b-school, Economics, Economy, Henley, Macroeconomy, Thoughts

Thinking of Walter Bagehot (forgotten panics and not-so-forgotten bankers)

After a weekend in Henley closing the strategic marketing and global business environment modules, and endless talks about the capital markets, including a valuable late-hour conversation in the plane with an economist whose expertise are intangibles, I felt I needed to dwell on the past knowledge to gain some perspective on the issue.

And who better than Walter Bagehot and his Lombard Street. I’d rather externalise the explanation on who’s Walter Bagehot using Wikipedia, but it suffices to say that he was the chief editor of the Economist, as well as a banker, and had studied mathematics and philosophy. What’s more interesting, that was in 1873.

1873 was also a year of panic: another crisis that lasted for four years (roughly like the 1929s’ depression), beginning with a mortgage crisis, another link worth externalising to the Chronicle Review. (Thanks to Brisebois 🙂 )

Many will see analogies between what has happened in the past and what’s happening today. Even though, we tend not to care about what happened so long ago (or maybe not that long) and good lessons are simply forgotten. We could know so much if we simply didn’t collectively forget!

Because, in times of panic, what should a central bank do? Bagehot thought “that it must in time of panic do what all other similar banks must do; that in time of panic it must advance freely and vigorously to the public out of the reserve.”

But still a conditions for the intervention: “first that these loans should only be made at a very high rate of interest. This will operate as a heavy fine on unreasonable timidity, and will prevent the
greatest number of applications by persons who do not require it. The rate should be raised early in the panic, so that the fine may be paid early; that no one may borrow out of idle precaution without paying well for it; that the Banking reserve may be protected as far as possible.”

Where should we stop? “that at this rate these advances should be made on all good
banking securities, and as largely as the public ask for them. […] But if securities, really good and usually convertible, are refused by the Bank, the alarm will not abate, the other loans made will fail in obtaining their end, and the panic will become worse and worse.”

“The only safe plan for the Bank is the brave plan, to lend in a panic on every kind of current security, or every sort on which money is ordinarily and usually lent. This policy may not save the Bank; but if it do not, nothing will save it.”

After all, some things could be done much better, but doing nothing leaves us all worse off. Guess what, the alternative was also tried a lot of years before, in the panic of 1825, also another long-lost panic, when “the Bank of England at first acted as unwisely as it was possible to act. […] The reserve being very small, it endeavoured to protect that reserve by lending as little as possible. The result was a period of frantic and almost inconceivable violence; scarcely any one knew whom to trust; credit was almost suspended; the country was […] within twenty-four hours of a state of barter. Applications for assistance were made to the Government, but […] the Government refused to act…”

Ring a bell, maybe?


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