Lessons from ‘Too Big to Fail’ in the 1980s

Can a bank run be stopped? Government guarantees and the run on Continental Illinois

Mark A Carlson (Bank for International Settlements) and Jonathan Rose (Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve)

Abstract: This paper analyzes the run on Continental Illinois in 1984. We find that the run slowed but did not stop following an extraordinary government intervention, which included the guarantee of all liabilities of the bank and a commitment to provide ongoing liquidity support. Continental’s outflows were driven by a broad set of US and foreign financial institutions. These were large, sophisticated creditors with holdings far in excess of the insurance limit. During the initial run, creditors with relatively liquid balance sheets nevertheless withdrew more than other creditors, likely reflecting low tolerance to hold illiquid assets. In addition, smaller and more distant creditors were more likely to withdraw. In the second and more drawn out phase of the run, institutions with relative large exposures to Continental were more likely to withdraw, reflecting a general unwillingness to have an outsized exposure to a troubled institution even in the absence of credit risk. Finally, we show that the concentration of holdings of Continental’s liabilities was a key dynamic in the run and was importantly linked to Continental’s systemic importance.

URL: http://EconPapers.repec.org/RePEc:bis:biswps:554

Distributed on NEP-HIS 2016-4-16

Review by Anthony Gandy (ifs University College)

I have to thank Bernardo Batiz-Lazo for spotting this paper and circulating it through NEP-HIS, my interest in this is less research focused than teaching focused. Having the honour of teaching bankers about banking, sometimes I am asked questions which I find difficult to answer. One such question has been ‘why are inter-bank flows seen as less volatile, than consumer deposits?’ In this very accessible paper, Carlson and Rose answers this question by analysing the reality of a bank run, looking at the raw data from the treasury department of a bank which did indeed suffer a bank run: Continental Illinois – which became the biggest banking failure in US history when it flopped in 1984.


For the business historian, the paper may lack a little character as it rather skimps over the cause of Continental’s demise, though this has been covered by many others, including the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (1997). The paper briefly explains the problems Continental faced in building a large portfolio of assets in both the oil and gas sector and developing nations in Latin America. A key factor in the failure of Continental in 1984, was the 1982 failure of the small bank Penn Square Bank of Oklahoma. Cushing, Oklahoma is the, quite literally, hub (and one time bottleneck) of the US oil and gas sector. The the massive storage facility in that location became the settlement point for the pricing of West Texas Intermediate (WTI), also known as Texas light sweet, oil. Penn Square focused on the oil sector and sold assets to Continental, according the FDIC (1997) to the tune of $1bn. Confidence in Continental was further eroded by the default of Mexico in 1982 thus undermining the perceived quality of its emerging market assets.

Depositors queuing outside the insolvent Penn Square Bank (1982)

Depositors queuing outside the insolvent Penn Square Bank (1982)

In 1984 the failure of Penn would translate into the failure of the 7th largest bank in the US, Continental Illinois. This was a great illustration of contagion, but contagion which was contained by the central authorities and, earlier, a panel of supporting banks. Many popular articles on Continental do an excellent job of explaining why its assets deteriorated and then vaguely discuss the concept of contagion. The real value of the paper by Carlson and Rose comes from their analysis of the liability side of the balance sheet (sections 3 to 6 in the paper). Carlson and Rose take great care in detailing the make up of those liabilities and the behaviour of different groups of liability holders. For instance, initially during the crisis 16 banks announced a advancing $4.5bn in short term credit. But as the crisis went forward the regulators (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Federal Reserve and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency) were required to step in to provide a wide ranging guarantee. This was essential as the bank had few small depositors who, in turn, could rely on the then $100,000 depositor guarantee scheme.


It would be very easy to pause and take in the implications of table 1 in the paper. It shows that on the 31st March 1984, Continental had a most remarkable liability structure. With $10.0bn of domestic deposits, it funded most of its books through $18.5bn of foreign deposits, together with smaller amounts of other wholesale funding. However, the research conducted by Carlson and Rose showed that the intolerance of international lenders, did become a factor but it was only one of a number of effects. In section 6 of the paper they look at the impact of funding concentration. The largest ten depositors funded Continental to the tune of $3.4bn and the largest 25 to $6bn dollars, or 16% of deposits. Half of these were foreign banks and the rest split between domestic banks, money market funds and foreign governments.

Initially, `run off’, from the largest creditors was an important challenge. But this was related to liquidity preference. Those institutions which needed to retain a highly liquid position were quick to move their deposits out of Continental. One could only speculate that these withdrawals would probably have been made by money market funds. Only later, in a more protracted run off, which took place even after interventions, does the size of the exposure and distance play a disproportionate role. What is clear is the unwillingness of distant banks to retain exposure to a failing institution. After the initial banking sector intervention and then the US central authority intervention, foreign deposits rapidly decline.

It’s a detailed study, one which can be used to illustrate to students both issues of liquidity preference and the rationale for the structures of the new prudential liquidity ratios, especially the Net Stable Funding Ratio. It can also be used to illustrate the problems of concentration risk – but I would enliven the discussion with the addition of the more colourful experience of Penn Square Bank- a banks famed for drinking beer out of cowboy boots!


Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, 1997. Chapter 7 `Continental Illinois and `Too Big to Fail’ In: History of the Eighties, Lessons for the Future, Volume 1. Available on line at: https://www.fdic.gov/bank/historical/history/vol1.html

More general reads on Continental and Penn Square:

Huber, R. L. (1992). How Continental Bank outsourced its” crown jewels. Harvard Business Review, 71(1), 121-129.

Aharony, J., & Swary, I. (1996). Additional evidence on the information-based contagion effects of bank failures. Journal of Banking & Finance, 20(1), 57-69.


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