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Causes of U.S. Bank Distress During the Depression

  • Charles W. Calomiris
  • Joseph R. Mason

This paper provides the first comprehensive econometric analysis of the causes of bank distress during the Depression. We assemble bank-level data for virtually all Fed member banks, and combine those data with county-level, state-level, and national-level economic characteristics to capture cross-sectional and inter-temporal variation in the determinants of bank failure. We construct a model of bank survival duration using these fundamental determinants of bank failure as predictors, and investigate the adequacy of fundamentals for explaining bank failures during alleged episodes of nationwide or regional banking panics. We find that fundamentals explain most of the incidence of bank failure, and argue that contagion' or liquidity crises' were a relatively unimportant influence on bank failure risk prior to 1933. We construct upper-bound measures of the importance of contagion or liquidity crises. At the national level, we find that the first two banking crises identified by Friedman and Schwartz in 1930 and 1931 are not associated with positive unexplained residual failure risk, or with changes in the importance of liquidity measures for forecasting bank failures. The third banking crisis they identify is a more ambiguous case, but even if one views it as a bona fide national liquidity crisis, the size of the contagion effect could not have been very large. The last banking crisis they identify at the beginning of 1933 is associated with important, unexplained increases in bank failure risk. We also investigate the potential role of regional or local contagion and illiquidity crises for promoting bank failure and find some evidence in support of such effects, but these are of small importance in the aggregate. We also investigate the causes of bank distress measured as deposit contraction, using county-level measures of deposits of all commercial banks, and reach similar conclusions about the importance of fundamentals in determining deposit contraction.

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File URL: http://www.nber.org/papers/w7919.pdf
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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 7919.

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Date of creation: Sep 2000
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Publication status: published as Charles W. Calomiris & Joseph R. Mason, 2001. "Causes of U.S. bank distress during the depression," Proceedings, Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, issue May, pages 530-554.
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:7919
Note: DAE ME
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  1. Esbitt, Milton, 1986. "Bank Portfolios and Bank Failures During the Great Depression: Chicago," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 46(02), pages 455-462, June.
  2. Charles W. Calomiris & Joseph R. Mason, 2003. "Consequences of Bank Distress During the Great Depression," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 93(3), pages 937-947, June.
  3. Peter Temin, 1991. "Lessons from the Great Depression," MIT Press Books, The MIT Press, edition 1, volume 1, number 0262700441, June.
  4. Joseph R. Mason, 1998. "American banks during the Great Depression: a new research agenda," Review, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, issue May, pages 151-152.
  5. Imbens, G W, 1994. "Transition Models in a Non-stationary Environment," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 76(4), pages 703-20, November.
  6. Charles W. Calomiris & Gary Gorton, . "The Origins of Banking Panics: Models, Facts, and Bank Regulation," Rodney L. White Center for Financial Research Working Papers 11-90, Wharton School Rodney L. White Center for Financial Research.
  7. Ramirez, Carlos D., 2003. "Did branch banking restrictions increase bank failures? Evidence from Virginia and West Virginia in the late 1920s," Journal of Economics and Business, Elsevier, vol. 55(4), pages 331-352.
  8. Lucia, Joseph L., 1985. "The failure of the bank of United States: A reappraisal," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 22(4), pages 402-416, October.
  9. Kiefer, Nicholas M, 1988. "Economic Duration Data and Hazard Functions," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 26(2), pages 646-79, June.
  10. Friedman, Milton & Schwartz, Anna J., 1986. "The failure of the bank of United States: A reappraisal : A reply," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 23(2), pages 199-204, April.
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