Did Railroads Make Antebellum U.S. Banks More Sound?
Abstract: We investigate the relationships of bank failures and balance sheet conditions with measures of proximity to different forms of transportation in the United States over the period from 1830-1860. A series of hazard models and bank-level regressions indicate a systematic relationship between proximity to railroads (but not to other means of transportation) and “good” banking outcomes. Although railroads improved economic conditions along their routes, we offer evidence of another channel. Specifically, railroads facilitated better information flows about banks that led to modifications in bank asset composition consistent with reductions in the incidence of moral hazard.
Review by Bernardo Bátiz-Lazo
This paper was distributed by NEP-HIS on 2014-04-18. Atack, Jaremski and Rousseau (henceforward AJR) deal with the otherwise thorny issue of causation in the relationship between financial intermediation and economic growth. They focus on bank issued notes rather deposits; and argue for and provide empirical evidence of bi-directional causation based on empirical estimates that combine geography (ie GIS) and financial data. The nature of their reported causation emerges from their approach to railroads as a transport technology that shapes markets while also shaped by its users.
In this paper AJR study the effect of improved means of communication on market integration and particularly whether banks in previously remote areas of pre-Civil War USA had an incentive to over extend their liabilities. AJR’s paper is an important contribution: first, because they focus on bank issued notes and bills rather than deposits to understand how banks financed themselves. Second, because of the dearth of systematic empirical testing whether the improvements in the means of communication affected the operation of banks.
In 19th century north America and in the absence of a central bank, notes from local banks were substitutes among themselves and between them and payment in species. Those in the most remote communities (ie with little or no oversight) had an opportunity to misbehave “in ways that compromised the positions of their liability holders” (behaviour which AJR label “quasi-wildcatting”). Railroads, canals and boats connected communities and enabled better trading opportunities. But ease of communication also meant greater potential for oversight.
ACJ test bank failure rates (banks that didn’t redeem notes at full value), closed banks (ceased operation but redeem at full value), new banks and balance sheet management for 1,818 banks in existence in the US in 5 year increments between 1830 and 1862. Measures of distance between forms of communication (i.e. railroads, canals, steam navegable river, navegable lake and maritime trade) and bank location emerged from overlapping contemporary maps with GIS data. Financial data was collected from annual editions of the “Merchants and Bankers’ Almanac”. They distinguish between states that passed “free banking laws” (from 1837 to the early 1850s) and those that did not. They also considered changes in failure rates and balance sheet variance (applying the so called CAMEL model – to the best of data availability) for locations that had issuing banks before new transport infrastructure and those where banks appear only after new means of communication were deployed:
Improvements in finance over the period also provided a means of payment that promoted increasingly impersonal trade. To the extent that the railroads drew new banks closer to the centers of economic activity and allowed existing banks to participate in the growth opportunities afforded by efficient connections.(p. 2)
Railroads were the only transport technology that returned statistically significant effects. It suggested that the advent of railroads did indeed pushed bankers to reduce the risk in their portfolios. But regardless of transport variables, “[l]arger banks with more reserves, loans, and deposits and fewer bank notes were less likely to fail.” (p.20). It is thus likely that railroads impact banks’ operation as they brought about greater economic diversity, urbanisation and other measures of economic development which translated in larger volume of deposits but also greater scrutiny and oversight. In this sense railroads (as exogenous variable) made banks less likely to fail.
But ACJ note that means of transportation were not necessarily exogenous to banks. Reasons for the endogeneity of transport infrastructure included bankers promoting and investing in railroads to bring them to their communities. Also railways could find advantages to expand into vigorously active locations (where new banks could establish to capture a growing volume of deposits and serve a growing demand for loans).
Other empirical results include banks decreased the amount of excess reserves, notes in circulation and bond holdings while also increased the volume of loans after the arrival of a railroad. In short, considering railroads an endogenous variable also results in transport technologies lowering bank failure rates by encouraging banks to operate more safely.
The work of AJR is part of a growing and increasingly fruitful trend which combines GPS data with other more “traditional” sources. But for me the paper could also inform contemporary debates on payments. Specifically their focus is on banks of issue, in itself a novelty in the history of payment systems. For AJR technological change improves means of payment when it reduces transaction costs by increasing trust on the issuer. But as noted above, there are a number of alternative technologies which have, in principle, equal opportunity to succeed. In this regard AJR state:
Here, we describe a mechanism by which railroads not only affected finance on the extensive margin, but also led to efficiency changes that enhanced the intensity of financial intermediation. And, of course, it is the interaction of the intensity of intermediation along with its quantity that seems most important for long-run growth (Rousseau and Wachtel 1998, 2011). This relationship proves to be one that does not generalize to all types of transportation; rather, railroads seem to have been the only transportation methods that affected banks in this way.(p4)
In other words, financial inclusion and improvements in the payment system interact and enhance economic growth when the former take place through specific forms of technological change. It is the interaction with users that which helps railroads to dominate and effectively change the payments system. Moreover, this process involves changes in the portfolio (and overall level of risk) of individual banks.
The idea that users shape technology is not new to those well versed in the social studies of technology. However, AJR’s argument is novel not only for the study of the economic history of Antibellum America but also when considering that in today’s complex payments ecosystem there are a number or alternatives for digital payments, many of which are based on mobile phones. Yet it would seem that there is greater competition between mobile phone apps than between mobile and other payment solutions (cash and coins, Visa/Mastercard issued credit cards, PayPal, Bitcoin and digital currencies, etc.). AJR results would then suggest that, ceteris paribus, the technology with greater chance to succeed is that which has great bi-directional causality (i.e. significant exogenous and endogenous features). So people’s love for smart phones would suggest mobile payments might have greater chance to change the payment ecosystem than digital currencies (such as Bitcoin), but is early days to decide which of the different mobile apps has greater chance to actually do so.
Another aspect in which AJR’s has a contemporary slant refers to security and trust. These are key issues in today’s digital payments debate, yet the possibility of fraud is absence from AJR’s narrative. For this I mean not “wildcatting” but ascertaining whether notes of a trust worthy bank could have been forged. I am not clear how to capture this phenomenon empirically. It is also unlikely that the volume of forged notes of any one trusted issuer was significant. But the point is, as Patrice Baubeau (IDHES-Nanterre) has noted, that in the 19th century the technological effort for fraud was rather simple: a small furnace or a printing press. Yet today that effort is n-times more complex.
AJR also make the point that changes in the payments ecosystem are linked to bank stability and the fragility of the financial system. This is an argument that often escapes those discussing the digital payments debate.
Overall it is a short but well put together paper. It does what it says on the can, and thus highly recommended reading.