From One Collateral Shortage to the Next

June 1, 2016

In 1863, with the U.S. still reeling from a bloody civil war, a plan was launched in Washington to simultaneously fund its military loans and strengthen the nascent American banking system. "We cannot maintain our nationality unless we establish a sound and stable financial system; and as the basis of it we must have a uniform national currency," Senator John Sherman urged at the time.

What followed was a program designed to replace the patchwork state rules that had for years allowed the country's banks to sell their own private notes secured by loans or state bonds. Under the National Bank Acts of 1863 and 1864, banks could issue “national bank notes” that would be backed by the government, by depositing certain issues of U.S. debt with the Treasury.

While the legislation helped fill federal coffers and became the basis for the Federal Reserve Act 40 years later, it arguably failed its second mandate as bank panics continued apace in the latter half of the 19th century. Instead of depositors demanding the return of private bank notes, they simply demanded national bank notes instead.

This nugget of U.S. financial history comes courtesy of a new working paper from the Basel, Switzerland-based Bank for International Settlements. Its authors, famed economists Gary Gorton and Tyler Muir, argue that the National Banking Era bears an uncanny resemblance to more recent regulatory efforts to strengthen the global financial system in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis.

At issue is the system's tendency to manufacture 'safe' securities in times when government-issued debt is in short supply. Prior to the financial crisis, for instance, Wall Street's securitization machine worked overtime to turn dodgy subprime home loans into triple-A rated securities. Not only did the resulting bonds satisfy the needs of a global 'savings glut' desperate for investable assets, but the convenience of the securitized wrapper had the added benefit of turning the debt into suitable collateral for interbank loans in the vast 'repo' market.

The story is told in the BIS chart below, in vivid black and white. It shows the steady decline of demand deposits backed by bank loans, and their subsequent replacement with privately-produced 'safe' securities such as highly-rated asset- and mortgage-backed securities (ABS and MBS), asset-backed commercial paper (ABCP), and other ingredients of Wall Street's alphabet soup. In the late 19th century the need for such securities was made more urgent by the mounting scarcity of U.S. government debt, the economists argue.

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