Unsettled Account: The Evolution of Banking in the Industrialized World since 1800by Richard S. Grossman
Commercial banks are among the oldest and most familiar financial institutions. When they work well, we hardly notice; when they do not, we rail against them. What are the historical forces that have shaped the modern banking system? In Unsettled Account, Richard Grossman takes the first truly comparative look at the development of commercial banking systems/i>
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Commercial banks are among the oldest and most familiar financial institutions. When they work well, we hardly notice; when they do not, we rail against them. What are the historical forces that have shaped the modern banking system? In Unsettled Account, Richard Grossman takes the first truly comparative look at the development of commercial banking systems over the past two centuries in Western Europe, the United States, Canada, Japan, and Australia. Grossman focuses on four major elements that have contributed to banking evolution: crises, bailouts, mergers, and regulations. He explores where banking crises come from and why certain banking systems are more resistant to crises than others, how governments and financial systems respond to crises, why merger movements suddenly take off, and what motivates governments to regulate banks.
Grossman reveals that many of the same components underlying the history of banking evolution are at work today. The recent subprime mortgage crisis had its origins, like many earlier banking crises, in a boom-bust economic cycle. Grossman finds that important historical elements are also at play in modern bailouts, merger movements, and regulatory reforms.
Unsettled Account is a fascinating and informative must-read for anyone who wants to understand how the modern commercial banking system came to be, where it is headed, and how its development will affect global economic growth.
Professor Grossman has assembled an impressive collection of historical, statistical, and bibliographic data, one that would be extremely difficult to reproduce using other sources. This information will prove invaluable for those conducting intensive research on commercial or international banking, and Unsettled Account will make an excellent addition for libraries that commonly serve such patrons. Academic law libraries at institutions offering specific courses in commercial banking may also want to consider a copy.
Shannon L. Kemen
"Grossman weaves an enormous amount of research into an impressive history of the banking industry in many developed countries over the last 200 years. His focuses primarily on changes in the size and structure of the banking industry over time and argues that banks and bank assets rise as a share of overall economic output and then fall as a country moves from developing to developed. . . . [T]his work represents a valuable contribution to the history of banking."Choice
"Professor Grossman has assembled an impressive collection of historical, statistical, and bibliographic data, one that would be extremely difficult to reproduce using other sources. This information will prove invaluable for those conducting intensive research on commercial or international banking, and Unsettled Account will make an excellent addition for libraries that commonly serve such patrons. Academic law libraries at institutions offering specific courses in commercial banking may also want to consider a copy."Shannon L. Kemen, Law Library Journal
"Unsettled Account provides us with a new and welcome history of the last three centuries of banking. Who should read this book? A lot of people. For the legions of political, social and cultural historians, if they have to read one book on the historical evolution of banking, this is it. It will provide them with the needed theoretical background without an equation in sight, useful country studies, and the insights needed to instruct their students. For the legions of economic theorists, if they have to read one book on the historical evolution of banking, this is it. The book is a guide to every key stylized fact they might use for a model, identifying the broad parameters of institutions and history. For the legions of policy makers, if they have to read one book on the historical evolution of banking, this is it. Distanced from the crisis of the moment, Grossman nicely hits the key issues and distills some relevant lessons."Eugene White, EH.Net
"[A] number of books stand out as works of real scholarship written by experts in their fields. Unsettled Account should be numbered among the best of those produced so far."Ranald Michie, BHR
"Richard Grossman has produced a valuable and accessible synthesis of research on some key aspects of banking history in this publication. . . . Students and academics with an interest in financial history, as well as practitioners and regulators, would benefit from reading Unsettled Account."John Singleton, Australian Economic History Review
"Richard Grossman has long been a well regarded figure in the field of financial history, and he has applied his knowledge and analysis to produce a comparative history of banking in Western Europe, North America, Australia, and Japan over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries."Ranald Michie, Business History Review
"What Grossman has done, in drawing our attention to the way in which past banking crises have been dealt with, is a significant contribution to the literature on the problems and difficulties involved in dealing with banks."Jonathan Warner, European Legacy
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Unsettled AccountTHE EVOLUTION OF BANKING IN THE INDUSTRIALIZED WORLD SINCE 1800
By Richard S. Grossman
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2010 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.
"The distinctive function of the banker,"-says Ricardo, "begins as soon as he uses the money of others"; as long as he uses his own money he is only a capitalist. -Walter Bagehot (1924: 21)
The Challenge of Intermediation
A fundamental challenge faced by economies for centuries has been to efficiently channel-"intermediate" in economic terminology-society's aggregate savings toward productive enterprise. Ancient and modern economies alike have devised facilities for intermediating between savers and investors. In ancient Babylon, palace and temple officials loaned their own funds and, in time, deposits that were entrusted to them. In medieval Italy and Spain, institutions were established for the purpose of funneling private savings toward public use, in particular to fund the government's debt. The roughly contemporaneous development of financial instruments, such as the bill of exchange, helped to channel savings toward the finance of both domestic and international trade. In modern industrial economies, intermediation falls primarily to securities markets and financial institutions.
Perhaps the best way to appreciate the importance of financial intermediators is to consider what the world would look like without them. In their absence, firms seeking finance and savers looking for investment opportunities would have to find each other and negotiate detailed contracts. Will funds be loaned or will they purchase a share of the enterprise? If loaned, for how long, at what interest rate, and against what collateral? If the funds purchase an ownership share, to what fraction of profits and seats on the board of directors will investors be entitled and, if the enterprise fails, how much liability will they bear? a system without financial intermediators would be, to put it mildly, inefficient. The transaction costs involved in seeking out investors and reaching agreements would be prohibitive, and firm managers, in all likelihood, would be forced to rely on retained earnings (i.e., funds generated by the firm but not distributed to owners) and the fortunes of friends and family to finance expansion. Economic growth, as typified by the modern industrialized-or industrializing-economy would seem impossible.
This book focuses on one type of financial intermediator: banks. More specifically, it analyzes the forces that have been responsible for the evolution-sometimes slow, sometimes dramatically rapid-of banking, particularly commercial banking, in the industrialized world during the past two centuries. This should be of interest for at least four reasons.
First, banks are among the oldest extant forms of financial intermediator. they are also among the most familiar. And, despite the growth of alternative intermediators, particularly securities markets, banks remain an integral part of the financial system. In short, the answer to the question posed by Boyd and Gertler (1994), "are Banks Dead?" is "no."
Second, if banking is an essential determinant of economic growth, its evolution may affect long-term economic performance and therefore help to account for countries' differing historical and prospective growth trajectories. A substantial academic literature considers the merits of many aspects of banking systems, including the extent of concentration and branching, the relative sizes of the banking industry, securities markets, and other financial intermediators, and the costs and benefits of different regulatory restrictions on banks. This literature tends to assume-incorrectly-that the key characteristics of the banking system were predetermined at some distant historical date, rather than as the product of a longer-term evolution, potentially biasing its results.
Third, banking stability may have important short-run economic and political consequences. Banking crises have been a common feature of the world economy for the past two centuries and can generate economic fluctuations or exacerbate those already under way. Since certain types of banking systems may be more resistant to crisis than others, understanding the forces that govern the evolution of banking may help to explain differences-both across countries and through time-in the severity of cyclical fluctuations and their political fallout.
Finally, banking systems across the industrialized world have undergone revolutionary changes since the early 1970s. Banking crises and subsequent government rescues, consolidation among banks and between banks and other types of financial institutions, and changes in national, international, and supranational regulatory efforts have dramatically altered the financial landscape in recent years and, given recent financial turmoil, will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Identifying the forces that historically have been responsible for banking evolution may provide some insight into understanding those at work today.
This book focuses on four types of events that have been both characteristic features of the life cycle of commercial banking systems and have brought about important structural changes in banking: crises, rescues, merger movements, and regulation. The detailed studies of these events through time and across countries presented in subsequent chapters reveals that they are the result of multiple, and frequently idiosyncratic, causes. Nonetheless, several commonalities emerge.
Banking crises have been a prominent feature of the financial landscape from the earliest days of commercial banking, of which the subprime mortgage crisis is merely the most recent example. Banking crises have three primary causes: (1) "boom-bust" (or macroeconomic) fluctuations; (2) shocks to confidence; and (3) structural weakness. Boom-bust fluctuations have long been a feature of the modern industrialized economy. If banking growth is especially vigorous during a period of robust macroeconomic expansion, the subsequent contraction may strain the banking system to the point of crisis. Shocks to confidence arising from, for example, concerns about the continued convertibility of the currency-raising the specter that deposits may only be redeemable in devalued currency-or the anticipation of an impending war or other event that reduces confidence in the stability of the banking system, may generate panic withdrawals and precipitate a crisis. Finally, the likelihood of crises can be affected by the structure of the banking system. A banking system composed of many small banks or governed by one set of regulations may be more prone to crisis, no matter what the source of disturbance, than one characterized by fewer, larger institutions or governed by a different regulatory framework.
Because crises are costly and may spread if not controlled, private and public actors have incentives to engage in rescue operations. Rescues may be confined to bailing out one troubled institution or may extend to the banking system more generally through lender of last resort operations; they may be of limited scope or may consist of relatively extreme measures, such as wholesale bank nationalization. The consequences of the type of rescue undertaken can have long-lasting effects on the banking system. If a rescue entails sustaining weaker banks, it may encourage other banks to undertake riskier activities secure in the knowledge that they too will be rescued in case of distress, a phenomenon known as "moral hazard." Thus, rescues may contribute to yet another boom-bust cycle marked by overexpansion and ending in crisis.
Crises typically leave a number of devastated banks in their wake. One consequence of this may be an increase in bank merger activity, as healthy banks absorb troubled institutions. Yet merger movements are not solely the creatures of economic downturns: economic expansion can also stimulate mergers if increased financing requirements are better met by larger financial institutions. The wealth effects of rising equity prices during an economic boom may also increase the willingness of potential acquirers to initiate mergers while rising share prices may make potential targets more willing to be acquired.
Another, usually not quite so immediate, consequence of crises is a change in banking regulations. Government regulation shapes many aspects of banking, ranging from rules governing entry, to those setting capital requirements, reserve requirements, and a variety of balance sheet ratios. Regulations govern whether banks can maintain branches, engage in securities market transactions, and the extent to which shareholders are liable for the losses of the bank. Although promoting banking soundness and stability-and indeed the public interest more generally-is frequently cited as the prime motive for government regulation, the private interests of different sectors of finance, industry, and government also influence the process generating new regulations.
Efforts at stability-promoting reform typically take one of two paths. Stricter regulation, including measures that strengthen safety and soundness requirements, curtail bank powers, and increase the reach and authority of regulators, constrains banks and makes it more difficult for them to get into trouble. An alternative regulatory approach takes a seemingly opposite course: expanding the powers of existing institutions-possibly combined with competition-reducing measures-in an effort to strengthen banks and render them less vulnerable to shocks.
These paths have very different consequences for the banking system and will find support among different private interest groups. Reforms aimed at restricting competition can lead to an excessively constrained banking system, although such reforms may be supported by financial incumbents protecting their private interests (Rajan and Zingales 200 b). Such constraints may eventually render the banking system less able to contribute to economic growth and lead to calls for deregulation. Reforms that allow an expansion of banking powers will have different consequences and will have different advocates. If such regulations are anticompetitive, they may lead to increased-perhaps to an uncomfortably high level-banking concentration. By granting wide-ranging powers, such reforms allow banks to increase risk-taking and may thus lead to greater instability.
In addition to the interplay between public and private interests, regulation will evolve as a result of unintended consequences. For example, regulations aimed at making banking safer by establishing more stringent standards may be so strict that they drive potential bankers to seek ways of avoiding the newly enacted regulations altogether: rather than acquire a government-issued charter, potential bankers might decide to operate as private partnerships or as off-shore enterprises, if doing so allows them to escape the stringent regulation. Bank efforts to avoid regulation lead legislators and regulators to devise new regulations which, in turn, encourage banks to find even newer ways of avoiding them.
Banking and Economic Growth
an important motive for studying banking evolution is its potential influence on economic growth. The theoretical literature on the interaction between the financial system, particularly banking, and economic growth is long and has a good pedigree. In his classic work, The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith (1776 : 49) highlights the importance of banks in mobilizing capital:
It is not by augmenting the capital of the country, but by rendering a greater part of that capital active and productive than would otherwise be so, that the most judicious operations of banking can increase the industry of a country. That part of capital which a dealer is obliged to keep by him unemployed, and in ready money, for answering occasional demands, is so much dead stock, which, so long as it remains in this situation, produces nothing either to him or his country. The judicious operations of banking enable him to convert this dead stock into active and productive stock; into materials to work upon, into tools to work with, and into provisions and subsistence to work for; into stock which produces something both to himself and to his country.
Henry Thornton (1802 : 176) quibbles with Smith's characterization, suggesting that banks are important not only because they mobilize credit, but because, in the course of supplying paper money, they also create credit: "Whether the introduction of the use of paper is spoken of as turning dead and unproductive stock into stock which is active and productive, or as adding to the stock of the country is much the same thing."
The proper role of banks in creating credit by increasing issues of money was frequently debated in nineteenth-century Britain. Two instances stand out: the Bullionist controversy following Britain's suspension of the gold standard in 1797, and the clash between the currency School and the Banking School, which arose around the time of the reorganization and Recharter of the Bank of England in 1844. The crux of these arguments was the proper regulation of note issue. According to the Bullionists and the currency School, in order to prevent an inflationary over-issue of currency, the note issue should vary "exactly as it would have done were it wholly metallic." The anti-Bullionists and the Banking School argued that as long as issuers maintained sufficient metallic reserves to insure convertibility, the note issue ought to vary with the needs of trade. If notes were issued only against the security of actual commercial transactions-the "real bills doctrine," which became a pillar of nineteenth-century banking orthodoxy in Britain and elsewhere-an inflationary over-issue would not be possible. An implication of the anti-Bullionist/Banking School view is that the inability to issue notes and create credit in response to an increased demand for real commercial transactions would retard economic growth.
Joseph Schumpeter (1934: 74) argues that bankers play a key role in economic growth, explicitly highlighting their role in credit creation:
The banker, therefore, is not so much primarily a middleman in the commodity of "purchasing power" as a producer of this commodity. However, since all reserve funds and savings to-day usually flow to him, and the total demand for free purchasing power, whether existing or to be created, concentrates on him, he has either replaced private capitalists or become their agent; he has himself become the capitalist par excellence. He stands between those who wish to form new combinations and the possessors of productive means. He is essentially a phenomenon of development, though only when no central authority directs the social process. He makes possible the carrying out of new combinations, authorizes people, in the name of society as it were, to form them. He is the Ephor of the exchange economy.
John hicks (1969: 78, 94-97) juxtaposes the above approaches by describing three stages through which banking develops. In the first stage, banks operate solely as trusted middlemen: borrowing, re-lending, and profiting on the spread between borrowing and lending rates. In the second stage, the banker begins to accept deposits that can be withdrawn on demand. At this point, the banker becomes a principal in the transaction, accepting the risk of a bank run if liquid assets are not sufficient to redeem demand liabilities. In the third stage, deposits subject to withdrawal become transferable, either by check or note. According to hicks, "... it is at this point that the bank becomes able to create what is in effect money."
A related strand of literature focuses not directly on the credit-creating powers of banks, but on banks more generally in the realm of firm finance. Gurley and Shaw (1955) characterize earlier forms of firm finance as "self-finance," in which firms finance investment projects from undistributed profits, and "direct finance," in which firms borrow directly from savers. The next stage of financial development, termed "indirect finance," occurs when banks issue their own debt and use the proceeds to finance investment projects. Gurley and Shaw argue that failure to develop this type of indirect finance through financial intermediators can retard economic development.
Excerpted from Unsettled Account by Richard S. Grossman Copyright © 2010 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This
Barry Eichengreen, University of California, Berkeley
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Jeffry Frieden, Harvard University
Joost Jonker, Utrecht University
Lars Jonung, European Commission
Meet the Author
Richard S. Grossman is professor of economics at Wesleyan University and a visiting scholar at the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University.
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