Thursday, November 18, 2010


In 1838 New York State passed a free banking law. Before this date all incorporated banks had been chartered by states and had been granted the note-issuing privilege. Under free banking, charters could be obtained without a special act of the state legislature. The main requirement for new banks was that they post collateral of government bonds equal in value to the notes to be issued. In principle, noteholders were protected because, if the bank failed, proceeds from the sale of the collateral would be used to reimburse them. Free banking was soon adopted by other states. Because there was little regulation of new banks, many banks failed and bank fraud occurred. The free-banking years of 1837 to 1863 are also known as the Wildcat Banking era.

In New England, however, the Suffolk Bank in Boston, Massachusetts, had redeemed bank notes of out-of-town banks only if they kept on deposit amounts large enough to cover the redemptions. Since Boston was a trade center, the pressure was great on all New England banks to accept this system, known as the Suffolk banking system. Practically all New England banks had joined the system by 1825.

In the early 1800s New York State also developed the safety fund system, under which each member bank contributed a small percentage of its capital annually to a state-managed fund. The purpose of the fund was to protect noteholders in the event of bank failure. In 1842 Louisiana enacted legislation to limit the number of banks and to require them to maintain one-third of their assets in cash and two-thirds in short-term obligations.

A1d  The National Banking Act of 1863

The Civil War (1861-1865) brought about the National Banking Act of 1863, and with it a fundamental change in the structure of commercial banking in the United States. Originally named the National Currency Act, but later amended and renamed, the National Banking Act created the system known as dual banking, in which banks could have either a state or federal charter. This system still exists in the United States. The act established the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency in the Department of the Treasury and gave it the power to issue national bank charters to any bank that met minimum requirements. The philosophy of relatively “free banking” continued until 1935 when Congress made it more difficult to obtain a bank charter. The 1863 act allowed nationally chartered banks to issue a uniform bank note backed by U.S. government bonds. The amount of the notes was not to exceed 90 percent of the value of the bonds. Officials hoped that the issuance of uniform bank notes backed by the U.S. government would guarantee the value of bank notes and thereby produce a useful nationwide currency, while also inducing state banks to take out national charters. However, because the regulations accompanying a national charter were much stricter than state charters, a movement toward federal charters did not happen as planned. In 1865 the U.S. Congress enacted a 10 percent tax on any bank or individual paying out or using state bank notes. As a result of the tax, many banks converted to national charters, but many others simply stopped issuing their own notes. Instead, these state banks began to issue their customers demand deposit money—that is, checking accounts, instead of bank notes.

By the 1870’s, deposits were well established as a substitute for paper or coin currency, and state banks experienced a revival. State charters contained several advantages over federal charters. State-chartered banks were allowed to hold lower cash reserves relative to deposits, and less capital. State-chartered banks had more flexible branching opportunities and fewer restrictions on the types of loans that could be made.

The National Banking Act was successful in correcting some failings of the pre-Civil War commercial banking system. It produced a unified national paper currency consisting primarily of national bank notes. Bank crises, however, did not disappear. Panics occurred in 1873, 1884, 1893, and 1907, although the causes of these crises varied. Between 1873 and 1907, demand deposits far outweighed bank note circulation. At times some banks were unable to make immediate payment of demands on these deposits. Consequently these banks failed, and their depositors suffered losses of all or part of the money in their accounts.

A1e  Federal Reserve Act of 1913

The financial panic of 1907 resulted in the Federal Reserve Act of 1913. This act went further than any earlier legislation in recognizing the importance of stable money and credit conditions to the health of the national economy. Under the Federal Reserve Act, a central bank was reestablished for the United States, the first since the “Second” Bank of the United States. The new bank was charged with maintaining sound credit conditions. To achieve this goal, the Federal Reserve System was given control over the minimum amount of reserves that member banks must hold for each dollar of deposits. It also obtained the power to lend money to member banks and regulate the types of assets they can hold. Members of the Federal Reserve System include national banks, whose membership is required, and state banks, whose membership is optional. Membership requires a bank to buy stock in the Federal Reserve System. Most large banks under state charter have joined the system.

World War I (1914-1918) brought about inflation and a sharp postwar recession (economic slowdown). Although the banks had bought large quantities of U.S. government bonds during the war, they also lent large amounts of money to individuals engaged in stock market speculation. By investing in bonds, banks helped finance government expenditures during the war and the attendant expansion of American productive resources in the decade following World War I. By lending money to speculators, they became a major factor in the climb of stock prices and the wave of speculation that resulted in the crash of 1929.

A1f  Banking During the Great Depression

The Great Depression of the 1930s dealt a severe blow to the commercial banking industry. Many banks failed (went out of business) when their loans could not be repaid. The number of commercial banks declined from 26,000 in 1928 to about 14,000 in 1933. Total deposits in these banks declined by about 35 percent. Depositors rushed to retrieve their money, a process known as a run on the banks, and the federal government was forced to close all the banks for four days in 1933 to stem the panic. It became apparent to observers that the Federal Reserve System had not solved all the problems of bank stability.

Consequently, during the Great Depression, Congress recognized the importance of a sound banking system and created a number of agencies to restore public confidence in the banking system. Among the first of these was the Federal Housing Administration, which was created in 1934 to insure payment on home loans made by private lending institutions. The guarantee helped preserve the value of bank loans and enabled banks to continue to lend money to homebuyers.

The Banking Act of 1933, also known as the Glass-Steagall Act, created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) to insure bank deposits, increase the confidence of depositors, and therefore prevent bank runs. Federal Reserve member banks were required to join the FDIC. Membership was optional for other banks. The Glass-Steagall Act also set interest rate ceilings on deposits to reduce competition among banks, which was considered a cause of bank failures during the Great Depression. It also prevented banks from becoming too involved in investment-banking activities, such as underwriting stocks or bonds for companies. Underwriting, which typically involves selling stocks or bonds at a guaranteed price, can be risky and can cause banks to fail. The act also prevented banks from buying stock, which is a risky activity if the stock market crashes. This prohibition on investment-banking activities lasted until the 1980s.

The banking system began to recover in 1934. By 1937 deposits had reached pre-Depression levels. During World War II (1939-1945), deposits increased rapidly and more than doubled from 1941 to 1946. For the next 40 years the U.S. banking system went through a continuous expansion and modernization. In particular, there was an enormous increase in lending to consumers, through installment loans (loans for a fixed amount repaid in equal monthly payments) and credit card loans (loans for a varied amount repaid more flexibly).

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