Handel and the Bank of England

Ellen T. Harris

This guest post is the third of an occasional series of guest posts by external researchers who have used the Bank of England’s archives for their work on subjects outside traditional central banking topics.

George Frideric Handel was a master musician — an internationally renowned composer, virtuoso performer, and music director of London’s Royal Academy of Music, one of Europe’s most prestigious opera houses. For musicologists, studying his life and works typically means engaging with his compositional manuscripts at The British Library, as well as the documents, letters, and newspapers that describe his interaction with royalty, relationships to others, and contemporary reaction to his music. But when I began to explore Handel’s personal accounts at the Bank of England twenty years ago, I was often asked why. For me the answer was always ‘follow the money’. Handel’s financial records provide a unique window on his career, musical environments, income, and even his health.

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The ownership of central banks

David Bholat and Karla Martinez Gutierrez

Around the world, central banks have a number of different ownership structures. At one end of the spectrum are central banks, like the Bank of England, that are wholly owned by the public sector. At the other end are central banks, like the Banca d’Italia, whose shareholders are wholly private sector entities. And there are central banks, like the Bank of Japan, that lie in-between. But do these differences matter?

In this blog post, we explore the variety of central bank ownership structures, both historically and globally.  We also suggest areas for future research on the topic.

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Bitesize: The travels of Montagu Norman

Mike Anson, Georgina Green and Ryan Lovelock

Montagu Norman was the Bank of England’s longest serving Governor (1920-44) and one of the leading players on the interwar international financial stage. He was a controversial and enigmatic character who pioneered co-operation between central banks.

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Opening the machine learning black box

Andreas Joseph

Machine learning models are at the forefront of current advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and automation. However, they are routinely, and rightly, criticised for being black boxes. In this post, I present a novel approach to evaluate machine learning models similar to a linear regression – one of the most transparent and widely used modelling techniques. The framework rests on an analogy between game theory and statistical models. A machine learning model is rewritten as a regression model using its Shapley values, a payoff concept for cooperative games. The model output can then be conveniently communicated, eg using a standard regression table. This strengthens the case for the use of machine learning to inform decisions where accuracy and transparency are crucial.

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The Great War and the Bank of England as Market Maker of Last Resort

Mike Anson, David Bholat, Mark Billings, Miao Kang and Ryland Thomas

During the global financial crisis, some central banks acted as market makers of last resort, buying and selling securities in financial markets when trading in them had stalled. Some commentators claimed this role was “a completely new” one for central banks. In this blog, we show, on the contrary, that the Bank of England acting as a ‘market maker of last resort’ has precedent. Using newly transcribed micro-level data which we are publishing today, we detail how officials intervened in the 1914 financial crisis in a way that has at least a passing resemblance to the actions the Bank took during the Great Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2007-09.

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A question of interest: Is UK household debt unsustainable?

Lewis Kirkham and Stephen Burgess.

UK household debt is high relative to income. But is it “unsustainable”? Some commentators say “it is”; others say “there is no reason to worry”. To investigate, we build a simple model of the economic relationships between household debt, house prices and real interest rates which we believe must hold in the long run. In our model there is no single threshold beyond which debt suddenly becomes unsustainable, but we argue that household debt should be broadly sustainable under any rise in real interest rates of up to about 2 percentage points (pp) from current levels. We also show that falling real interest rates may have contributed around 20-25pp to the rise in the household debt-to-GDP ratio since the 1980s.

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A Closer Look at the BoC-BoE Sovereign Default Database

David Beers and Jamshid Mavalwalla

Defaults on sovereign debt – the term commonly used to denote debt issued by national governments and other fiscally autonomous territories – are a recurring feature of public finance. They are more widespread than is often appreciated, since 1960 involving 145 governments, over half the current sovereign universe. Examples include the many governments ensnared in the Latin American and Eastern European debt crises of the 1980s. More recently, there have been big bond defaults by Russia (1998), Argentina (2001), Greece (2012), and Puerto Rico (2015). On a smaller scale, scores of sovereign defaults can occur each year on one or more types of debt. Some, such as Sudan’s, have dragged on for decades and remain unresolved (Chart 1).

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Reflections on the Bank’s History

David Kynaston

Last May, the Bank organised an economic history workshop at the St Clere Estate, home of former governor Montagu Norman. In this guest post, one of the speakers David Kynaston, visiting Professor at Kingston University, reflects on more than three centuries of Bank history…

It was a huge honour to be asked by Mervyn King to write a history of the Bank. The eventual book, Till Time’s Last Sand, was published last autumn. It covers 1694 to 2013 and is based heavily on the Bank’s own archive. Fitting more than 300 years of history into a single volume was a difficult task, and condensing that into a short blog post is harder still. Here I will try to bring out a handful of key lessons from my research into the Bank’s history that might be useful for the policymakers, economists and other interested observers of today – and their successors…

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How did organisations adapt to change in the 18th and 19th century: Lessons from the Bank of England Archives…

Anne Murphy

Last May, the Bank organised an economic history workshop at the St Clere Estate, home of former governor Montagu Norman. In this guest post, one of the speakers Anne Murphy from the University of Hertfordshire, looks at what the Bank’s archives can tell historians about how business dealt with rapid organisational change at the start of the industrial revolution…

Industrialisation was not the only driver of change during the eighteenth century. Recent historiography has revealed more about the financial and organisational revolutions that helped to shape the British state and the country’s economic development. The Bank of England was at the forefront of these revolutions and a pioneer of new modes of business organisation. A business that started out in a small rented space with only seventeen clerks in 1694 was, by 1815, employing nearly 1,000 workers and occupying most of the Threadneedle Street block. Yet it has been sadly neglected as a case study. What might we find in the Bank’s archives to understand how business adapted to rapid and radical change during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries?

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Montagu Norman: The View from St Clere

Barry Eichengreen

Last May, the Bank organised an economic history workshop at the St Clere Estate, home of former governor Montagu Norman. In this guest post, one of the speakers, Barry Eichengreen from the University of California Berkeley, looks back at Montagu Norman’s time as governor.

Montagu Norman’s aura is palpable at St. Clere. It is said that Norman spent many of his weekends and holidays at his estate in Kent, overseeing improvements and admiring the vistas. His legacy is, if anything, even more prominent at the Bank of England. Norman supervised the design of the present Bank building. His portrait, along with those of the other members of his Court, was displayed on the first-floor landing in the Bank’s main atrium; he is only a handful of governors so honored. The Bank’s recent St. Clere workshop thus provided an opportunity to ponder some of the enduring themes and legacies of Norman’s quarter-century as governor.

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