William Rees-Mogg has a nice, rather wistful account of the days of when bank managers actually knew their clients, knew their economic circumstances and were not in the business of lending money to folk with little or no credit history. Mr Rees-Mogg is a devotee of the gold standard. However, in talking about the changing nature of banks and the quality of their staff, he does not touch on an issue which struck me the other day: limited liability.
Under limited liability laws and with central bankers acting as lenders of last resort, there is an element of moral hazard. Some free marketeers like Sean Gabb – whom I mention below – think limited liability laws are a statist curse on the capitalist system, since they would not arise without active state adjustments of corporate law. I am not sure about whether limited liability would exist in a world of pure laissez faire. It might, I guess. Also, not everyone buys the idea that LL is a distortion of the market or would not exist without state action.
However, there are still some nooks and crannies of the banking world where unlimited liability still exists and works successfully. The Swiss private bank Pictet, founded in 1805 in that memorable Napoleonic battle year of Austerlitz and Trafalgar, operates a partnership system where the bank partners face unlimited liability. As a result, Pictet operates a very conservative lending and investment policy. During the fat years of the ‘Noughties, Pictet may have seen some of its more aggressive competitors steal a march, but now the bank is attracting inflows from investors who appreciate the structure of the firm. At a time when Swiss banks have sometimes attracted bad headlines due to massive losses undertaken by over-confident people, the example of Pictet is an interesting contrast.