[Richard Painter, guest-blogging, March 26, 2009 at 2:48pm] Trackbacks
The First Bank of the United States:

Thanks to MarkField for pointing out my error — the Bank's charter did not expire in 1808, although I believe 1811 not 1812 is the correct year and I have inserted 1811 in my earlier post.

In my post, I was careful to refer to "the" allegations of corruption, which were accusations of insider trading and conflict of interest by speculators and Members of Congress dealing in federal and state government bonds. It is true that the First Bank — unlike the Second — was otherwise operated in a relatively clean manner. This did not matter. Jeffersonians hated the bank and hated Hamilton and everything he stood for, and the scandal from speculation in government bonds had tarnished the Bank along with the rest of Hamilton's economic agenda. Sound economics perhaps the Federalists had, but without ethics at the outset, sound economic policy may go nowhere.

The Second Bank was set up after the War of 1812 when the government realized that without a Bank it could have difficulty raising money, particularly compared with England. This Bank was indeed "ethically challenged" for much of its existence (including Bank President Nicholas Biddle's payoffs for Senator Daniel Webster). President Jackson was able to use these and other allegations against the Bank to shut it down as well.

The United States did not get another government bank until the Federal Reserve was established in 1913. When a Wall Street bailout was required in 1907, J.P. Morgan & Co. had to work with the Treasury Department to get the job done. The Bank of England had been around since 1694, a 220 year head start on the United States. Business ethics and government ethics I believe were part of our national bank story or lack of one for so long.

England of course had its own experience with the combination of bad business ethics and bad government ethics, the South Sea Bubble of 1720. Many Members of Parliament were trading in the stock — and enacting bills to promote the Company — before it crashed. The King's mistress was stock jobbing as well, although I am not sure that similar access to inside information was given to the Queen.

The result was the Bubble Act, which restricted use of limited liability for transferable shares for over a century (the Act's actual impact on England's economy is a matter of debate as it was relatively easy for London solicitors to figure out a way around the Act). Once again, the reaction to ethics scandals in government and business, particularly when the two are combined, can be bad economic policy or bad regulation. Legislators, rushing to cover their posteriors, may take rash action.

More on all of this is in my Chicago legal history lecture, available on SSRN.

More recently, we had Enron and Worldcom in 2001 and 2002, and more recently the Wall Street meltdown. The rest of the story speaks for itself.

Richard Painter