Thursday, November 5, 2015

Hummel Corrects the Dominant View of Banking Crises in U.S. History

Over at EconLog, David Henderson has posted on Jeff Hummel's commentary concerning the inefficacy of macroeconomic policy aimed at curtailing business cycles. I encourage you to take a look. Hummel also notes that banking crisis of the pre-modern era (before 1913) were not as damaging as many historians believe. (see also Selgin, Lastrapes, and White) Some historians have misinterpreted the data as they confuse bank suspensions that occur during panics with bank failures:

Bank Failures
Bank panics, even when accompanied by numerous suspensions (or what Friedman and Schwartz prefer to call “restrictions on cash payments” to distinguish them from government suspensions of redeemability), do not always result in a major number of bank failures.
For instance, Calomiris and Gorton report the failure of only six national banks out of a total of 6412 during the Panic of 1907, or less than 0.1 percent. Of course the Panic of 1907 was concentrated among state banks and trust companies. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, there are no good time series on the failures of state banks for the period prior to the creation of the Federal Reserve. Yet there were over 12,000 state banks at the outset of the Panic of 1907. One very fragmentary and incomplete estimate of total bank suspensions (rather than failures) in Historical Statistics (1975), including both state and national banks, puts the number during that panic at 153. Even if all suspensions had resulted in failures, which of course did not happen, we still have a failure rate of 0.7 percent for all commercial banks.
Confusion of bank suspensions with bank failures can even infect serious scholarly work. For example, in Michael D. Bordo and David C. Wheelock (1998), charts meant to show bank failures are instead clearly depicting statistics on the annual number of bank suspensions. Similarly, periods of numerous bank failures do not always coincide with bank panics, as the S&L crisis dramatically illustrates. So it is crucial to distinguish between periods of panics and failures, although specifying the latter requires judgment calls. For the monthly number of national bank failures prior to the Fed’s creation, I have depended heavily on Comptroller of the Currency (1915), v. 2, Table 35, pp. 66-103.

The dominant historical narrative tends to follow the stale formula of:
1. Market Fails
2. Government Intervenes
3. Social Welfare Improves
I know this story from somewhere...