Federal Deposit Insurance: A Banking System Built on Sand

By Gibson, Warren C. | Freeman, June 2010 | Go to article overview

Federal Deposit Insurance: A Banking System Built on Sand


Gibson, Warren C., Freeman


Federal deposit insurance grew out of a turbulent time in American history: the Great Depression. During two waves of bank failures in the 1930s an astonishing 9,000 banks closed and millions of depositors lost some or all of their savings. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) began operations in 1934, insuring deposit accounts up to $5,000 per person (roughly $80,000 in today's money).

The bank failure rate then dropped dramatically and never again rose anywhere close to the level of the 1930s. And such bank failures that have occurred have cost insured depositors nothing; many uninsured depositors were made whole as well. Bank runs are a distant memory, revived occasionally by reruns of It's a Wonderful Life.

Yet it may be premature to pronounce deposit insurance a success. It can take a long time for an unsustainable program to unravel: Witness Social Security and Medicare. Seventy-five years after the start of Social Security and 45 years into Medicare, it's common knowledge that both programs are headed for a financial cliff. A closer look at deposit insurance will show cracks in its edifice, raising questions about its sustainability as well as the distortions that it has introduced into the economy.

Before we take that closer look we might ask whether, as is widely assumed, the bank failures of the 1930s were an example of unregulated free markets run amok. During that time, as Milton Friedman and Anna Schwarz pointed out in their classic, A Monetary History of the U.S., the number of bank failures in Canada was exactly zero. Canada is closely linked to the United States economically and culturally, making this episode as near to a controlled experiment as any macroeconomist could wish for.

The difference? Canada had just ten nationwide banks with about 3,000 branches, while branch banking across state lines, and often within states, was prohibited by U.S. law. Thus smaller communities could only be served by relatively weak, poorly capitalized banks. A hailstorm might be enough to topple the local bank in a small farming community as surely as if it were built from straw.

The banking system was also caught in the downdraft of a plummeting money supply. When banks hold only a fraction of their liabilities as reserves, deposit inflows cause the money supply to multiply, but the reverse happened during the Depression as worried depositors began to cash out their accounts. The economy could have adjusted to a declining money supply in one of two ways: either by lowering prices and wages or by Federal Reserve injection of new money. Hoover's jawboning and Roosevelt's New Deal legislation precluded the first solution, while the Fed, out of ignorance or confusion, failed to inject new money. With economic adjustment prevented by government policies, a vicious cycle of souring bank loans, liquidation of deposits, further declines in the money supply, and more business failures took hold.

Interestingly, Milton Friedman and Murray Rothbard, both free-market economists, reached opposite conclusions about the declining money supply. While Friedman blamed the Fed, Rothbard celebrated what he saw as the people's attempt to overturn fractional-reserve banking, which he believed is inherently fraudulent. Either way, the fingerprints of government were all over the bank failures of the 1930s and the Great Depression generally.

With the failure of so many banks, U.S. Representative Henry Steagall vigorously pushed deposit insurance legislation. Franklin Roosevelt was among his opponents. Indeed, when asked about guaranteeing bank deposits four days after his inauguration in March 1933, Roosevelt said he agreed with Herbert Hoover: "I can tell you as to guaranteeing bank deposits my own views, and I think those of the old Administration. The general underlying thought behind the use of the word 'guarantee' with respect to bank deposits is that you guarantee bad banks as well as good banks. …

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