What would happen if banks fail? Lessons from an earlier Irish banking crisis

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. Perhaps that’s true for the whole imperious, plodding gamut of yesterday’s zombie institutions, from corporations, to newspapers, to governments. Perhaps people and societies are a tiny bit more adaptive, resilient, intelligent, and creative than yesterday’s institutions assume. And perhaps failing to recognize that is what’s really at the root of this great crisis.

Umair Haque is not suggesting below that things would go as smoothly as the banking strike crisis in the Ireland of the seventies, but nevertheless, society would not likely face a total shutdown either.

First we cite a summary of a study on the Irish banking strike (researched by Antoin Murphy), followed by an excerpt of Umair Haque’s commentary:

1. The Irish Banking Strike: not the end of the world

“Since banks create money under fractional-reserve banking, we would expect the closure of banks severely to disrupt the functioning of an economy. The Irish experience in 1970 (studied by the Irish economist Antoin Murphy) provides an interesting counterexample. In that year, a major strike closed all Irish banks for a period of six and a half months. All the indications from the start, moreover, were that this would be a long closure. As a consequence of the strike, the public lost direct access to about 85 percent of the money supply (M2). Irish currency still circulated, of course, British currency was also freely accepted in Ireland, and some North American and merchant (commercial) banks provided banking facilities. Increases in Irish and British currency and in deposits in these banks, however, accounted for less than 10 percent of M2.

Somewhat remarkably, checks on the closed banks continued to be the main medium of exchange during the dispute. Despite the increased risk of default, individuals continued to be willing to accept personal and other checks. Murphy summarizes the situation as follows: “a highly personalized credit system without any definite time horizon for the eventual clearance of debits and credits substituted for the existing institutionalized banking system.”

According to Murphy, it was the small size of the Irish economy (the population of Ireland was about 3 million at that time) and the high degree of personal contact that allowed the system to function. Stores and pubs took over some of the functions of the banking system. “It appears that the managers of these retail outlets and public houses had a high degree of information about their customers—one does not after all serve drink to someone for years without discovering something of his liquid resources. This information enabled them to provide commodities and currency for their customers against undated trade credit. Public houses and shops emerged as a substitute banking system.”6

Presumably as a result of this spontaneous alternative banking system, economic activity in Ireland was not substantially affected by the banking strike. Detrended retail sales did not differ much on a month-by-month basis from average levels in the absence of banking disputes, and a central bank survey concluded that the Irish economy continued to grow over the period (although the growth rate fell).”

Source: A. Murphy, “Money in an Economy without Banks: The Case of Ireland,” The Manchester School (March 1978): 41–50.

2. Commentary by Umair Haque:

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. Here’s how Antoin Murphy, one of the few scholars to have studied these strikes, which took place in the 1970s, describes it: “a highly personalized credit system without any definite time horizon for the eventual clearance of debits and credits substituted for the existing institutionalized banking system.”

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. It was an economy full of a very special kind of institution: what I’ve termed in my book, The New Capitalist Manifesto, Value Conversations. Antoin Murphy notes in no uncertain terms that 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.”

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