, Volume 7, Issue 2, pp 99-130
Date: 31 Aug 2012

Wall Street and Main Street: the macroeconomic consequences of New York bank suspensions, 1866–1914

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Abstract

Before the formation of the Federal Reserve, banking panics were routine events in the United States. During the most severe episodes, banks in cities across the country would often suspend or restrict the par convertibility of their demand deposit liabilities. In diagnosing the causes of the Great Depression, Friedman and Schwartz famously regard these local initiatives as a second best solution, which in the absence of an effective lender of last resort would have prevented the rash of bank failures during the early 1930s and their dire monetary and real impacts. Recent research in macroeconomics though has raised the possibility that banks’ suspension of payments might also have negative real effects albeit through changes in aggregate supply such as the financing of working capital. We would expect to observe these negative shocks during the pre-Fed era, because the decentralized, private interbank payments network was especially vulnerable to systemic disruptions such as suspensions by New York and other money center banks. Reports in national trade periodicals and local newspapers during suspension periods offer many accounts of factories closing because of the inability to obtain currency for weekly payrolls and “domestic exchange” to finance internal trade. We corroborate these observations with more systematic econometric evidence at the national and regional levels. Our results show that controlling for the overall contraction and bank failures, suspension periods were associated with a statistically significant and quantitatively large decline in real activity, on the order of 10–20 %.