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It is well to bear in mind that 60 percent of bank closings between and were not panic induced and that the problem of understanding why so many banks failed during the Great Depression goes beyond simply explaining what happened during banking panics. For example, one of the causes of the nonpanic-induced failures during the Great Depression may have been related in part to the over expansion of small, rural banks in the twenties as well as to the distressed state of American agriculture following World War I.


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These factors may have operated during banking panics as well but would have by no means been confined to panic episodes. Unlike previous banking panics of the national banking era, the banking panics of the Great Depression occurred during the same cyclical contraction from to , each compounding the effects generated in the previous panic.

A banking panic may be defined as a class of financial shocks whose origin can be found in any sudden and unanticipated revision of expectations of deposit loss and during which there is an attempt, usually unsuccessful, to convert checkable deposits into currency.

There are two principal characteristics of banking panics: an increased number of bank runs and bank suspensions and currency hoarding as measured by the amount of Federal Reserve notes in circulation seasonally adjusted. Table 1 shows the number of bank suspensions, amount of hoarding, and panic severity in each of the panics of the Great Depression, excepted.

Panic severity is measured by the number of bank suspensions in each panic divided by the total number of banks in existence. The largest number of bank closings was concentrated in the St.

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Louis Federal Reserve District with approximately two suspensions out of every five banks. These closings were related to the failure of the largest regional investment banking house in the South , Caldwell and Co. The failure of Caldwell and Co. The collapse of Caldwell's financial empire raised expectations of deposit loss throughout the surrounding region. The panic was region specific, inasmuch as at least one-half of the twelve Federal Reserve Districts had fewer than 10 percent of bank suspensions.

Four Districts accounted for 80 percent of total bank suspensions and slightly over one-half of the deposits of suspended banks. The consensus view in the early twenty-first century was that the banking crisis was a region specific crisis without perceptible national economic effects.

No more than two months elapsed between the end of the first banking crisis in January and the onset of the second in April. The number of bank suspensions was lower , but the amount of hoarding doubled. One-third of the bank suspensions were in the Chicago Federal Reserve District; there was a mini panic in Chicago in June and a full scale panic in Toledo, Ohio, in August. The Cleveland Federal Reserve District had two-thirds of the deposits of suspended banks. Nevertheless, in six Districts there was little or no change in currency hoarding. The onset of the third banking panic coincided with Britain's departure from the gold standard in September Bank failures , deposits of failed banks, and hoarding rapidly accelerated after the British announcement.

The immediate response of the Federal Reserve was to raise the discount rate in October ; this action was followed by an increase in interest rates. The harmful effects of the increase may have been exaggerated since increased bank suspensions and hoarding had preceded the increase. Mini panics in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Chicago with their reverberating effects occurred between September 21 and October 9, before the discount rate was increased. Sixty percent of the increase in hoarding occurred before the rate increase.

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The discount rate increase played no causal role in precipitating the panic. Nor did the Fed's failure to offset the decline in the money stock represent ineptitude. Knowledge of the role of the currency-deposit ratio as a determinant of the money stock was simply unavailable. In sum, 60 percent of the 2, bank closings in occurred during the two separate banking panics.

Causes of U.S. Bank Distress During the Depression

The panic was idiosyncratic. In no other financial panic was there such a widespread use of the legal device of the "bank holiday," whereby a state official, usually the governor, closed all of the banks for a short time. In March one of the first acts of Franklin Roosevelt, the incoming president, was to announce a nationwide banking holiday, an event without precedent in U.

Prior to Roosevelt's action many states had declared their own bank holidays.

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Such action was the mechanism through which depositor confidence was further eroded and was spread to contiguous states. Officials in the individual states panicked. Uncoordinated state initiatives led to a nationwide banking debacle. The use of statewide moratoria was not new.

Five states had declared banking holidays during the panic. What was new was its use by the president. The timing of the national banking holiday was dictated by two considerations simultaneously.

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Strong had been a forceful leader who understood the ability of the central bank to limit panics. His death left a power vacuum at the Federal Reserve and allowed leaders with less sensible views to block effective intervention. The panics caused a dramatic rise in the amount of currency people wished to hold relative to their bank deposits. This rise in the currency-to-deposit ratio was a key reason why the money supply in the United States declined 31 percent between and In addition to allowing the panics to reduce the U.

Scholars believe that such declines in the money supply caused by Federal Reserve decisions had a severely contractionary effect on output. A simple picture provides perhaps the clearest evidence of the key role monetary collapse played in the Great Depression in the United States. The figure shows the money supply and real output over the period to In ordinary times, such as the s, both the money supply and output tend to grow steadily. But in the early s both plummeted. The decline in the money supply depressed spending in a number of ways. Perhaps most important, because of actual price declines and the rapid decline in the money supply, consumers and businesspeople came to expect deflation; that is, they expected wages and prices to be lower in the future.

As a result, even though nominal interest rates were very low, people did not want to borrow, because they feared that future wages and profits would be inadequate to cover their loan payments. This hesitancy in turn led to severe reductions in both consumer spending and business investment. The panics surely exacerbated the decline in spending by generating pessimism and loss of confidence.

Furthermore, the failure of so many banks disrupted lending, thereby reducing the funds available to finance investment. Some economists believe that the Federal Reserve allowed or caused the huge declines in the American money supply partly to preserve the gold standard. Under the gold standard, each country set the value of its currency in terms of gold and took monetary actions to defend the fixed price. This could have led to large gold outflows, and the United States could have been forced to devalue. Likewise, had the Federal Reserve not tightened the money supply in the fall of , it is possible that there would have been a speculative attack on the dollar and the United States would have been forced to abandon the gold standard along with Great Britain.

While there is debate about the role the gold standard played in limiting U. Under the gold standard, imbalances in trade or asset flows gave rise to international gold flows. For example, in the mids intense international demand for American assets such as stocks and bonds brought large inflows of gold to the United States. Likewise, a decision by France after World War I to return to the gold standard with an undervalued franc led to trade surpluses and substantial gold inflows. See also balance of trade. Britain chose to return to the gold standard after World War I at the prewar parity.

Wartime inflation , however, implied that the pound was overvalued, and this overvaluation led to trade deficits and substantial gold outflows after To stem the gold outflow, the Bank of England raised interest rates substantially. High interest rates depressed British spending and led to high unemployment in Great Britain throughout the second half of the s. Once the U.

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This took place because deflation in the United States made American goods particularly desirable to foreigners, while low income among Americans reduced their demand for foreign products. To counteract the resulting tendency toward an American trade surplus and foreign gold outflows, central banks throughout the world raised interest rates.

Maintaining the international gold standard, in essence, required a massive monetary contraction throughout the world to match the one occurring in the United States. The result was a decline in output and prices in countries throughout the world that nearly matched the downturn in the United States. Financial crises and banking panics occurred in a number of countries besides the United States. Among the countries hardest hit by bank failures and volatile financial markets were Austria, Germany, and Hungary. These widespread banking crises could have been the result of poor regulation and other local factors or of simple contagion from one country to another.