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Archive for the ‘Economic History’ Category

Did you know that central banks have not always been State-owned banks? The vast majority of them were in the hands of the public before the wave of nationalisations that took place right after the end of WWII. And the system did not work bad at all; the record of both price stability and financial stability before 1913 was certainly impressive. True, bank panics also occurred but the different response taken to such crises is the key to understand the pros of a monetary system fully in the hands of the public and market participants. And, a regards price stability, from approx. 1870 to 1913 most developed (and other less developed) economies ran the gold standard as the rule to determine the amount of money in the economy; a standard which very much tied the hands of central banks and governments as regards money creation. The outcome of the running of a system which preserved monetary stability for a 50 year-time period limited was (not surprisingly for any monetary economist!) was true price stability (by true, I mean that the price level in 1870 was roughly similar to that in 1913), and a growing and rather stable financial system on the whole.

Why was such a ‘miracle’ possible? There is no mystery nor secrecy about it at all! It was the establishment of the right institutions and policies to discipline both the Treasury and a highly independent (actually privately-owned!) central bank what explains such a favourable outcome. And, did you know something even more striking? Several central banks are traded in the market in our days in different ways: the Swiss National Bank, Belgium Central Bank, Reserve Bank of South Africa, Greece Central Bank and Bank of Japan. Historically speaking as I said above this is not an anomaly but the norm before the 1940s. Given the poor record of our monetary authorities since then and the miss-management of the recent financial crisis, why not extending private ownership even further and thus mitigate the threats of a politically-exposed (some will say ultimately ‘controlled’) central bank?

In an interview with Standard and Poor’s, ‘New way forward or outdated anomaly? The future of publicly traded central banks’ (S&P Global. Market Intelligence), I advocate for central banks to return to the public and the banking sector, in order to guarantee their independence from governments and thus be able to achieve a more sound and stable monetary system. You will find the arguments in favour of a more independent central banks, owned by market participants in many references. Here I will just mention two of them, one written by Tim Congdon (Chairman of the Institute of International Monetary Research), Central Banking in a Free Society (IEA), and the other by myself with Pedro Schwartz (Visiting Professor, University of Buckingham), Central banks; from politically dependent to market-independent institutions (Journal of Economic Affairs); both pieces written in the midst of the Global Financial Crisis (2008-09) and the observed mismanagement of the lender of last resort function of central banks.

Find below an extract from the interview with my arguments:

‘Those in favor of privately owned central banks say such institutions would be better equipped to preserve market stability and could help prevent future financial crises.

“If publicly traded or owned by the banking sector … the market incumbents will have a genuine interest in setting clear … rules for the central bank to maintain financial stability over the long term,” said Juan Castañeda, director of the Institute of International Monetary Research at the University of Buckingham in England.

In the event of another financial crisis, a central bank would be fully independent to intervene at a bank in need, and any injection of capital would come from the banking or private sector, Castañeda said. Situations like the nationalization of Northern Rock by the Bank of England at the outset of the global financial crisis could be averted were central banks not in public hands, he argued.

“Those are the things that you can avoid if your central bank is publicly traded,” he said, citing the late 19th century example of U.K.-based Barings Bank, which faced bankruptcy but was saved by a consortium of fellow lenders, helping to stave off a larger crisis.

Oversight of a central bank would belong to the bank’s shareholders, although national authorities would also have a say because of the bank’s management of monetary policy and financial stability.’

It is not surprising Tim Congdon and myself advocate for more independent central banks (privately-owned) as a way to protect them from political interference in the development of its functions. I do believe this would contribute to a more sound running of monetary policy and to less financial instability in the future. If publicly-traded or owned by the banking sector (following the US Fed model), market incumbents will have a genuine interest in setting clear mandates/rules for the central bank to maintain financial stability over the long term. Should another financial crisis occur in the future (that it will), the central bank will have free hands to intervene promptly and avoid the contagion of panic in the market (by the application of its lender of last resort function). And if any injections of capital were needed, it would be the banking sector (or the private sector as a whole) which would bail-in the bank in crisis and, most likely, taxpayers’ money will not be needed again.

Of course this alternative arrangement is fully compatible with the central bank be given statutory functions (such as an inflation target for example) and be subject to parliamentary oversee; so the Governor will have to answer not just to the Bank’s shareholders but to Parliament as well in relation to the running of monetary policy and financial stability (find further details on these arrangements in Congdon’s 2009 work mentioned above).

Juan Castañeda

PS. An excellent narrative of the flaws of the current system can be found in Milne and Wood (2008)’s  analysis of Northern Rock bank crisis in the UK.

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The communication of a banking crisis: it’s all about confidence!

During a visit to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC (‘The Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture’) I visited the Presidents’ gallery and found Franklin Delano Roosevelt‘s portrait accompanied by an interactive panel with some of his very popular at the time ‘fireside (radio) chats’ with the nation. One of them caught my attention; it was his address to the nation on the 13th of March of 1933 on the occasion of a major financial panic which led to the suspension of all banking activities for a week (the proclamation of 5 days of bank holiday). Of course the explanation of it would take us to the Great Depression and the massive fall in banks’ deposits in the country (as calculated by M. Friedman and A. Schwartz in their seminal Monetary History of the US, more than a third of the money supply since 1929). But what this brief post is about today is on just the communication of the suspension of the banking activities by the President himself to the nation: as you will hear in this audio recording, it is a very good explanation, and very easy to follow, of how the financial system in a modern economy operates and how fragile it becomes when confidence is lost and people run suddenly on their banks for liquidity. Even at that time, when the US was still on the gold standard and thus paper notes were ultimately backed by gold, the system relied on the confidence of the depositors on the soundness of the banks. Being very well aware of it, all the President tries to do with in this ‘fireside chat’ on the banking crisis was to restore the confidence lost by reassuring the american  people the monetary authorities were willing (and had already) to lend to sound banks to meet the liquidity needs of their customers. It is a good example of how to educate the people on these complex issues and to communicate how the crisis was being tackled.

Do not miss the opportunity to listen to it; in just a two-minute recording you will easily recognise all the elements involved in a banking panic and in the solutions needed: run on liquidity, fractional reserve, fiat versus backed money, lender of last resort, confidence, … . It is an excellent teaching material for a lecture in macroeconomics or money and banking.

However, involved in a massive fiscal expansionary program, only three months later the President suspended the convertibility of the US$ notes in gold, which left more room for the government and the baking sector as a whole to expand the amount of (fiat) money in circulation.

Juan Castañeda

PS. This audio and others of FDR and other Presidents can be found at ‘The American Presidency Project‘ website (http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/medialist.php?presid=32).

IMG_1490

(Franklin Delano Roosevelt, picture taken at the National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC)

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Estimates of the aboveground stock of gold (1492-2012)

Those of you who regularly follow this blog will find this topic familiar. This is because it is the second paper I have just published on this question; in the first one (2012), “The aboveground gold stock: its importance and size”, published by the GoldMoney Foundation, James Turk and myself mainly focused on the analysis of the available estimates of the stock of gold and concluded that most of them overestimated the stock of gold in 1492; which necessarily leads to a less amount of gold in the present time (the study also includes a very useful and comprehensive statistical annex).

In this one (“New estimates of the stock of gold (1492-2012)”, full text published in Moneta 156), I offer alternative estimates of the stock of gold in 1492 using different sources of (indirect) information, which include the analysis of the research made by economic historians, geologists and economists. As a result, an interval estimate of the stock of gold in 1492 is offered; one which is again much lower (see the table below) than the one implied according to the current estimates of the stock of gold and the data we have on gold production since the discovery of the Americas. Taking these new estimates as a starting point, I also include a full series on gold production since 1492 (a series collected from different sources) and a new series on the stock of gold since 1492 to 2012.

There might be several implications for the analysis of the current gold market as, according to this research, the aboveground stock of gold in our days may be around a 10% lower than the “official” figures (as published by the World Gold Council). Of course, due to the nature of this research and the lack of (much) reliable information on this issue for such a long time period, the results must be interpreted with due cautious; and I would welcome more research on this topic to refine the current estimates.

Anyhow, find below the table with the main results of the paper (in tonnes of gold):

1.World Gold Council aboveground gold stock in 2012
174,147
2.Gold production 1493-2012
157,162
3.Implied World Gold Council estimate of aboveground gold stock in 1492 (1-2)
16,985
4.Our high estimate of aboveground gold stock in 1492
1,275
5.Overstatement of the aboveground gold stock (3-4)
15,710
6.Our high estimate of aboveground gold stock in 2012 (2+4)
158,437
7.Overestimation of the current aboveground gold stock (2012) (1-6)
15,710

More details on the estimates can be found herea video with the presentation of the paper in a recent seminar organised in Madrid last May organised by Prof. G. Depeyrot as part of the activities of the Damin project, which is a world-wide research network of scholars interested in the study of precious metals and monetary issues in the 19th century.

I hope it can be of some interest. Comments very welcome.

Juan Castañeda

PS. Link to the video with the presentation of the research paper and many others: http://www.anr-damin.net/spip.php?article60

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Mr. Carney, the Old Lady is not for tying

I found this caricature in The Times last Saturday (see below) and I could not resist the temptation to write a post on it. With a blog like this one, with its name, I had no other choice but to welcome and echo this caricature and its message. As I already explained in more detail here, I do believe that a  course on money and central banking could be taught by using these classical (and contemporary) caricatures as the main material of the course. They provide the political and historical context needed to properly analyse how different constraints/events have affected the policies conducted by the central banks along the modern history.

As J. Gillray masterly did it two centuries ago, here you will find again the (poor) Old Lady screaming and fighting with the authorities; represented this time not by the prime minister but by the next governor of the Bank of England, Mr. Carney. There are some other differences of course. In this new version of Gillray’s “Political-ravishment, or the old lady of Treadneedle-Street in danger!” (1797), the new governor is not taking some gold coins from her pocket but trying to keep the Lady well tied up and under his control. The Lady is obviously protesting and is struggling to free herself from the new ties imposed in the last years; ties which represent the new and extraordinary lending facilities the Bank has had to implement since the outbreak of the recent financial crisis to assist the banking system and the Government. True, many will say that the central banks, wisely acting as the lenders of last resort of the financial system, had no other alternative but to support the banking system and maintain the proper running of the payment system. Fine, I agree to some extent since, in the face of a major financial panic, the central bank must act firmly and timely to avoid the collapse of the financial system. But at some point these extraordinary policies will have to cease and the central banks will return gradually to normality in the coming years; which certainly will mean the adoption of a more orthodox monetary policy, one committed to maintaining the stability of the financial system but also the purchasing power of the currency. Let’s see if the new governor of the Bank of England succeeds and is able to extend the existing “ties” or even adopt new ones: an expansionary nominal income targeting strategy?, the adoption of a new, higher of course, inflation target?

Nothing new at all. Under the gold standard there were clear rules which prevented the central banks from printing too much money. In our days, under a fully fiat monetary system, one in which money is created out of thin air (or ex novo), those rules are even much more needed (though become blurred many times …); so, yes, somebody must tie the hands of the Government and those of its bank (i.e. the national central bank) not to overspend and overissue respectively, in order to maintain monetary stability and the purchasing power of the currency in the medium to the long term. Until relatively recently (in the interwar years), it was in the very nature of the central bank to limit the amount of money in circulation to preserve the value of its own currency in the markets. It was a profit maximising institution for quite a long time and that was the best policy to increase the demand of its money and thus its revenues (the seigniorage). However, as depicted in this caricature, this time it looks like the world is turning upside down, since it is the (next) governor of the Bank of England, the “manager” of the bank, the one who wants to impose his own (new) ties to the Old Lady to keep on running extraordinary policy measures in the UK.

Future will tell which vision prevails in the UK and elsewhere, the classical one which defines the central bank as a bank which provides essential financial services to the banking system (a sound money amongst them) or the modern view of the central bank as a major policy actor committed to a time changing basket of macroeconomic goals, either given by the government or not.

Paraphrasing Mrs. Thatcher’s very famous quote (1980), The Time‘s cartoonist has chosen a very clever title for this satirical caricature: “the Lady is not for tying (see below). Enjoy it.

Juan Castañeda

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Published in The Times, 4th May 2013. Business section p. 51. “The Lady’s not for tying”. By CD, after Gillray.

After_Gilray_TheTimes2013

 

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Quantitative Easing or the reinvention of the wheel

Much has been said about the QE operations conducted in the US and elsewhere in the recent financial crisis. Some have claimed they constitute a true revolution in central banking; some have even gone further to suggest that it is the beginning of a new monetary policy. And, also quite many still claim that these extraordinary monetary policy measures should not be applied as they are supposed to be highly inflationary by their own nature.

Just a very quick look at the modern monetary history in Europe and in the US will reveal how wrong those views can be. On the one hand, as tested quite many times in our economic history, yes, too loose monetary policies (via QE operations or other else) will result in inflation, but only if (broad) money grows much faster than real income. So, how inflationary QE will be in the coming years cannot be assessed without making a proper monetarist analysis. Monetary expansion will have other effects, true (in part, already addressed here). On the other hand, even though under a different name, with the current QE operations we are just “inventing the wheel” or, following the Spanish saying, “discovering the Mediterranean sea”.

As quoted from Geoffrey Wood’s “The lender of last resort reconsidered” (A paper prepared for a conference in honour of Anna J Schwartz. Washington, 14-15 April 2000), in relation to the 1825 panic affecting the british banks:

There had been a substantial external drain of gold, and there was a shortage of currency.  A panic developed, and there were runs on banks.  The type of bills the Bank would normally discount soon ran out and the panic continued.  If a wave of bank failures were to be prevented, the banks would have had to borrow on the security of other types of assets. Of that change of policy Jeremiah Harman, a Director of the Bank, spoke as follows when giving evidence before a Parliamentary Committee in 1832.  The Bank had lent money “… by every possible means and in modes we had never adopted before; we took in stock on security, we purchased Exchequer bills, we made advances in Exchequer bills, we not only discounted outright but we made advances on the deposit of bills of exchange to an immense amount, in short by every means consistent with the safety of the Bank, and we were not on some occasions over nice”. Published in the Journal of Financial Services Research, 2000, vol. 18, issue 2, pages 203-227. See:  http://link.springer.com/article/10.1023/A%3A1026542821454.

So the Bank of England, already in the early 19th c., did conduct a truly active monetary policy to prevent the collapse of the banking system in Britain “by every possible means”; which included the purchase of stocks, public bonds, the discount of paper, … . And even most interesting,  Professor Wood (Cass Business School and University of Buckingham) provided in his work (written in 2000!) an excellent description of several successful application of the lender of last resort role of central banks that did prevent the collapse of the banking system without provoking (the supposed) hyperinflation. His work could have been taken as an excellent guide to make policy decisions from 2008 on.

The study of monetary history will do no harm to all of us at all, either academics or policy-makers. Quite the contrary!!!

Juan Castañeda

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Keynes and Hayek: A never ending controversy

A classic: what would have J. M. Keynes and F. A. Hayek said in the context of this major financial crisis were they alive? What would these “giants” of Economics suggest to tackle the problems arisen in the recent crisis?

Hayek

Well, we know quite well what Hayek would have probably suggested. Firstly, in relation to the diagnosis of the crisis, his theoretical works on the boom and bust crises fit very well with the current crisis. Moreover, his (Austrian) interpretation of the business cycles is very well-established in his works, mostly written in the 20s and 30s, and they have indeed received much more attention recently. So I do firmly think that he would claim some credit for the Austrian theory of the business cycle. As to his policy measures to overcome the crisis, I am afraid that he would probably suggest that the painful adjustment of the economy (including the liquidation of the so-called mal-investments, those associated with excessive money growth in the expansionary years) would have to take place, one way or another. And he would also possibly claim, as he did in his excellent works on money, central banks and the monetary system, that we should finally reform the nature of the monetary system with the introduction of more competence in the money market; which would imply the abolition of the legal tender clause of the national money(ies). This is exactly what he proposed in his Institute of Economic Affairs excellent “Denationalisation of money” in 1976.

Keynes

In relation to Keynes, we cannot be so positive about what he would have said. We know how pragmatic (and “case sensitive”) and even volatile Keynes could be, so we cannot really predict the policy solutions he would have proposed. This is exactly what Hayek claimed on the academic relation they maintained in the 30s. By the time Hayek was able to reply and contest a Keynes’ book or article, the latter had already launched another work with a different approach and even with a quite different perspective or theory. This was viewed by Hayek as a lack of consistency, something Hayek was not accustomed to and very much unusual for the very systematic Austrian theorist. Anyhow, if it were the Keynes of the General Theory, he would indeed ask the State to take firm steps in the running of the economy by the conduction of the aggregate (effective) demand. In essence, it would imply both (1) lowering nominal interest rates to the minimum and (2) then managing directly aggregate investment.

Another interpretation: some videos proposed

There is an excellent (and much funnier and entertaining) interpretation of their theories, and their application/adaptation to the current scenario, masterly made by John Papola and Russ Roberts in their very interesting and valuable “Econstories.tv” ‘s project. You will find below  several videos on the works and theories of these two economists, as well as interviews with excellent scholars on the works of this two excellent economists (see the interviews with Professor Lawrence White and Lord Robert Skidelsky).

– Video 1: “Fear the boom and bust”, at: http://econstories.tv/2010/06/22/fear-the-boom-and-bust/

– Video 2: “Fight of the century”, at: http://econstories.tv/2011/04/28/fight-of-the-century-music-video/

Enjoy them.

Juan Castañeda

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(Publicado originalmente en el diario en internet Oroyfinanzas.com bajo el título, “Inédito: El BCE fuerza a los Estados que soliciten crédito”, el 10 de septiembre de 2012.)

La “Vieja Dama” del continente se suelta la melena

 

Mucho se ha hablado y publicado sobre las decisiones adoptadas el pasado día 6 de septiembre por el Consejo de Gobierno del BCE. En pocas palabras, el BCE decidió simple y llanamente actuar como un banco central nacional tradicional y prestar abiertamente a los Estados nacionales en apuros.  Realmente no se ha innovado nada, ya que los bancos centrales se crearon en la Edad Moderna precisamente para ese fin. Eso sí, el BCE ha ido un poco más allá,  pues ha tenido que tomar el liderazgo en esta decisión. Y es que con la decisión del jueves pasado el BCE ha tenido que llenar, por la vía de los hechos, el atronador vacío institucional que acompañaba al euro desde su creación en 1999, y que se ha hecho penosamente evidente con la (primera) crisis de la Eurozona. ¿Como lo ha hecho? Es sencillo, actuando como si fuera el banco central de un Estado único.

El BCE da el paso adelante

La única diferencia relevante es que, a diferencia de cómo venía prestando a los Estados tradicionalmente, ha sido el propio banco central “nacional” de la Eurozona, el BCE, el que se ha visto forzado a pedir a los Estados que le soliciten el crédito. ¡Esto sí que es inédito! Como una imagen vale más que mil palabras, el genial James Gillray plasmó en esta caricatura a finales del siglo XVIII cómo se veía ya entonces esta financiación tan privilegiada del Estado; tal y como detallo algo más aquí.

Gillray retrata al primer ministro inglés asaltando las arcas del Banco de Inglaterra para poder financiarse; Banco representado por una enfurecida  vieja dama (de ahí que se le conozca como la Vieja Dama desde entonces) ¡Lo único innovador es que ahora es el propio BCE el que pide ser “asaltado”!

¿Un rescate irresponsable?

Muchos analistas ven en este sobrevenido rol del BCE el inicio de un rescate irresponsable de Estados con verdaderos problemas de solvencia. Para saber si es realmente así, podemos aplicar los criterios que ya propusiera el gran economista británico del siglo XIX, Walter Bagehot, para decidir cuándo y cómo se debía ayudar a un banco en crisis; criterios que fueron adoptados en la práctica de manera exitosa durante más de cien años (no así en la reciente crisis). De acuerdo con Bagehot, el banco central debía prestar al banco con problemas de liquidez de manera ilimitada siempre que (1) el banco tuviera activos que respaldaran ese crédito, así como (2) el préstamo fuera a un tipo de interés mayor que el normal del mercado. Pasado el momento de crisis o de pánico, el banco devolvería el crédito por lo que el aumento de la liquidez sería solo temporal y por tanto no inflacionista. ¿Eficaz y sencillo verdad? Pues bien, sustituyan “banco” por “Estados” y darán con una buena guía para evaluar el paso dado por el BCE. Enumero muy brevemente algunas de sus características:

(i) El BCE podrá comprar ilimitadamente deuda de los países en crisis en el mercado secundario.

(ii) Lo hará siempre que lo solicite formalmente el Estado en cuestión, que habrá de someterse a las condiciones exigidas por la UE para garantizar la devolución del crédito. (iii) ¿A que tipo de interés? Desde luego que será superior al del mercado en tiempos normales. Y (iv) para evitar que sea inflacionario, el BCE se ha comprometido a “esterilizar” el efecto de estos préstamos. Disculpen por la jerga de la que acabo de ser presa; con esterilizar quiere el banco central aclarar que reducirá por otros medios la cantidad de dinero en circulación, de modo que no aumente la oferta de dinero y con ello evite riesgos de inflación a medio y largo plazo.

Se inferiría de estas condiciones que solo se prestará a los países (solventes) que se estime sean capaces de devolver el crédito. Si de verdad nos creemos que es eso, un crédito condicionado para asegurar su devolución, entonces no será posible el rescate de un país realmente insolvente. Siendo así, ¿de verdad que se dejará caer a un país que se estime sea insolvente? Lo dudo. Fíjense, el mismo jueves pasado el BCE anunció también que aceptaría de nuevo sin límite los títulos de deuda de los países rescatados como garantía para conceder un crédito. Recuerden cómo funciona el modelo tradicional, nos guste o no: un banco central, una moneda y, ahora, un tesoro únicos. Hacia eso nos encaminados.

 Juan Castañeda

 

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