Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Panic of 1826

They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. In 1825, to deal with the "Indian Problem," the US Congress formed a region known as "Indian Country," lands West of the Mississippi (today Oklahoma). Their intentions were good.

"The removal of the tribes from the territory which they now inhabit would not only shield them from impending ruin, but promote their welfare and happiness," President James Monroe told Congress on January 27. He went so far as to say that without a defined Indian country "their degradation and extermination will be inevitable."

It's heartening to know that at least some of the President's contemporaries could see through his good intentions. New York County District Attorney Hugh Maxwell and twelve other prominent New Yorkers wrote in a pamphlet published in1825 that "the American Indians, now living upon lands derived from their ancestors and never alienated or surrendered, have a perfect right to the continued and undisturbed possession of these lands," and the "removal of any nation of Indians from their country by force would be an instance of gross and cruel oppression."

History was not on Mr. Maxwell's side, nor with his attempts to reform the financial industry a few years later. His prosecution of the Life & Fire Insurance Company, whose owners Jacob Barker, et al perpetuated a fraud that led to the Panic of 1826, resulted in a hung jury. (Eventually, Mr. Maxwell's efforts did lead to comprehensive reform, including: financial reporting requirements, accounting standards, and defined roles & responsibilities for directors, according to Professor Eric Hilt in a paper about the Panic of 1826.)

Mr. Maxwell's rationality was no match for his era's good intentions. For what lead Life & Fire's directors to commit fraud in the first place was in part driven by a desire (so they claimed) to extend credit to high-risk borrowers being ignored by traditional banks. When those borrowers started to default en masse, fraud appeared to be the only way to repay their investors, but unfortunately, even that didn't work.

Why was an insurance company doing a bank's work? In the 19th century, banking was the most profitable industry in America, and incumbent banks fought hard to protect their profits. To open a new one involved special-act charters and bitter legislative battles. Would-be owners required both political and financial capital, which few had in equal measure.

Enterprising merchants like Mr. Barker started circumventing these laws by forming insurance companies whose charter empowered them to lend their capital. In so doing, they created a new financial product called a post note. A typical post note transaction went as follows: a borrower approached an insurance company and requested a six-month IOU of $1000, minus a discount of say 3%. The borrower would then sell the discounted $970 post note on the money market, also paying a discount to the post note purchaser of say $30, receiving $940 in cash.

After six months, the borrower would repay the insurance company's IOU of $1000. The insurance company would repay the money market investor's post note of $970, yielding a $30 profit for both the insurance company and the investor.

While rates and terms varied, it was not unusual for post notes to trade at yields of 2 percent per month or more, compared to banks that were lending at yields of five percent per year, Professor Hilt's research found. Needless to say, these products were very profitable as long as default rates were low.

But higher yield meant higher risk, since borrowers who sought out post notes did so because they did not qualify for the less expensive credit from traditional banks. Despite their dubious quality, the corporate guaranty by the insurance company created a sense that the investments were safe. This combination of high yield and seemingly low risk sparked a credit boom.

"The judge the lawyer the doctor the clergy the widow the trustee of orphans all fell into the common vortex of investing in these bonds," Life and Fire Insurance Company director Jacob Barker wrote in a letter in 1827.

Like post notes, what made sub-prime mortgage-backed securities (MBS) so attractive to investors during the boom years was their high yield and perceived low risk. Unlike 1826, where the secondary market was created by the private sector, our government in many ways created the secondary market that gave sub-prime loans both the cash and perceived safety they needed to expand.

This was all done with good intentions. Looking to increase the homeownership rate and "foster affordable housing," the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) department issued regulations that required 55% of all government sponsored entities (GSEs) to purchase "affordable" loans from banks, either directly or through packaged MBS.

Most of these "affordable" loans were in fact sub-prime, "for persons with blemished or limited credit histories," and "carry a higher rate of interest than prime loans to compensate for increased credit risk," according to In 2009, forty percent of mortgages were sub-prime according to
By WTBrooks via Wikimedia Commons

By 2007, Fannie Mae and Freddie Max held $227 billion (one in six loans) in nonprime (aka subprime) pools, and approximately $1.6 trillion in low-quality loans altogether, according to and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).
Value of mortgage-backed security issuances in $USD trillions, 1990-2009.
Congressional Budget Office (CBO)
"That was a huge, huge mistake," said Patricia McCoy, who teaches securities law at the University of Connecticut. "That just pumped more capital into a very unregulated market that has turned out to be a disaster."

Nonetheless, when the crisis hit in the Fall 2008, the financial world seemed to be blind-sided. "It's a new financial world on the verge of a complete reorganization," said Peter Kenny, managing director at Knight Equity Markets in Jersey City, New Jersey.

But was it a new financial world? In many ways, looking back to the Panic of 1826, we see ourselves looking back at us. By promising high yield and low risk, both crises were buoyed by financial innovations that seemed to defy the natural law of risk and reward. Both crises attracted foolish investors who could be duped into believing that transferring risk is the same thing as removing it. Both crises were made worse by good intentions, or the idea that lending money to people who can't pay it back is good for society. Both crises proved it's not.

In our time, the implosion of the subprime lending market "has left a scar on the finances of Americans," the Washington Post reported in 2012, "that not only wiped out a generation of economic progress but could leave them at a financial disadvantage for decades."

Like the comprehensive financial reforms made after the 1826 panic, we can be reasonably sure that the numerous reforms issued after our own will fail to avert another crisis. This is because financial regulation cannot address the cause of financial crises that lives in our mirror. As long as there are borrowers who can't see through good intentions, and take on more debt then they can repay, there will be financial crises.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

"Daddy Warbucks," the Treaty of Versailles and Forming the Federal Reserve

On January 19, 1920, newspapers around the country were chronicling the US Senate's debate--for the second time--on whether to officially end war with Germany, ratify the Treaty of Versailles and join the League of Nations. In favor of ratification was a German emigre-turned-American-banker, Paul M. Warburg.

Echoing some of today's debates on Iraq, Warburg argued that by playing a part in the war, we had a moral responsibility in ensuring the peace. "There are many who, disgusted and disheartened, believe that we should wash our hands of Europe, and leave her to iron out her own affairs. It is too late for that. Europe relies on us," wrote Warburg in 1919.

And we relied on Europe, at least when it came to designing our modern banking system. Before advocating for world peace, Mr. Warburg was an advocate for centralized banking in the US. A descendant of a prominent German banking family, Mr. Warburg moved across the pond in 1895 after marrying into a prominent American banking family. Having an intimate view into both systems, he found the US uncharacteristically behind the times.

In a 1907 article printed in the New York Times, Warburg wrote that the American system was "in fact at about the same point that had been reached by Europe at the time of the Medicis, and by Asia, in all likelihood, at the time of Hammurabi." (Ouch!)

The European and Asian systems facilitated an elastic currency, Warburg said, "that follows the requirements of commerce." The United States' decentralized system, on the other hand, maintained an inelastic currency based on 6500 banks. "Under present conditions, instead of sending an army we send a soldier in to fight alone."

In passing the Federal Reserve Act of 1913, we heeded Warburg's advice and joined the league of centralized banking.  When it came to joining the League of Nations, however, we ignored the ex-German and soldiered it alone.

The purported inspiration for the "Daddy Warbucks" character in the Little Orphan Annie story, one could say Mr. Warburg was the father of our modern banking system. And in the hard-knocked world of finance, Warburg taught us that we shouldn't have to reinvent the wheel.

"I think that we are greatly mistaken if we believe that our country is so entirely different from all others that we should continue to do the opposite of what is done by them, while the system of all other important nations has proved to be excellent, and ours has proved to be defective."

I wonder what Mr. Warburg would think of today's healthcare system...

Banker's Notes cannot resist the convergence of banking and music, so let's enjoy Hard Knocked Life from the 1982 movie Annie, shall we?  At YouTube here >>

PS: In refusing to join the League of Nations, Senate Republicans used for the first time the "cloture," a procedural tool originally advocated by President Woodrow Wilson that allows Senators to place a time limit on the debate of a bill. Senate Republicans used the cloture against President Wilson to end debate on the Treaty, which eventually lead to its first rejection, on November 19, 1919.

In today's bipartisan bitterness, the cloture is still a favorite tool used by Republicans. Rachel Maddow found that the113th Congress is on track to be the most "do nothing" Congress in history in part because of Republican's frequent deployment of the tool. Of 2013's 64 roll call votes, the cloture was invoked more than the combined total of 1917 to 1978.

Flannery O'Connor

You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.