by Kilian Rieder (University of Oxford)
What drives a central bank’s decision to grant or refuse liquidity provision during a financial crisis? How does the central bank manage counterparty risk during such periods of high demand for liquidity, when time constraints make it hard to process all relevant information? How does a central bank juggle the provision of large amounts of liquidity with its monetary policy obligations?
All of these questions were live issues for the Bank of England during the financial crisis of 1847 just as they would be in 2007. My research uses archival data to shed light on these questions by looking at the Bank’s discount window policies in the crisis year of 1847.
The Bank had to manage the 1847 financial crisis despite being limited by a legal monetary policy provision in the Act to back any expansion of its note issue with gold. It is often cited as the last episode of financial distress during which the Bank rationed central bank liquidity before fully assuming its role as a lender of last resort (Bignon et al, 2012).
We find that the Bank did not engage in any kind of simple threshold rationing but rather monitored and managed its private sector asset holdings in similar ways to central banks have developed since the financial crisis of 2007. In another echo of the recent crisis, the Bank of England also required an indemnity from the UK government in 1847 allowing the Bank to supply more liquidity than it was legally allowed. This indemnity became part of the ‘reaction function’ in future financial crises.
Most importantly, the year 1847 witnessed the introduction of a sophisticated discount ledger system at the Bank. The Bank used the ledger system to record systematically its day-to-day transactions with key counterparties. Discount loan applicants submitted bills in parcels, sometimes containing a hundred or more, which the Bank would have to analyse collectively ‘on the fly’.
The Bank would reject those it didn’t like and then discount the remainder, typically charging a single interest rate. Subsequently, the parcels were ‘unpacked’ into individual bills in the separate customer ‘with and upon ledgers’ where they were classified under the name of their discounter and acceptor alongside several other characteristics at the bill level (drawer, place of origin, maturity, amount, etc.). By analysing these bills and their characteristics we are better able to understanding the Bank’s discount window policies.
We first find evidence that during crisis weeks the Bank was more likely to reject demands for credit from bill brokers – the money market mutual funds of their time – while favouring a small group of regular large discounters. Equally, firms associated with the commercial crisis and the corn price speculation in 1847 (many of which subsequently failed) were less likely to obtain central bank credit. The Bank was discerning about whom it lent to and the discount window was not entirely ‘frosted’ as suggested by Capie (2001).
But our findings support Capie’s main hypothesis that the decision whether to accept or reject a bill depended largely on individual bill characteristics. The Bank appeared to use a set of rules to decide on this, which it applied consistently in both crisis weeks and non-crisis weeks. Most ‘collateral characteristics’ – inter alia, the quality of the names endorsing a bill – were highly significant factors driving the Bank’s decision to reject.
This finding supports the idea that the Bank needed to be active in monitoring key counterparties in the financial system well before formal methods of supervision in the twentieth century, echoing results obtained by Flandreau and Ugolini (2011) for the later 1866 crisis.