Fragile by Design: The Political Origins of Banking Crises and Scarce Credit

Charles W. Calomiris and Stephen H. Haber. Princeton Univ., $35 (550p) ISBN 978-0-691-15524-1
Business economists Calomiris and Haber (professors at Columbia Business School and Stanford University, respectively) explain how imperfectly politics and commercial banks intersect, and the consequences for the rest of us. Focusing on chronic instability in credit policies, they undertake a detailed comparative historical survey of five nations—England, the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Brazil. Instead of pointing the finger at "‘Wall Street fat cats'" or railing at political realities, they show how and why complex human interests inhibit achieving sound credit systems. Calomiris (U.S. Bank Deregulation in Historical Perspective) and Haber (The Politics of Property Rights) include a close look at the U.S. regulatory failure in the 2007–2009 subprime mortgage crisis. The goal of stable and abundant credit is elusive, the authors wisely conclude, since those who control policy fiercely guard their powers, the media rarely helps voters disentangle complex financial arguments, and elected politicians must cater to bankers, shareholders, depositors, debtors, and taxpayers. Their analysis suggests that autocracies do better with policy than democracies: Meiji-era Japan, Bismarck's Germany, Pinochet's Chile, and today's China, for example. This learned inquiry deserves ample attention from scholars, regulators, and bankers themselves. (Mar.)
Reviewed on: 12/23/2013
Release date: 02/01/2014
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