Youssef Cassis, Richard S. Grossman, and Catherine R. Schenk, editors, The Oxford Handbook of Banking and Financial History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. xviii + 537 pp., $160 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-19-965862-6.
Reviewed for EH.Net by Larry Neal, Department of Economics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (emeritus).
The global financial crisis that began in 2007-08 and continued to rattle the Eurozone countries after 2010 has certainly been good for the market for financial history. The Oxford Handbook of Banking and Financial History is clearly a response to these events. In their introductory chapter, the editors set out their ambitious agenda, which is to deal with the individual parts of our modern complex financial system and trace how each has evolved over time. Each chapter ends with some insight into how the current turmoil in global banking and finance might affect part of the global financial system. This broad-ranging approach is very much in keeping with current analysis by policy economists, who have become very sensitive to how our financial system intertwines banks, which specialize in particular niches of the economy; shadow banks, which innovate to find new niches; money markets, which deal with short-term finance; capital markets, which provide long-term finance; and regulators, who attempt to oversee the operation of the financial system for the interest of the public (or the government). The editors’ goal is to provide anyone concerned with a particular aspect of the financial system an authoritative treatment by an acknowledged expert that is clearly written for the non-specialist combined with a useful bibliography to follow up particular aspects.
The Oxford Handbook is organized into four parts: Part I, Thematic Issues, deals explicitly with the problems that the editors confronted at the outset: how have historians approached the issues in financial history (Youssef Cassis); how have economists dealt with the issues that interest them (John D. Turner); and how have policy makers tried to apply lessons from history for promoting economic development (Gerard Caprio, Jr.). To pay due attention to historical contingency, economic analysis, and policy relevance in each of the following chapters is, indeed, a daunting task for each author.
Part II, Financial Institutions, takes up these challenges by separating out several categories of distinctly different institutions, a useful distinction too often overlooked in practice and one that illustrates nicely the complexity of any financial system. Youssef Cassis’s “Private Banks and Private Banking” begins with the initial role models for banks, from their origins in kinship networks in Renaissance Italy to today’s Swiss managers of private wealth. Gararda Westerhuis’s “Commercial Banking: Changing Interactions between Banks, Markets, Industry, and State” follows by dealing with the nineteenth-century spread of industrialization globally, which led to the rise of universal banks. By the end of the twentieth century, however, it appeared that commercial banks might be in “a state of terminal decline.” (See Raghuram Rajan, 1998, “The Past and Future of Commercial Banking Viewed through an Incomplete Contracts Lens,” Journal of Money, Credit, and Banking. 30(3), 524.) The financial crisis of 2008 led many observers to push for a separation of investment and commercial banking once again in the interest of financial stability. Westerhuis goes on to distinguish the motives for establishing market-based systems (U.S. and England) versus bank-based systems (Germany and Japan). She posits that the two paths diverged early on due to the differences in government control over banks and then the role played by banks in financing industrialization for follower countries, such as Germany and Japan. Oddly missing from her overview is any consideration of the experience of Scottish banking, which developed joint-stock banks with national branches early in the eighteenth century. Only after the financial crisis of 1825 did the English care to look seriously at the Scottish example for improving their commercial banking system! Further, joint-stock banks did not disappear in the U.S. during the “free banking” period as she asserts. While they were confined within state boundaries, limitations on branching within a state varied considerably. The wide range of experiments undertaken by various states has stimulated a growing and interesting literature among U.S. scholars, largely omitted from her bibliography.
Caroline Fohlin’s “A Brief History of Investment Banking from Medieval Times to the Present” takes up the most challenging role of banks, how to transform short-term liabilities into long-term assets. Rather than taking specific organizational forms, she prefers to analyze investment banks as a set of services that help finance the long-term capital needs of business and governments. After briefly looking at merchant banks from medieval times to the early nineteenth century, this loose definition requires her to take up individual countries one by one during the nineteenth century. Sections follow that deal with England, the European continent, Belgium and the Netherlands, France, Germany, Austria and Switzerland, Italy, Japan, and the United States. Each section highlights the differences in organizational structures created to accomplish basically the same goals, helping governments promote industrialization. The twentieth century presents more interesting differences, essentially due to the ways various governments regulated, deregulated, and then re-regulated from the 1920s to the present. She concludes, “even well-known investment banking names that have endured over the centuries bear little resemblance to their ancestors” (p. 159).
Christopher Kobrak’s “From Multinational to Transnational Banking” takes up the complex transformations of the world’s leading banks by size as they successively internalized their international operations. The availability of huge advances in information technology combined with increasing opportunities for re-allocating domestic savings across foreign investments provided the basis for the growth of today’s megabanks. Oddly, however, Kobrak takes as archetypes of the new transnational bank two of the worst performers after 2008 — Deutsche Bank and Citibank. Relying on their respective annual reports in 2007-2010, he touts each of them as “market players” rather than staid fiduciary agents, lauding their scale and scope of activities that are only vaguely related to financial intermediation associated with banks “lending long, while borrowing short.” He dispassionately notes that three-quarters of Deutsche Bank’s two trillion euros in assets in 2007 were securities held for trading, and 40 percent were financial derivatives (p. 183), without disparaging the obvious omission of fiduciary responsibility. Citibank, similarly, by 2007 had “invested huge resources in creating an internal market, in essence warehousing securities and derivatives to build hedged positions and for future sale” (p. 182). All these intra-bank holdings of assets and liabilities enabled such banks to make a lot of money by proprietary trading that remained unobserved by regulators or by publicly accessible financial markets. He refrains from criticizing the model developed by these two megabanks, each of which has suffered huge losses and justified public acrimony since 2008, confining himself to the anodyne remark that “megabanks may be forced, as they have many times in the past, to find an intertwined institutional and organizational adaptation more sustainable in the modern social order” (p. 185)!
R. Daniel Wadhwani’s “Small-Scale Credit Institutions: Historical Perspectives on Diversity in Financial Intermediation” concludes Part II by lumping together a motley assortment of credit cooperatives, savings banks, industrial banks, pawn shops, and savings and loans associations. Wadhwani argues their cumulative size makes their impact on their respective economics arguably as great or greater than that made by the commercial, investment, and public banks dealt with in the previous chapters. Their common origin across many cultures and through past millennia he finds in the ubiquitous presence of ROSCAs (rotating savings and credit associations). Beginning with small kinship groups desiring to pool their limited resources to enable individual members to acquire a desired goal, perhaps a piece of land, a dwelling, livestock, or even the means to migrate somewhere else for employment, ROSCAs often provide a basis for transition to the more modern forms of intermediation. These include savings banks, credit cooperatives, and savings and loans, with each evolving quite differently depending on local circumstances. Critical to their evolution historically is the role of government, whether as regulator (restricting competition), competitor (postal savings banks), or customer (providing sovereign debt as risk-free asset). The theoretical economic bases for their evolution and persistence are robust, both for their monitoring capability and for their local knowledge of investment possibilities. Nevertheless, Wadhwani calls attention to more post-modern “theories” that favor the creation of supportive narratives when cultures confront changes in economic regimes.
Part III, Financial Markets, begins with Stefano Battilossi’s “Money Markets,” which emphasizes the importance of access to outside liquidity for banks when they face unanticipated shocks either for increased loans or increased withdrawals of deposits. Further, Battilossi argues that a key lesson learned by banking theorists and practitioners in the nineteenth century, namely that money markets are essential for a smooth working of the economy but are inherently unstable, was lost over the course of the twentieth century. The success of the Bank of England in stabilizing the money market at the center of the global economy of the nineteenth century, he argues, was due to a complex combination of close monitoring by the Bank of England and cartel complicity by the major joint-stock banks, each with extensive branching networks domestically and overseas. U.S. efforts to imitate the British example after creation of the Federal Reserve System in 1913 failed due to irreconcilable differences in institutional structures between the two banking systems and their respective central banks. It took over a century and a half for the Bank of England to learn how to avoid being a dealer of last resort, a role that the Federal Reserve System in the U.S. had to undertake in the 2008 crisis, and which it has not yet been able to relinquish. Readers are left to draw the implications for the future of the global financial system for themselves!
Ranald C. Michie’s “Securities Markets” lays out convincingly and clearly the importance of securities markets for a successful financial system. Divisibility and transferability of a security expands greatly the potential customer base, adding the virtue of diversity in demands for liquidity among the creditors as well. He distinguishes clearly between “Primary Securities Markets” and “Secondary Securities Markets,” showing their interdependence in layman’s terms. “Stock Exchanges” provide the effective linkage between the two levels of markets, but fall prey in turn to problems either of monopoly pricing or government repression. His exposition of the underlying theory of securities markets provides the structure for his narrative that follows. From “Early Developments in Securities Markets,” which only mentions briefly the roles of informal markets in the speculative booms of 1720, Michie insists on focusing on the nineteenth century, starting with the London Stock Exchange in 1801. It’s unfortunate that he ignores recent work on the Amsterdam stock market, (e.g., Lodewijk Petram, The World’s First Stock Exchange, New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), or early work by this reviewer on the precedents for the London Stock Exchange (Larry Neal, The Rise of Financial Capitalism, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990). Committed to the importance of formal structures for modern stock exchanges, however, Michie takes up their rise in the advanced capitalist economies of the nineteenth century and then their eclipse from 1914 to 1975. Thanks to the exigencies of war finance from World War I through the Cold War, stock markets seemed to “appear somewhat irrelevant in a world dominated by governments and banks” (p. 253) “The Era of Global Banks” did not come to an end in 2008, however, but what had ended was the “self-regulation that had contributed so much to the attractions of stocks and bonds to governments, businesses, and investors through the reduction or elimination of counterparty risk and price manipulation and the certainty that sales and purchases could be made as and when required” (p. 258). Big banks are bad once again!
Moritz Schularick’s “International Capital Flows” is the most quantitative and instructive of the chapters, as he summarizes succinctly in nine brief tables and one graph, the levels of international capital flows over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, their size relative to Gross Domestic Product, and the main sending countries and main receiving countries over time. In sum, rich countries invested in poor countries in the nineteenth century, when international capital flows were highest relative to GDP, and the rich continued to invest in poor countries even when capital flows were severely constrained during the period 1914-1975. But after the collapse of Bretton Woods, when international capital flows rose sharply once again, the result has been for poor countries to invest in rich countries. Further, when capital does flow suddenly to emerging economies, financial crises often follow when the flow tapers off, undoing whatever economic advance may have occurred.
Youssef Cassis’s “International Financial Centres” concludes the coverage of financial markets by analyzing the recurring features of international financial centers that lead to their persistence over time. The physical layout of the dominant cities, the combination of functions they perform (government, communications, education, as well as trade and finance), and their organization may change as the technology of transport, communications, and information change, but, Cassis argues, the network externalities created by the concentration of so much expertise in one location make the existing centers hard to replace.
Part IV, Financial Regulation, takes up the most vexing questions for policy makers, starting with Angela Redish’s “Monetary Systems.” Redish begins with the complexity of metallic currencies with coins minted in varying combinations of copper, silver, and gold in early modern Europe, and deftly reviews the causes that concerned European policy makers as they sought to maintain coins with fixed legal tender values, whether minted in any or a combination of the three precious metals. Basically, their concerns were the same as today, “whether nominal change can have real consequence for the balance of trade or level of economic activity?” (p. 327). Redish goes on to trace out the academic literature that has dealt with the Emergence of the Gold Standard, the Latin Monetary Union, the Cross of Gold, the Classical Gold Standard, and the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, highlighting the controversies that have arisen under each rubric. Next, she divides the End of the Gold Standard into the First World War and the Interwar Period, Bretton Woods and European Monetary Arrangements, and the End of Bretton Woods and the Rise of the Euro. Reproducing faithfully the graph produced by Eichengreen and Sachs to show that countries that stayed committed to the gold standard after 1929 suffered in terms of industrial production relative to those that devalued, she doesn’t point out that the outliers of Germany and Belgium are readily explained by mistaking their formal exchange rate regimes with the ones they followed in practice (Germany using bilateral trade agreements to increase industrial exports while keeping the nominal exchange rate fixed, and Belgium reducing its nominal exchange rate while being forced to maintain existing trade agreements with France). She concludes with a brief discussion of both inflation targeting under fiat currency regimes and the rise of crypto currencies such as Bitcoin, Her conclusion is merely that “money is information, a method to enable multilateral clearing of myriad transactions. It would be surprising if the digital revolution did not lead to a revolution in how this information is managed” (p. 339).
Forrest Capie’s “Central Banking” takes up the baton passed on by Redish to provide a brief synopsis of the issues confronting central banks as they have increasingly taken control of the supply of money over the past two or more centuries. Monetary stability, their prime responsibility, can be assessed in terms of price stability, but financial stability, which has become a major concern, he notes is more difficult to assess, much less to sustain. Central bank independence, however defined, does seem to correlate with monetary and price stability, which shows that policy lessons have been learned successfully on that score. Continued independence of central banks, however, hinges very much on attaining and then sustaining financial stability. This task, very much underway now among the world’s central banks, 174 at last count, may require expanding their role to include financial regulation as well as oversight of the banking system.
Harold James’s “International Cooperation and Central Banks” makes an interesting argument that central banks in their pursuit of the goal of monetary stability naturally tend to cooperate with other central banks internationally, but without need for formal mechanisms. Cooperation can then be merely discursive, as it was during the classical gold standard. Financial crises, however, often do call for international cooperation, but cooperation is difficult, perhaps impossible, to sustain given the priority of strictly national policy concerns. Large countries, needed to make cooperative efforts successful, are the most reluctant to join in cooperative efforts. His examples cover episodes during the classical gold standard, the interwar period, the brief Bretton Woods period, and the ongoing travail of the euro-system, which he concludes is “the global test case for both the possibilities and the limits of central bank action” (p. 391). In an interesting aside, he explains why the Bank for International Settlements was resuscitated to manage the European Payments Union in the 1950s. Top U.S. officials were wary of using the newly-established International Monetary Fund because its staff were largely protégés of Harry Dexter White, then under suspicion as a possible Russian agent!
Catherine Schenk and Emmanuel Mourlon-Droul’s “Bank Regulation and Supervision” develops a sub-theme to the arguments presented by Harold James, namely the recurring problems of regulatory competition, moral hazard, and regulatory capture. Essentially, “[r]eputation and private information are key bank assets in a market with information asymmetry, but this complicates the ability to engage in transparent prudential supervision” (p. 396). The U.S. stands out for having the most complicated and unwieldy array of conflicted regulatory agencies, summarized in Table 17.1. The authors conclude, as do Charles Calomiris and Stephen Haber (Fragile by Design: The Political Origins of Banking Crises and Scarce Credit, Princeton, NJ: 2014), that it is no accident that Canada and the UK, with more coherent approaches to bank regulation have had fewer banking crises. Much of the remaining chapter focuses on China and the successive efforts of China’s rulers to establish, then regulate, a banking system to enable industrialization and modernization, concluding, perhaps prematurely, that China managed to reduce the problem of non-performing loans after their peak in 2000. The difficulties of deciding where to locate the regulator of the banking system are highlighted by tracing the successive efforts of the U.S., then the UK to find an ex post regulatory solution to the problems of recurring financial crises. The efforts of the Basel Committee, established after the collapse of the Bretton Woods System, are described in the context of the European Union’s efforts to move toward regulatory cooperation within a more limited scope of international cooperation. Prospects for success on that score are still very much in doubt.
Laure Quennouelle-Corre’s “State and Finance” takes a step back to look at the origins of the ongoing dilemma for the Eurozone of the interaction between governments’ sovereign debt and financial fragility of their banks. The recurring differences between France and the other members of the European Union form the backdrop for his rambling notes on the interactions of private and public financial institutions, ending with the observation that France alone has had to deal with the European Union’s pro-market ideology versus the French tradition of state intervention.
Part V, Financial Crises, opens with Richard Grossman’s “Banking Crises,” which reprises the standard story of boom-bust cycles, exacerbated when new opportunities for speculative investments open up (first globalization after 1848; second globalization after 1979; post-war adjustments after WWI) but then moderated under strict regulation (capital controls, interest rate restrictions from 1945-71). In his perspective, the Eurozone crisis fits the boom-bust pattern first described by D. Morier Evans in 1859 (The History of the Commercial Crisis, 1857-58, and the Stock Exchange Panic of 1859, New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1969).
Peter Temin’s “Currency Crises: From Andrew Jackson to Angela Merkel” takes up the international aspect of the boom-bust paradigm by extending it into national decisions about setting the exchange rate with foreign trading partners and possible investors. To bolster his long-standing conviction that most, if not all, banking crises are really currency crises at heart, he lays out in detail the open macro-economy model developed by Trevor Swan. Swan’s diagram relates a country’s domestic level of production to its real exchange rate. Internal balance is maintained if production rises with the real exchange rate, while external balance requires the real exchange rate to fall when production increases. The model leads to dire consequences for a country if it does not succeed in maintaining both internal balance (matching domestic investment with domestic supplies of savings) and external balance (matching capital account flows with offsetting trade balances) simultaneously. Either excessive inflation or long-term unemployment occurs whenever imbalances are sustained due to misguided government policy. Banking crises then arise as the necessary outcome of such policy failures by governments. The historical evidence to support Temin’s argument starts with Andrew Jackson and the crisis of 1837 in the U.S., continues through the Great Depression in the U.S. in the 1930s, not to mention the concurrent crisis in Germany, and concludes with the ongoing Eurozone crisis, all basically due to misguided political leaders, as named in his sub-title.
Juan H. Flores Zendejas’s “Capital Markets and Sovereign Defaults: A Historical Perspective” concludes the Oxford Handbook. The first global financial market, arising with the collapse of the Spanish Empire in Latin America after the Napoleonic Wars, saw various devices to cope with the recurring problem of governments defaulting on the sovereign bonds they issued for whatever reason, usually to fight a war or quell a revolution. Flores recounts the success of the London Stock Exchange in bringing governments to heel if they wanted access to British savers. The monitoring capabilities of the leading merchant bankers, especially the Barings and Rothschilds, put their imprimatur on bonds issued through their firms. Twentieth century regulatory restrictions on these leading investment banks by their host governments, however, have limited the effectiveness of their “branding” and their intrusive follow-up in monitoring the finances of their customer governments. Flores casts some doubt as well on the effectiveness of the Council of Foreign Bondholders in the nineteenth century. He could also have challenged the effectiveness of international financial control committees that served as the model for the League of Nations Financial Commission after World War I if he had cited the recent work of Coskun Tuncer (Sovereign Debt and International Financial Control, The Middle East and the Balkans, 1870-1914, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). Flores concludes in general that governments that avoided defaulting in times of general crisis did so because they had been excluded from the earlier expansion of international credit.
All in all, the editors did get the compilation in print still in time to be useful for anyone concerned with how the ongoing financial crisis of the early twenty-first century will play out. Specialists in each topic, however, may be disappointed in the necessary brevity of treatment, not to mention absence of references to their own work, particularly if they worry most about the future of the U.S. financial system.
Larry Neal is the author of A Concise History of International Finance: From Babylon to Bernanke, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015
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