America’s banking system is based on a principle of maturity transformation that is well-articulated here by New York Fed President William Dudley (referenced by Ashwin Parameswaran):
“The need for maturity transformation arises from the fact that the preferred habitat of borrowers tends toward longer-term maturities used to finance long-lived assets such as a house or a manufacturing plant, compared with the preferred habitat of investors, who generally have a preference to be able to access their funds quickly. Financial intermediaries act to span these preferences, earning profits by engaging in maturity transformation—borrowing shorter-term in order to finance longer-term lending.”By contrast, the Japanese system of banking has traditionally relied on strict silo-ing of finance. As envisioned by Matsukata Masayoshi, Finance Minister during the 1880s, banking evolved into three separate categories — commercial, industrial, and savings. Commercial banking was designed to provide flexible and short-term liquid instruments to firms; industrial lending was designed to meet the long-term, illiquid needs of industries, while the savings sector handled the needs of common folks.
In the jargon of finance, Japanese banks matched the maturity between borrowers and savers through specialized credit facilities. Industrial banks met the long-term needs of firms by getting capital from lenders willing to extend capital for long periods of time. The Japanese economy, between opening up and WWII, supplemented this specialized bank capital with active markets in equity and bonds.
After WWII, while most of the rest of the world downplayed the role of finance, Japanese policymakers spent a great deal of time figuring out how to fine-tune their financial system. Finance became highly regulated and even more segmented, with each individual sector of the economy financed through specialized banks designed to meet particular maturity needs. The national postal savings network channeled rural savings into the national network. Throughout the whole period, there was a belief that long-term investments ought be financed through long-term savings mechanisms, frequently raised in capital markets by banks, as opposed to consumer deposits.
Over time, banks started to play an increasing role in corporate governance, culminating in semi-oligarchic business groups for which the bank holding company called many of the shots. While these groups have been frequently disparaged, Kashyap and Hoshi note that, at least in the beginning, this form of relational finance allowed for effective oversight, governance, and reorganization of firms.
Japanese banking was a key factor behind Japan closing up to America before WWII, and recovering quickly afterwards. It certainly wasn’t perfect. But it’s worth noting that, before the banking crises in the late 1980s, liberalizers started to change the system. As Kashyap and Hoshi note, “This same pattern of botched liberalization preceding a major financial crisis has been told about many economies in the 1980s and 1990s. Japan’s was just the biggest of the disasters." Despite that major caveat, the authors still regard further liberalization and change along American lines as virtually inevitable and necessary — drawing numerous comparisons to supposedly superior Western banks. This is a rather bizarre stance to hold. I think in twenty years, you’ll be able to look at a book and figure out if it was written pre-2008 or post (this one is definitely before).
Instead of taking the view that deposits ought to match up with savings, American finance has chosen instead to operate via magic. Through magic, the idea is that you can take your liquid, small deposits that you put into an ATM and somehow turn this into large, illiquid investments in major companies. You can take a mortgage-backed security, and again — through magic! — use that as collateral for other purchases. The good part about this is that you can somehow operate the investment needs of a whole economy on virtually no domestic savings, but rather solely through the transactional cash in your checking account. The downside is that financial crises become virtually inevitable. Through deposit insurance, you didn’t see any banking runs on your checking account. But you did see banking runs on Investment Banks, and that’s really what made the crisis as bad as it was.
You're starting to hear people argue that the tools of modern finance lower the need for maturity transformation. Ashwin Parameswaran makes a pretty good case here, noting that we have plenty of long-term savers that can finance long-term investment projects without requiring the funds in your checking account. There are other good narrow banking options out there too. But these accounts typically still concede that maturity transformation made sense at one point in time. I think Masayoshi had things right all along, and had we looked there for inspiration earlier we could have gotten along without any maturity transformation at all.