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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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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

William Niskanen 1933-2011

William Niskanen passed away on October 26. I have always admired Niskanen a lot. He was a champion of liberty and a great economist.

Any student of Public Choice theory would know Niskanen’s classic Bureaucracy and Representative Government from 1971 and I still think of this as his greatest contribution to economic theory. However, as Bill Woolsey reminds us William Niskanen was also a long time proponent of nominal income targeting.

Niskanen first advocated nominal income targeting or rather targeting of nominal spending in his 1992 paper “Political Guidance on Monetary Policy”. Niskanen later elaborated on the subject in his 2001 paper “A test of the Demand Rule” and further in his 2002 paper “On the Death of the Phillips Curve”.

Marcus Nunes has an insight comment on “A test of the Demand Rule” here.

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