Money for Nothing? Banking Failure and Public Funds in Michigan in the early 1930s

The Effects of Reconstruction Finance Corporation Assistance of Michigan’s Bank’s Survival in the 1930s

Charles W. Calomiris (cc374@columbia.edu), Joseph R. Mason (joseph.r.mason@gmail.com ), Marc Weidenmier (marc_weidenmier@claremontmckenna.edu), Katherine Bobroff (klbobroff@gmail.com)

URL: http://d.repec.org/n?u=RePEc:nbr:nberwo:18427&r=his

Abstract

This paper examines the effects of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation’s (RFC) loan and preferred stock programs on bank failure rates in Michigan during the period 1932-1934, which includes the important Michigan banking crisis of early 1933 and its aftermath. Using a new database on Michigan banks, we employ probit and survival duration analysis to examine the effectiveness of the RFC’s loan program (the policy tool employed before March 1933) and the RFC’s preferred stock purchases (the policy tool employed after March 1933) on bank failure rates. Our estimates treat the receipt of RFC assistance as an endogenous variable. We are able to identify apparently valid and powerful instruments (predictors of RFC assistance that are not directly related to failure risk) for analyzing the effects of RFC assistance on bank survival. We find that the loan program had no statistically significant effect on the failure rates of banks during the crisis; point estimates are sometimes positive, sometimes negative, and never estimated precisely. This finding is consistent with the view that the effectiveness of debt assistance was undermined by some combination of increasing the indebtedness of financial institutions and subordinating bank depositors. We find that RFC’s purchases of preferred stock – which did not increase indebtedness or subordinate depositors – increased the chances that a bank would survive the financial crisis. We also perform a parallel analysis of the effects of RFC preferred stock assistance on the loan supply of surviving banks. We find that RFC assistance not only contributed to loan supply by reducing failure risk; conditional on bank survival, RFC assistance is associated with significantly higher lending by recipient banks from 1931 to 1935.

Review by Sebastian Fleitas

The systemic risk of bank failures, and its macroeconomic consequences, led the Fed to take action when some banks started to fail in 2008. How much money did the Fed give to the banks in 2008? And even more important, was this money helpful to avoid banking failures? The latter question seems to be a key question every time that the government is implementing a program to try to stem bank failures and to reduce the economic cost of financial disintermediation.

Detroit skyline, circa 1930

The paper by Calomiris, Mason, Weidenmier and Bobroff, distributed by NEP-HIS on October 6th,2012, assess the success of a public support program aimed at banks in financial distress. This through assistance provided by the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), ,a government-sponsored enterprise, to Michigan’s banks in the  1930’s.

Calomiris and friends offer a very interesting description of the timing of the crisis and a regression analysis of the impact of the RFC assistance. The period of analysis, from January 1932 through December 1934, covers two sub-periods: the first in which bank failures occurred sporadically; and a second sub-period in which the failures were concentrated and coincided with regional and national panics.

The banking crisis of 1933 in Michigan is situated in the middle of the period of analysis. This is a very important episode as it can be seen as a prelude to the national banking disaster as well as the Michigan hosting the automobile industry, an industry on the raise and of future importance for the national economy.

The role of the RFC changed between the two sub-periods. During the first period, the RFC main action was to help banks advance money on loan. The risk involved in these loans was mitigated through their short duration, strict collateralization rules and high interest rates. Although these rules protected the RFC from losses, they also limited the effectiveness of the RFC lending policy. However, on March 9, 1933 the Congress passed an act altering the original mandate, allowing the RFC to purchase preferred stock in some financial institutions that were considered as likely to survive. This opened the possibility for the RFC assistance to be more effective in the second sub-period than in the first one.

1940 Reconstruction Finance Corporation RFC Cartoon

Econometric estimates then try to identify the effect of RFC assistance. Specifically whether in light of an increasing rate of bank failures, the federal government had decided offer support to banks with greater risk of failure. In this sense, the dummy variable of RFC assistance is an endogenous variable, and this problem has to be addressed in order to consistently estimate the effect. To deal with this problem, the authors use two different estimation techniques and they use two sets of instruments. First, they use a set of instruments that indicate the correspondent relationships of each bank, that indicate the extent to which the bank was important within the national network of banking and also the correspondent relationships with Chicago and New York. Second, they included county specific characteristics that might have affected RFC assistance without affecting bank failure risk.

The authors conclude that the loans from the RFC did mitigate the risk of bank failure  but rather, that recapitalization (in the form of the purchase of preferred stocks) increased the likelihood of bank survival. Reasons why preferred stocks assistance was more effective included: a) because unlike loans, it neither increases the debt of the bank nor the liquidity risk or collateral requirements, b) the RFC was selective when choosing who was included in the program, and c) the RFC was able to prevent abuse from assisted banks. In general, they conclude that these results suggest that during a banking crisis, effective assistance requires that the government takes a significant part of the risk of the bank failure.

January 1931, Chester Garde

Emprical estimates in this paper concur with previous results in the literature. But by incorporating Michigan this papers offered added granularity and also improves in the use of econometric techniques used to address the issue of the effect of the RFC in banks failure. However, I think the paper could be improved by a more thorough discussion of the instruments used, in terms of why they can be assumed to be related to the RFC assistance and not directly related to bank failure. This is especially important because the results of the first stage estimations cast some doubt about the suitability of some of the instruments selected. Regarding the first set of instruments, one variable indicates the connections of a bank within the national network of banking and another one the relationships with Chicago and New York. However, in the first stage the effect of these two variables over the RFC assistant have different signs and their statistical significance depend on the period and specification of the model. A second concern is that they use the variable “Net due to banks over total assets” but this instrument is not significant in any first stage estimate. Banks with more creditors or debtors could be more important to save, but it could also be the case that these banks are more indebted with other banks because they are facing problems and thus they have more risk of failure. Regarding the second set of instruments, these variables generally fail to be consistently significant and the mechanisms through which they affect the decisions of the RFC without affecting the hazard of failure are not completely clear. Was the main proportion of the business of the banks concentrated at the county level at those times? Does the political importance of the county matter to allocate the assistance, even when the authors say that the manipulation of the RFC by Congress or the Administration was mitigated? Is the unemployment rate in the county in 1930 unrelated with the risk of failure of the banks during the crisis? A more deep consideration of these issues could help to understand why these variables are good instruments and why the results of the first stage estimations look like they do.

To sum up, this paper provides new evidence about the role of the RFC during the important period of 1932-1934. Furthermore, this paper addresses an issue that is relevant today: the efficiency of public funds to avoid bank failures. The general conclusion the authors achieve is that an effective assistance involves that the government assumes a significant share of the risk of bank failure. As in the thirties, in the present the government has spent lots of money trying to avoid the systemic risks related with the failures of some banks. This and other related papers in the literature can help us to understand the effects of a banking crisis in the real sector and the efficiency of public policies that try to reduce its negative impacts. This particular historical experience can not only shed light about what happened in that opportunity but also give us insights to approach these situations when they appear again, in particular to design better economic policies.

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