Tag Archives: Europe

No man can serve two masters

Rogue Trading at Lloyds Bank International, 1974: Operational Risk in Volatile Markets

By Catherine Schenk (Glasgow)

Abstract Rogue trading has been a persistent feature of international financial markets over the past thirty years, but there is remarkably little historical treatment of this phenomenon. To begin to fill this gap, evidence from company and official archives is used to expose the anatomy of a rogue trading scandal at Lloyds Bank International in 1974. The rush to internationalize, the conflict between rules and norms, and the failure of internal and external checks all contributed to the largest single loss of any British bank to that time. The analysis highlights the dangers of inconsistent norms and rules even when personal financial gain is not the main motive for fraud, and shows the important links between operational and market risk. This scandal had an important role in alerting the Bank of England and U.K. Treasury to gaps in prudential supervision at the end of the Bretton Woods pegged exchange-rate system.

Business History Review, Volume 91 (1 – April 2017): 105-128.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0007680517000381

Review by Adrian E. Tschoegl (The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania)

Since the 1974 rogue trading scandal at Lloyds’s Lugano branch we have seen more spectacular sums lost in rogue trading scandals. What Dr Catherine Schenk brings to our understanding of these recurrent events is the insight that only drawing on archives, both at Lloyds and at the Bank of England, can bring. In particular, the archives illuminate the decision processes at both institutions as the crisis unfolded. I have little to add to her thorough exposition of the detail so below I will limit myself to imprecise generalities.

Marc Colombo, the rogue trader at Lloyds Lugano, was a peripheral individual in a peripheral product line, in a peripheral location. As Schenk finds, this peripherality has two consequences, the rogue trader’s quest for respect, and the problem of supervision. Lloyds Lugano is not an anomaly. An examination of several other cases (e.g. Allied Irish, Barings, Daiwa, and Sumitomo Trading), finds the same thing (Tschoegl 2004).

In firms, respect and power come from being a revenue center. Being a cost center is the worst position, but being a profit center with a mandate to do very little is not much better. The rogue traders that have garnered the most attention, in large part because of the scale of their losses were not malevolent. They wanted to be valued. They were able to get away with their trading for long enough to do serious damage because of a lack of supervision, a lack that existed because of the traders’ peripherality.

In several cases, Colombo’s amongst them, the trader was head of essentially a one-person operation that was independent of the rest of the local organization. That meant that the trader’s immediate local supervisor had little or no experience with trading. Heads of branches in a commercial bank come from commercial banking, especially commercial lending. Commercial lending is a slow feedback environment (it may take a long time for a bad decision to manifest itself), and so uses a system of multiple approvals. Trading is a fast feedback environment. The two environments draw different personality types and have quite different procedures, with the trading environment giving traders a great deal of autonomy within set parameters, an issue Schenk addresses and that we will discuss shortly.

Commonly, traders will report to a remote head of trading and to the local branch manager, with the primary line being to the head of trading, and the secondary line being to the local branch manager. This matrix management developed to address the problem of the need to manage and coordinate centrally but also respond locally, but matrix management has its limitations too. As Mathew points out in the New Testament, “No man can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other” (Matthew (6:24). Even short of this, the issue that can arise, as it did at Lloyds Luggano, is that the trader is remote from both managers, one because of distance (and often time zone), and the other because of unfamiliarity with the product line. A number of software developments have improved the situation since 1974, but as some recent scandals have shown, they are fallible. Furthermore, the issue still remains that at some point the heads of many product lines will report to someone who rose in a different product line, which brings up the spectre of “too complex to manage”.

The issue of precautionary or governance rules, and their non-enforcement, is a clear theme in Schenk’s paper. Like the problem of supervision, this too is an issue where one can only do better or worse, but not solve. All rules have their cost. The largest may be an opportunity cost. Governance rules exist to reduce variance, but that means the price of reducing bad outcomes is the lower occurrence of good outcomes. While it is true, as one of Schenk’s interviewees points out, that one does not hear of successful rogue traders being fired, that does not mean that firms do not respond negatively to success. I happened to be working for SBCI, an investment banking arm of Swiss Bank Corporation (SBC), at the time of SBC’s acquisition in 1992 of O’Connor Partners, a Chicago-based derivatives trading house. I had the opportunity to speak with O’Conner’s head of training when O’Connor stationed a team of traders at SBCI in Tokyo. He said that the firm examined too large wins as intently as they examined too large losses: in either case an unexpectedly large outcome meant that either the firm had mis-modelled the trade, or the trader had gone outside their limits. Furthermore, what they looked for in traders was the ability to walk away from a losing bet.

But even small costs can be a problem for a small operation. When I started to work for Security Pacific National Bank in 1976, my supervisor explained my employment benefits to me. I was authorized two weeks of paid leave per annum. When I asked if I could split up the time he replied that Federal Reserve regulations required that the two weeks be continuous so that someone would have to fill in for the absent employee. Even though most of the major rogue trading scandals arose and collapsed within a calendar year, the shadow of the future might well have discouraged the traders, or led them to reveal the problem earlier. Still, for a one-person operation, management might (and in some rogue trading scandals did), take the position that finding someone to fill in and bring them in on temporary duty was unnecessarily cumbersome and expensive. After all, the trader to be replaced was a dedicated, conscientious employee, witness his willingness to forego any vacation.

Lastly, there is the issue of Chesterton’s Paradox (Chesterton 1929). When a rule has been in place for some time, there may be no one who remembers why it is there. Reformers will point out that the rule or practice is inconvenient or costly, and that it has never in living memory had any visible effect. But as Chesterton puts it, “This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable.”

Finally, an issue one needs to keep in mind in deciding how much to expend on prevention is that speculative trading is a zero-sum activity. A well-diversified shareholder who owns both the employer of the rogue trader and the employers of their counterparties suffers little loss. The losses to Lloyds Lugano were gains to, inter alia, Crédit Lyonnais.

There is leakage. Some of the gainers are privately held hedge funds and the like. Traders at the counterparties receive bonuses not for skill but merely for taking the opposite side of the incompetent rogue trader’s orders. Lastly, shareholders of the rogue traders firm suffer deadweight losses of bankruptcy when the firm, such as Barings, goes bankrupt. Still, as Krawiec (2000) points out, for regulators the social benefit of preventing losses to rogue traders may not exceed the cost. To the degree that costs matter to managers, but not shareholders, managers should bear the costs via reduced salaries.


Chesterton, G. K. (1929) ‘’The Thing: Why I Am A Catholic’’, Ch. IV: “The Drift From Domesticity”.

Krawiec, K.D. (2000): “Accounting for Greed: Unraveling the Rogue Trader Mystery”, Oregon Law Review 79 (2):301-339.

Tschoegl, A.E. (2004) “The Key to Risk Management: Management”. In Michael Frenkel, Ulrich Hommel and Markus Rudolf, eds. Risk Management: Challenge and Opportunity (Springer-Verlag), 2nd Edition;

Debt forgiveness in the German mirror

The Economic Consequences of the 1953 London Debt Agreement

By Gregori Galofré-Vilà (Oxford), Martin McKee (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine), Chris Meissner (UC Davis) and David Stuckler (Oxford)

Abstract: In 1953 the Western Allied powers implemented a radical debt-relief plan that would, in due course, eliminate half of West Germany’s external debt and create a series of favourable debt repayment conditions. The London Debt Agreement (LDA) correlated with West Germany experiencing the highest rate of economic growth recorded in Europe in the 1950s and 1960s. In this paper we examine the economic consequences of this historical episode. We use new data compiled from the monthly reports of the Deutsche Bundesbank from 1948 to the 1960s. These reports not only provide detailed statistics of the German finances, but also a narrative on the evolution of the German economy on a monthly basis. These sources also contain special issues on the LDA, highlighting contemporaries’ interest in the state of German public finances and public opinion on the debt negotiation. We find evidence that debt relief in the LDA spurred economic growth in three main ways: creating fiscal space for public investment; lowering costs of borrowing; and stabilising inflation. Using difference-in-differences regression models comparing pre- and post LDA years, we find that the LDA was associated with a substantial rise in real per capita social expenditure, in health, education, housing, and economic development, this rise being significantly over and above changes in other types of spending that include military expenditure. We further observe that benchmark yields on long-term debt, an indication of default risk, dropped substantially in West Germany when LDA negotiations began in 1951 and then stabilised at historically low rates after the LDA was ratified. The LDA coincided with new foreign borrowing and investment, which in turn helped promote economic growth. Finally, the German currency, the deutschmark, introduced in 1948, had been highly volatile until 1953, after which time we find it largely stabilised.

URL: http://EconPapers.repec.org/RePEc:nbr:nberwo:22557

Distributed by NEP-HIS on 2016-09-04

Review by Natacha Postel-Vinay (LSE)

The question of debt forgiveness is one that has drawn increased attention in recent years. Some have contended that the semi-permanent restructuring of Greece’s debt has been counterproductive and that what Greece needs is at least a partial cancellation of its debt. This, it is argued, would allow both faster growth and a higher likelihood of any remaining debt repayment. Any insistence on the part of creditors for Greece to pay back the full amount through austerity measures would be self-defeating.

One problem with this view is that we know very little about whether debt forgiveness can lead to faster growth. Reinhart and Trebesch (2016) test this assumption for 45 countries between 1920-1939 and 1978-2010, and do find a positive relationship. However they leave aside a particularly striking case: that of Germany in the 1950s, which benefited from one of the most generous write-offs in history while experiencing “miracle” growth of about 8% in subsequent years. This case has attracted much attention recently given German leaders’ own insistence on Greek debt repayments (see in particular Ritschl, 2011; 2012; Guinnane, 2015).

Eichengreen and Ritschl (2009), rejecting several popular theories of the German miracle, such as a reallocation of labour from agriculture to industry or the weakening of labour market rigidities, already hypothesized that such debt relief may have been an important factor in Germany’s super-fast and sustained post-war growth. Using new data from the monthly reports of the Deutsche Bundesbank from 1948 to the 1960s, Gregori Galofré-Vilà, Martin McKee, Chris Meissner and David Stuckler (2016) attempt to formally test this assumption, and are quite successful in doing so.

By the end of WWII Germany had accumulated debt to Europe worth nearly 40% of its 1938 GDP, a substantial amount of which consisted in reparation relics from WWI. Some already argued at the time that these reparations and creditors’ stubbornness had plagued the German economy, which in the early 1930s felt constrained to implement harsh austerity measures, thus contributing to the rise of the National Socialists to power. It was partly to avoid a repeat of these events that the US designed the Marshall Plan to help the economic reconstruction of Europe post-WWII.



Marshall aid to Europe between 1948 and 1951 was less substantial than is commonly thought, but it came with strings attached which may have indirectly contributed to German growth. In particular, one of the conditions France and the UK had to fulfil in order to become recipients of Marshall aid was acceptance that Germany would not pay back any of its debt until it reimbursed its own Marshall aid. Currency reform in 1948 and the setting up of the European Payments Union facilitated this process.

Then came the London Debt Agreement, in 1953, which stipulated generous conditions for the repayment of half the amount due from Germany. Notably, it completely froze the other half, or at least until reunification, which parties to the agreement expected would take decades to occur. There was no conference in 1990 to settle the remainder.


Galofré-Vilà et al. admit not being able to directly test the hypothesis that German debt relief led to faster growth. Instead, making use of simple graphs, they look at how the 1953 London Debt Agreement (LDA) led to lower borrowing costs and lower inflation, which comes out as obvious and quite sustained on both charts.

Perhaps more importantly, they measure the extent to which the LDA freed up space for social welfare investment. For this, they make use of the fact that Marshall aid had mainly been used for infrastructure building, so that the big difference with the LDA in terms of state expenditure should have been in terms of health, education, “economic development,” and housing. Then they compare the amount of spending on these four heads to spending in ten other categories before 1953, and check whether this difference gets any larger after the LDA. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it does, and significantly so.

This way of testing the hypothesis that the LDA helped the German economy may strike some as too indirect and therefore insufficient. This is without mentioning possible minor criticisms such as the fact that housing expenditure is included in the treatment, not control group (despite the 1950 Housing Act), or that the LDA is chosen as the key event despite the importance of the Marshall Plan’s early debt relief measures.

Nevertheless testing such a hypothesis is necessarily a very difficult task, and Galofré-Vilà et al.’s empirical design can be considered quite creative. They are of course aware that this cannot be the end of the story, and they are careful to caution readers against hasty extrapolations from the post-war German case to the current Spanish or Greek situation. Some of their arguments have somewhat unclear implications (for instance, that Germany at the time represented 15% of the Western population at the time, whereas the Greek population represents only 2%).


Perhaps a stronger argument would be that Germany’s post-war debt was of a different character than Greek’s current debt: some would even call it “excusable” because it was mainly war debt; it was not (at least arguably) a result of past spending excesses. For this reason, one may at least ask whether debt forgiveness in the Greek context would have the same — almost non-existent — moral hazard effects as in the German case. Interestingly, the authors point out that German debt repayment after the LDA was linked to Germany’s economic growth and exports (so that the debt service/export revenue ratio could not exceed 3%). This sort of conditionality is strangely somewhat of a rarity among today’s sovereign debt contracts. It could be seen as a possible solution to fears of moral hazard, thereby mitigating any differences in efficiency of debt relief emanating from differences in the nature of the debt contracted.



Eichengreen, B., & Ritschl, A. (2009). Understanding West German economic growth in the 1950s. Cliometrica, 3(3), 191-219.

Guinnane, T. W. (2015). Financial vergangenheitsbewältigung: the 1953 London debt agreement. Yale University Economic Growth Center Discussion Paper, (880).

Reinhart, C. M., & Trebesch, C. (2014). A distant mirror of debt, default, and relief (No. w20577). National Bureau of Economic Research.

Ritschl, A. (2011). “Germany owes Greece a debt.” in The Guardian. Tuesday 21 June 2011.

Ritschl, A. (2012). “Germany, Greece and the Marshall Plan.” In The Economist. Friday 15 June.

A Pre-Protestant Ethic?

Breaking the piggy bank: What can historical and archaeological sources tell us about late‑medieval saving behaviour?

By Jaco Zuijderduijn and Roos van Oosten (both at Leiden University)


Using historical and archeological sources, we study saving behaviour in late-medieval Holland. Historical sources show that well before the Reformation – and the alleged emergence of a ‘Protestant ethic’ – many households from middling groups in society reported savings worth at least several months’ wages of a skilled worker. That these findings must be interpreted as an exponent of saving behaviour – as an economic strategy – is confirmed by an analysis of finds of money boxes: 14th and 15th-century cesspits used by middling-group and elite households usually contain pieces of money boxes. We argue this is particularly strong evidence of late-medieval saving strategies, as money boxes must be considered as ‘self-disciplining’ objects: breaking the piggy bank involved expenses and put a penalty on spending. We also show that the use of money boxes declined over time: they are no longer found in early-modern cesspits. We formulate two hypotheses to explain long-term shifts in saving behaviour: 1) late-medieval socioeconomic conditions were more conducive for small-time saving than those of the early-modern period, 2) in the early-modern Dutch Republic small-time saving was substituted by craft guild insurance schemes.

URL: EconPapers.repec.org/RePEc:ucg:wpaper:0065

Circulated by NEP-HIS on 2015-06-20

Review by Stuart Henderson (Queen’s University Belfast)

Thrift is a central tenet of Max Weber’s Protestant-ethic thesis. That is, characterised by a new asceticism, Protestantism, and specifically Calvinism, encouraged capital accumulation by promoting saving and limiting excessive consumption. However, a recent paper by Jaco Zuijderduijn and Roos van Oosten, and distributed by NEP-HIS on 2015-06-20, challenges this notion. It suggests that a saving ethic was already evident in Holland in the late‑medieval period – well before the Reformation years, and then actually diminished with the coming of Protestantism.

“De geldwisselaar en zijn vrouw (The Moneychanger and his wife)”, by Marinus van Reymerswaele (1497- c. 1546)

Such contradiction with the Weberian thesis is common in the literature, with recent scholarship finding no Protestant effect (Cantoni, forthcoming) or proposing an alternative causal mechanism (Becker and Woessmann, 2009). However, Zuijderduijn and van Oosten’s work adds a fresh perspective by focusing on savings and saving behaviour, and by employing a pre‑versus‑post investigation strategy. Notably, in relation to saving, the literature has generally been more sympathetic to the Weberian thesis, with Delacroix and Nielsen (2001) finding a positive Protestant saving effect, and more recent work by Renneboog and Spaenjers (2012) suggesting that Protestants have a heightened awareness of financial responsibility. Furthermore, the idea of a pre-Protestant ethic, as raised in this paper, has also been advocated in other inquiry. For example, Anderson et al. (2015) suggest that the Catholic Order of Cistercians propagated a Weberian-like cultural change in the appreciation of hard work and thrift before the coming of Protestantism – an analogy which Weber himself noted, and highlight how this had a long‑run effect in development.

Bernard of Clairvaux, (1090–1153 C.E.) belonged to the Cistercian Order of Benedictine monks.

Bernard of Clairvaux, (1090–1153 C.E.) belonged to the Cistercian Order of Benedictine monks.

In their novel approach, Zuijderduijn and van Oosten utilise both historical and archaeological sources to examine savings and saving behaviour over a period which envelopes the coming of the Reformation. This enables them to deal with two principal issues: first, the size and social distribution of savings by utilising tax records for the Dutch town of Edam and its surrounding area, and secondly, whether saving was strategic (or instead due to an inability to spend) by utilising archaeological evidence on the prevalence of money boxes in cesspits for several Dutch towns. Both sources yield complementary results.

The tax records reveal that middling groups were generally accumulating savings in excess of several months of a skilled worker’s wage well in advance of the Reformation. However, between 1514 and 1563, with the coming of Protestantism, the proportion of households holding cash actually fell, despite a rise in average sums held. Unsurprisingly, cash holding was consistently more common among the wealthier groups in society across all years. See figure 3 from the paper below.

Figure 3

While these tax records reveal the extent of saving, it is the archaeological evidence on money box prevalence which provides a means to link this cash holding with saving behaviour due to the disciplining process involved. Breaking the money box meant incurring an expense, and thus penalised spending. Complementing the historical evidence, Zuijderduijn and van Oosten find that, despite their early prevalence, money boxes decline and eventually disappear by the early‑modern period. Moreover, wealthier households, as gauged from the type of material lining the cesspit, tended to save more than poorer households. See figure 6 from the paper below. (Note: brick-lined cesspits were relatively expensive, wood-lined cesspits were less expensive, and unlined cesspits were least expensive.)

Figure 6

Though Zuijderduijn and van Oosten place considerable emphasis on religion in their work, they posit two alternative explanations for the transition in saving behaviour. First, they suggest that a shrinking share of middling groups in conjunction with prices rising quicker than wages (and even possibly a shortage of small change) may have reduced the ability of persons to engage in saving. In addition, they note the rise of craft guild insurance schemes which could have acted as a cushion against sickness or old age much in the same way that saving would have functioned in their absence. Given this, more work needs to be done on ascertaining the role of religion versus these other hypotheses, or alternatively making religion a less central theme in the paper. One potential avenue could be to attempt to identify if households were more likely Protestant or Catholic, or by utilising an alternative source where religious affiliation could be linked with financial holdings. While difficult, this would help to clarify the statement posed by Zuijderduijn and van Oosten in their introduction – “saving behaviour does not come naturally, and requires discipline. Did a Protestant ethic help converts to find such discipline?” Moreover, Zuijderduijn and van Oosten write in their conclusion that their evidence “suggests that the true champions of saving behaviour were the late-medieval adherents to the Church of Rome, and not the Protestants that gradually emerged in sixteenth‑century Holland” – a statement on which I need further convincing.

Further elaboration is also needed on historical context. In particular, the paper would benefit from further clarity on the evolution of finance in Holland during this period. For example, van Zanden et al. (2012, p. 16) suggest that cash holdings fell between 1462 and 1563, but due to investment in other financial asset alternatives. Furthermore, they comment that the capital markets were used a great deal during this period for investing savings (as well as obtaining credit) – in what would surely be a more profitable pursuit for rational Protestants as opposed to earning zero return holding cash.

Nonetheless, the interdisciplinary and natural-experiment-type approach adopted in this paper has provided inspiration for economic historians on how we can potentially use alternative methodologies to further our understanding of important questions which have previously gone unanswered. While this has been refreshing, the use of such sources demands a comprehensive understanding of historical context for accurate inference, and especially to differentiate between correlation and causation. Zuijderduijn and van Oosten have provided initial persuasive evidence pointing to a decline in saving behaviour in Holland at a time when Weber’s Protestant ethic should have been fostering thrift, but more work needs to be done to disentangle the effect of religious transition from an evolving capital market.


Anderson, Thomas B., Jeanet Bentzen, Carl-Johan Dalgaard, and Paul Sharp, “Pre‑Reformation Roots of the Protestant Ethic,” Working Paper (July 2015): http://www.econ.ku.dk/dalgaard/Work/WPs/EJpaper_and_tables_final.pdf.

Becker, Sascha O., and Ludger Woessmann, “Was Weber Wrong? A Human Capital Theory of Protestant Economic History,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, 124 (2009), 531–596.

Cantoni, Davide, “The Economic Effects of the Protestant Reformation: Testing the Weber Hypothesis in the German Lands,” Journal of the European Economic Association, forthcoming.

Delacroix, Jacques, and François Nielsen, “The Beloved Myth: Protestantism and the Rise of Industrial Capitalism in Nineteenth-Century Europe,” Social Forces, 80 (2001), 509–553.

Renneboog, Luc, and Christophe Spaenjers, “Religion, Economic Attitudes, and Household Finance,” Oxford Economic Papers, 64 (2012), 103–127.

van Zanden, Jan L., Jaco Zuijderduijn, and Tine De Moor, “Small is Beautiful: The Efficiency of Credit Markets in the Late Medieval Holland,” European Review of Economic History, 16 (2012), 3–23.

Weber, Max, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (London, UK: Allen and Unwin, 1930).

By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail

The European Crisis in the Context of the History of Previous Financial Crisis

by Michael Bordo & Harold James

Abstract – There are some striking similarities between the pre 1914 gold standard and EMU today. Both arrangements are based on fixed exchange rates, monetary and fiscal orthodoxy. Each regime gave easy access by financially underdeveloped peripheral countries to capital from the core countries. But the gold standard was a contingent rule—in the case of an emergency like a major war or a serious financial crisis –a country could temporarily devalue its currency. The EMU has no such safety valve. Capital flows in both regimes fuelled asset price booms via the banking system ending in major crises in the peripheral countries. But not having the escape clause has meant that present day Greece and other peripheral European countries have suffered much greater economic harm than did Argentina in the Baring Crisis of 1890.

URL: http://EconPapers.repec.org/RePEc:bog:spaper:18

Circulated by NEP-HIS on: 2015-01-26

Reviewed by: Stephen Billington (Queen’s University of Belfast)


In this paper Bordo and James seek to analyse the impact of the financial crisis of 2007-8 in the context of previous crisis. Specifically by comparing the experience of periphery countries of the Eurozone with those of the “classic” Gold Standard.


In their paper Bordo and James give a synopsis of the similarities which emerged between both monetary regimes. By adhering to a gold parity there was an expansion in the banking system, through large capital inflows, which was underpinned by a strong effective state to allow for greater borrowing. A nation was effective if it held an international diplomatic commitment, which in turn required them to sign into international systems, all the while this played into the hands of radical political parties who played on civilian nationalism[1]; these events combined lead to great inflows of capital into peripheral countries which inevitably led to fiscal instability and a resulting crisis. Similar dilemmas occurred within the EMU, but much more intensely.


This brings me to the main point that the authors emphasize, that of the contingency rule of the classic gold standard. The latter allowed member countries a “safety valve for fiscal policy”. Essentially this was an escape clause that permitted a country to temporarily devalue its currency in an emergency, such as the outbreak of war or a financial crisis, but would return to normalcy soon after, that is, they would return to previous levels. Bordo and James’ argument is that this lack of a contingency within the EMU allowed for a more severe financial crisis to afflict the periphery countries (Greece, Ireland and Portugal) than had affected gold standard peripheries (Argentina, Italy and Australia) as modern day EMU countries did (and do) not have to option to devalue their currency.


Bordo and James point out that crisis during the gold standard were very sharp, but did not last as long as the 2007-8 crisis. This because the exclusion clause during the gold standard enabled a “breathing space” and as a result most countries were back to growth within a few short years. The EMU story is quite different, say Bordo and James. Mundell (1961) argued that a successful monetary union requires the existence of a well-functioning mechanism for adjustment, what we see in the EMU are a case of worse dilemmas due primarily to this absence of an escape clause.

“Gold outflows, and, with money and credit growth tied to gold, lower money and credit growth. The lower money and credit growth would cause prices and wages to fall (or would lead to reductions in the growth rates of prices and wages), helping to restore competitiveness, thus eliminating the external deficits”

The above quote provided by Gibson, Palivos and Tavlas (2014) highlights how the gold standard allowed a country to adjust to a deficit. This point reinforces how Bordo & James argue that due to the constricting nature of the EMU there is no “safety valve” to allowed EU countries to release the steam from increasing debt levels. With respect to the Argentine Baring Crisis of 1890, while the crisis was very sharp in terms of real GDP, pre-crisis levels of GDP were again reached by 1893 – clearly a contrast with the Euro as some countries are still in recession with very little progress having been made as suggested by the following headline: “Greece’s current GDP is stuck in ancient Greece” – Business Insider (2013).

The following graph highlights the issue that in Europe most countries are still lagging behind the pre-crisis levels of GDP.


Bordo and James clearly support this argument. Delles and Tavlas (2013) also argue that the adjustment mechanism of core and periphery countries limited the size and persistence of external deficits. They put forward that the durability of the gold standard relied on this mechanism. This is reinforced by Bloomfield (1959) who states it “facilitated adjustments to balance of payments disequilibrium”.

Vinals (1996) further supports the authors’ sentiments by arguing that the Treaty of Maastricht restricts an individual member’s room to manoeuvre as the Treaty requires sound fiscal policies, with debt limited to 60% of GDP and annual deficits no greater than 3% of GDP – meaning a member cannot smooth over these imbalances through spending or taxation.

Gibson, Palivos and Tavlas (2014) state “a major cost of monetary unions is the reduced flexibility to adjust to asymmetric shocks”. They argue that internal devaluations must occur to adjust to fiscal imbalances, but go on to argue that these are much harder to implement than in theory, again supported by Vinals (1996).


Bordo and James focus primarily on three EU periphery countries which are doing badly, namely Greece, Ireland and Portugal. However they neglect the remaining countries within the EU which can also be classed as a periphery. According the Wallerstein (1974) the periphery can be seen as the less developed countries, these could include further countries such as those from eastern Europe[2]. By looking at a more expansive view of peripheral countries we can see that these other peripherals had quick recoveries with sharp decreases in GDP growth, as in the case of the Gold standard countries, but swiftly recovered to high levels of growth again while the main peripheral countries the authors analyse do lag behind.

Untitled2See note 3

Bordo and James do provide a strong insight into the relationship between an adjustment mechanism to combating fiscal imbalances as a means of explaining the poor recovery of certain peripheral countries (i.e. Greece, Ireland, Portugal) and highlight the implications of this in the future of the EMU. If the EMU cannot find a contingency rule as the gold standard then recessions may leave them as vulnerable in the future as they are now.


1) This process can be thought of as a trilemma, Obstfeld, Taylor and Shambaugh (2004) give a better explanation. In the EU the problem was intensified as governments could back higher levels of debt, and there was no provision for European banking supervision, the commitment to EU integration let markets believe that there were no limits to debt levels. This led to inflows in periphery countries where banks could become too big to be rescued.

2) Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and even Cyprus can be included based on low GDP per capita which is equivalent to Greece.

3) Data taken from Eurostat comparing real GDP growth levels of lesser developed countries within the Eurozone who all use the euro and would be locked into the same system of no adjustment.


Bloomfield, A. (1959) Monetary Policy under the International Gold Standard. New York: Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Business Insider (2013). Every Country in Europe Should be Glad it’s Not Greece. http://www.businessinsider.com/european-gdp-since-pre-crisis-chart-2013-8?IR=T [Accessed 19/03/2015].

Eurostat, Real GDP Growth Rates http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/tgm/graph.do?tab=graph&plugin=1&pcode=tec00115&language=en&toolbox=data [Accessed 21/03/2015].

Dellas, Harris; Tavlas, George S. (2013). The Gold Standard, The Euro, and The Origins of the Greek Sovereign Debt Crisis. Cato Journal 33(3): 491-520.

Gibson, Heather D; Palivos, Theodore; Tavlas, George S. (2014). The Crisis in the Euro Area: An Analytic Overview.Journal of Macroeconomics 39: 233-239.

Mundell, Robert A. (1961). A Theory of Optimum Currency Areas. The American Economic Review 51(4): 657-665.

Obstfeld, Maurice. Taylor, Alan. Shambaugh, Jay C. (2004). The Trilemma in History: Trade-Offs among Exchange Rates, Monetary Policies and Capital Mobility. National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER working paper 10396).

Vinals, Jose. (1996). European Monetary Integration: A Narrow or Wide EMU?. European Economic Review 40(3-5): 1103-1109.

Wallerstein, Immanuel (1974). The Modern World-System I: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century. New York: Academic Press.

The European Debt Crisis in an American Fiscal Mirror

Fiscal federalism: US history for architects of Europe’s fiscal union

By C. Randall Henning (henning@piie.com) and Martin Kessler (mkessler@piie.com)

URL: http://d.repec.org/n?u=RePEc:bre:esslec:669&r=his

Abstract: European debates over reform of the fiscal governance of the euro area frequently reference fiscal federalism in the United States. The “fiscal compact” agreed by the European Council during 2011 provided for the introduction of, among other things, constitutional rules or framework laws known as “debt brakes” in the member states of the euro area. In light of the compact and proposals for deeper fiscal union, we review US fiscal federalism from Alexander Hamilton to the present. We note that within the US system the states are “sovereign”: The federal government does not mandate balanced budgets nor, since the 1840s, does it bail out states in fiscal trouble. States adopted balanced budget rules of varying strength during the nineteenth century and these rules limit debt accumulation. Before introducing debt brakes for euro area member states, however, Europeans should consider three important caveats. First, debt brakes are likely to be more durable and effective when “owned” locally rather than mandated centrally. Second, maintaining a capacity for countercyclical macroeconomic stabilization is essential. Balanced budget rules have been viable in the US states because the federal government has a broad set of fiscal powers, including countercyclical fiscal action. Finally, because debt brakes threaten to collide with bank rescues, the euro area should unify bank regulation and create a common fiscal pool for restructuring the banking system.

Review by: Manuel Bautista González

This paper was included in the NEP-HIS report issued on January 18th, 2012, through it C. Randall Henning and Martin Kessler contribute to the debate on fiscal solutions to the current European debt crisis. This by offering insights drawn from the past and present of U. S. fiscal federalism.

Henning and Kessler periodize their historical overview in five moments, namely, the financial reforms enacted after the adoption of the U. S. constitution, the state defaults of the 1840s, the financial troubles of state and local levels during the Reconstruction period, the fiscal instability during the Great Depression, and some recent experiences of state and local troubles from the 1970s to the current economic recession.

Later, in the analytical section of the paper, the authors study the probable adoption of balanced budget rules in the European Union with regards to their political enactment, their diversity across the Union and their effectiveness in preventing fiscal disarray. Henning and Kessler assess the need for (federal) countercyclical policies that complement the procyclical fiscal discipline at the state and local levels. They also review the literature on the relationship between state and local debt and capital and banking markets and offer preliminary conclusions relevant to both policymakers and scholars of monetary unions and fiscal federalism.

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