Monday, February 25, 2013

Taxation, Bank Leverage, and Financial Crises. By Ruud de Mooij, Michael Keen, and Masanori Orihara

Taxation, Bank Leverage, and Financial Crises. By Ruud de Mooij, Michael Keen, and Masanori Orihara
IMF Working Paper No. 13/48
Feb 25, 2013

Summary: That most corporate tax systems favor debt over equity finance is now widely recognized as, potentially, amplifying risks to financial stability. This paper makes a first attempt to explore, empirically, the link between this tax bias and the probability of financial crisis. It finds that greater tax bias is associated with significantly higher aggregate bank leverage, and that this in turn is associated with a significantly greater chance of crisis. The implication is that tax bias makes crises much more likely, and, conversely, that the welfare gains from policies to alleviate it can be substantial—far greater than previous studies, which have ignored financial stability considerations, suggest.

Introduction excerpts:

The onset of the financial crisis of 2008 quickly prompted many assessments of the role that taxation might have played.1 Their consensus was clear, but vague: tax distortions did not trigger the crisis, but may have increased vulnerability to financial crises. Prominent among the reasons given for this was ‘debt bias’: the tendency toward excess leverage induced, in almost all countries, by the deductibility against corporate taxation of interest payments but not of the return to equity.2 By encouraging firms to finance themselves by debt rather than equity, this might have made them more vulnerable to shocks and so increased both the likelihood and intensity of financial crises. The point applies in principle to all firms, but is a particular concern in relation to financial institutions; and these are the focus here.

This potential link from tax design to financial crises is now widely recognized. But analysis has not progressed beyond metaphor and speculation. Shackelford, Shaviro, and Slemrod (2010, p. 784), for instance, stress “the possibility that the tax biases served…as extra gasoline intensifying the explosion once other causes lit the match”, and the European Commission that “The welfare costs related to debt bias might not be negligible [because] excessive debt levels increase the probability of default” (European Commission, 2011; p. 7), with both the ‘might’ and the ‘not negligible’ leaving much doubt and imprecision.  This paper aims to provide a first attempt to establish and quantify an empirical link between the tax incentives that encourage financial institutions (more precisely, banks, the group for which we have data) to finance themselves by debt rather than equity and the likelihood of financial crises erupting; and then to try to quantify the welfare gains that policies to address this bias might consequently yield.

The approach is to combine two elements in a causal chain. The first is that between the statutory corporate tax rate and banks’ leverage. This has received substantial attention in relation to nonfinancial firms,3 but very little in relation to the financial sector. Keen and De Mooij (2011), however, show that for banks too a higher corporate tax rate, amplifying the tax advantage of debt over equity finance, should in principle lead to higher levels of leverage; the presence of capital regulations does not affect the usual tax bias applying, so long as it is privately optimal for banks to hold some buffer over regulatory requirements (as they generally do). Empirically too, Keen and de Mooij (2012) find that, for a large crosscountry panel of banks, tax effects on leverage are significant—and, on average, about aslarge as for nonfinancial institutions. These effects are very much smaller, they also find, for the largest banks, which generally account for the vast bulk of all bank assets. One task in this paper is to explore these findings further, using data now available to extend coverage into the crisis period that began in 2008—enabling a comparison of tax impacts pre- and post-onset—and applying the same estimation strategy to country-level data for the OECD.

Importantly, the finding that tax distortions to leverage are small for the larger banks, which are massively larger than the rest, does not mean that the welfare impact of tax distortions is in aggregate negligible: even small changes in the leverage of very large banks could have a large impact on the likelihood of their distress or failure, and hence on the likelihood of financial crisis.

This is where the second link in the causal chain explored here comes in: that between the aggregate leverage of the financial sector and the probability of financial crisis.4 We estimate such a relationship for OECD countries, applying the estimation strategy of Barrell et al.  (2010) and Kato, Kobayashi, and Saita (2010) but, in contrast to these earlier studies, capturing data on the recent financial crisis from Laeven and Valencia (2010). The results suggest sizeable and highly nonlinear effects of aggregate bank leverage on the probability of financial crisis.

Combining the results from these two estimating equations enables simple calculations of the impact of a variety of tax reforms on the likelihood of financial crisis. Linking this, in turn, with estimates of the output loss that is historically associated with such crises gives some rough sense of the potential welfare gains from policies that mitigate debt bias in the financial sector. Putting aside the overarching debate as to the proper roles of taxation and regulation in addressing the potential for excess leverage in the financial sector,5 we consider three tax reforms that would reduce the tax incentive to debt finance: a cut in the corporate tax rate; adoption of an Allowance for Corporate Equity form of corporate tax (which would in principle eliminate debt bias); and a ‘bank levy’ of broadly the kind that a dozen or so countries have introduced since the crisis.6

All this gives a very different perspective on the nature and possible magnitude of the welfare costs associated with debt bias. Previous work, which has not reflected considerations of financial stability, has concluded that these are small: Gordon (2010) estimates the total efficiency loss from debt bias in the U.S. to be less than 1 percent of corporate income tax (CIT) revenue and concludes that: “tax distortions from corporate financial policy are not an important consideration when setting tax policy”; Weichenrieder and Klautke (2008) put the marginal welfare loss from debt bias somewhat higher, but still only at 0.06–0.16 percent of the capital stock. The question here is whether considerations of financial stability imply much higher welfare losses—and the conclusion will be that it seems they do.


The analysis here is in several respects simplistic and limited. In particular, we have not uncovered a direct link between tax incentives favoring debt finance and the probability of financial crisis. But the evidence presented here does suggest the real possibility of such a connection. If debt bias leads to higher aggregate bank leverage than would otherwise be the case—and it seems that it does—and if higher aggregate bank leverage makes financial crisis more likely—and it seems that it does—then debt bias increases the chances of financial crisis. This, in turn, can imply welfare gains from mitigating debt bias far higher than the small amounts found in previous work: noticeably more, in some of the calculations reported here, than 1 percent of GDP. Regulation, of course, has historically had the dominant role in addressing such problems of excess leverage in the financial sector, and the higher and tighter capital requirements of Basel III should to some degree reduce the welfare costs of debt bias. How much comfort is taken from this will depend on one’s evaluation of these reforms. What the evidence assembled here suggests, however, is that the tax incentive encouraging banks to use debt finance is not just an inelegant inconsistency with regulations intended to do the exact opposite, but a potential risk to be recognized, and, as need be, addressed, in the pursuit of financial stability.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Asset Price Bubbles: A Selective Survey. By Anna Scherbina

Asset Price Bubbles: A Selective Survey. By Anna Scherbina
IMF Working Paper No. 13/45
Feb 21, 2013

Summary: Why do asset price bubbles continue to appear in various markets? This paper provides an overview of recent literature on bubbles, with significant attention given to behavioral models and rational models with frictions. Unlike the standard rational models, the new literature is able to model the common characteristics of historical bubble episodes and offer insights for how bubbles are initiated and sustained, the reasons they burst, and why arbitrage forces do not routinely step in to squash them. The latest U.S. real estate bubble is described in the context of this literature.

Introduction excerpts:

The persistent failure of present-value models to explain asset price levels led academic research to introduce the concept of bubbles as a tool to model price deviations from presentvalue relations. The early literature was dominated by models in which all agents were assumed to be rational and yet a bubble could exist. In many of the more recent papers, the perfect rationality assumption was relaxed, allowing the models to shift the focus to explaining how a bubble may be initiated, under which conditions it would burst, and why arbitrage forces may fail to ensure that prices reflect fundamentals at all times. In light of the recent U.S. real estate bubble, the question of why bubbles are so prevalent is once again a matter of concern of academics and policy makers. This paper surveys the recent literature on asset price bubbles, with significant attention given to behavioral models as well as rational models with incentive problems, market frictions, and non-traditional preferences. For surveys of the earlier literature, see, e.g., Camerer (1989) and Stiglitz (1990).

There are a number of ways to define a bubble. A very straightforward definition is that a bubble is a deviation of the market price from the asset’s fundamental value. Value investors specialize in finding and investing in undervalued assets. In contrast, short sellers, who search the market for overvalued assets in order to sell them short, are routinely vilified by governments, the popular press, and, not surprisingly, by the overvalued firms themselves.1 Trading against an overvaluation involves the additional costs and risks of maintaining a short position, such as the potentially unlimited loss, the risk that the borrowed asset will be called back prematurely, and a commonly charged fee that manifests itself as a low interest rate paid on the margin account; for this reason, a persistent overvaluation is more common than a persistent undervaluation.

A positive or negative mispricing may arise when initial news about a firm’s fundamentals moves the stock price up or down and feedback traders buy or sell additional shares in response to past price movement without regard for current valuation, thus continuing the price trend beyond the value justified by fundamentals.2 However, because of the potentially nontrivial costs of short selling an overvaluation will be less readily eliminated, making positive bubbles more common. The paper will, therefore, focus predominately on positive price bubbles. We can define a positive bubble occurring when an asset’s trading price exceeds the discounted value of expected future cash flows (CF):

[traditional formula],

where r is the appropriate discount rate.3 Since it may be difficult to estimate the required compensation for risk, an alternative definition may be used that replaces the discount rate with the risk-free rate, r sub f:

[same formula with r sub f instead of r].

When the asset’s cash flows are positively correlated with market risk, as is the case for most firms, the required rate of return is strictly greater than the risk-free rate and the discountedcash- flow formula represents an upper limit of the justifiable range of fair values. Likewise, when it is difficult to forecast future cash flows for a particular asset or firm, an upper bound of forecasted cash flows for other firms in the same industry or asset class may be used.

Over the years, the academic study of bubbles has expanded to explore the effects of perverse incentives and of bounded rationality. The new generation of rational models identifies the incentive to herd and the limited liability compensation structure as pervasive problems that encourage professional money managers to invest in bubbles. Another problem contributing to bubbles is that information intermediaries are not paid directly by investors, and their incentives are not always compatible with reporting negative information. And rather than merely trying to answer under what conditions bubbles may exist in asset prices, behavioral models offer new insights for how a bubble may be initiated, under which conditions it would burst, and why arbitrage forces may fail to ensure that prices reflect fundamentals at all times.  Moreover, some models offer the explanation for why many bubble episodes are accompanied by high trading volume. The behavioral view of bubbles finds support in experimental studies.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Dealing with Private Debt Distress in the Wake of the European Financial Crisis - A Review of the Economics and Legal Toolbox

Dealing with Private Debt Distress in the Wake of the European Financial Crisis - A Review of the Economics and Legal Toolbox. By Yan Liu and Christoph Rosenberg
IMF Working Paper No. 13/44
February 20, 2013

Summary: The private non-financial sector in Europe is facing increased challenges in meeting its debt servicing obligation. In response, governments are revisiting legal tools and—in some cases—institutional arrangements to deal with over-indebtedness. For households, where the problem in some countries is large but no established best practice exists, reforms have generally sought to allow debtors a fresh start while minimizing moral hazard and preserving bank solvency and credit discipline. For the corporate sector, efforts have focused on facilitating debt restruturing (including through out of court mechanisms). Direct government intervention has been rare.

ISBN/ISSN: 9781475544305 / 2227-8885
Stock No: WPIEA2013044

Stapleton Roy: U.S. and China Must Halt Drift Toward Strategic Rivalry

Stapleton Roy: U.S. and China Must Halt Drift Toward Strategic Rivalry

HONOLULU (Feb. 20, 2013) -- With China’s leadership in transition and incoming Secretary of State John Kerry heading a new foreign policy team in the second Obama administration, leaders in both countries must face a “frightening array of domestic and foreign policy problems” in managing their vital relationship, longtime senior U.S. diplomat J. Stapleton Roy said in a Feb. 13 address at the East-West Center in Hawai‘i.

(View a video of Roy’s speech.)

“No task is going to be more important than trying to arrest the current drift in U.S.-China relations toward strategic rivalry,” he said. “If leaders in both countries fail to deal with this issue, there is a strong possibility that tensions will rise and undermine the benign climate that has been so important in producing the Asian economic miracle ­– and to a significant degree, political miracle ­– over the past 30 years.”

Roy, who served as U.S. ambassador to China from 1991 to 1995, said the two nations are “locked in the traditional problem of an established power facing a rising power, and we know from historical precedent that competitive factors that emerge in such situations often result in bloody wars.” The good news, he said, is that “leaders in both countries are aware of the historical precedents and are determined to not let history repeat itself.”

While top leaders on both sides have recognized the need to work together toward a stable balance between cooperation and competition, Roy said, neither country has been able to implement this, and “it remains to be seen if it is even possible to establish this new type of relationship.”

Roy said opinion polls over the last couple of years have shown a dramatic increase in the percentage of Chinese citizens and officials who view relations with the U.S. as characterized by hostility rather than cooperation. During the same period, he said, U.S. polls indicate that “we don’t think of China in same way.”

“This is something we need to be concerned about,” he said, “because the tensions and passions on the other side are stronger than they are on our side, and this requires careful management.”

While incoming Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqian have already declared their interest in implementing further market reforms and reining in pervasive corruption, Roy said, “the Communist Party may lack the legitimacy and will to force through the far-reaching reforms that are needed against the influence of special interests, especially large state-owned businesses. One can reasonably doubt if a party corrupted by wealth at the highest level can carry out the kind of fundamental systemic reforms that are necessary.”

In addition, he said, China’s new leaders will be faced with a litany of internal difficulties that “illustrate why it would still be foolish to postulate that the 21st century will belong to China.” These include what even outgoing premier Wen Jiabao has characterized as an “unstable, unbalanced, uncoordinated and unsustainable” economy, Roy said, along with a rapidly aging population, slowing economic growth, and what is known as the “middle income trap,” when a rising economy loses the competitive advantage of low-cost labor as it climbs the income scale.

“Wages in China have been rising rapidly, especially for skilled labor,” Roy said. “So they have to substitute something else, such as innovation or efficiency.” Historically, he said, “over 100 countries have reached the middle income trap, and 86 percent failed to get out of it. They grow, then reach a certain level and stall out. China has to find way to avoid this, and that’s a big challenge.”

Another huge issue, Roy said, is that “rising nationalism is pushing China toward a more assertive international style and enmeshing it in difficulties with a lot of its neighbors. This has the potential to undermine the benign international environment that has underpinned the dramatic accomplishments China has made.”

China’s more assertive recent behavior is “both typical and predictable for a rising power,” he said. “But China is finding that when it expresses this nationalism through more assertive behavior, its neighbors all show solidarity with the U.S., which is not what China is trying to accomplish. And this is causing resentment in China, because they find that they can’t use their growing power effectively as a result of the negative consequences.”

This could actually prove to be a positive phenomenon for the U.S., he said, “because if we’re skillful enough to understand this dynamic, we are in a position to constrain China when it’s behaving irresponsibly and cooperate with it when it behaves responsibly.”

“China is not the Soviet Union,” he said. “China’s rise has benefitted all of the countries around it, and as a result they don’t want a containment policy; they want responsible behavior by China so they can expand economic and trade relations, which already dwarf their relations with other countries. But when China behaves badly, then they want the United States to be present because they can’t deal with China on their own. It’s a dynamic that skillful diplomacy should be able to take advantage from.”

With China now “locked in a web of disputes” with its neighbors over small but potentially resource-rich islands in the region, Roy said, “the United States finds itself in the awkward situation of trying to reassure our allies at the same time we try to restrain their behavior, because we don’t want tiny little islands in the western Pacific to end up bringing us into a great-power confrontation with China.”

The threat of such hostility is real, he said, and “these disputes are having direct impact on U.S.-China relations – but it’s an asymmetrical impact, because Americans basically don’t care about these islands. But in China it is an issue of great nationalist importance, as it is for Japan, the Philippines and other claimants.”

Such issues, he said, illustrate the complexity of trying to manage this vitally important relationship: “A stronger China will undoubtedly see itself as again becoming a central regional player, but the United States intends to remain actively engaged in East Asia, where we have formal alliances and strategic ties throughout the region.”

The question for leaders of both countries, Roy said, is whether they can find a solution to this conundrum. As of now, he said, “there is a disconnect between the high-level desire on both sides not to have our relationship drift toward rivalry and confrontation, and the way we’re actually behaving, which is driving us in that direction.”

Open military conflict is unlikely and preventable, he said, but just the threat of it could cause a costly “military capabilities competition” for decades to come, at a time when the U.S. is already facing budget cuts.

“Chinese and U.S. declared strategic goals and their actions are not yet in conformity with each other,” Roy said. “In my mind, this is the central strategic challenge in the U.S.-China relationship, and if we don’t address it forthrightly, it will be more difficult to manage in the future.”


The EAST-WEST CENTER promotes better relations and understanding among the people and nations of the United States, Asia, and the Pacific through cooperative study, research, and dialogue. Established by the U.S. Congress in 1960, the Center serves as a resource for information and analysis on critical issues of common concern, bringing people together to exchange views, build expertise, and develop policy options.

Click here for links to all East-West Center media programs, fellowships and services.
Connect with the East-West Center on Facebook and Twitter.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

BCBS: Supervisory guidance for managing risks associated with the settlement of foreign exchange transactions

BCBS: Supervisory guidance for managing risks associated with the settlement of foreign exchange transactions
February 15 2013

The purpose of this guidance is to provide updated guidance to supervisors and the banks they supervise on approaches to managing the risks associated with the settlement of FX transactions. This guidance expands on, and replaces, the BCBS's Supervisory guidance for managing settlement risk in foreign exchange transactions published in September 2000.

Since the BCBS's Supervisory guidance for managing settlement risk in foreign exchange transactions (2000) was published, the foreign exchange market has made significant strides in reducing the risks associated with the settlement of FX transactions. Substantial FX settlement-related risks remain, however, not least because of the rapid growth in FX trading activities.

The document provides a more comprehensive and detailed view on governance arrangements and the management of principal risk, replacement cost risk and all other FX settlement-related risks. In addition, it promotes the use of payment-versus-payment arrangements, where practicable, to reduce principal risk.

The guidance is organized into seven "guidelines" that address governance, principal risk, replacement cost risk, liquidity risk, operational risk, legal risk, and capital for FX transactions. The key recommendations emphasize the following:
  • A bank should ensure that all FX settlement-related risks are effectively managed and that its practices are consistent with those used for managing other counterparty exposures of similar size and duration.
  • A bank should reduce its principal risk as much as practicable by settling FX transactions through the use of FMIs that provide PVP arrangements. Where PVP settlement is not practicable, a bank should properly identify, measure, control and reduce the size and duration of its remaining principal risk.
  • A bank should ensure that when analysing capital needs, all FX settlement-related risks should be considered, including principal risk and replacement cost risk and that sufficient capital is held against these potential exposures, as appropriate.
  • A bank should use netting arrangements and collateral arrangements to reduce its replacement cost risk and should fully collateralise its mark-to-market exposure on physically settling FX swaps and forwards with counterparties that are financial institutions and systemically important non-financial entities.
An annex to the final guidance provides detailed explanation of FX settlement-related risks and how they arise.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A Banking Union for the Euro Area. IMF Staff Discussion Note

A Banking Union for the Euro Area. By Rishi Goyal, Petya Koeva Brooks, Mahmood Pradhan, Thierry Tressel, Giovanni Dell'Ariccia, Ross Leckow, Ceyla Pazarbasioglu, and an IMF Staff Team
IMF Staff Discussion Note 13/01
February 13, 2013

Summary: The SDN elaborates the case for, and the design of, a banking union for the euro area. It discusses the benefits and costs of a banking union, presents a steady state view of the banking union, elaborates difficult transition issues, and briefly discusses broader EU issues. As such, it assesses current plans and provides advice. It is accompanied by three background technical notes that analyze in depth the various elements of the banking union: a single supervisory framework; a single resolution and common safety net; and urgent issues related to repair of weak banks in Europe.

ISBN/ISSN: 9781475521160 / 2221-030X
Stock No: SDNEA2013001

Executive summary:
  • A banking union—a single supervisory-regulatory framework, resolution mechanism, and safety net—for the euro area is the logical conclusion of the idea that integrated banking systems require integrated prudential oversight.
  • The case for a banking union for the euro area is both immediate and longer term. Moving responsibility for potential financial support and bank supervision to a shared level can reduce fragmentation of financial markets, stem deposit flight, and weaken the vicious loop of rising sovereign and bank borrowing costs. In steady state, a single framework should bring a uniformly high standard of confidence and oversight, reduce national distortions, and mitigate the buildup of concentrated risk that compromises systemic stability. Time is of the essence.
  • Progress is required on all elements. A single supervisory mechanism (SSM) must ultimately supervise all banks, with clarity on duties, powers and accountability, and adequate resources. But without common resolution and safety nets and credible backstops, an SSM alone will do little to weaken vicious sovereign-bank links; they are necessary also to limit conflicts of interest between national authorities and the SSM. A single resolution authority, with clear ex ante burden-sharing mechanisms, must have strong powers to close or restructure banks and be required to intervene well ahead of insolvency. A common resolution/insurance fund, sized to resolve some small to medium bank failures, with access to common backstops for systemic situations, would add credibility and facilitate limited industry funding.
  • The challenge for policymakers is to stem the crisis while ensuring that actions dovetail seamlessly into the future steady state. Hence, agreeing at the outset on the elements, modalities, and resources for a banking union can help avoid the pitfalls of a piecemeal approach and an outcome that is worse than at the start. The December 2012 European Council agreement on an SSM centered at the European Central Bank (ECB) is an important step, but raises challenges that should not be underestimated. Meanwhile, to delink weak sovereigns from future residual banking sector risks, it will be important to undertake as soon as possible direct recapitalization of frail domestically systemic banks by the European Stability Mechanism (ESM). Failing, non-systemic banks should be wound down at least cost, and frail, domestically systemic banks should be resuscitated by shareholders, creditors, the sovereign, and the ESM.
  • A banking union is necessary for the euro area, but accommodating the concerns of non-euro area European Union (EU) countries will augur well for consistency with the EU single market.

Views from Japan: Comments on the incidents with China's naval forces

Q&A session with "aki", a Japanese citizen, on contemporary politics

Q: Maybe you'd like to publish some short comments on the incidents with China's naval forces

A: yes, i've been interested in it indeed.

Chinese government seems pushing themselves to the edge of cliff. they are scared of that their citizens make disorder against the them, so they need to make "scapegoats" outside of the country to distract the people's view to protect themselves.

recently Chinese citizens' been tending to show their frustration to the government, because of the corruptions of politics and unfair distribution of wealth.

they are trying to make Japan the "scapegoat" now. but the government of Japan never reacted their provocations, just do what we should do in internationally "right" way. that makes China nervous - if they stimulate japan more, they will be censured in the world, but never can show their citizens compromising attitude... these days, their behavior looks like north Korea's. never look they are the economically 2nd biggest country.

need to watch it carefully. (personally, a sort of fun to see how they do)


Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Mortgage insurance: market structure, underwriting cycle and policy implications - Consultative paper released by the Joint Forum

Mortgage insurance: market structure, underwriting cycle and policy implications - Consultative paper released by the Joint Forum

February 2013
This consultative report on Mortgage insurance: market structure, underwriting cycle and policy implications examines the interaction of mortgage insurers with mortgage originators and underwriters. The report sets out the following recommendations directed at policymakers and supervisors with the aim of reducing the likelihood of mortgage insurance stress and failure in such tail events.
  1. Policymakers should consider requiring that mortgage originators and mortgage insurers align their interests;
  2. Supervisors should ensure that mortgage insurers and mortgage originators maintain strong underwriting standards;
  3. Supervisors should be alert to - and correct for - deterioration in underwriting standards stemming from behavioural incentives influencing mortgage originators and mortgage insurers;
  4. Supervisors should require mortgage insurers to build long-term capital buffers and reserves during the valleys of the underwriting cycle to cover claims during its peaks;
  5. Supervisors should be aware of and mitigate cross-sectoral arbitrage which could arise from differences in the accounting between insurers' technical reserves and banks' loan loss provisions, and from differences in the capital requirements for credit risk between banks and insurers; and
  6. Supervisors should apply the FSB Principles for Sound Residential Mortgage Underwriting Practices ("FSB Principles") to mortgage insurers noting that proper supervisory implementation necessitates both insurance and banking expertise.
Comments on this consultative report should be submitted by Tuesday 30 April 2013 either by email to or by post to the Secretariat of the Joint Forum (BCBS Secretariat), Bank for International Settlements, CH-4002 Basel, Switzerland. All comments may be published on the websites of the Bank for International Settlements (, IOSCO ( and the IAIS ( unless a commenter specifically requests confidential treatment.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A Jersey Lesson in Voter Fraud. By Thomas Fleming

A Jersey Lesson in Voter Fraud. By Thomas Fleming
My grandmother died there in 1940. She voted Democratic for the next 10 years.The Wall Street Journal, February 6, 2013, on page A11

Some youthful memories were stirred by the news this week that the president plans to use his State of the Union speech next Tuesday to urge Congress to make voter registration and ballot-casting easier. Like Mr. Obama, I come from a city with a colorful history of political corruption and vote fraud.

The president's town is Chicago, mine is Jersey City. Both were solidly Democratic in the 1930s and '40s, and their mayors were close friends. At one point in the early '30s, Jersey City's Frank Hague called Chicago's Ed Kelly to say he needed $2 million as soon as possible to survive a coming election. According to my father—one of Boss Hague's right-hand men—a dapper fellow who had taken an overnight train arrived at Jersey City's City Hall the next morning, suitcase in hand, cash inside.

Those were the days when it was glorious to be a Democrat. As a historian, I give talks from time to time. In a recent one, called "Us Against Them," I said it was we Irish and our Italian, Polish and other ethnic allies against "the dirty rotten stinking WASP Protestant Republicans of New Jersey." By thus demeaning the opposition, we had clear consciences as we rolled up killer majorities using tactics that had little to do with the election laws.

My grandmother Mary Dolan died in 1940. But she voted Democratic for the next 10 years. An election bureau official came to our door one time and asked if Mrs. Dolan was still living in our house. "She's upstairs taking a nap," I replied. Satisfied, he left.

Thousands of other ghosts cast similar ballots every Election Day in Jersey City. Another technique was the use of "floaters," tough Irishmen imported from New York who voted five, six and even 10 times at various polling places.

Equally effective was cash-per-vote. On more than one Election Day, my father called the ward's chief bookmaker to tell him: "I need 10 grand by one o'clock." He always got it, and his ward had a formidable Democratic majority when the polls closed.

Other times, as the clock ticked into the wee hours, word would often arrive in the polling places that the dirty rotten stinking WASP Protestant Republicans had built up a commanding lead in South Jersey, where "Nucky" Johnson (currently being immortalized on TV in HBO's "Boardwalk Empire") had a small Republican machine in Atlantic City.

By dawn, tens of thousands of hitherto unknown Jersey City ballots would be counted and another Democratic governor or senator would be in office, and the Democratic presidential candidate would benefit as well. Things in Chicago were no different, Boss Hague would remark after returning from one of his frequent visits.

I have to laugh when I hear current-day Democrats not only lobbying against voter-identification laws but campaigning to make voting even easier than it already is. More laughable is the idea of dressing up the matter as a civil-rights issue.

My youthful outlook on life—that anything goes against the rotten stinking WASP Protestant Republicans—evaporated while I served in the U.S. Navy in World War II. In that conflict, millions of people like me acquired a new understanding of what it meant to be an American.

Later I became a historian of this nation's early years—and I can assure President Obama that no founding father would tolerate the idea of unidentified voters. These men understood the possibility and the reality of political corruption. They knew it might erupt at any time within a city or state.

The president's party—which is still my party—has inspired countless Americans by looking out for the less fortunate. No doubt that instinct motivated Mr. Obama in his years as a community organizer in Chicago. Such caring can still be a force, but that force, and the Democratic Party, will be constantly soiled and corrupted if the right and the privilege to vote becomes an easily manipulated joke.

Mr. Fleming is a former president of the Society of American Historians.