Monday, January 5, 2009

A Historical View of Credit Crunches

From "Clutching at Historians" posted by Sam Jones at the FT's Alphaville:

From the University of Reading:

Research by a team of academics at the University of Reading’s ICMA Centre has established clear parallels between the events of King Edward I’s time in the late 13th century and today’s credit crunch.

Not too much dissimilar in leading to the work of historian Philip Kay, of Oxford, who in November ruminated on the Roman credit crunch:

The essential similarity between what happened 21 centuries ago and what is happening in today’s UK economy is that a massive increase in monetary liquidity culminated with problems in another country causing a credit crisis at home. In both cases distance and over-optimism obscured the risk .

(And for the record, the Tired Fools blog has an even earlier Roman crunch)

In the words of Max Beerbohm, history does not repeat itself. The historians repeat one another. Back to Longshanks:

Dr Adrian Bell, Senior Lecturer in the History of Finance at the ICMA Centre at the University of Reading, said:” It is widely believed that the current credit squeeze, leading to bank failures, is a modern phenomenon arising from the interplay of a historically unique set of circumstances that could not have been foreseen. However, events 700 years ago, starting in 1294, sound very much like today’s headlines. They included a sub-prime borrower, liquidity disappearing, recriminations, the seizure of foreign owned assets and runs on the bank.”

In the 1280s, the Italian merchant societies, the forerunners of today’s investment banks, were awash with money as they managed large sums of collected taxes for the Pope and the English king, as well as holding deposits from wealthy individuals. However, in the early 1290s, the Pope called in much of his money and the French king levied a huge tax on the Italian merchants in France. The final straw was the unexpected outbreak of war between England and France in 1294. Edward I, the then king of England, called on his bankers to raise the money needed to fund his armies. Unfortunately for the bank (the Ricciardi), their assets were tied up in loans and trade.

In normal times, the Ricciardi would have sought to raise short-term loans from their fellow merchants, but in 1294, like today, the interbank markets were frozen. The resultant uncertainty, combined with the fear that Edward (the medieval equivalent of a sub-prime borrower) would default on his debts, meant that the merchant societies were unwilling to lend to each other.

The bankers’ own comments are strikingly similar to those heard today: in 1294, the Ricciardi said that ‘it seems that money has disappeared’; ‘everyone to whom we owed money ran to us and wanted to be paid’; ‘where we used to have credit and could borrow 100,000 and 200,000 livres tournois (£25,000-50,000) and even more, we are now reduced to such a point that if we wanted 100 livres tournois (£25) we could not find them.’

As a result, the Ricciardi were unable to provide Edward with the funds he needed and his response was to seize all their assets in England, effectively bankrupting the society. The Frescobaldi of Florence, Edward I’s next bankers, also came to regret taking him on as a client, claiming that their existing customers had lost confidence in them as a direct result of their relationship with him. Customers withdrew their cash deposits, perhaps fearing that their entanglement with Edward had put their savings at risk, precipitating a run on the bank. Edward, like the current British Government, recognised the gravity of the situation and promised them £10,000 in compensation to keep them solvent.

This though, undoubtedly the best part:

Dr Bell continued: “It should be noted that the medieval economy was much less dependent on credit and banking than our modern economy. However, had Edward I faced today’s crisis, initially, he would probably have placed senior executives under house arrest, most likely without trial, until the Government could recover as much as possible from their assets and estates. However, in his case he also subsequently realised that he would need new sources of finance and so whatever the frustrations, he might also have counselled some leniency. In the 13th century, banks were allowed to fail and other banks also failed as a result. However, within a few years, other banks had grown to take their place and the banking sector and the economy recovered.”

Hector Sants, Witchfinder (Bankburner?, Hedgehunter?) General. Nice ring to it.

1 comment:

Thoughts said...

Thanks for this fascinating article.

It is amusing that anyone thinks the current crisis could not have been foreseen. Now that we have the internet we can search back a year or two and see that this crisis was predicted everywhere.
(See Could the credit crunch have been foreseen?