Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

Reserve Requirements Basel Style: The Liquidity Coverage Ratio

Over the last couple of decades, reserve requirements all but vanished as a means of bank regulation and monetary control. But now a new variation on reserve requirements is being introduced through the capital controls of the Basel Accords.

Canada, the UK, Sweden, Australia, New Zealand, and Hong Kong have all abolished traditional reserve requirements. In many other countries, reserve requirements have become a dead letter. In the U.S., for instance, the Fed under Alan Greenspan reduced all reserve requirements to zero except for transactions deposits (checking accounts), while permitting banks to evade reserve requirements on transactions balances by using sophisticated computer software to regularly “sweep” those balances into money market deposit accounts, which have no reserve requirement. In 2011 Congress went a step further by allowing the Fed to eliminate all reserve requirements if it so desired. The Eurozone, for its part, began with a reserve requirement of only 2 percent, which was reduced to 1 percent in January 1999.

There were good reasons for this deregulatory trend. Economists consider reserve requirements an implicit tax on banks, requiring them to hold non-interest earning assets, while central banks considered changes in such requirements too blunt an instrument for monetary control. The Fed discovered the latter shortcoming when, in the midst of the Great Depression, having just gained control over the reserve requirements of national banks, it doubled them, contributing to recession of 1937.

There Was No Place Like Canada

Speaking of myths about U.S. banking, another that tops my list is the myth that the Federal Reserve, or some sort of central-bank-type arrangement, was the best conceivable solution to the ills of the pre-1914 U.S. monetary system.

I encountered that myth most recently in reading America’s Bank, Roger Lowenstein’s forthcoming book on the Fed’s origins, which I’m reviewing for Barron’s. Lowenstein’s book is well-researched and entertainingly written. But it also suffers from an all-too-common drawback: Lowenstein takes for granted that those who favored having a U.S. central bank of some kind (whatever they called it and however they chose to disguise it) were well-informed and right-thinking, whereas those who didn’t were either ignorant hicks or pawns of special interests. He has, in other words, little patience with history’s losers, whether they be people or ideas. Like other “Whig” histories, his history of the Fed treats the past as an “inexorable march of progress towards enlightenment.”

Don’t get me wrong: I’m no Tory, and I certainly don’t think that the pre-Fed U.S. monetary system was fine and dandy. I know about the panics of 1884, 1893, and 1907. I know how specie tended to pile-up in New York after every harvest season, and that by the time it got there not one but three banks were likely to reckon it, or make claims to it, as part of their reserves. I also know how, when the harvest season returned, all those banks were likely to try and get their hands on the same gold, and how this made for tight money, if it didn’t spark a full-scale panic. Finally, I know that one way to avoid such panics, on paper at least, was to establish a central bank, or “federal” equivalent, capable of supplying banks with emergency cash when they needed it.

Yet I still think that the Fed was a lousy idea. How come? My reason isn’t simply that the Fed turned out to be quite incapable of preventing financial crises, though that’s certainly true. It’s that there was a much better way of fixing the pre-Fed system. That alternative was perfectly obvious to many who struggled to reform the U.S. system in the years prior to the Fed’s establishment. It could hardly have been otherwise, since it was then almost literally staring them in the face. But it should be equally obvious even today to anyone who delves into the underlying causes of the infirmities of the pre-Fed National Currency system.

Real and Pseudo Free Banking

Like certain weeds and infectious diseases, some myths about banking seem beyond human powers of eradication.

I was reminded of this recently by a Facebook correspondent’s reply to my recent post on “Hayek and Free Banking.” “We had free banking in the US from 1830 until 1862,” he wrote. “It didn’t work out too well.” “During the Wildcat Era,” he added, “banks were unregulated and failed by the hundreds.”

Imagine the effect my critic must have anticipated — the crushing blow his revelations would surely deal to my cherished beliefs. Upon reading his words, my eyes widen; my jaw goes slack. Can this really be so?, I ask myself? I read the ominous sentences again, more slowly, sub-vocalizing. Beads of sweat gather across my brow. Then, pursing my lips, my eyes downcast, I turn my head, first left, then right, then left again. If only I had known! All these years…no one ever…I mean, how was I supposed…it never occurred to me… DARNITALL! Why didn’t I think of looking at the U.S. experience before shooting my mouth off about free banking?

Well, that isn’t what happened. “What cheek this fellow has!” was more like it. (OK, it wasn’t exactly that, either.) Of course I’ve looked into the U.S. record. So has Larry White. And Kevin Dowd. And every other dues-paying member of the Modern Free Banking School. We’ve looked into it, and we’ve found nothing there to change our minds concerning the advantages of freedom in banking.

Hayek and Free Banking

I owe a heckuva lot to Friedrich Hayek. Had it not been for him, I might never have heard of “free banking,” meaning the genuine article rather than the phony antebellum U.S. version. Certainly I would never have found myself writing about it. Nor, perhaps, would any other modern economist.

It was two pamphlets that Hayek published in the 1970s — first, Choice in Currency (1976) and then Denationalisation of Money (1978) — that caused the scales to fall off of my eyes and of those of some other economists, thereby encouraging us to reconsider the merits of private and competitive currency systems. That reconsideration in turn led to a revival of interest in former free banking episodes, including those of Scotland and Canada, which monetary economists had previously neglected or overlooked. In short, were it not for Hayek, there’d be no such thing as a Modern Free Banking School.

A Conversation on Bitcoin

(Last month, the Chilean webzine El Libero interviewed me about Bitcoin and other cryptocurrency topics. Here is the English translation of the conversation with Juan Pablo Couyoumdjian.)

1. Bitcoin is a class of “crypto-currency,” but what, exactly, are these crypto-currencies? How do they emerge? And why?

LHW: Cryptocurrencies — Bitcoin and its competitors — are digital assets, secured by cryptography, that can be circulated from peer to peer like currency.

Like government fiat money, they are not redeemable at a fixed rate for any commodity or other money. Unlike government fiat money, there is no issuer with discretion to increase the quantity at any time. In the case of Bitcoin, the number of Bitcoin units is programmed to increase at slow and known rate. In the case of Ripple, the top competitor, all the Ripple units to be made were made at the start.

Bitcoin originated (and remains) as a public-interest non-profit project by a programmer (who’s identity is not known) who wanted to create a tamper-proof private non-state currency. Some other cryptocurrencies arose similarly, by other groups of programmers who introduced improved designs (faster, more robust, more user privacy). Once Bitcoin rose to prominence and considerable market value at the end of 2013 (the total value of all Bitcoins currently held is about US$3.4 billion), private for-profit competitors like Ripple and BitShares and Nxt came along with advanced designs and full-time development and promotion teams.

Prof. Krugman: Fast and Loose with the Facts

Paul Krugman, “Killing the European Project”, NY Times, July 12, 2015: “The European project — a project I have always praised and supported — has just been dealt a terrible, perhaps fatal blow. And whatever you think of Syriza, or Greece, it wasn’t the Greeks who did it.”

Paul Krugman has always praised and supported the European project? Really? Here’s Prof. Krugman in his own words on the centerpiece of the European project, the euro:

  • Paul Krugman, “The Euro: Beware Of What You Wish For”, Fortune, December 1998: “But EMU wasn’t designed to make everyone happy. It was designed to keep Germany happy - to provide the kind of stern anti-inflationary discipline that everyone knew Germany had always wanted and would always want in future. So what if the Germans have changed their mind, and realized that they - along with all the other major governments - are more worried about deflation than inflation, that they would very much like the central bankers to print some more money? Sorry, too late: the system is already on autopilot, and no course changes are permitted.”
  • Paul Krugman, “Can Europe Be Saved?”, NY Times, January 12, 2011: “The tragedy of the Euromess is that the creation of the euro was supposed to be the finest moment in a grand and noble undertaking: the generations-long effort to bring peace, democracy and shared prosperity to a once and frequently war-torn continent. But the architects of the euro, caught up in their project’s sweep and romance, chose to ignore the mundane difficulties a shared currency would predictably encounter — to ignore warnings, which were issued right from the beginning, that Europe lacked the institutions needed to make a common currency workable. Instead, they engaged in magical thinking, acting as if the nobility of their mission transcended such concerns.”
  • Paul Krugman, “Europe’s Many Economic Disasters”, NY Times, July 3, 2015: “What all of these economies have in common, however, is that by joining the eurozone they put themselves into an economic straitjacket. Finland had a very severe economic crisis at the end of the 1980s — much worse, at the beginning, than what it’s going through now. But it was able to engineer a fairly quick recovery in large part by sharply devaluing its currency, making its exports more competitive. This time, unfortunately, it had no currency to devalue. And the same goes for Europe’s other trouble spots. Does this mean that creating the euro was a mistake? Well, yes.”

When reading Prof. Krugman’s works, it’s prudent to fact check. Prof. Krugman has always been in the Eurosceptic camp. Indeed, the essence of many of his pronouncements can be found in declarations from a wide range of Eurosceptic parties.

Alexander Hamilton: Defender of Property Rights

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew’s proposed degradation of the ten-dollar bill (read: the removal of Alexander Hamilton as the featured figure on the ten-spot) is wrongheaded. In addition to being the first and most distinguished U.S. Treasury Secretary and a renowned journalist, Hamilton also excelled as a lawyer and defender of property rights.

Yes, Alexander Hamilton was a distinguished lawyer. He took on many famous cases out of principle. After the Revolutionary War, the state of New York enacted harsh measures against Loyalists and British subjects. These included the Confiscation Act (1779), the Citation Act (1782), and the Trespass Act (1783). All involved the taking of property. In Hamilton’s view, these acts illustrated the inherent difference between democracy and the law. Even though the acts were widely popular, they flouted fundamental principles of property law. Hamilton carried his views into action and successfully defended — in the face of enormous public hostility — those who had property taken under the three New York state statutes.

Hamilton’s influence on creating a respected national judiciary and shaping American jurisprudence was significant and widely recognized during his lifetime. For example, the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court John Marshall was known to have said that he was a mere schoolboy next to Hamilton. Indeed, in three of Marshall’s landmark decisions – Marbury v. Madison (1803), Fletcher v. Peck (1810), and McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) – he turned to Hamilton’s legal writings for guidance.

Alexander Hamilton is one of America’s most acclaimed Founding Fathers. He should remain as-is on the ten-dollar bill. Anything else would be an insult, the kind of thing that once engendered a duel.