Wednesday, February 14, 2018

A note to my "progressive" friends ...

Progressives, lend me your ears!

Yeah, you have every right to be upset with the state of the nation and the world and kudos for trying to change it. But here's the thing. Waiving your arms at "capitalism" isn't going to accomplish anything useful. For starters, nobody agrees what capitalism even means. It has become a catch all for "scary stuff I don't like," much the way that "Glass Steagall" became some kind of supposed super regulation after the Panic of 2008. Most of you have no idea how financial markets and intermediaries work and hence have no clue about which regulation(s) might be better than others and you wouldn't know adverse selection from moral hazard.

To have any chance of changing the world for the better, you have to understand it first! If you blog, tweet, even snap, crackle and pop to the same few (hundred, thousand, million) like-minded people, you're just pandering to a base, not effecting positive change. If you don't have the analytic skills and knowledge base to critique a system in concrete terms, you have no intellectual basis for calling for the eradication of this, or the regulation of that.

Until you understand some economics (theories as well as institutional details), please stick with human rights issues. I hate to have to criticize the thoughts of friends and colleagues but feel I must when they start talking out their you know whats. If you agree and want to learn more about economics, the financial system, public policy, and so forth, feel free to start here.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Why are many Indians so poor? In short, BIA-induced socialism!

Little Biz on the Prairie

By Robert E. Wright, Nef Family Chair of Political Economy, Augustana University

For West River History Conference, Rapid City, So. Dak., 13 October 2017

My book about the history of entrepreneurship in South Dakota, Little Business on the Prairie, has two themes relevant to this conference. The first is that South Dakota has an unusually strong record of entrepreneurship, proprietorship, and self-employment in part because it always has. The second is that taking the Indian’s land was not the worst thing that Euroamericans did to them, stripping them of their entrepreneurial heritage was.
History tells me that I better talk a bit about entrepreneurship. Specifically, last year at the annual South Dakota book doohickey held in Brookings a woman straight up asked me how the word was pronounced and what it meant, pointing at it in the subtitle of my book. “No wonder it has only sold a few dozen copies,” I thought to myself. Will Baumol, my good, now deceased friend from New York University’s Stern School of Business, where I used to teach courses in business history, always said there were three types of entrepreneurship: innovative, replicative, and exploitative.
The first type is what people usually think of as entrepreneurship: inventors, business innovators, and what not. You know Thomas Edison and Elon Musk types. South Dakota has had its fair share of inventors and business innovators. A good way for history buffs to while away an afternoon is to look through the old patent records by using Google’s advanced patent search engine and the names of inventors mentioned in my book. Unfortunately, researchers still cannot systematically search patent applications by state for patents filed before the mid-1970s. I found the ones in my book the old fashioned way, by digging around.
South Dakota has also had its fair share of exploitative entrepreneurs, though perhaps none as famous as the fictional Tony Soprano, the most recognizable exploitative entrepreneur, who make a living by raid instead of by trade, by taking rather than making. The so-called Wild West was full of sundry bank robbers, desperadoes, gunslingers, and so forth. Some Indians were exploitative entrepreneurs, too. The most well-known example is the massacre and slave raid at Crow Creek circa 1350 AD.
But most entrepreneurial activity in South Dakota, both before and after Columbus, was replicative. Replicative entrepreneurs extend existing techniques and technologies to new geographical areas, so almost all agriculturalists, butchers, dentists and doctors, fishers and hunters, photographers, shopkeepers, and all other proprietors engage in replicative entrepreneurship. Their employees and government workers are the non-entrepreneurs according to Baumol’s typology, which is the one I use because it’s the best.
Previous typologies made lame distinctions between, for example, legal and illegal enterprises. Well, a gambling establishment or a brothel in Deadwood, though illegal, is just replicative entrepreneurship because the patrons willingly pay for the services offered. A legal monopoly, by contrast, Baumol rightly categorizes as exploitative because it has the power to set prices or quantities to maximize its profits at the expense of buyers.
So we can now turn to the proposition that South Dakota has always been very entrepreneurial. We know that because big businesses were few and far between in the state from its inception as a territory to the present. Eventually mining companies like Homestake supplanted individual placer miners and the timber and food processing industries spawned or attracted companies that employed hundreds of people. Nevertheless, more of South Dakota’s income comes from proprietors than any other state. Throughout history, relatively few South Dakotans were employees and most of them were employed by very small businesses, from ranchers to small retailers to professionals.
The relatively strong entrepreneurial presence in early South Dakota attracted yet more entrepreneurial types, whose very example helped to spur even more to form their own businesses. A few entrepreneur-driven companies, like Raven, became very successful and relatively large but many entrepreneurs were happy just to make a living and moved on to new endeavors as the economy transformed away from extractive industries like mining and ag and into trade, light manufacturing, and professional services. Those people, called serial entrepreneurs, that is S E R I A L not C E R E A L entrepreneurs, sometimes became public or private sector employees for awhile before growing tired of bosses or co-workers and struck off on their own once again.
In most states, economic recessions led to high rates of unemployment but in South Dakota laid off workers tended to simply go into business for themselves. An exception was during the Great Depression and that was because there was no money to start up a new business as most banks that hadn’t failed during the agricultural recession of the 1920s failed during the great bank failure waves of the early 1930s. And the remaining banks were not about to finance new businesses that would not be able to find paying customers.
As I already mentioned, the book makes a big point about Indians. If you believe in the theory of conquest, the big crime was not taking their land, it was denuding them of their entrepreneurial heritage to the point that today some Indians themselves believe that their ancestors were somehow non-economic entities. In fact, Indians, including the Lakota, had a long history of entrepreneurship well before Columbus sailed the ocean blue, so the kids in South Park could have a day off “skoo.” In addition to exploitative entrepreneurship like that at Crow Creek, Indians were innovative and replicative entrepreneurs as well. From the time they arrived in the New World some 12,000 or more years ago until incarcerated on Reservations in the late nineteenth century, Indians were thriving. One piece of evidence of that is that they populated both North and South America lickety-split. And their bones look good, better than those of Europeans over most time periods.
Innovative and replicative entrepreneurial activities include the Mitchell site, which apparently was a factory that produced pemmican from bison and prairie berries that was then shipped down the Big Jim and Mighty Mo rivers in bull boats to Cahokia, near present day St. Louis, where it was traded for pottery. Other evidence of long distance trade also abounds. It turns out that those trading meets held throughout the West were not the idea of Euroamerican trappers, as once assumed, but long-standing and purely native institutions analogous to European trade fairs.
‘Tis true that Indian technology lagged behind that of the Europeans in some ways but that does not mean that it was stagnant. Atlatls, for example, eventually gave way to bows and arrows. Moreover, Indian medical technology was well ahead of its European counterpart in many ways. It was the Europeans, after all, who didn’t bathe very often and who thought everything could be cured with a good dose of mercury and a blood-letting.
As Jared Diamond pointed out some 20 years ago now, the Europeans were able to conquer the Indians due to guns, germs, and steel. The germs were pure luck of the draw, the steel due to Eurasia’s relatively huge market area and hence relatively more advanced division of labor, and the guns due to the European’s proclivity for warfare, which was in turn a function, Diamond explained, of its funky geography, which lent itself to the creation of numerous competitive polities and hence lots of warfare.
The point of all this is to show that Indians were not unusually dumb or lazy, or uninterested in technology or entrepreneurship, they simply found themselves on a part of the planet that was not the best suited to inventing guns or steel first. For that, they suffered the loss of their land. As I mentioned before, that taking is somewhat justified by human history. The Lakota themselves drove off other indigenous peoples, for example.
But what is unconscionable, and the second theme of Little Business on the Prairie, is stripping Indians of their willingness and ability to engage in entrepreneurial activities. The Bureau of Indian Affairs is the main culprit here as it has essentially created socialist enclaves throughout the U.S. in the form of Indian Reservations. It created a system of socialized medicine and education and denied Reservation Indians the right to own land in fee simple, which is the way most Americans do. It even mandates acceptable signage, which is why most of the few native-owned businesses on Reservations do not have appropriate signs to indicate their existence.
To make matters worse, various Left-leaning anthropologists in the 1950s and 1960s managed to convince some Indians, particularly Lakota, that their ancestors were eco-friendly communists. Yeah, they often used all of the bison but do you think that any part of cattle or hogs or chickens go to waste today? Heck no! Does that make Morrell’s an eco-friendly communist? Heck no! In fact, individual Lakota were extremely entrepreneurial, until that spirit was sucked out of them by generations of welfare programs deliberately designed to infantilize them. Of course such policies all began, in the Dakotas anyway, in the late nineteenth century. The problem is that we allow them to persist and then blame the Indians themselves, or their culture, for the extreme poverty still found throughout much of Indian Country.
When Tom Isern, a North Dakotan scholar, reviewed my book, he chastised me for asserting that all the Indians need to thrive is the ability to borrow money to form small businesses and otherwise to be left alone. I really do not understand his criticism as Indians have always taken advantage of economic opportunities until they are snatched away, usually by the BIA. From natural resource exploitation to tax-free smokes and gas to casinos, Indians know how to make a buck or two, or two billion in the case of some well-placed casinos. Leave them alone, let them borrow money when their ideas merit it, and they will do just fine, just like all other South Dakotans will, from immigrant Norwegians to immigrant Germans to immigrant Ethiopians. South Dakotans don’t need fossil fuel fracking to thrive, as they can summon corn from the ground, balloon companies out of thin air, and tourism out of Chinese birds, old bones, and just about anything else you can think of!
Thank you.
Any questions?

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Banking System Stability/Fragility: The Roles of Governance and Supervision in Canada and America

Banking System Stability/Fragility: The Roles of Governance and Supervision in Canada and America

By Robert E. Wright, Nef Family Chair of Political Economy, Augustana University

After surviving the Great Depression, the Great Recession, and the 75 years in between with barely a discernible scratch, the Canadian banking system has developed a reputation for stability. The resilience of Canadian banks after the Panic of 2008 seemed particularly impressive given the close connection between the Canadian economy and that of the United States, the epicenter of the financial fiasco.[1] Although Canadian banks’ profitability declined due to the Panic and the recession that followed, losses were muted compared to banks elsewhere and no recapitalizations or other types of government bailouts were needed.[2]
Lately, though, the Wall Street Journal has questioned the system’s stability in the face of Berkshire Hathaway’s private bailout[3] of Canadian subprime mortgage lender Home Capital Group, a nonbank to be sure, but potentially a canary in the mortgage mine.[4] Home mortgages currently compose over 10 percent of the assets of each of Canada’s Big Five banks, including over thirty percent of CIBC’s and twenty percent of the Bank of Nova Scotia’s respective portfolios.[5] To ascertain whether Canada’s banks will remain stable or will crumble in the future, or to help other nations to reduce the fragility of their own banking systems, the root causes of the country’s banking stability need to be fully understood.
Superficially, we know that on the eve of the 2008 crisis the capital (equity/assets) and liquidity (primary and secondary reserves/debt liabilities) ratios of Schedule I Canadian banks were not particularly strong relative to banks in other OECD countries, but they proved to be good enough. What really set the Canadian banks apart was their higher reliance on consumer deposits, which -- aided by the presence of government deposit insurance and the widespread and accurate perception that Canadian banks remained strong -- proved much more stable than the fickle, wholesale funding that most non-Canadian banks relied upon. So Canadian banks rode out the storm while troubled OECD banks scrambled first for liquidity and then for capital.[6] What was it, though, that allowed Canada’s banks to find the optimal point on the security market line, i.e., just the right amount of risk and return?
For starters, Canadian banks were not being hounded by government regulators to lend to poor or disadvantaged groups. But why was that? In their 2014 opus Fragile by Design, bank historians Charles Calomiris and Stephen Haber attribute the stability of Canada’s financial system to a dearth of populism in the Great White North. Their rich-country model posits that unchecked populism will lead to lax lending regulations and inadequate capital ratios which lead pretty inexorably to banking system fragility. The model works extremely well in the land of zeroes and ones, where in the U.S. populism runs amok but doesn’t in Canada, and where the U.S. financial system is fragile and Canada’s isn’t. But the real world is rather more complex than that.
Most importantly, less objective, less measurable variables, like populism, must be considered with extreme care because perceptions of them are often colored by salient events. The America of 2017 looks palpably more populist than the America of 2015, for example, but that is only due to the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, which not only could have but actually did go the other way in the popular vote. The America of 2017 may, in fact, be less populist than it was in 2015 due to reactions against Trump’s more extreme policies. But try convincing an historian of that a century hence.
Measuring international differences in populism is even more fraught because of differences in customs, languages, institutions, and politics, or, in short, context. I think a good case could be made that the median late nineteenth-century Canadian was more Populist than the median American because a higher percentage of Canadians were engaged in the primary sector of the economy, the most fertile breeding ground of Populism. Perhaps Canadians appeared less populist than Americans because they were quieter as their agendas were carried out much more quickly North of the border. I used the plural agendas because Canada was home to at least three distinct Populist movements, one in the Maritimes, one in Quebec, and one in the West compared to the two, largely overlapping ones in the U.S. South and Plains. And of course I speak just of early Populism, not more recent iterations like the Reform Party of Canada. And that is just big P Populism; small p populism has rendered Canada something that many Americans consider socialist.
While Canada’s banking system is more stable than that of the U.S., its record is far from perfect. Canada’s banks, for example, suspended specie payments during the financial crises and political uprisings of 1837, 38, and 39 and thereby opened the floodgates to the circulation of all sorts of American-esque “shin plasters” and other ultimately worthless monetary tokens.[7] Starting with the panic of 1857, a number of Canadian banks outright failed after investing too heavily in railroad stocks and western lands. In 1866, the Bank of Upper Canada, the sole fiscal agent of the government, failed after a decade of difficulties also rooted in the 1850s boom. The Commercial Bank did likewise, largely because the similarity of its assets to those of the Bank of Upper Canada ruined all faith in the institution, which succumbed to a run in 1867.[8] From 1868 until the Great Depression, another 9 Canadian banks failed and 2 more voluntarily liquidated, which meant that they had the good sense to wind up their affairs before they went under. Moreover, twenty-two Canadian banks and trusts failed between 1968 and 1985 and some old timers will tell you that Canada almost had a Savings and Loan-like crisis.[9]
There were other close calls too. The Dominion Bank, for example, managed to start a dangerous run on its deposits when a teller imprudently and loudly told a foreign customer “no money in the bank” to explain why he could not honor a check on an overdrawn account. At the urging of Dominion’s competitors, large depositors stayed put and the Ontario government made a large deposit. The bank was saved and later became the D of TD Bank.[10]
Depositor and noteholder losses generally ran nil to negligible but clearly the system faced the costs associated with lack of access. Until the big banks were fully allowed into the mortgage market in 1967, the Canadian mortgage market was smaller than that in the U.S. on a per capita basis. Most lending was done by individuals or subsidized so-called near banks, including insurance and trust companies and building socities, and a government agency. Canada’s mortgage crunch was particulary strong in the 1950s.[11]
Canadians had more bank offices per capita than Americans did, but finer estimates of the geographical distribution of offices, say the number of banking offices within a 50-kilometer radius, or the percentage of the population with at least one banking office within a 20-kilometer radius, or the percentage of towns with at least x number of inhabitants and at least one banking office, remains unclear.
Moreover, not until 1936 did a Canadian bank, CIBC, start to make consumer loans and not until well after World War II did some banks, like Scotiabank and Royal, enter a field by then well-ploughed by American banks.[12] Before Canadian banks entered the consumer banking business in a serious way, loan sharks, high-priced finance companies, and other “near banks” not subject to usury caps were rampant.[13]
In short, I do not see much value in attributing Canada’s relative banking stability to high falutin’ causes like checks against Populism. Calomiris and Haber are on much firmer ground when they examine the economic causes of stability, which I summarize as follows:
1)      Minimal moral hazard. The Canadian government long resisted deposit insurance, which essentially forced larger banks to monitor smaller ones and to share any losses that failed institutions imposed on depositors. That induced Canada’s biggest banks to seek out and acquire failing institutions before they expired. Monitoring costs were relatively low because most banks established branches, if not headquarters, along St. James Street in Montreal and/or near Bay Street in Toronto. Moreover, bankers regularly mingled in social activities, including a wicked bank hockey league.[14] The Canadian government also refused to use public money to pay off bank creditors or stockholders (except in one instance where it found a government regulator at fault for not responding to depositor complaints and warnings in a timely fashion). In short, Canadian bankers have very little expectation of being bailed out by the government and reduce their risk-taking accordingly.
2)      Constant legislative monitoring. Unlike in the U.S. in the twentieth century, the charters of Canadian banks must be renewed periodically and the government reviewed banking legislation every decade and now reviews it every five years. That gives banks a strong incentive to behave, lest the government make drastic reforms or refuse to re-charter a bank altogether.[15] Moreover, regulators can be captured or at least co-opted with relative ease compared to Parliament, especially the popularly-elected Commons. While the threat of legislation is ever-present in the United States, Congress is typically reactive, implementing new regulations only after crises, as with FIRREA after the S&L crisis and Dodd-Frank after the 2008 fiasco. It generally passes de jure deregulation only after deregulation has already been established de facto, as was the case with both interstate branching and repeal of Glass-Steagall.
            What Calomiris and Haber missed is the superior governance of Canadian banks. They take governance for granted, assuming that the incentives of stockholders and managers are always consistently aligned. That was not the case in the United States in the years leading up to the Panic of 2008, when bank executives regularly received “heads I win, tails I win” contracts.
To understand the governance of Canadian banks, we need to go back to the beginning, when Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and other U.S. founding fathers said let there be corporations, and there were. And lo’ they were good because they were well-governed, so well-governed that over 20,000 times before 1861 Americans invested in the shares, well, options on the shares, of startup businesses, most which were completely devoid of any operating histories. Investors feared not the expropriation of their resources because as stockholders they had the power, in the form or sundry checks and balances too numerous and mundane to comprehensively discuss here, to stop managerial self-dealing, whether the company was a turnpike, a manufacturer, or a bank. Provisions in many early bank charters and by-laws mandated that directors not be bankrupt and that much of their wealth be invested in their respective bank’s stock, which of course aligned their incentives closely with those of their bank.[16]
According to banking historians Adam Shortt and Bray Hammond, Canada essentially imported its bank governance from the United States, specifically from Alexander Hamilton, who was a great stickler for governance checks and balances and the primary author of at least four early, seminal corporate charters, those of the Bank of New York, the Bank of the United States, the Society for the Establishment of Useful Manufactures, and the Merchants Bank of New York. From Hamilton, for example, came the notion of prudent mean voting rules that restricted the voting power of the largest shareholders so that minority holders would have some board representation, which tended to keep managerial self-dealing in check.[17]
As with many converts, Canadians were more stalwart in their convictions than the original acolytes themselves as the Canadians witnessed, and learned from, the banking excesses that infected early America. Their first banking charters copied that of the Bank of the United States (BUS), which of course Hamilton designed to function as a large bank with multiple branches spread across the nation, almost verbatim. The first permanent commercial bank in Canada, the Bank of Montreal, which was established in 1817, sent key men to study the operations of the second Bank of the United States, a huge nationwide bank with branches modeled after the first Bank. The Bank of Canada, established in Montreal the following year, utilized the same BUS charter and was formed with American capital. It soon failed, however, and was absorbed by the more conservatively run Bank of Montreal, a pattern that repeated itself throughout Canadian history. Other competitors, like the Royal Bank, thrived in part by emulating, and snatching executives and other talent away from the Bank of Montreal, Commerce, and other leading Canadian banks.[18]
Two other circumstances helped to get early Canadian banks on the straight and narrow. First, the agricultural Québécois or habitans distrusted non-specie forms of money so intensely that they quickly redeemed any bank notes that fell to them in the course of business. That, in turn, taught bankers to maintain conservative reserve levels. Second, the imperial overlords in London had something to say about colonial banking regulations and they, as a matter of course, stressed conservative banking practices.[19] Their goal, after all, was to extract rents from their colonies, not to speed their economic independence.[20] They explicitly looked at the U.S. experience to learn what could go wrong and built safeguards into the Privy Council for Trade’s 1830 colonial banking guidelines. Capital was to be at least half paid in before operations could begin, insider lending was limited to one-third of each bank’s resources, weekly balance sheets were to be published and verified under oath, stockholders were under double liability, lending on the collateral of real estate or the bank’s own stock was strictly prohibited, directors had to have substantial investments in their banks, and so forth.
From both Hamilton and the Scots came the notion that fewer, larger banks were preferable to smaller, more numerous banks. Bigger banks would attract better qualified employees at the higher echelons of the bank, allowing for more professional management. The assets of bigger banks also tended to be more diversified geographically and by economic sector, and hence naturally more stable. Because of its belief in Hamiltonian big banks, Canada made banking a national prerogative rather than a provincial one, or both national and provincial as the United States did. Fewer banks chartered by fewer jurisdictions meant less experimentation, less opportunity for regulatory arbitrage, and more uniformity around best practices. So unlike in some U.S. jurisdictions, such as Massachusetts, where banks were encouraged to proliferate in order to swell state tax revenues, but like other U.S. jurisdictions, such as New York, where new banks were not encouraged until late in the 1830s, Canadian lawmakers had relatively little reason to pass new banking charters and relatively more reason to encourage existing banks to establish agencies or full blown branches in growth areas.[21]
In short, path dependence and original obedience, the opposite of original sin, are more important than populist influences as an explanation of Canadian banking system stability. Basically, Canada took a free ride on U.S. banking system experimentation, adopting the Hamiltonian best and rejecting the populist rest.[22] And the Hamiltonian best stuck. The Canadian Bank of Commerce, for example, mandated in its new 1909 by-laws that directors had to remain solvent and own at least 100 shares of stock in order to keep their positions. The by-laws also maintained the old bonding rules, restrictions on outside employment/business, and 360 degree employee monitoring mechanisms common in early nineteenth century U.S. bank charters and by-laws.[23]
Bank historians have often attributed Canada’s relatively good economic showing during the Great Depression to its branch banking system. Unlike in the United States, the right to establish branches was explicit in many early provincial bank charters and sometimes informally considered acceptable even if not explicitly authorized until 1841, when the right to branch was formally recognized. By 1929, Canada had only 11 banks, down from its apex of 41 in 1885-86, and the top four controlled 77 of the country’s banking assets. As noted previously, a few banks failed but most exited by selling themselves to larger banks when they realized that they could not earn competitive profits.[24] California, the only large state that allowed intrastate branching before the Depression, also did relatively well during the downturn, leading many to conclude that bigger banks are more stable banks.
What is often overlooked, however, is that Canada went off gold de facto before the Great Depression began, as proven by the U.S.-Canadian dollar exchange rate, which violated Canada’s specie export point starting in 1929.[25] That was possible because Canada’s Department of Finance stopped redeeming Dominion notes in gold because it was running out of the precious yellow stuff quite apart from the Depression.[26] As Ben Bernanke and other researchers have shown, devaluation or abandonment of the gold standard was the key to recovery so Canada’s relative economic success in the 1930s is unsurprising and, again, quite unrelated to populism.
Another fact that is often overlooked is that Canada lost many of its bank branches during the Depression as the big banks colluded to decrease competition. The CIBC alone shuttered over 130 branches and ceased lending on the prairies and in Newfoundland. Royal Bank and all the other biggies shuttered about ten percent of their domestic branches on average and even the hoary Bank of Montreal eased off many of its foreign committments.[27] Canada’s big banks wobbled, as one bank historian put it, but they did not topple. That same historian admitted, however, that it was a close thing.[28] Bank dividends shrank throughout the Depression and were not as large as they seemed as they were based on the par value of stock, usually $100, when market prices for most big banks were in the $300 range. In addition, the number of employees shrank, as did average earnings per employee.[29]
Moreover, two of the country’s three regional clearinghouses closed, leaving all clearing to be done in Toronto. The banks experienced runs in Alberta, though due to some kooky provincial credit experiments rather than any question of the banks’ ultimate solvency. I say ultimate because there was clearly some regulatory forbearance going on as Canadian banks kept accounts on lifelines – the bank histories all tell similar stories about being unable to collect old debts, especially from farmers[30] -- rather than marking them to market or writing them off. (Not that the accounting would always have been straightforward, as in the case of a CIBC branch manager and employee who accepted 12 live turkeys in payment of a farmer’s $25 note. After ruining their clothes and three hours, they realized only $12 for the plucked birds, mostly from other bank employees.[31])
Moreover, an Order-in-Council issued on 27 October 1931 allowed banks to value securities, including equities, at the lower of book value or their market price on 31 August of that year, i.e., before the great shock of 20 September when Britain went off gold. No Canadian bank admitted getting much relief from the measure but that it was promulgated at all is telling. A similar edict saved many U.S. life insurers from, if not outright bankruptcy, considerable embarrassment. Moreover, the Royal Bank, and presumably others, created secret shell companies to buy the bank’s own stock from its debtors, at above market prices, and to buy the securities of defaulting borrowers. Those entities, essentially bad banks, were ultimately funded by Royal but their obligations looked a heck of a lot better on Royal’s balance sheet than old unpaid loans owed by insolvent debtors did![32]
The notion that bigger is better in banking was reinforced by the S&L crisis in the United States in the 1980s but of course the fact was always contested by those who worried about banks’ market power and diseconomies of scale. Effectively monitoring far flung branches was particularly difficult and not just for technological reasons. When branches audited each other, for example, they had a tendency to go easy in expectation of reciprocity. Inspectors would be certain to check into their hotels and grab a meal, and maybe a night’s sleep, before starting an inspection, giving the local manager time to clean up the books, which at first were kept in an idiosyncratic manner.[33]
The notion that bigger is better was shattered by the subprime crisis and subsequent global financial panic. While small banks did not fare well during the post-panic recession, they clearly did not cause the financial conflagration, the big boys did. The American big boys, not the Canadian ones. Canadian banks were under a different, ostensibly more stringent regulatory system but as we all know regulations can be gamed and loophole mined almost to the point of irrelevance if bankers wish to do so. But in Canada, bankers tend to take one of the safer paths because Canadian bank governance structures are much robust than those in the United States, the checks and balances of which adapted to changing circumstances but ultimately degenerated over the course of the twentieth century. In fact, U.S. bank governance was actually weaker than the governance of U.S. non-financial corporations according to corporate activists like Wilma Soss.[34]
Canadian banks did not witness the same degree of degradation of stockholder rights because:
1.      Canadian bank stockholders were subject to double liability when Canadian banks could issue bank notes, which was all of the nineteenth century up to 1944, nine years after the establishment of Canada’s first central bank. When coupled with Canada’s no bailout policy, double liability incentivized stockholders to monitor management carefully and to keep shareholder rights strong. Stockholders, not government regulators, audited (or paid to have audited) their banks’ books.
2.      Canada’s big, nationwide banks are valuable franchises that both managers and stockholders wish to protect.[35] Despite substantial restrictions on the activities of foreign banks operating in Canada, that value has come from economies of scale rather than market power. That means that Canadian bankers traditionally have not looked to merge in order to charge borrowers more, as interest rates were longed capped in the 6 to 7 percent range anyway. They also did not strive to pay depositors less, as Canadian depositors received more on average than American depositors did. Rather, Canadian bankers merged in order to render their banks safer and more efficient, not bigger per se.[36]
Due to relatively strong stockholder monitoring, Canadian bankers have not had the incentive or ability to write themselves the ridiculous sort of “heads I win, tails I win” incentive contracts that became au courant south of the border around the turn of the last century. Most directors were outside directors, i.e., not employees of the bank, and would not countenance such tomfoolery. Of the 32 directors in Scotiabank in 1960, for example, 17 represented borrowers, 4 were lawyers, 2 were financial men. Two more were elder statesmen and 4 were old connections, leaving only 3 as active bank managers.[37]
Stockholders and other stakeholders can also vote with their feet so to speak. Henry Stark Howland left a vice presidency at the Canadian Bank of Commerce in 1874 when he thought that the bank was growing too quickly and recklessly. He had a lot of capital at stake, capital that he withdrew and put into a more conservative de novo bank called the Imperial Bank of Canada. In typical Canadian fashion, the two institutions merged in 1960 to form the CBIC.[38]
            Populists don’t understand the importance or intricacies of corporate governance so it is difficult to believe that they had much if anything to do with the relative strength of Canadian and American bank governance. Americans complain about high executive pay but they don’t see that what is really key is the structure of incentives.[39] If bank executives are allowed to write themselves “heads I get a huge immediate bonus; tails I get a very generous golden parachute”-style contracts, they are bound to take on large risks with other peoples’ money. If instead they face the choice of “heads I get a reasonable deferred bonus; tails I get fired” contracts, they would behave much more prudently, like U.S. investment banks did before they went public and like Canadian banks still do. Canadian companies are much more likely than American ones to use compensation consultants who, while still beholden to executives, are less likely to okay irrational executive compensation packages. Canada also generally has better executive pay disclosure rules that make it easier for individual and institutional stockholders and the media to monitor executive pay packages.[40] A comparative study of performance-based pay in the U.S. and Canada concluded that the boards of widely-held Canadian corporations have less ability to monitor Canadian executives but more power over their compensation packages.[41]
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Canada’s principle-based regulatory system is a better bulwark against rent-seeking behaviors than America’s rule-based system is. In Canada, “heads I win big; tails I win bigger” contracts are obviously wrong, immoral, unlawful, and suboptimal. In America, they were not illegal and hence justifiable in some rarified ethical sense.[42] Hence much of the “say on pay” revolution has focused not on executive pay but the pay process in order to prevent “extraordinary compensation items (e.g., large golden parachutes)” and to allow clawback of executive bonus compensation after financial restatements and the like.[43]
In short, Canada’s banking system stability is impressive relative to that of the U.S. but still far from perfect. Its relative stability is rooted in fundamentals, especially strong stockholder governance and sensible supervision, rather than populism.
Thank you!


[1] Lev Ratnovski and Rocco Huang, “Why Are Canadian Banks More Resilient?”, IMF Working Paper (2009), 3.
[2] For more about bailouts, see Robert E. Wright, ed. Bailouts: Public Money, Private Profit (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010).
[3] Jacquie McNish and Nicole Friedman, “Berkshire Rescues Mortgage Lender,” Wall Street Journal (23 June 2017), B1-B2.
[4] R. M. Macintosh, “The Bank Act Revision of 1954,” in E. P. Neufeld, ed., Money and Banking in Canada (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1967), 299-307.
[5] Aaron Back, “Housing Haunts Canadian Banks,” Wall Street Journal (26 May 2017), B12.
[6] Lev Ratnovski and Rocco Huang, “Why Are Canadian Banks More Resilient?”, IMF Working Paper (2009), 3-4, 18.
[7] Adam Shortt, “Commercial Crisis of 1837-38,” in E. P. Neufeld, ed., Money and Banking in Canada (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1967), 91-94, 173.
[8] in E. P. Neufeld, ed., Money and Banking in Canada (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1967), 132-48.
[9] Charles Calomiris and Stephen Haber, Fragile by Design: The Political Origins of Banking Crises and Scarce Credit (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), 315 n.65, 324.
[10] Joseph Schull, 100 Years of Banking in Canada: A History of the Toronto-Dominion Bank (Toronto: Copp Clark Publishing, 1958), 132-35.
[11] Duncan McDowall, Quick to the Frontier: Canada’s Royal Bank (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, Inc., 1993), 333-34.
[12] Joseph Scull and J. Douglas Gibson, The Scotiabank Story: A History of the Bank of Nova Scotia, 1832-1982 (Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1982), 208; Duncan McDowall, Quick to the Frontier: Canada’s Royal Bank (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, Inc., 1993), 325.
[13] Arnold Edinborough, A History of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, Vol. IV, 1931-1973 (Toronto: Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, 1995), 45; Duncan McDowall, Quick to the Frontier: Canada’s Royal Bank (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, Inc., 1993), 331-32.
[14] Duncan McDowall, Quick to the Frontier: Canada’s Royal Bank (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, Inc., 1993), 58, 106-10.
[15] E. P. Neufeld, “Introduction” and R. M. Macintosh, “The Bank Act Revision of 1954,” in E. P. Neufeld, ed., Money and Banking in Canada (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1967), 5-6, 299-307.
[16] For more, and for copious documentation, see Robert E. Wright, Corporation Nation (Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 2014) and Robert E. Wright, “Devolution of the Republican Model of Anglo-American Corporate Governance,” Advances in Financial Economics Vol. 18 (2015): 65-80.
[17] Bray Hammond, Banks and Politics in America: From the Revolution to the Civil War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957), 631-670.
[18] Duncan McDowall, Quick to the Frontier: Canada’s Royal Bank (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, Inc., 1993), 59.
[19] R. M. Breckenridge, “Imperial Regulation of Colonial Bank Charters,” in E. P. Neufeld, ed., Money and Banking in Canada (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1967), 87-90.
[20] For more on this point, see Wadan Narsey, British Imperialism and the Making of Colonial Currency Systems (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).
[21] J. Wallis, R. E. Sylla, and J. B. Legler, “The Interacton of Taxation and Regulation in Nineteenth Century U.S. Banking,” in C. Goldin and G. D. Libecap, eds., The Regulated Economy: A Historical Approach to Political Economy (Chicago: University of chicago Press), 122-44.
[22] Adam Shortt, “Origin of the Canadian Banking System,” in E. P. Neufeld, ed., Money and Banking in Canada (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1967), 77-86.
[23] By-Laws and Regulations of the Canadian Bank of Commerce (1909), 3.
[24] B. H. Beckhart, “Fewer and Larger Banks,” in E. P. Neufeld, ed., Money and Banking in Canada (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1967), 196-205.
[25] C. A. Curtis, “The Canadian Monetary Situation,” in E. P. Neufeld, ed., Money and Banking in Canada (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1967), 218-222.
[26] Merrill Denison, Canada’s First Bank: A History of the Bank of Montreal (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1967), 2:364-65.
[27] Merrill Denison, Canada’s First Bank: A History of the Bank of Montreal (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1967), 2:378-80.
[28] Duncan McDowall, Quick to the Frontier: Canada’s Royal Bank (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, Inc., 1993), 247.
[29] Joseph Scull and J. Douglas Gibson, The Scotiabank Story: A History of the Bank of Nova Scotia, 1832-1982 (Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1982), 153-54; Merrill Denison, Canada’s First Bank: A History of the Bank of Montreal (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1967), 2:368.
[30] See, for example, Duncan McDowall, Quick to the Frontier: Canada’s Royal Bank (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, Inc., 1993), 245-46, 249-50.
[31] Arnold Edinborough, A History of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, Vol. IV, 1931-1973 (Toronto: Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, 1995), 23-25, 31, 36-37, 53, 173.
[32] Duncan McDowall, Quick to the Frontier: Canada’s Royal Bank (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, Inc., 1993), 260-61.
[33] D. Hughes Charles, “Reminiscences of Bankers,” in E. P. Neufeld, ed., Money and Banking in Canada (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1967), 178-82.
[34] Pocketbook News, 8 January 1961, Box 8, Wilma Soss Papers, University of Wyoming, Laramie, Wyoming.
[35] Lev Ratnovski and Rocco Huang, “Why Are Canadian Banks More Resilient?”, IMF Working Paper (2009), 17.
[36] The stockholders of the three major banks to amalgamate with Scotiabank, for example, all feared the bit of double liability as they monitored the lackluster performance of their banks. See, Joseph Scull and J. Douglas Gibson, The Scotiabank Story: A History of the Bank of Nova Scotia, 1832-1982 (Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1982), 338-39.
[37] Joseph Scull and J. Douglas Gibson, The Scotiabank Story: A History of the Bank of Nova Scotia, 1832-1982 (Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1982), 222, 333, 400-403.
[38] Arnold Edinborough, A History of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, Vol. IV, 1931-1973 (Toronto: Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, 1995), 163-66.
[39] Anthony J. Crawford, John R. Ezzell, and James A. Miles, “Bank CEO Pay-Performance Relations and the Effects of Deregulation,” Journal of Business 68, 2 (April 1995): 231-56; Nuno Fernandes, Miguel Ferreira, Pedro Matos, Kevin J. Murphy, “Are U.S. CEOs Paid More? New International Evidence,” Review of Financial Studies 26, 2 (February 2013): 323-67; Edward M. Iacobucci, “The Effects of Disclosure on Executive Compensation,” University of Toronto Law Journal 48, 4 (Autumn 1998): 489-520.
[40] Edward M. Iacobucci, “The Effects of Disclosure on Executive Compensation,” University of Toronto Law Journal 48, 4 (Autumn 1998): 496, 502
[41] Michael L. Magnan, Sylvie St-Onge, and Linda Thorne, “A Comparative Analysis of the Determinants of Executive Compensation between Canadian and U.S. Firms,” Industrial Relations 50, 2 (Spring 1995): 297-319.
[42] Bo James Howell, “Executive Fraud and Canada’s Regulation of Executive Compensation,” University of Miami Inter-American Law Review 39, 1 (Fall 2007), 122, 141.
[43] Yonca Ertimur, Fabrizio Ferri, and Volkan Muslu, “Shareholder Activism and CEO Pay,” Review of Financial Studies 24, 2 (February 2011), 538, 543, 566, 579.