Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Banking System Stability/Fragility: The Roles of Governance and Supervision in Canada and America

Banking System Stability/Fragility: The Roles of Governance and Supervision in Canada and America

By Robert E. Wright, Nef Family Chair of Political Economy, Augustana University

After surviving the Great Depression, the Great Recession, and the 75 years in between with barely a discernible scratch, the Canadian banking system has developed a reputation for stability. The resilience of Canadian banks after the Panic of 2008 seemed particularly impressive given the close connection between the Canadian economy and that of the United States, the epicenter of the financial fiasco.[1] Although Canadian banks’ profitability declined due to the Panic and the recession that followed, losses were muted compared to banks elsewhere and no recapitalizations or other types of government bailouts were needed.[2]
Lately, though, the Wall Street Journal has questioned the system’s stability in the face of Berkshire Hathaway’s private bailout[3] of Canadian subprime mortgage lender Home Capital Group, a nonbank to be sure, but potentially a canary in the mortgage mine.[4] Home mortgages currently compose over 10 percent of the assets of each of Canada’s Big Five banks, including over thirty percent of CIBC’s and twenty percent of the Bank of Nova Scotia’s respective portfolios.[5] To ascertain whether Canada’s banks will remain stable or will crumble in the future, or to help other nations to reduce the fragility of their own banking systems, the root causes of the country’s banking stability need to be fully understood.
Superficially, we know that on the eve of the 2008 crisis the capital (equity/assets) and liquidity (primary and secondary reserves/debt liabilities) ratios of Schedule I Canadian banks were not particularly strong relative to banks in other OECD countries, but they proved to be good enough. What really set the Canadian banks apart was their higher reliance on consumer deposits, which -- aided by the presence of government deposit insurance and the widespread and accurate perception that Canadian banks remained strong -- proved much more stable than the fickle, wholesale funding that most non-Canadian banks relied upon. So Canadian banks rode out the storm while troubled OECD banks scrambled first for liquidity and then for capital.[6] What was it, though, that allowed Canada’s banks to find the optimal point on the security market line, i.e., just the right amount of risk and return?
For starters, Canadian banks were not being hounded by government regulators to lend to poor or disadvantaged groups. But why was that? In their 2014 opus Fragile by Design, bank historians Charles Calomiris and Stephen Haber attribute the stability of Canada’s financial system to a dearth of populism in the Great White North. Their rich-country model posits that unchecked populism will lead to lax lending regulations and inadequate capital ratios which lead pretty inexorably to banking system fragility. The model works extremely well in the land of zeroes and ones, where in the U.S. populism runs amok but doesn’t in Canada, and where the U.S. financial system is fragile and Canada’s isn’t. But the real world is rather more complex than that.
Most importantly, less objective, less measurable variables, like populism, must be considered with extreme care because perceptions of them are often colored by salient events. The America of 2017 looks palpably more populist than the America of 2015, for example, but that is only due to the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, which not only could have but actually did go the other way in the popular vote. The America of 2017 may, in fact, be less populist than it was in 2015 due to reactions against Trump’s more extreme policies. But try convincing an historian of that a century hence.
Measuring international differences in populism is even more fraught because of differences in customs, languages, institutions, and politics, or, in short, context. I think a good case could be made that the median late nineteenth-century Canadian was more Populist than the median American because a higher percentage of Canadians were engaged in the primary sector of the economy, the most fertile breeding ground of Populism. Perhaps Canadians appeared less populist than Americans because they were quieter as their agendas were carried out much more quickly North of the border. I used the plural agendas because Canada was home to at least three distinct Populist movements, one in the Maritimes, one in Quebec, and one in the West compared to the two, largely overlapping ones in the U.S. South and Plains. And of course I speak just of early Populism, not more recent iterations like the Reform Party of Canada. And that is just big P Populism; small p populism has rendered Canada something that many Americans consider socialist.
While Canada’s banking system is more stable than that of the U.S., its record is far from perfect. Canada’s banks, for example, suspended specie payments during the financial crises and political uprisings of 1837, 38, and 39 and thereby opened the floodgates to the circulation of all sorts of American-esque “shin plasters” and other ultimately worthless monetary tokens.[7] Starting with the panic of 1857, a number of Canadian banks outright failed after investing too heavily in railroad stocks and western lands. In 1866, the Bank of Upper Canada, the sole fiscal agent of the government, failed after a decade of difficulties also rooted in the 1850s boom. The Commercial Bank did likewise, largely because the similarity of its assets to those of the Bank of Upper Canada ruined all faith in the institution, which succumbed to a run in 1867.[8] From 1868 until the Great Depression, another 9 Canadian banks failed and 2 more voluntarily liquidated, which meant that they had the good sense to wind up their affairs before they went under. Moreover, twenty-two Canadian banks and trusts failed between 1968 and 1985 and some old timers will tell you that Canada almost had a Savings and Loan-like crisis.[9]
There were other close calls too. The Dominion Bank, for example, managed to start a dangerous run on its deposits when a teller imprudently and loudly told a foreign customer “no money in the bank” to explain why he could not honor a check on an overdrawn account. At the urging of Dominion’s competitors, large depositors stayed put and the Ontario government made a large deposit. The bank was saved and later became the D of TD Bank.[10]
Depositor and noteholder losses generally ran nil to negligible but clearly the system faced the costs associated with lack of access. Until the big banks were fully allowed into the mortgage market in 1967, the Canadian mortgage market was smaller than that in the U.S. on a per capita basis. Most lending was done by individuals or subsidized so-called near banks, including insurance and trust companies and building socities, and a government agency. Canada’s mortgage crunch was particulary strong in the 1950s.[11]
Canadians had more bank offices per capita than Americans did, but finer estimates of the geographical distribution of offices, say the number of banking offices within a 50-kilometer radius, or the percentage of the population with at least one banking office within a 20-kilometer radius, or the percentage of towns with at least x number of inhabitants and at least one banking office, remains unclear.
Moreover, not until 1936 did a Canadian bank, CIBC, start to make consumer loans and not until well after World War II did some banks, like Scotiabank and Royal, enter a field by then well-ploughed by American banks.[12] Before Canadian banks entered the consumer banking business in a serious way, loan sharks, high-priced finance companies, and other “near banks” not subject to usury caps were rampant.[13]
In short, I do not see much value in attributing Canada’s relative banking stability to high falutin’ causes like checks against Populism. Calomiris and Haber are on much firmer ground when they examine the economic causes of stability, which I summarize as follows:
1)      Minimal moral hazard. The Canadian government long resisted deposit insurance, which essentially forced larger banks to monitor smaller ones and to share any losses that failed institutions imposed on depositors. That induced Canada’s biggest banks to seek out and acquire failing institutions before they expired. Monitoring costs were relatively low because most banks established branches, if not headquarters, along St. James Street in Montreal and/or near Bay Street in Toronto. Moreover, bankers regularly mingled in social activities, including a wicked bank hockey league.[14] The Canadian government also refused to use public money to pay off bank creditors or stockholders (except in one instance where it found a government regulator at fault for not responding to depositor complaints and warnings in a timely fashion). In short, Canadian bankers have very little expectation of being bailed out by the government and reduce their risk-taking accordingly.
2)      Constant legislative monitoring. Unlike in the U.S. in the twentieth century, the charters of Canadian banks must be renewed periodically and the government reviewed banking legislation every decade and now reviews it every five years. That gives banks a strong incentive to behave, lest the government make drastic reforms or refuse to re-charter a bank altogether.[15] Moreover, regulators can be captured or at least co-opted with relative ease compared to Parliament, especially the popularly-elected Commons. While the threat of legislation is ever-present in the United States, Congress is typically reactive, implementing new regulations only after crises, as with FIRREA after the S&L crisis and Dodd-Frank after the 2008 fiasco. It generally passes de jure deregulation only after deregulation has already been established de facto, as was the case with both interstate branching and repeal of Glass-Steagall.
            What Calomiris and Haber missed is the superior governance of Canadian banks. They take governance for granted, assuming that the incentives of stockholders and managers are always consistently aligned. That was not the case in the United States in the years leading up to the Panic of 2008, when bank executives regularly received “heads I win, tails I win” contracts.
To understand the governance of Canadian banks, we need to go back to the beginning, when Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and other U.S. founding fathers said let there be corporations, and there were. And lo’ they were good because they were well-governed, so well-governed that over 20,000 times before 1861 Americans invested in the shares, well, options on the shares, of startup businesses, most which were completely devoid of any operating histories. Investors feared not the expropriation of their resources because as stockholders they had the power, in the form or sundry checks and balances too numerous and mundane to comprehensively discuss here, to stop managerial self-dealing, whether the company was a turnpike, a manufacturer, or a bank. Provisions in many early bank charters and by-laws mandated that directors not be bankrupt and that much of their wealth be invested in their respective bank’s stock, which of course aligned their incentives closely with those of their bank.[16]
According to banking historians Adam Shortt and Bray Hammond, Canada essentially imported its bank governance from the United States, specifically from Alexander Hamilton, who was a great stickler for governance checks and balances and the primary author of at least four early, seminal corporate charters, those of the Bank of New York, the Bank of the United States, the Society for the Establishment of Useful Manufactures, and the Merchants Bank of New York. From Hamilton, for example, came the notion of prudent mean voting rules that restricted the voting power of the largest shareholders so that minority holders would have some board representation, which tended to keep managerial self-dealing in check.[17]
As with many converts, Canadians were more stalwart in their convictions than the original acolytes themselves as the Canadians witnessed, and learned from, the banking excesses that infected early America. Their first banking charters copied that of the Bank of the United States (BUS), which of course Hamilton designed to function as a large bank with multiple branches spread across the nation, almost verbatim. The first permanent commercial bank in Canada, the Bank of Montreal, which was established in 1817, sent key men to study the operations of the second Bank of the United States, a huge nationwide bank with branches modeled after the first Bank. The Bank of Canada, established in Montreal the following year, utilized the same BUS charter and was formed with American capital. It soon failed, however, and was absorbed by the more conservatively run Bank of Montreal, a pattern that repeated itself throughout Canadian history. Other competitors, like the Royal Bank, thrived in part by emulating, and snatching executives and other talent away from the Bank of Montreal, Commerce, and other leading Canadian banks.[18]
Two other circumstances helped to get early Canadian banks on the straight and narrow. First, the agricultural Québécois or habitans distrusted non-specie forms of money so intensely that they quickly redeemed any bank notes that fell to them in the course of business. That, in turn, taught bankers to maintain conservative reserve levels. Second, the imperial overlords in London had something to say about colonial banking regulations and they, as a matter of course, stressed conservative banking practices.[19] Their goal, after all, was to extract rents from their colonies, not to speed their economic independence.[20] They explicitly looked at the U.S. experience to learn what could go wrong and built safeguards into the Privy Council for Trade’s 1830 colonial banking guidelines. Capital was to be at least half paid in before operations could begin, insider lending was limited to one-third of each bank’s resources, weekly balance sheets were to be published and verified under oath, stockholders were under double liability, lending on the collateral of real estate or the bank’s own stock was strictly prohibited, directors had to have substantial investments in their banks, and so forth.
From both Hamilton and the Scots came the notion that fewer, larger banks were preferable to smaller, more numerous banks. Bigger banks would attract better qualified employees at the higher echelons of the bank, allowing for more professional management. The assets of bigger banks also tended to be more diversified geographically and by economic sector, and hence naturally more stable. Because of its belief in Hamiltonian big banks, Canada made banking a national prerogative rather than a provincial one, or both national and provincial as the United States did. Fewer banks chartered by fewer jurisdictions meant less experimentation, less opportunity for regulatory arbitrage, and more uniformity around best practices. So unlike in some U.S. jurisdictions, such as Massachusetts, where banks were encouraged to proliferate in order to swell state tax revenues, but like other U.S. jurisdictions, such as New York, where new banks were not encouraged until late in the 1830s, Canadian lawmakers had relatively little reason to pass new banking charters and relatively more reason to encourage existing banks to establish agencies or full blown branches in growth areas.[21]
In short, path dependence and original obedience, the opposite of original sin, are more important than populist influences as an explanation of Canadian banking system stability. Basically, Canada took a free ride on U.S. banking system experimentation, adopting the Hamiltonian best and rejecting the populist rest.[22] And the Hamiltonian best stuck. The Canadian Bank of Commerce, for example, mandated in its new 1909 by-laws that directors had to remain solvent and own at least 100 shares of stock in order to keep their positions. The by-laws also maintained the old bonding rules, restrictions on outside employment/business, and 360 degree employee monitoring mechanisms common in early nineteenth century U.S. bank charters and by-laws.[23]
Bank historians have often attributed Canada’s relatively good economic showing during the Great Depression to its branch banking system. Unlike in the United States, the right to establish branches was explicit in many early provincial bank charters and sometimes informally considered acceptable even if not explicitly authorized until 1841, when the right to branch was formally recognized. By 1929, Canada had only 11 banks, down from its apex of 41 in 1885-86, and the top four controlled 77 of the country’s banking assets. As noted previously, a few banks failed but most exited by selling themselves to larger banks when they realized that they could not earn competitive profits.[24] California, the only large state that allowed intrastate branching before the Depression, also did relatively well during the downturn, leading many to conclude that bigger banks are more stable banks.
What is often overlooked, however, is that Canada went off gold de facto before the Great Depression began, as proven by the U.S.-Canadian dollar exchange rate, which violated Canada’s specie export point starting in 1929.[25] That was possible because Canada’s Department of Finance stopped redeeming Dominion notes in gold because it was running out of the precious yellow stuff quite apart from the Depression.[26] As Ben Bernanke and other researchers have shown, devaluation or abandonment of the gold standard was the key to recovery so Canada’s relative economic success in the 1930s is unsurprising and, again, quite unrelated to populism.
Another fact that is often overlooked is that Canada lost many of its bank branches during the Depression as the big banks colluded to decrease competition. The CIBC alone shuttered over 130 branches and ceased lending on the prairies and in Newfoundland. Royal Bank and all the other biggies shuttered about ten percent of their domestic branches on average and even the hoary Bank of Montreal eased off many of its foreign committments.[27] Canada’s big banks wobbled, as one bank historian put it, but they did not topple. That same historian admitted, however, that it was a close thing.[28] Bank dividends shrank throughout the Depression and were not as large as they seemed as they were based on the par value of stock, usually $100, when market prices for most big banks were in the $300 range. In addition, the number of employees shrank, as did average earnings per employee.[29]
Moreover, two of the country’s three regional clearinghouses closed, leaving all clearing to be done in Toronto. The banks experienced runs in Alberta, though due to some kooky provincial credit experiments rather than any question of the banks’ ultimate solvency. I say ultimate because there was clearly some regulatory forbearance going on as Canadian banks kept accounts on lifelines – the bank histories all tell similar stories about being unable to collect old debts, especially from farmers[30] -- rather than marking them to market or writing them off. (Not that the accounting would always have been straightforward, as in the case of a CIBC branch manager and employee who accepted 12 live turkeys in payment of a farmer’s $25 note. After ruining their clothes and three hours, they realized only $12 for the plucked birds, mostly from other bank employees.[31])
Moreover, an Order-in-Council issued on 27 October 1931 allowed banks to value securities, including equities, at the lower of book value or their market price on 31 August of that year, i.e., before the great shock of 20 September when Britain went off gold. No Canadian bank admitted getting much relief from the measure but that it was promulgated at all is telling. A similar edict saved many U.S. life insurers from, if not outright bankruptcy, considerable embarrassment. Moreover, the Royal Bank, and presumably others, created secret shell companies to buy the bank’s own stock from its debtors, at above market prices, and to buy the securities of defaulting borrowers. Those entities, essentially bad banks, were ultimately funded by Royal but their obligations looked a heck of a lot better on Royal’s balance sheet than old unpaid loans owed by insolvent debtors did![32]
The notion that bigger is better in banking was reinforced by the S&L crisis in the United States in the 1980s but of course the fact was always contested by those who worried about banks’ market power and diseconomies of scale. Effectively monitoring far flung branches was particularly difficult and not just for technological reasons. When branches audited each other, for example, they had a tendency to go easy in expectation of reciprocity. Inspectors would be certain to check into their hotels and grab a meal, and maybe a night’s sleep, before starting an inspection, giving the local manager time to clean up the books, which at first were kept in an idiosyncratic manner.[33]
The notion that bigger is better was shattered by the subprime crisis and subsequent global financial panic. While small banks did not fare well during the post-panic recession, they clearly did not cause the financial conflagration, the big boys did. The American big boys, not the Canadian ones. Canadian banks were under a different, ostensibly more stringent regulatory system but as we all know regulations can be gamed and loophole mined almost to the point of irrelevance if bankers wish to do so. But in Canada, bankers tend to take one of the safer paths because Canadian bank governance structures are much robust than those in the United States, the checks and balances of which adapted to changing circumstances but ultimately degenerated over the course of the twentieth century. In fact, U.S. bank governance was actually weaker than the governance of U.S. non-financial corporations according to corporate activists like Wilma Soss.[34]
Canadian banks did not witness the same degree of degradation of stockholder rights because:
1.      Canadian bank stockholders were subject to double liability when Canadian banks could issue bank notes, which was all of the nineteenth century up to 1944, nine years after the establishment of Canada’s first central bank. When coupled with Canada’s no bailout policy, double liability incentivized stockholders to monitor management carefully and to keep shareholder rights strong. Stockholders, not government regulators, audited (or paid to have audited) their banks’ books.
2.      Canada’s big, nationwide banks are valuable franchises that both managers and stockholders wish to protect.[35] Despite substantial restrictions on the activities of foreign banks operating in Canada, that value has come from economies of scale rather than market power. That means that Canadian bankers traditionally have not looked to merge in order to charge borrowers more, as interest rates were longed capped in the 6 to 7 percent range anyway. They also did not strive to pay depositors less, as Canadian depositors received more on average than American depositors did. Rather, Canadian bankers merged in order to render their banks safer and more efficient, not bigger per se.[36]
Due to relatively strong stockholder monitoring, Canadian bankers have not had the incentive or ability to write themselves the ridiculous sort of “heads I win, tails I win” incentive contracts that became au courant south of the border around the turn of the last century. Most directors were outside directors, i.e., not employees of the bank, and would not countenance such tomfoolery. Of the 32 directors in Scotiabank in 1960, for example, 17 represented borrowers, 4 were lawyers, 2 were financial men. Two more were elder statesmen and 4 were old connections, leaving only 3 as active bank managers.[37]
Stockholders and other stakeholders can also vote with their feet so to speak. Henry Stark Howland left a vice presidency at the Canadian Bank of Commerce in 1874 when he thought that the bank was growing too quickly and recklessly. He had a lot of capital at stake, capital that he withdrew and put into a more conservative de novo bank called the Imperial Bank of Canada. In typical Canadian fashion, the two institutions merged in 1960 to form the CBIC.[38]
            Populists don’t understand the importance or intricacies of corporate governance so it is difficult to believe that they had much if anything to do with the relative strength of Canadian and American bank governance. Americans complain about high executive pay but they don’t see that what is really key is the structure of incentives.[39] If bank executives are allowed to write themselves “heads I get a huge immediate bonus; tails I get a very generous golden parachute”-style contracts, they are bound to take on large risks with other peoples’ money. If instead they face the choice of “heads I get a reasonable deferred bonus; tails I get fired” contracts, they would behave much more prudently, like U.S. investment banks did before they went public and like Canadian banks still do. Canadian companies are much more likely than American ones to use compensation consultants who, while still beholden to executives, are less likely to okay irrational executive compensation packages. Canada also generally has better executive pay disclosure rules that make it easier for individual and institutional stockholders and the media to monitor executive pay packages.[40] A comparative study of performance-based pay in the U.S. and Canada concluded that the boards of widely-held Canadian corporations have less ability to monitor Canadian executives but more power over their compensation packages.[41]
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Canada’s principle-based regulatory system is a better bulwark against rent-seeking behaviors than America’s rule-based system is. In Canada, “heads I win big; tails I win bigger” contracts are obviously wrong, immoral, unlawful, and suboptimal. In America, they were not illegal and hence justifiable in some rarified ethical sense.[42] Hence much of the “say on pay” revolution has focused not on executive pay but the pay process in order to prevent “extraordinary compensation items (e.g., large golden parachutes)” and to allow clawback of executive bonus compensation after financial restatements and the like.[43]
In short, Canada’s banking system stability is impressive relative to that of the U.S. but still far from perfect. Its relative stability is rooted in fundamentals, especially strong stockholder governance and sensible supervision, rather than populism.
Thank you!


[1] Lev Ratnovski and Rocco Huang, “Why Are Canadian Banks More Resilient?”, IMF Working Paper (2009), 3.
[2] For more about bailouts, see Robert E. Wright, ed. Bailouts: Public Money, Private Profit (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010).
[3] Jacquie McNish and Nicole Friedman, “Berkshire Rescues Mortgage Lender,” Wall Street Journal (23 June 2017), B1-B2.
[4] R. M. Macintosh, “The Bank Act Revision of 1954,” in E. P. Neufeld, ed., Money and Banking in Canada (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1967), 299-307.
[5] Aaron Back, “Housing Haunts Canadian Banks,” Wall Street Journal (26 May 2017), B12.
[6] Lev Ratnovski and Rocco Huang, “Why Are Canadian Banks More Resilient?”, IMF Working Paper (2009), 3-4, 18.
[7] Adam Shortt, “Commercial Crisis of 1837-38,” in E. P. Neufeld, ed., Money and Banking in Canada (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1967), 91-94, 173.
[8] in E. P. Neufeld, ed., Money and Banking in Canada (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1967), 132-48.
[9] Charles Calomiris and Stephen Haber, Fragile by Design: The Political Origins of Banking Crises and Scarce Credit (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), 315 n.65, 324.
[10] Joseph Schull, 100 Years of Banking in Canada: A History of the Toronto-Dominion Bank (Toronto: Copp Clark Publishing, 1958), 132-35.
[11] Duncan McDowall, Quick to the Frontier: Canada’s Royal Bank (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, Inc., 1993), 333-34.
[12] Joseph Scull and J. Douglas Gibson, The Scotiabank Story: A History of the Bank of Nova Scotia, 1832-1982 (Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1982), 208; Duncan McDowall, Quick to the Frontier: Canada’s Royal Bank (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, Inc., 1993), 325.
[13] Arnold Edinborough, A History of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, Vol. IV, 1931-1973 (Toronto: Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, 1995), 45; Duncan McDowall, Quick to the Frontier: Canada’s Royal Bank (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, Inc., 1993), 331-32.
[14] Duncan McDowall, Quick to the Frontier: Canada’s Royal Bank (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, Inc., 1993), 58, 106-10.
[15] E. P. Neufeld, “Introduction” and R. M. Macintosh, “The Bank Act Revision of 1954,” in E. P. Neufeld, ed., Money and Banking in Canada (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1967), 5-6, 299-307.
[16] For more, and for copious documentation, see Robert E. Wright, Corporation Nation (Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 2014) and Robert E. Wright, “Devolution of the Republican Model of Anglo-American Corporate Governance,” Advances in Financial Economics Vol. 18 (2015): 65-80.
[17] Bray Hammond, Banks and Politics in America: From the Revolution to the Civil War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957), 631-670.
[18] Duncan McDowall, Quick to the Frontier: Canada’s Royal Bank (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, Inc., 1993), 59.
[19] R. M. Breckenridge, “Imperial Regulation of Colonial Bank Charters,” in E. P. Neufeld, ed., Money and Banking in Canada (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1967), 87-90.
[20] For more on this point, see Wadan Narsey, British Imperialism and the Making of Colonial Currency Systems (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).
[21] J. Wallis, R. E. Sylla, and J. B. Legler, “The Interacton of Taxation and Regulation in Nineteenth Century U.S. Banking,” in C. Goldin and G. D. Libecap, eds., The Regulated Economy: A Historical Approach to Political Economy (Chicago: University of chicago Press), 122-44.
[22] Adam Shortt, “Origin of the Canadian Banking System,” in E. P. Neufeld, ed., Money and Banking in Canada (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1967), 77-86.
[23] By-Laws and Regulations of the Canadian Bank of Commerce (1909), 3.
[24] B. H. Beckhart, “Fewer and Larger Banks,” in E. P. Neufeld, ed., Money and Banking in Canada (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1967), 196-205.
[25] C. A. Curtis, “The Canadian Monetary Situation,” in E. P. Neufeld, ed., Money and Banking in Canada (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1967), 218-222.
[26] Merrill Denison, Canada’s First Bank: A History of the Bank of Montreal (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1967), 2:364-65.
[27] Merrill Denison, Canada’s First Bank: A History of the Bank of Montreal (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1967), 2:378-80.
[28] Duncan McDowall, Quick to the Frontier: Canada’s Royal Bank (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, Inc., 1993), 247.
[29] Joseph Scull and J. Douglas Gibson, The Scotiabank Story: A History of the Bank of Nova Scotia, 1832-1982 (Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1982), 153-54; Merrill Denison, Canada’s First Bank: A History of the Bank of Montreal (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1967), 2:368.
[30] See, for example, Duncan McDowall, Quick to the Frontier: Canada’s Royal Bank (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, Inc., 1993), 245-46, 249-50.
[31] Arnold Edinborough, A History of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, Vol. IV, 1931-1973 (Toronto: Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, 1995), 23-25, 31, 36-37, 53, 173.
[32] Duncan McDowall, Quick to the Frontier: Canada’s Royal Bank (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, Inc., 1993), 260-61.
[33] D. Hughes Charles, “Reminiscences of Bankers,” in E. P. Neufeld, ed., Money and Banking in Canada (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1967), 178-82.
[34] Pocketbook News, 8 January 1961, Box 8, Wilma Soss Papers, University of Wyoming, Laramie, Wyoming.
[35] Lev Ratnovski and Rocco Huang, “Why Are Canadian Banks More Resilient?”, IMF Working Paper (2009), 17.
[36] The stockholders of the three major banks to amalgamate with Scotiabank, for example, all feared the bit of double liability as they monitored the lackluster performance of their banks. See, Joseph Scull and J. Douglas Gibson, The Scotiabank Story: A History of the Bank of Nova Scotia, 1832-1982 (Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1982), 338-39.
[37] Joseph Scull and J. Douglas Gibson, The Scotiabank Story: A History of the Bank of Nova Scotia, 1832-1982 (Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1982), 222, 333, 400-403.
[38] Arnold Edinborough, A History of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, Vol. IV, 1931-1973 (Toronto: Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, 1995), 163-66.
[39] Anthony J. Crawford, John R. Ezzell, and James A. Miles, “Bank CEO Pay-Performance Relations and the Effects of Deregulation,” Journal of Business 68, 2 (April 1995): 231-56; Nuno Fernandes, Miguel Ferreira, Pedro Matos, Kevin J. Murphy, “Are U.S. CEOs Paid More? New International Evidence,” Review of Financial Studies 26, 2 (February 2013): 323-67; Edward M. Iacobucci, “The Effects of Disclosure on Executive Compensation,” University of Toronto Law Journal 48, 4 (Autumn 1998): 489-520.
[40] Edward M. Iacobucci, “The Effects of Disclosure on Executive Compensation,” University of Toronto Law Journal 48, 4 (Autumn 1998): 496, 502
[41] Michael L. Magnan, Sylvie St-Onge, and Linda Thorne, “A Comparative Analysis of the Determinants of Executive Compensation between Canadian and U.S. Firms,” Industrial Relations 50, 2 (Spring 1995): 297-319.
[42] Bo James Howell, “Executive Fraud and Canada’s Regulation of Executive Compensation,” University of Miami Inter-American Law Review 39, 1 (Fall 2007), 122, 141.
[43] Yonca Ertimur, Fabrizio Ferri, and Volkan Muslu, “Shareholder Activism and CEO Pay,” Review of Financial Studies 24, 2 (February 2011), 538, 543, 566, 579.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Slavery/Antislavery Today

By Robert E. Wright, Nef Family Chair of Political Economy for the Rokeby Museum, Ferrisburgh, Vermont, 10 September 2017

            The student who has had the most effect on my career was, hands down, also the most annoying student I have ever had in a career that now spans two full decades and every type of school imaginable, from elite public to elite private to not-so-elite public to whatever DeVry is. The term was Fall 2010, the course the first half of the American history survey, and the student an education major with what to her was a major problem, the fact that I kept using words and ideas that she had never heard of before. Struggling in the class, she decided that she would try to score some points by asserting, repeatedly and quite vocally, that she would have been an abolitionist had she lived in the nineteenth century. I could not help but express my doubts, noting that only a small portion of the population were activists. Oh no, she insisted, she would have been right there next to Frederick Tubman and Harriet Douglass carrying slaves across the Rio Grande River to freedom in Vermont every night, rain or shine. Okay, maybe I am exaggerating the extent of this student’s ignorance but as I said she was the most annoying student to ever cross my path.
After her third attempt at armchair abolitionism, I recalled meeting Jim Stewart at the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic conference in my hometown of Rochester, New York that summer. Jim told me that slavery had made a comeback, a fact that I whipped out right there in class to embarrass my tormentor. She was stunned but starting asking questions that I didn’t have answers to, like where were all these slaves and what work did they perform? I mumbled something about this being a history class and the need to move on, which thankfully the other members of the class were by then quite willing to do.
From my initial state of ignorance, I started reading books about modern slavery and paying attention to news stories about sex trafficking and decided that I had to act. So I joined Jim Stewart’s NGO Historians Against Slavery, developed and delivered courses on modern slavery and antislavery, and even wrote a book about the economic aspects of global slavery called The Poverty of Slavery: How Unfree Labor Pollutes the Economy, which Palgrave published this spring. While I am no Harriet Tubman, I aspire to be a modern day Hinton Helper, the North Carolinian who exposed the economic destructiveness of antebellum chattel slavery. To that end, I became treasurer of Historians Against Slavery when Jim retired and I give talks about modern slavery whenever anyone will have me speak, even if I have to drive from South Dakota to do it.
The ugly truth is that slavery never ended, not in the United States and not anywhere, it simply transmogrified into new forms with new labels more palatable than slavery. Slavery has become such an ugly word that people regularly apply it, willy-nilly, to any reprehensible situation. That is bad because when a word can mean anything, it comes to mean nothing. None but God above are free from external constraints, so the mere presence of constraints cannot define slavery. Gravity does not enslave us to flightlessness. Slavery means a very specific set of constraints imposed by specific individuals for specific purposes. So a good part of my research concerns defining slavery, which I ultimately do as the absence of freedom on twenty key questions regarding the relationship between owners slash employers and their workers. CEOs and college professors score 20, or nearly so, on my freedom scale, so we are not slaves even if our department chairs tell us we have to teach at 8 a.m. on occasion or stockholders tell us that we can’t pay ourselves $200 million a year after cutting dividends to naught.
Antebellum slaves worked in gangs on a large Southern plantation would have scored 0 on my scale and nobody doubts they were slaves. Likewise, nobody doubts that slaves in the upper South who were able to hire out their own time, and who might score a 3 or 4 on my freedom scale, were also slaves. So I have no problem applying the word slave to anyone who scores near the bottom of my freedom index but I also don’t object when people call them unfree or bound laborers instead. The key fact is that none of them can voluntarily leave their place of work in search of something better. Most are physically beaten and psychologically manipulated, receive payment in kind rather than in cash, and have little or no control over sexual access to their own bodies, where they live, what they wear, what they eat, or even their own names. Call such persons what you will, but their condition is far below that of the stereotypical sweatshop worker, who receives his or her pittance in cash and can leave when he or she wishes with names and reproductive parts intact.
People who score 4 or below on my freedom index, call them what you will, number between 30 and 50 million worldwide today. Whatever the exact figure, which is difficult to determine because modern slavery largely takes place behind closed doors, it is absolutely staggering. At an average height of 4 feet, which is not far from the mark given that many slaves are malnourished children, 40 million people laid end to end would stretch over 30,000 miles, or around the earth at the equator and then from Burlington to Los Angeles and a good ways back.
That’s a lot of destroyed lives and for what? Nothing good economically. Yes, slavery is profitable for enslavers, which is why it has been around as long as humans have been and why it was not destroyed by the Civil War or any of the other Great Emancipations of the nineteenth century. Profits are only half the economic equation though. On the other side lay the costs, and they swamp slavery’s profitability. Slaveholders are adroit at getting society to foot most of those costs, rendering them what economists call negative externalities, the most common example of which is pollution.
On the other hand, 40 million is but a small portion of the total global population, which as of May of this year now tops 7.5 billion. In fact, slavery as a percentage of the total global population is the lowest it has ever been, at least during recorded history, which, unfortunately, begins when slavery was already widespread.
What do those 40 million slaves do? About half are the victims of sex trafficking. About a quarter toil at mundane tasks ranging from bidi rolling and carpet weaving to quarrying and fishing. India’s brick kilns alone enslave millions, most kept at the hot, dangerous work under ancient customs of debt bondage. The final quarter of today’s slaves are domestic drudges in places like Haiti and Tibet where it remains much cheaper to own a child slave than to buy and operate a dishwasher, a washer and dryer, a refrigerator, and so forth.
Yes, slavery is illegal throughout most of the globe today but that doesn’t mean much. Murder, rape, and methamphetamine production are also illegal but they still occur with disturbing regularity. The illegality of slavery has made it much harder to identify and fight and has also rendered it much more noxious for those enslaved. Today’s slaves, antislavery activist and author Kevin Bales points out, are in some ways much worse off than legal slaves were, not in terms of their degree of freedom but in terms of their day-to-day treatment. Legal slaves commanded high prices, as high as $100,000 in today’s dollars, and hence it was in the masters’ interest to provide them with basic human necessities. Slaves today, by contrast, are dirt cheap, selling for as little as $10 and rarely for more than $1,000. Hence, they are disposable people. Enslavers work them to death and have been known to murder them when the season’s work is done because that is safer and cheaper than maintaining them all year or letting them go. The bodies of small boys do not naturally end up in the bellies of Great White sharks and Bengal tigers, they are found in such places after enslavers kill them and leave their little, innocent corpses to be scavenged.
   And they might be the lucky ones. Ex-slaves today almost invariably suffer from PTSD, or post traumatic stress disorder. Child soldiers in Africa suffer from PTSD because they actually engaged in combat but so too, in a sense, do prepubescent girls forced to sexually service scores of adult men every day, week, month, and year until their bodies give out or they contract AIDs or some other STD that is more costly to cure than the girl is to simply replace.
You might now well wonder where all these slaves come from and the answer, generally, is from the lowest caste or class in every country in the world. Yes, occassionally Liam Neeson’s daughter is abducted and prostituted overseas but the vast majority of trafficked persons were tricked into going abroad with a stranger posing as a friend, boyfriend, or employer. Once in a foreign country where they don’t know the language, they are stripped of their passports and seasoned by being raped or beaten, often by corrupt police officers. With no way, or where, to run, the young girls and boys become ashamed of their actions and many sink into a torpor that helps them to survive the ordeal. If they emerge alive, though, many need years of therapy and education to have any hope of leading a normal life. A valiant few, like reincarnations of Henry Highland Garnet or Harriet Jacobs, join the modern antislavery movement but many more end up back in some sort of servitude, often in conditions worse than those in which they originally suffered.
Slaves are one of the few goods that get more valuable as they move away from their place of origin. That is because every mile they move themselves away from their homes makes them that much easier to control. It wasn’t that American Indians were unproductive slaves, as sometimes claimed, they simply found it too easy to escape. Scholars like Andres Resendez are now discovering that large numbers of Indians were trafficked to the West Indies, often in exchange for African slaves. The demise of the indigenous peoples of North and South America is looking less like largely accidental germ-warfare and more like outright genocide. Today, the Dalits of India, the Tharu of Nepal, the Karen of southeast Asia, and countless other downtrodden groups are experiencing a similar genocide as they send away their children with traffickers in scant hope that they will have a better life abroad.
Many enslavers are forcing their minions to destroy the earth’s most fragile ecosystems. Satellite images documenting the destruction of the Brazilian rainforests can be overlaid with maps showing an almost one to one correlation with known slave labor camps. In Bangladesh, children enslaved as fishers are quickly destroying the precious mangrove swamps with acre upon acre of drying racks hacked by scads of tiny hands.
The United States is home to a small percentage of those enslaved globally but that is still thousands, and perhaps tens of thousands, of individuals. Most are trafficked for sex but some literally slave away cleaning hotels or picking fruits and vegetables in places like Florida. Slavery is more prevalent in some states than others. South Dakota is one of the worst offenders because of its tourism industry, specifically pheasant season and the Sturgis motorcycle rally, both of which bring hundreds of thousands of horny men into the state for a week of shooting off their guns and shining up their hogs.
If government-owned slaves are included, the states with the largest slave populations are certainly Florida, Texas, and California.Yes, government-owned slaves. I sometimes imagine U.S. law enforcement officials confronting enslavers by asking where they learned to steal the labor of others. The enslavers turn and say, indignantly, as in that drug commercial from the 1980s, “you, okay, I learned it from you.” It is no coincidence that America has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, save for a few brutal dictatorships like North Korea. Simply put, imprisoning people pays. Politicians get to look tough on crime; police departments get more personnel and equipment; most insidiously, private corporations earn big profits running jails or hiring prison labor at a small fraction of the going market rate.
It would help if the 13th Amendment were itself amended so that those duly convicted of a crime were no longer exposed to enslavement by the state. For too many decades, governments have used the convict loophole to arrest, prosecute, and enslave Americans, mostly African-Americans but Indians, poor whites, and members of other downtrodden groups as well. Doug Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name and David Oshinsky’s Worse than Slavery opened the floodgates to reams of studies describing the horrors of what has come to be known as the carceral state, from the coal mines of Alabama to the chain gangs of Mississippi to the panty-sewing gals of Orange Is the New Black. Two of the best recent studies are Dennis Childs’ Slaves of the State and Talithia LeFlouria’s Chained in Silence. They make clear that state-sanctioned slavery is still slavery. We as a society have to figure out how to induce people to follow the law without killing them, mutilating their minds and bodies, enslaving them, or merely warehousing them for arbitrary periods because clearly the current system isn’t functionally properly and perhaps never did.
Hopefully by now you are appalled that something as morally reprehensible as slavery still exists and disgusted by the enormous negative consequences of slavery’s continuance. Members of the modern antislavery movement are trying to reduce slavery by not just raising awareness but by leveraging awareness into action. We know that we simply cannot buy slaves and free them because that practice reinforces the notion that humans are for sale while also increasing demand for new slaves. We also know that the supply of slaves is so vast and so vulnerable, basically any of the several billion people who somehow survive on $2 or less per day, that we can’t cut off supply either. What we try to do, then, is to reduce demand by one, introducing new technologies that can do the work more cheaply than slaves can, two, scaring multinational corporations with threats of boycotts into policing their own supply chains, and three, inducing governments worldwide to pass more stringent antislavery laws and enforce them. Basically, we need to make the expected cost of enslaving others so high that no one will dare to put to work anyone near the bottom of my freedom scale for fear of being caught, outed, prosecuted, and stripped of their assets.
If Carol Faulkner had been able to come today, she would have discussed the pros and cons of boycotting slave goods. I’ll make no sweeping claims about the matter as I have studied only one historical example in detail but it is one that has regional if not local connections. In the late 1830s, the sugar beet bug struck New England’s farmers. Soon, yet another agricultural bubble, like previous ones in Merino sheep, super chickens, mulberry trees, and other commodities, puffed into existence and spread into the Middle Atlantic states, Ohio, Illinois, and even Arkansas and Virginia. Realizing that the sugar made from beets was chemically identical to that made from cane, abolitionists jumped on the bandwagon too, pledging to buy only free sugar made by free laborers in the North. This was real sugar, after all, not maple sugar made from trees.
            So everybody soon bought sugar from sugar beets and soon sugar cane plantations went out of business and slavery ended without bloodshed forever. Not quite. Not even close, actually. For starters, because cane and beet sugar were identical chemically, and because America’s intellectual property laws had not achieved the state of perfection they currently enjoy, there was no way to tell the difference between slave and free sugar, except price. The latter cost more, not due to differences in slave versus free worker productivity but because of the laws of physics and chemistry. It simply took more energy to get the good stuff out of a beet until improved machinery came along decades later, by which time sugar beet production had largely moved to the western U.S. The main product that kept the early beet sugar factories going was the sale of the remnants of the beet, post-processing, as livestock fodder. Hogs will eat about anything.
Incidentally, three of the incorporated beet sugar manufactories to crop up in the late 1830s were in New Hampshire and one was in Vermont, in Enosburgh, Franklin County, about 65 miles northeast of here. Its incorporators were Austin Fuller, William N. Smith, and Charles B. Maynard, on the off chance those names mean anything to anyone here. You can follow up by downloading my database of over 20,000 U.S. for-profit corporations chartered before the Civil War at MEAD, or the Magazine of Early American Data, which is hosted by the University of Pennsylvania’s Van Pelt library.
Of course this discussion of boycotts, modern slavery, and so forth is just the tip of a very large, very ugly iceberg. If you want to know more, read my book Poverty of Slavery, any book by Kevin Bales, or any of the books recommended by Historians Against Slavery on its website,, that is h t t p historiansagainstslavery all one word dot o r g.
And as for that very annoying student I mentioned in the beginning of this talk, I eventually married her and we’ve had three children together. Not! She’s half my age and I’m not kidding about how annoying she was. In fact, if she ever learns about her influence on my career path into neo-abolitionism I’m sure she’ll claim that God works in mysterious ways or something equally annoying.
Thank you for your time! Any comments or questions before I head to Toronto to discuss bank governance?

P.S. to readers: If you find yourself in Vermont looking at leaves or hunting from Champ, stop by the Rokeby. It's permanent antislavery exhibit is phenomenal!!! Pick up some maple syrup when in town too.