Bank Deregulation, Competition and Economic Growth: The US Free Banking Experience
We exploit the introduction of free banking laws in US states during the 1837-1863 period to examine the impact of removing barriers to bank entry on bank competition and economic
growth. As governments were not concerned about systemic stability in this period, we are
able to isolate the effects of bank competition from those of state implicit guarantees. We find
that the introduction of free banking laws stimulated the creation of new banks and led to
more bank failures. Our empirical evidence indicates that states adopting free banking laws
experienced an increase in output per capita compared to the states that retained state bank
chartering policies. We argue that the fiercer bank competition following the introduction of
free banking laws might have spurred economic growth by (1) increasing the money stock
and the availability of credit; (2) leading to efficiency gains in the banking market. Our
findings suggest that the more frequent bank failures occurring in a competitive banking
market do not harm long-run economic growth in a system without public safety nets.
Circulated by NEP-HIS on: 2013-12-29
Review by Natacha Postel-Vinay
In this paper, Philipp Ager (University of Southern Denmark) and Fabrizio Spargoli (Erasmus University Rotterdam) ask two very topical questions. Does increased bank competition lead to higher economic growth? And, if so, how? Following the recent crisis, many have wondered whether the alternative to “too-big-to-fail” — having many smaller banks competing with each other — would necessarily be a better one. Clouding the debate has been the difficulty of finding appropriate historical settings in which to test the hypothesis that more competition leads to greater growth. In their paper, Ager and Spargoli focus on what they consider the best instance of intense bank competition without any implicit government bail-out guarantee: the American free banking era.
Between 1837 and 1863 new laws were passed in a number of states allowing just about anyone to set up a bank, with very few requirements to fulfill. Until then, banks wanting to open needed a charter from their state, for which they had to meet relatively stringent criteria. As the authors show using a new quantitative analytical framework, the new laws greatly increased the creation of new banks in the states which passed them. As competition increased, however, a higher proportion of banks ended up failing. Could it still be the case that the introduction of free banking laws led to greater growth in those states?
The paper’s most important finding is that increasing competition among banks did lead to higher economic growth. Jaremski and Rousseau’s 2012 paper (previously reviewed in NEP-HIS here) found that a new “free” bank, as opposed to a charter bank, did not have a positive effect on the local economy. While this is an important finding in itself, it is also important to look at the effect of the introduction of free banking laws on aggregate bank behaviour, if only because the new entry of free banks may alter the willingness of charter banks to enter the market and their behaviour once in the market. Charter banks’ behaviour may in turn alter free banks’ behaviour, and so on. Interestingly, Ager and Spargoli’s study finds that in the aggregate, the acceleration in bank entry and resulting greater competition among all types of banks had a positive effect on economic growth.
To arrive at this conclusion, the authors are careful to include a number of controls. First, there is the possibility that growth opportunities led some states to adopt free banking laws, in which case the authors would face a reverse-causality problem. Hence they conduct a county-level analysis in which they include time-invariant county characteristics and state-specific linear output trends (although perhaps it would be nice to see these output trends going further back in time than 1830). Second, they also control for other laws that states might have introduced at the same time as the free banking ones, which could potentially bias the results. Finally, they control for unobserved heterogeneity between states by examining contiguous counties lying on the border of states that introduced free banking. Their results are robust to these different specifications.
Ager and Spargoli are of course also interested in where this growth came from. They find a positive relationship between the introduction of free banking laws and lending, and conclude that one of the main channels through which this increase in growth occurred was the increase in the availability of credit that greater competition fostered. This story is consistent with the finance-growth nexus literature, which argues that greater (and safer) access to credit is conducive to economic development.
Although this seems perfectly reasonable, it would perhaps have been interesting to see when most of the failures occurred. If, for instance, they mainly occurred towards the end of the period under study, say around the 1857 panic, then it is possible that the negative effects of such failures on subsequent growth would not have been picked up by this study, since it ends in 1860. This leaves open the possibility that the positive relationship between free banking and increased access to credit was not a beneficial one for the economy in the long run. Loan growth (and asset growth more generally) is not always a good thing, as the recent crisis has tended to show.
Overall however, Ager and Spargoli’s paper asks a very important question and offers a solid analysis. A natural next step would be to include output data on the periods preceding and following the free banking era, although the occurrence of the Civil War is an obvious obstacle to this study.
Jaremski, M., and P. L. Rousseau (2012): “Banks, Free Banks, and U.S. Economic Growth,” Economic Inquiry, 51(2), 1603–21.