Ben Shalom Bernanke was Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System from February 1, 2006, to January 31, 2014.
In many interviews in financial and economic periodicals, he blurts out the fact that his guide in the years surrounding the Great Recession of 2008, in his decisions by the advice of Walter Bagehot of the Economist of London whose main book is called Lombard Street [Project Gutenberg ebook] from 1873:
Lombard Street is known for its analysis of the Bank of England’s response to the Overend-Gurney crisis. Bagehot’s advice (sometimes referred to as “Bagehot’s dictum”) for the lender of last resort during a credit crunch may be summarized by as follows:
- Lend freely.
- At a high rate of interest.
- On good banking securities.
(Nonetheless, other economists emphasize that many of these ideas were spelled out earlier by Henry Thornton’s book The Paper Credit of Great Britain [archived PDF].)
Bagehot’s dictum has been summarized by as follows: “To avert panic, central banks should lend early and freely (i.e., without limit), to solvent firms, against good collateral, and at ‘high rates’.”
In Bagehot’s own words (Lombard Street [Project Gutenberg ebook], Chapter 7, paragraphs 57–58), lending by the central bank in order to stop a banking panic should follow two rules:
First. That these loans should only be made at a very high rate of interest. This will operate as a heavy fine on unreasonable timidity, and will prevent the greatest number of applications by persons who do not require it. The rate should be raised early in the panic, so that the fine may be paid early; that no one may borrow out of idle precaution without paying well for it; that the Banking reserve may be protected as far as possible.
Secondly. That at this rate these advances should be made on all good banking securities, and as largely as the public ask for them. The reason is plain. The object is to stay alarm, and nothing therefore should be done to cause alarm. But the way to cause alarm is to refuse some one who has good security to offer… No advances indeed need be made by which the Bank will ultimately lose. The amount of bad business in commercial countries is an infinitesimally small fraction of the whole business… The great majority, the majority to be protected, are the ‘sound’ people, the people who have good security to offer. If it is known that the Bank of England is freely advancing on what in ordinary times is reckoned a good security—on what is then commonly pledged and easily convertible—the alarm of the solvent merchants and bankers will be stayed. But if securities, really good and usually convertible, are refused by the Bank, the alarm will not abate, the other loans made will fail in obtaining their end, and the panic will become worse and worse.
We have to ask ourselves: how is it possible that advice from 1873 (i.e., Bagehot’s Lombard Street [Project Gutenberg ebook] crisis-management for that time) can be applicable in 2008?
Does this confirm the off-handed comment in This Time is Different by Ken Rogoff of Harvard that there must be true-but-opaque deep rhythms in history including financial history? Otherwise advice would be useless due to the passage of time and useful patterns would not be discernible.
In fact, Lawrence Summers at Treasury “deluged” Mexico and Latin America with loans to avert an earlier banking crisis following Bagehot’s advice. The logic is that investors must sense that Mexico, etc. will be bailed out at all costs. The idea is to avert a “downward spiral of confidence” by means of visible massive interventions.
Education should always ponder these “then and now” puzzles as part of a beneficial “argument without end.”