Guest post: An Ireland of Alternative Private Currencies Without Bailouts

Today, we have a guest post by Sean Kenny (Lund), who below summarises some lessons for policymakers from a recent working paper with John Turner (Queens) on the Irish banking system before joint-stock banks.

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As the Irish economy continues to emerge from the financial crisis of 2008 and the controversial blanket guarantee which followed it, from the comfort of hindsight a number of decisions have been criticised by prominent commentators. In particular, the terms of the bailout package and the shouldering of bank debt by the Irish taxpayer have featured frequently in the debate. In other words, the domestic and international political machinery employed to address the collapse of the banking system was deemed by many to be inappropriate, as events unfolded all too rapidly. Over the critical weekend of the guarantee, concerns were raised that no currency would be available from ATM machines at the open of business the following Monday.

It is interesting to ponder what might have happened under such a scenario where no support mechanism, instead of an inadequate one, had existed and where money may in fact have disappeared from the economy. As my research with Professor John Turner (Queen’s University, Belfast) documents, such was largely the experience during the last Irish banking crisis of comparable scale in 1820. During this era, money consisted of alternative private bank notes which were redeemable in Bank of Ireland notes considered “as good as gold.”

No central bank existed and the Irish and British exchequers had recently amalgamated. If a private bank had lent unwisely, pushing too many of its notes into circulation, when their notes were presented for conversion at their counters, failure could quickly occur if its current loan income and reserves fell short of its short term liabilities (notes and deposits). Of course, this tendency was exacerbated by a lack of regulation on the issue of private currency, a lack of trust in the stability of small private partnership banks and a prevailing political ethos which saw no role for government involvement in ensuring financial stability.

The 1820 crisis, which began in Cork and spread north saw 40 per cent of Irish banks fail within three weeks, leaving large portions of the country with neither currency nor banks for many years. This had predictably adverse effects on the economy as investment and consumption were largely suspended. In a scene many of us are familiar with today, many bankers, consisting primarily of the politically-connected landed elite, shielded their personal estates from liquidators as their banks’ deposits and notes went unpaid, ruining whole communities in turn. In the worst affected areas, money was simply unavailable to pay wages or to engage in trade and so consumption and employment further collapsed while price falls continued as money became scarcer. As a petition signed by the Lord Mayor of Cork put it, “all confidence, as well as Trade, is suspended, there not being sufficient currency to represent property in its transfer”.

During the following five years, a twilight zone emerged from the ashes, during which an insufficient supply of private money in the form of trade bills was circulated amongst the merchant class who constantly petitioned for reform of the entire monetary and banking system. In this era of uncertainty, many survivor banks and businesses failed as debts could not be collected and the Bank of Ireland remained solely in Dublin.

The 1820 crisis marked the beginning of the end of a quarter century which one historian called a “financial pantomime” where more than 20 percent of the banking system failed on at least four separate occasions. Compared with our own age where banks are deemed “too big to fail”, this was an era in which banks were too small to survive with primitive legislation controlling their activities. So utterly decimated was the monetary and banking system following 1820, that new legislation was introduced in 1825 which replaced the small partnership banks with a system of well capitalised joint stock banks with unlimited liability for a large number of shareholders.

This revolutionised the Irish banking system and dramatically improved financial access through the coming decades. No major banking crisis was to visit Ireland again until 2008. In an age where private (crypto) currencies are being promoted as a panacea to the alleged ills of current monetary regimes, it is appropriate to recall that when private money dies, it is not only its holders and issuers who are affected when the scale of its exchange is significant.  The demise of this group will reduce their investment, consumption and debt-servicing capabilities, which will in turn affect the wider economy. Instead, the utopia of a well-designed financial system in the context of a political apparatus which minimises the fallout when things go awry, then as now, remains a goal worthy of our finest endeavour.

The Meeting of the Waters

The editor of Critical Quarterly bought me a drink last December and told me that he was planning a special issue on, of all things, Thomas Moore’s The Meeting of the Waters. Would I care to write an economics column on the theme?

Well, it’s one thing to write a quarterly column on whatever is interesting me at the time, another entirely to write them to order. But since we were coming up to Christmas, and since my father’s family is from Wicklow, I said yes.

You can read the result here, and while I’m not sure how much economics there is in it, I did manage to work in a reference to Sargent and Velde!

Wir brauchen nicht noch mehr Offenheit

The NZZ interviewed me last week in Zürich. I made the case that we live in a world that is already astonishingly open, and sufficiently so that it is allowing poor countries to grow rapidly; and that Davos Man and Woman should therefore seek to preserve existing levels of openness, rather than pursuing a permanent pro-market revolution that will inevitably provoke a political backlash (and  indeed is already doing so). The interview is here.

Journées de l’Economie

I was at the Journées de l’économie in Lyon last week: this is a popular economics festival at which literally thousands of members of the public show up to listen to people like yours truly.

I was on a Brexit panel on the Wednesday, and tried to explain to a French audience how serious the issue is for us (I start about 30 minutes in, but the whole thing is worth listening to; I thought Jon Henley in particular, who preceded me, was really excellent and made all the points you would have wanted to make yourself); there was a more academic session on a very French topic (“Mutations du capitalisme“) on the Thursday,  at which Daniel Cohen made a couple of points that I thought were very thought-provoking (and also very French).