The following is an excerpt from an article by Will Roberds, a research economist and senior adviser in the Atlanta Fed’s Research Department
Day two began with a paper presentation by Chris Cotter of Oberlin College and discussion by Hugh Rockoff of Rutgers University. Cotter’s paper (“Off the Rails: The Real Effects of Railroad Bond Defaults Following the Panic of 1873”) analyzes the knock-on effects of railroads’ bond defaults stemming from the 1873 financial panic. About one-quarter of all U.S. railroads defaulted on their bonds then. The paper’s data set combines data on bond defaults with geographic data on national banks operating in areas served by the defaulting railroads. The main result of the paper is that even though banks did not (and legally could not) hold railroad bonds, the presence of a defaulting railroad in the area served by a bank tended to contract the loans and deposits at that bank. The railroad bond defaults thus exerted systemic, negative effects on the U.S. banking system despite lack of direct exposure of banks’ portfolios to the bond defaults.
In the discussion, Rockoff agreed with the paper’s conclusion but proposed that the paper could be strengthened by including case studies to check for their consistency against historical narrative. Rockoff also suggested a robustness check of comparing the effects of the 1873 panic to those of an 1877 nationwide railway strike. The post-1873 economic contraction was also one of the longest in U.S. economic history, Rockoff noted, so it would be interesting to know how much the railroad bond defaults contributed to the postpanic slowdown in economic growth.
The next paper presentation was by Lee Ohanian of the University of California, Los Angeles, with a discussion by Angela Redish of the University of British Columbia. The paper (“The International Consequences of Bretton Woods Capital Controls and the Value of Geopolitical Stability,” coauthored with Diana Van Patten of Princeton University), Paulina Restrepo-Echavarria of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, and Mark L.J. Wright of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis) models the world economy using a three-sector general equilibrium model (the United States, Western Europe, and the rest of the world) and uses this model to measure the impact of the Bretton Woods system of exchange controls. These controls were present from the end of the Second World War until 1973, and in the model, these controls show up as taxes (“wedges”) on the intersector movement of capital. The main result of the paper is that these wedges redirected very large amounts of capital away from the United States as compared to a first-best allocation, reducing growth and consumption in the United States but increasing them elsewhere. Aggregate global welfare was also reduced. Ohanian argued that despite its large domestic cost, the United States was willing to tolerate such a system for geopolitical reasons.
Redish noted in her discussion that while Bretton Woods is commonly thought of as an exchange-rate regime, in practice capital controls were necessary to afford countries some degree of monetary autonomy under fixed exchange rates. Redish also noted that the capital controls took many different forms and a closer examination of which types of capital controls were actually implemented could amplify the paper’s message. She suggested that the high level of aggregation in the model obscures some potentially important cross flows of capital (for example, inflows into Germany are netted against outflows from the United Kingdom). The paper’s counterfactual simulations are striking, but additional narrative could improve them. While supportive of the paper’s overall conclusions, Redish noted that one unmodeled benefit of fixed exchange rates was reduced exchange rate volatility, which could have promoted capital formation. Another unmodeled benefit of Bretton Woods could have been a reduced incidence of financial crises stemming from “hot money” flows, which ideally could be weighed against the costs of inefficiently allocated capital.
The second invited lecture of the conference was presented by Catherine Schenk of the University of Oxford. Schenk’s presentation described a multiyear research project that will collect and analyze data on global correspondent banking, especially as it developed in the post-WWII era (“Constructing and Deconstructing the Global Payments System 1870–2000”). The presentation focused on events during the 1960s and 1970s. The expansion of foreign exchange trading during this era led U.S. banks to found a technologically advanced, privately owned, large-value payment system (CHIPS) in 1970. Schenk explained how CHIPS enabled banks to settle the rapidly growing volumes of U.S. dollar payments from foreign exchange trading and facilitated the expansion of the global correspondent banking system. She also described how problems with CHIPS and certain other features of the correspondent banking system came to light in 1974 with the failure of a German bank, Bankhaus Herstatt. The Herstatt failure revealed the extent of the expanded correspondent system and also highlighted potential risks arising from unsettled foreign exchange trades, creating new challenges for banking regulators.
The audience discussion focused on changes in the regulatory environment coinciding with or following the Herstatt failure. William Roberds pointed out that a longer-term consequence of Herstatt was the founding of CLS in 2001 as a mechanism for coordinating foreign exchange settlements. Schenk noted that the Basel Committee on Bank Supervision was formed shortly after 1974, leading to global coordination in bank capital requirements and other supervisory standards. Robert Hetzel pointed out that 1974 witnessed another watershed bank failure, that of Franklin National, which like Herstatt was also heavily exposed in foreign exchange transactions. Responding to a question by Alain Naef (Banque de France), Schenk argued that many of the problems banks faced with foreign exchange operations in the 1970s simply resulted from a technical inability to handle an increased transaction volume. Michael Bordo noted that the technical changes in transaction technologies during this period interacted with economic forces to create profound changes in global banking.
Alain Naef of the Banque de France presented the final paper of the second day (“Blowing against the Wind? A Narrative Approach to Central Bank Foreign Exchange Intervention”). Owen Humpage of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland discussed it. The paper considers the effectiveness of Bank of England foreign exchange interventions over a sample running from 1952 until 1992, using daily data the Bank has recently made available. The Bank intervened on almost 80 percent of trading days during the sample, and most interventions were not publicized. The Bank intervened to influence the exchange rates of the pound against the dollar and deutschmark. Interventions were offset (sterilized) through domestic open market operations. Naef’s presentation highlighted the main result of the paper, which is that interventions were usually ineffective when they attempted to go against market trends, in which case they were estimated to succeed only eight percent of the time.
To read the rest of the article by Will Roberds, please click here.