Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

Wasting a Crisis: A Book Forum

Wasting a CrisisThis is a story we all know: the Great Depression was caused by market failure, the predictable fall-out from the excesses of the unrestrained, unregulated, Wild West that was the securities markets at the dawn of the 20th century. After all, before the 1930s, there was no Securities and Exchange Commission. The state securities laws, the so-called “blue sky laws,” were also products of the early 20th century, largely implemented between 1911 and 1931. These laws, as well as the Securities Act of 1933 and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, tamed the wild speculators that had been defrauding the American public by requiring transparency in the markets and promoting thorough disclosure in securities offerings.

But is that story true? Paul Mahoney, Dean of the University of Virginia School of Law, has dug deeply into this narrative in his recent book, Wasting a Crisis: Why Securities Regulation Fails. The results of his research and analysis reveal a mismatch between the received wisdom about the causes of the Depression and the actual data, and a pattern of crisis-narrative-regulation that has persisted through the recent Great Recession and the implementation of Dodd-Frank.

Dean Mahoney recently shared his thoughts on these and related issues at a book forum at the Cato Institute. Joining us was also banking regulation scholar Heidi Schooner of the Columbus School of Law at the Catholic University of America, leading to an interesting discussion of the externalities of bank failures and the application of banking regulation principles to non-bank entities.

Watch the video of the event:

Instead of the Fed

That, some of you may recall, was the name of a November 1, 2013 conference put on by the Mercatus Center. (The full name was actually “Instead of the Fed: Past and Present Alternatives to the Federal Reserve System”). The proceedings of that conference–or most of them, at any rate–are now available in a special issue of the Journal of Financial Stability, edited by yours truly.

Although online access to the articles is by subscription only, individual contributors have temporary, open links to their own articles. Here is mine on “Synthetic Commodity Money.”

ALJs and the Home Court Advantage

The SEC has come under fire lately for its use – some might say overuse – of internal administrative proceedings.  The SEC’s use of administrative proceedings and administrative law judges (ALJs) is by no means unique within the federal government.  Thirty-four agencies currently have ALJs.  Nor is the SEC the heaviest user of administrative proceedings or ALJs; the Social Security Administration has that distinction, with more than 1,300 ALJs according to the most recent data available.  The SEC, by comparison, has only five ALJ positions, two of which are recent additions. 

The SEC’s ALJs have been in the spotlight due to a provision in Dodd-Frank that expands their ability to impose fines.  In the past, the SEC could impose monetary sanctions only on individuals and entities registered with the Commission – typically brokers, investment advisors, and similar entities and their employees.  By registering with the SEC, it was reasoned, these individuals and organizations had submitted to the SEC’s jurisdiction.  Others could be brought before the SEC’s tribunals for violating federal securities laws, and the ALJs could make findings of fact (that is, decide which side’s version of the facts was correct) and issue cease and desist orders, but could not impose fines.  Instead, the SEC’s lawyers would have to bring a separate case in federal district court.  Under Dodd-Frank, registered and unregistered persons are treated the same.

Administrative proceedings have their advantages.  Like a federal judge, an ALJ can issue subpoenas, hold hearings, and decide cases.  Because an ALJ’s cases deal with a very narrow area of law – only that related directly to the ALJ’s agency – the ALJ’s knowledge of that area tends to be deeper than that of a federal judge who hears a broad range of civil and criminal cases.  The proceedings before ALJs tend to be somewhat truncated, with fewer procedural requirements than federal district court, allowing the case to be decided more quickly. 

Lessons from the Ayr Bank Failure

One consequence of the financial crisis of 2008-09 has been renewed interest in the merits of contingent convertible debt as a mechanism for equity bail-ins at moments of acute financial distress. Should it fail, a financial institution’s contingent bonds are automatically converted into equity shares. History suggests that convertible debt can help to preserve financial stability by limiting the spillover effects of individual financial institution failures.

A particularly revealing historical illustration of this advantage of contingent debt comes from the Scottish free banking era. From 1716 to 1845, the Scottish financial system functioned with no official central bank or lender of last resort, no public (or private) monopoly on currency issuance, no legal reserve or capital requirements, and no formal limits on bank size, at a time when Scotland’s was a classic emerging economy with large speculative capital flows, a fixed exchange rate, and substantial external debt. Despite this, Scotland’s banking sector survived many major shocks, including two severe balance of payments crises arising from political disturbances during the Seven Years’ War.

The stability of the Scottish banking system depended in part on the use it made of voluntary contingent liability arrangements. Until the practice was prohibited in 1765, some Scottish banks included an “optional clause” on their larger-denomination notes. The clause allowed the banks’ directors to convert the notes into short-term, interest-bearing bonds. Although the clause was seldom invoked, it was successfully employed as a means for preventing large-scale exchange rate speculators from draining the Scottish banks’ specie reserves and remitting them to London during war-related balance of payments crises–that is, as a private and voluntary alternative to government-imposed capital controls.

Contingent debt also helped to make Scottish bank failures less costly and disruptive. If an unlimited liability Scottish bank failed, its shorter-term creditors were again sometimes converted into bondholders, while its shareholders were liable for its debts to the full extent of their personal wealth. Although the Scottish system lacked a lender of last resort, the unlimited liability of shareholders in bankrupt Scottish banks served as a substitute, with sequestration of shareholders’ personal estates serving to “bail them in” beyond their subscribed capital. The issuance of tradeable bonds to short-term creditors, secured by mortgages to shareholders’ estates, served in turn to limit bank counter-parties’ exposure to losses, keeping credit flowing despite adverse shocks.

A particularly fascinating illustration of how such devices worked came with the spectacular collapse in June 1772 of the large Scottish banking firm of Douglas, Heron & Co., better known as the Ayr (or Air) Bank, after the parish where its head office was located. The Ayr collapsed when the failure of a London bond dealer in Scottish bonds caused its creditors to panic. The creditors doubted that the bank could could meet liabilities that, thanks to its reckless lending, had ballooned to almost £1.3 million. The disruption of Scottish credit ended quickly, however, when the Ayr’s partners resorted to a £500,000 bond issue, secured by £3,000,000 in mortgages upon their often vast personal estates—including several dukedoms. By this means the Ayr Bank managed to satisfy creditors, at 5% interest, as the Ayr’s assets, together with those of its partners, were gradually liquidated. In modern parlance, the Ayr Bank had been transformed into a “bad bank,” whose sole function was to gradually work off its assets and repay creditors while the immense landed wealth of its proprietors’ personal estates provided a financial backstop. Creditors were thus temporarily satisfied with fully secured, negotiable bonds, which were eventually redeemed in full, with interest.

We are unlikely today to witness a return to unlimited liability for financial institution shareholders. The extensive and effective use of contingent liability contracts during the Scottish free banking episode nevertheless offers important evidence concerning private market devices for limiting the disruptive consequences of financial-market crises. When compared to the contemporary practice of public socialization of loss through financial bail-outs, such private market alternatives appear to deserve serious consideration. Most importantly, perhaps, by encouraging closer monitoring of financial institutions by contingently liable creditors and equity holders, these private alternatives appear, in the Scottish case at least, not only to have made crises less severe, but also to have made them far less common.

This post is based on Tyler Goodspeed’s doctoral dissertation, a revised version of which is under consideration at Harvard University Press under the title Legislating Instability: Adam Smith, Free Banking, and the Financial Crisis of 1772.

Capital Unbound: The Cato Summit on Financial Regulation

Community chestInterested in how to advance economic growth? Join the Cato Institute’s Center for Monetary and Financial Alternatives in New York on June 2nd for a day examining the current state of U.S. capital markets regulation at Capital Unbound: The Cato Summit on Financial Regulation.

We’ve assembled an impressive list of distinguished speakers to discuss efficient capital markets and offer proposals to unleash a new engine of American economic growth.

Our lineup includes such notables as Commissioner of the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission J. Christopher Giancarlo, Commissioner of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission Michael Piwowar, and our very own CMFA Director George Selgin.

The speakers will explore a wide variety of topics, including alternative vehicles for small business capital, the failure of mathematical modeling, and alternative solutions to monetary and financial instability.

Click here for the full schedule and to register for the event. We hope to see you in New York on June 2nd!

Hayek-Style Cybercurrency

In his groundbreaking work, Denationalisation of Money: the Argument Refined, F.A. Hayek proposed that open competition among private suppliers of irredeemable monies would favor the survival of those monies that earned a reputation for possessing a relatively stable purchasing power.

One of the main problems with Bitcoin has been its tremendous price instability: its volatility is about an order of magnitude greater than that of traditional financial assets, and this price instability is a serious deterrent to Bitcoin’s more widespread adoption as currency. So is there anything that can be done about this problem?

Yet Another Greek Secret: The Case of Phantom Assets

When banks are in distress, it is important to assess how easily the bank’s capital cushion can absorb potential losses from troubled assets. To do this, I performed an analysis using Texas Ratios for Greece’s four largest banks, which control 88% of total assets in the banking system.

We use a little known, but very useful formula to determine the health of the Big Four. It is called the Texas Ratio. It was used during the U.S. Savings and Loan Crisis, which was centered in Texas. The Texas Ratio is the book value of all non-performing assets divided by equity capital plus loan loss reserves. Only tangible equity capital is included in the denominator. Intangible capital — like goodwill — is excluded.

Despite the already worry-some numbers, the actual situation is far worse than even I had initially deduced. A deeper analysis of the numbers reveals that Greece’s largest banks include deferred tax assets as part of total equity in their financial statements. Deferred tax assets are created when banks are allowed to declare their losses at a later time, thereby reducing tax liabilities. This is problematic because these deferred tax assets are really just “phantom assets” in the sense that these credits cannot be used (read: worthless) if the Greek banks continue to operate at a pretax loss.