Banking And Walter Bagehot — Smart Lessons From A Leading Victorian

Bagehot — The Life and Times of the Greatest Victorian. By James Grant. 334 pages. $29.95

What a match-up: James Grant, financial journalist and in modern terminology a public intellectual, writing on Walter Bagehot, who might qualify for that nomenclature today but was “just” a banker, editor of The Economist, and advisor to some of the leading statesmen of 19th century England.

Grant is suitably impressed by Bagehot’s stunning productivity — 5,000 words a week for The Economist, plus essays on luminaries ranging from Gibbon to Shelby. However, Bagehot might not get awards for work/life balance. In Bagehot’s writing after the Panic of 1857, Grant cites a longish passage and notes that ”Few better observations of the cycle of bankerly feast and famine have ever been written.” But, he adds, this was in a love letter.

The 19th century was a period of great change and a shift of power from the landed aristocracy to the merchant and industrial classes. Bagehot wrote about the reform of 1832 where some in Parliament actually voted to eliminate the infamous pocket boroughs, even at the price of putting themselves out of office. The reforms were overdue — cities like Manchester and Birmingham with growing populations didn’t have any representation. But the reforms had another consequence…those boroughs were sometimes home to a class of elevated statesman who were spared the ordeal of having to face the voters and at least a few contributed wisdom to the debates of the day, Bagehot wrote. The reform destroyed some intellectual constituencies.
The radical Irish journalist E.D.J. Wilson wrote in his obit of Bagehot: “His friends used to say of him, and there was a little exaggeration in the saying, that for a dozen years at least he was an unofficial member of every Cabinet, Conservative as well as Liberal, which has governed these kingdoms. Successive Chancellors of the Exchequer and Secretaries of the Treasury called him into their counsels as a matter of course. And the most illustrious of the statesman who thus consulted a journalist without a place in Parliament or any strength of party connection, would be the first to acknowledge how much they owed to the ‘white light’ of his pure and clear intelligence.”

Ironic then the Bagehot’s Stuckey’s bank sold to what eventually became part of National Westminster Bank, which was acquired by The Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) which failed — at a cost to taxpayers of approximately £45.5 billion.

Grant notes the Bagehot’s world was one of institutionalized discipline while today’s world — one of paper currencies, floating exchange rates, enormous budget deficits and government policies to protect both investors and depositors against the consequences of banks’ mismanagement — is largely one of institutionalized indiscipline.

In financial journalism, “Bagehot was a superior commentator, thought a middling seer — for every financial writer must squint into the future… HIs attitude was perhaps too cautionary in the short term, and much too complacent for the long term. He worried too much about the single gold reserve and not enough about the distant adverse consequences of government control in banking and credit.”

Grant draws some broad historical comparisons:

“The interplay between money and credit was the source of the recurrent cycles of boom and bust that bedeviled the nineteenth century and continues to plague and mystify the 21st.”

And in some cases Grant makes his commentary just by direct quotation:

“In all customary societies, bigotry is the ruling principle. In rude places to this day, anyone who says anything new is looked on with suspicion…one of the the greatest pains to human nature is the pain of a new idea.”

Sound familiar?

About Tom Groenfeldt

I write - mostly about finance and technology, sometimes about art, occasionally about politics and the intersection of politics and economics. My work appears on and and occasionally in The American Banker and Banking Technology in London.
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