The U.S. Financial Meltdowns: Then and Now

Bank Failures created in the 1930’s

Banks during the 1930s were vastly embarking into an unforeseen calamity; causation leading to the bank failures is still open to interpretation. At the turn of the 20th century, banks began to “boom.” The next two decades saw an increase in the numbers of banks that peaked in 1921 with roughly 31,000 banks in operation (Walter, 2005). So, what caused the catastrophic ripples, throughout the banking industry, that ended with the onset of the Great Depression?

Did the Bank of the United States (BUS) lead to the economic downswing during the early 1930s; thus becoming the catastrophic ripple? BUS, prior to its failure in December, 1930, was the twenty-eight largest commercial bank in the country (Trescott, 1992). To better understand the causation of bank failures during the 1930s, I will explore previous literature that attempt to scrutinize the Bank of the United States.

Milton Friedman and Anna J. Schwartz’s research, A Monetary History of the United States, has been said to be “the leading and most persuasive explanation of the worst economic disaster in American history,” by Ben S. Bernanke (Bernanke, 2002). Friedman and Schwartz’s research advocates that bank failures, during the “Great Contraction of 1929-33,” arise from monetary issues and view bank failures as a result of unwarranted “panic” and that failing banks were in large measure illiquid rather than insolvent (Calomiris, 2007). Others, including Paul B. Trescott, “argue that the bank’s closing was a response to actual and threatened insolvency, not illiquidity (Trescott, 1992).”

It is important to understand if banks at the time were failing due to becoming illiquid or insolvent. If banks, during the Great Contraction, were illiquid at the time then one could be lead to believe that contagion and/or bank runs might be at fault. On the contrary, if banks at the time were insolvent then we might need to look into other reasons as to why banks were failing.

One could easily come to the conclusion that banks, during the Great Contraction, were indeed illiquid. This conclusion could be explained through the creation of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). The creation of the FDIC in 1934 and the simultaneous halt of bank failures are both valid points that insinuate strong evidence that contagion may have played a factor. The FDIC insured deposits to prevent unfounded bank failures caused by contagion (Walter, 2005). The creation of the FDIC may have calmed the ripples moving throughout the banking industry, but could there be any other reason besides contagion that stopped the ripples?

There are a few explanations that might lead us to believe that the FDIC’s halt of bank failures was not caused by contagion. First, deposit insurance augmented the profits of risky banks, protecting them from failure. Second, the creation of deposit insurance undercut a market process that caused supervisors to close troubled banks quickly (Walter, 2005). So, if contagion was not a factor then maybe banks were not illiquid but rather insolvent.

Paul B. Trescott, professor of economics at Southern Illinois University, states that BUS was fairly liquid in the few months prior to its close in December, 1930. Trescott, also elaborates on the Bank of United State’s management strategy. These three elements are expansion through mergers and bank purchases, involvement with a series of securities affiliates and a syndicate for stock trading, and extensively investing in real estate development projects (Trescott, 1992). BUS was heavily into real estate lending, as were other banks in the New York area, but the loans lacked the usual safeguards relating to borrowers’ equity and collateral. Combine the risky lending with the heavy investing in BUS stocks and you have a recipe for disaster. The FDIC insurance allowed banks, which might have operated like the Bank of United States, to gain significant profits in subsidy by allowing them to take more risks. In this case the FDIC ended bank failures by providing insolvent banks a way to stay afloat. In either case, banks being illiquid or insolvent, the creation of the FDIC terminated bank failures during the Great Contraction.

Bank Failures during the Financial Crisis of 2007

During the 1980s the United States was going through a Savings & Loans (S&L) Crisis. The S&L crisis, brought on by years of deregulation and moral hazard (Degen, 2009), was bringing down the public’s confidence in the thrifts markets. Runs began to hit the S&L industry as values started to drop. Much like the FDIC, Congress enacted the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act of 1989 (FIRREA), in an effort to restore confidence, this time in the thrift industry.

The purpose of FIRREA, as set forth in Section 101 of the bill, was to promote a safe and stable system of affordable housing finance; improve supervision; establish a general oversight by the Treasury Department over the director of the Office of Thrift Supervision; establish an independent insurance agency to provide deposit insurance for savers; place the Federal Deposit Insurance System on sound financial footing; create the Resolution Trust Corporation; provide the necessary private and public financing to resolve failed institutions in an expeditious manner; and improve supervision, enhance enforcement powers, and increase criminal and civil penalties for crimes of fraud against financial institutions and their depositors (Law Brain, 2010).

FIRREA gives the FDIC the duty of insuring the deposits of savings associations as well as banks. In addition, FIRREA created a separate fund under the management of the FDIC called the FSLIC Resolution Fund. The FSLIC Resolution Fund generally assumed all of the "assets and liabilities" of FSLIC as of the day before its abolition (Moss, Randolph D., 1998).

Did the creation of FIRREA settle the S&L industry by providing these institutes with relief from contagion or did it allow for more risky behavior? The next two decades are again cast with troubles. First, with the “dot com” bust in the 1990s, then the housing bubble bursting in 2006, and followed by the “shadow banking” industry in 2008. This rapid growth followed by rapid burst is starting to become the norm within our economy. A norm, if left unchecked, could devastate the United States.


The FDIC and FIRREA were two pieces of legislation that were created out crisis. We may not all agree as to the exact causes of the crisis but we can agree that something needed to be done. Determining if the banking industry was illiquid or insolvent during these crises may be hard to discover and I believe that both played their part. As legislators rush to fix one part of our broken financial system the industry will leap to invest in another profiteering idea until it bursts. This herd mentality, which the financial industry’s management must refrain from, is the only way to slow down the crises. As long as the banking industry is allowed to take risks, speculate values, and use loopholes, we should all prepare ourselves for another bailout.


Bernanke, B. S. (2002, November 8). On Milton Friedman's Ninetieth Birthday. Retrieved April 5, 2010, from Federal Reserve:

Calomiris, C. W. (2007). Bank Failures in Theory and History: The Great Depression and Other "Contagious" Events.

Cecchetti, S. G. (2008). Monetary Policy and the Financial Crisis of 2007-2008.

Degen, R. J. (2009). Moral hazard and the financial crisis of 2007-9: An Explanation for why the subprime mortgage defaults and the housing market collapse produced a financial crisis that was more severe then any previous crashes (with exception of the Great Depression of 1929). Glob Advantage.

Law Brain. (2010, March 16). Savings and Loan Association. Retrieved April 6, 2010, from Law Brain:


Trescott, P. B. (1992). The Failure of the Bank of United States, 1930. Journal of Money, Credit, and Banking, Vol. 24, No. 3 (August 1992) , 384-399.

Walter, J. R. (2005). Depression-Era Bank Failures: The Great Contagion or the Great Shakeout? Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond Economic Quarterly Volume 91/1 Winter 2005 , pp. 39-54.

By: Joseph Dustin