Book review: Fragile by Design: The Political Origins of Banking Crises and Scarce Credit, by Charles W. Calomiris, and Stephen H. Haber.
This book start out with some fairly dull theory, then switches to specific histories of banking in several countries with moderately interesting claims about how differences in which interest groups acquired power influenced the stability of banks.
For much of U.S. history, banks were mostly constrained to a single location, due to farmers who feared banks with many branches would shift their lending elsewhere when local crop failures made local farms risky to loan to. Yet comparing to Canada, where seemingly small political differences led to banks with many branches, it seems clear that U.S. banks were more fragile because of those restrictions, and less competition in the U.S. left consumers with less desirable interest rates.
By the 1980s, improved communications eroded farmers’ ability to tie banks to one locale, so political opposition to multi-branch banks vanished, resulting in a big merger spree. The biggest problem with this merger spree was that the regulators who approved the mergers asked for more loans to risky low-income borrowers. As a result, banks (plus Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) felt compelled to lower their standards for all borrowers (the book doesn’t explain what problems they would have faced if they had used different standards for loans the regulators pressured them to make).
These stories provide a clear and plausible explanation of why the U.S. has a pattern of banking crises that Canada and a few other well-run countries have almost entirely avoided over the past two centuries. But they suggest the U.S. banking crises should have been more unique among mature democracies than was actually the case.
The authors are overly dismissive of problems that don’t fit their narrative. Commenting on the failure of Citibank, Lehman, AIG, etc to sell more equity in early 2008, they say “Why go to the markets to raise new capital when you are confident that the government is going to bail you out?”. It seems likely bankers would have gotten better terms from the market as long as they didn’t wait until the worst part of the crisis. I’m pretty sure they gave little thought to bailouts, and relied instead on overly complacent expectations for housing prices.
The book has a number of asides that seem as important as their main points, such as claims that Britain’s greater ability to borrow money led to its military power, and its increased need for military manpower drove its expansion of the franchise.