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The promise and performance of the Federal Reserve as Lender of Last Resort 1914-1933

  • Michael D. Bordo


    (Rutgers University and NBER)

  • David C. Wheelock


    (Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis)

This paper examines the origins and early performance of the Federal Reserve as lender of last resort. The Fed was established to overcome the problems of the National Banking era, in particular an “inelastic” currency and the absence of an effective lender of last resort. As conceived by Paul Warburg and Nelson Aldrich at Jekyll Island in 1910, the Fed’s discount window and bankers acceptance-purchase facilities were expected to solve the problems that had caused banking panics in the National Banking era. Banking panics returned with a vengeance in the 1930s, however, and we examine why the Fed failed to live up to the promise of its founders. Although many factors contributed to the Fed’s failures, we argue that the failure of the Federal Reserve Act to faithfully recreate the conditions that had enabled European central banks to perform effectively as lenders of last resort, or to reform the inherently unstable U.S. banking system, were crucial. The Fed’s failures led to numerous reforms in the mid-1930s, including expansion of the Fed’s lending authority and changes in the System’s structure, as well as changes that made the U.S. banking system less prone to banking panics. Finally, we consider lessons about the design of lender of last resort policies that might be drawn from the Fed’s early history.

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Paper provided by Norges Bank in its series Working Paper with number 2011/01.

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Length: 45 pages
Date of creation: 15 Feb 2011
Date of revision:
Handle: RePEc:bno:worpap:2011_01
Note: First version:
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  1. Timberlake, Richard H, Jr, 1984. "The Central Banking Role of Clearinghouse Associations," Journal of Money, Credit and Banking, Blackwell Publishing, vol. 16(1), pages 1-15, February.
  2. Rockoff, Hugh, 1974. "The Free Banking Era: A Reexamination," Journal of Money, Credit and Banking, Blackwell Publishing, vol. 6(2), pages 141-67, May.
  3. Richard S. Grossman, 2010. "Unsettled Account: The Evolution of Banking in the Industrialized World since 1800," Economics Books, Princeton University Press, edition 1, volume 1, number 9219.
  4. Bordo, Michael D. & Rockoff, Hugh & Redish, Angela, 1996. "A comparison of the stability and efficiency of the Canadian and American banking systems, 1870–1925," Financial History Review, Cambridge University Press, vol. 3(01), pages 49-68, April.
  5. Vincent Bignon & Marc Flandreau & Stefano Ugolini, 2012. "Bagehot for beginners: the making of lender‐of‐last‐resort operations in the mid‐nineteenth century," Economic History Review, Economic History Society, vol. 65(2), pages 580-608, 05.
  6. Michael D. Bordo & Owen Humpage & Anna J. Schwartz, 2006. "The Historical Origins of U.S. Exchange Market Intervention Policy," NBER Working Papers 12662, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  7. Brian Madigan, 2009. "Bagehot's dictum in practice: formulating and implementing policies to combat the financial crisis," Proceedings - Economic Policy Symposium - Jackson Hole, Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, pages 169-189.
  8. Michael D. Bordo & Angela Redish & Hugh Rockoff, 2011. "Why didn't Canada have a banking crisis in 2008 (or in 1930, or 1907, or ...)?," NBER Working Papers 17312, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  9. John B. Taylor & John C. Williams, 2008. "A Black Swan in the Money Market," NBER Working Papers 13943, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  10. Knodell, Jane, 2003. "Profit and duty in the Second Bank of the United States' exchange operations," Financial History Review, Cambridge University Press, vol. 10(01), pages 5-30, April.
  11. Peter Temin, 1991. "Lessons from the Great Depression," MIT Press Books, The MIT Press, edition 1, volume 1, number 0262700441, June.
  12. David C. Wheelock, 2010. "Lessons learned? comparing the Federal Reserve's responses to the crises of 1929-1933 and 2007-2009," Review, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, issue Mar, pages 89-108.
  13. Wheelock, David C., 1989. "The Strategy and Consistency of Federal Reserve Monetary Policy, 1919–1933," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 49(02), pages 459-461, June.
  14. Michael D. Bordo, 1990. "The lender of last resort : alternative views and historical experience," Economic Review, Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, issue Jan, pages 18-29.
  15. Gorton, Gary, 1996. "Reputation Formation in Early Bank Note Markets," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 104(2), pages 346-97, April.
  16. David C. Wheelock, 1992. "Seasonal accommodation and the financial crises of the Great Depression: did the Fed "furnish an elastic currency?"," Review, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, issue Nov, pages 3-18.
  17. Claudia Goldin & Hugh Rockoff, 1992. "Strategic Factors in Nineteenth Century American Economic History: A Volume to Honor Robert W. Fogel," NBER Books, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc, number gold92-1, December.
  18. Barry Eichengreen & Michael D. Bordo, 2002. "Crises Now and Then: What Lessons from the Last Era of Financial Globalization," NBER Working Papers 8716, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  19. Perry Mehrling, 2002. "Retrospectives: Economists and the Fed: Beginnings," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 16(4), pages 207-218, Fall.
  20. Charles Calomiris, 1995. "The Costs of Rejecting Universal Banking: American Finance in the German Mirror, 1870-1914," NBER Chapters, in: Coordination and Information: Historical Perspectives on the Organization of Enterprise, pages 257-322 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  21. Gorton, Gary, 1985. "Clearinghouses and the Origin of Central Banking in the United States," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 45(02), pages 277-283, June.
  22. Rolnick, Arthur J & Weber, Warren E, 1983. "New Evidence on the Free Banking Era," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 73(5), pages 1080-91, December.
  23. Ben S. Bernanke, 1983. "Non-Monetary Effects of the Financial Crisis in the Propagation of the Great Depression," NBER Working Papers 1054, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  24. Wheelock, David C, 1990. "Member Bank Borrowing and the Fed's Contractionary Monetary Policy during the Great Depression," Journal of Money, Credit and Banking, Blackwell Publishing, vol. 22(4), pages 409-26, November.
  25. Miron, Jeffrey A, 1986. "Financial Panics, the Seasonality of the Nominal Interest Rate, and theFounding of the Fed," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 76(1), pages 125-40, March.
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