'Rescuing a SIFI, Halting a Panic: the Barings Crisis of 1890'
Eugene White at the Bank of England's Bank Underground:
Rescuing a SIFI, Halting a Panic: the Barings Crisis of 1890, Bank Underground: The collapse of Northern Rock in 2007 and Bear Sterns, Lehman Brothers, and AIG in 2008 renewed the debate over how a lender of last resort should respond to a troubled systemically important financial institution (SIFI). Based on research in the Bank of England Archive, this post re-examines a crisis in 1890 when the Bank, supported by central bank cooperation, rescued Baring Brothers & Co. and quashed a banking panic and a currency crisis, while mitigating moral hazard. This rescue is significant because it combined features similar to those mandated by recent U.K., U.S., and European reforms to ensure an orderly liquidation of SIFIs and increase the accountability of senior management (e.g. Title II of the Dodd-Frank Act (2010); the U.K. “Senior Managers Regime”).
Financial historians (Bordo (1990); Schwartz (1986); Bignon, Flandreau, & Ugolini, (2012)) have argued that, when faced with a crisis in the nineteenth century, the Bank of England simply followed Bagehot’s Rule to lend freely at a high rate to preserve market liquidity (Bagehot (1873)). This “historical fact” has lent support to policy recommendations to strictly follow Bagehot in a crisis. By downplaying the rescue and treating the 1890 crisis as minor (Turner (2014)), historians have overlooked its significance and that of its French precursor; thus they have missed important examples of successful pre-emptive intervention that limited damage to the economy and future risk-taking. ...
The rescue package provided to Barings was modelled on the 1889 rescue of the Comptoir d’Escompte. This commercial and investment bank had supported an effort to corner the copper market with loans and vast off-balance sheet guarantees of forward contracts. When copper prices fell, the Comptoir’s president committed suicide, prompting a run. The Banque de France provided loans of 140 million francs to meet withdrawals and, co-operating with the Minister of Finance, formed a bankers’ guarantee syndicate to absorb the first 40 million francs of losses. Contributions were assigned according to banks’ ability to pay and their role in the crisis, measured by how closely they were tied by interlocking directorships to the Comptoir. In addition, substantial fines and clawbacks were imposed on the directors and senior management. The run on the Comptoir abated and spread no further. A “good bank”, the Comptoir National d’Escompte, was recapitalized, while the Banque de France took over the liquidation of the toxic copper assets (Hautcoeur, Riva & White (2014)).
The British press had chronicled this Parisian rescue in detail; and London bankers were well-informed. But, given that policy was formulated quickly behind closed doors, histories have been silent on the importance of the French example. The key connection is found in Alphonse De Rothschild letter of November 14 (Figure 2), where he compared the two crises and declared: “La situation à l’égard de la Baring est exactement la même que celle dans laquelle se trouvait le Comptoir d’Escompte” – roughly translated, “The situation with regards to Barings is exactly the same as the one in which the Comptoir d’Escompte found itself” (Rothschild Archives, London). He then laid out the role that the House of Rothschild should play, pushing for the formation of a British guarantee syndicate, and specifying the Rothschild contribution. ...
The Barings rescue or “lifeboat” was announced on Saturday November 15, 1890. The Bank of England provided an advance of £7.5 million to Barings to discharge their liabilities. A four-year syndicate of banks would ratably share any loss from Barings’ liquidation. The guarantee fund of £17.1 million included all institutions, and some of the largest shares were assigned to banks whose inattentive lending had permitted Barings to swell its portfolio. The old firm was split into a recapitalized “good bank”, Baring Brothers & Co. Ltd., which took over the still profitable trade finance and a “bad bank” that retained its name and its toxic assets, managed by the Bank of England.
The Barings’ partners agreed to this arrangement, delivering powers-of-attorney over their property, avoiding the danger of a fire sale. But, as unlimited liability partners, they were still expected to cover any losses. The partners’ investments, country homes, town houses and their contents were to be sold with the proceeds moved to the asset side of the bad bank’s balance sheet (Figure 3). This assessment paralleled the liability imposed on the board of directors and senior management of the Comptoir. These payments covered most losses; and neither the French or British syndicates were called upon. Ultimately, the remains of the “bad” Barings bank was sold to a group of investors for £1.5 million, closing the liquidation. The heavy assessments on the Barings appear to have dampened risk-taking, as no other major bank failed before World War I and in general banks became more conservative (Baker & Collins (1990)). ...
This new research reveals that the two most important central banks of the late nineteenth century did not exclusively adhere to Bagehot’s rule. While the Bank of England and the Banque de France responded to panics by lending freely at high rates on good collateral, they also intervened to rescue deeply distressed SIFIs. Central bank cooperation to obtain liquidity and coordination with the Treasury were then critical to ensure that toxic assets were liquidated in an orderly fashion to minimize losses. Combined with penalties levied on the responsible principals, they were strikingly bold and successful rescues. While one may object that recent crises erupted because of system-wide incentives to take risk (Too Big To Fail, deposit insurance and flawed governance), these two episodes should be thought of as identifying appropriate policies to manage individual troubled SIFIs if the system-wide incentives can be brought under control.
Posted by Mark Thoma on Wednesday, February 10, 2016 at 08:45 AM in Economics, Financial System, Regulation |
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