The Irish Banking Crisis: A Parable

Great article from Umair Arque:

Once upon a time, there was a country where bankers disappeared. The bankers, fed up with regulation, dissatisfaction, and downright hostility, decided to unleash the planet-destroying superweapon in their arsenal: they went on strike, not once, but three times.

[…] the economy continued to grow. Though the money supply did contract sharply, neither trade, commerce, nor industry came to a grinding halt.

How? People created their own currencies, to substitute for the collapsing money supply. They kept using checks to pay one another, but then, people’s checks began trading within communities.

[…]

The country in question was Ireland — today, in deep crisis because of profligate banks.

So why were the Irish of yesteryear able to trade notes with one another, in lieu of credit issued by banks? Well, Ireland was curiously well situated for this kind of resilience. […] the Irish economy was characterized by intense, frequent, conversational personal contact: tight, dense, solid local knowledge circulating at high velocity within and across communities. Result? Borrowers and lenders could build solid microfoundations of trust.

In other words, when you’ve been chatting with Bill every night at the local pub for twenty years, you probably know whether his note is a good bet or not (and further, just how much to discount it to earn a sustainable and fair return, that neither fleeces Bill, nor robs you). Furthermore, if you’re the publican, and you’ve been chatting with me and with Bill, then you’re even better positioned to become a de facto arbitrator of notes — a bank. And that’s exactly the role that pubs began to play.

You might say that a radically decentralized, p2p financial system spontaneously arose. Instead of letting the bankers’ strike collapse their prosperity, people decided, simply, that they could get on with the day-to-day stuff of banking themselves. In slightly more formal terms, I’d suggest that they were able to take on, at least in tiny part, five of Robert Merton and Zvi Bodie’s six standard functions of a financial system: settling payments, providing information, setting incentives, pooling resources, and transferring resources. The bankers thought even one of six might have been impossible. It’s as if the economy settled into a new dynamic equilibrium: one where emergent, unpredicted — and totally unforeseen — behavior unlocked a very different kind of financial system. It wasn’t perfect; yes, foreign currency transactions were problematic, yes, moral hazard was an issue, and perhaps my reading, having not been there myself, is frankly erroneous. It’s not a utopian picture — just a very different one from mega-banking, with a very different feel, purpose, and structure.

And yet today, Ireland’s facing perhaps the most vicious austerity package in recent history. And as usual, the average Joe and Jane are being forced — not asked — to foot the bill for the profligacy of the financiers. So are their grandkids: hence, an entire generation is rumored to be on the verge on fleeing, instead of sticking around to get the shaft.

Now, here’s what I’m not suggesting: that you or I extrapolate directly and naively from history. Some social scientists have suggested that the Irish banking strikes might be a rare, telling natural experiment, that disconfirms the value of banks. I’d suggest it’s more like a parable — a tale that highlights deeper principles at play.

It’s not that Ireland can exit its troubles merely by vaporizing the banks, and letting pubs trade notes. Ireland 1970 is a far cry from the Celtic tiger of the 2000s. The Irish economy of the 70s was much smaller. The global economy wasn’t as tightly, sharply interdependent. The sheer velocity of stuff — not to mention capital — was radically slower. The staggering capital requirements of today’s projects — think billion dollar semiconductor factories — dwarf those of yesteryear.

[..]

The parable of the disappearing bankers gives the tiniest glimpse of a better way: a path to a smarter kind of growth, built on a different set of institutions — those that operate at micro-scale, instead of mega-scale, built on human relationships, instead of anonymous transactions, self-organizing, instead of “administered,” and that have the humanistic and the meaningful, instead of soul-crushingly trivial, hardwired into their very DNA.

Maybe, just maybe, banks need people a lot more than people need banks. […]