand banking crisis without understanding the politics of banking – or what they call The Game of Bank Bargains.

Anyway, since I have only read a small part of the book this is not a review and I am sure I will return to comment more on the ideas in the book.

I have written about the book before – see here and here.

PS Of course I would stress the role of monetary policy in banking crisis. That is another issue…

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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