For an Institute for Humane Studies program I wanted to participate in you had to write a short essay on how a famous article or book is misguided and inimical to liberty. I wrote the essay below for the occasion, and I’m pretty happy of how it turned out, so I’m sharing it here. Some readers will instantly recognize the heavy influence of chapter 6 of Lawrence H. White’s Theory of Monetary Institutions—get this book.
The seminal paper by Diamond & Dybvig (1983) on bank runs is misguided and inimical to liberty. It suggests that banks are inherently unstable, always on the verge of suffering a “redemption run” at any unrelated ‘sunspot,’ and that it is absolutely necessary that bank runs be suppressed, and that deposit insurance is the most effective way to do it. In their model, if banks ought to survive it has to be through intervention into the financial system. The basic features of this model are still present in most publications on financial stability to this day.
First, unlike the model would suggest, bank runs are generally not responsible for the initial shock. Gorton (1988) studies the National Banking Era in the US, and finds that for each of the 7 crisis he identifies, bank runs were rather the result of a previous event announcing a possible depreciation of banking assets. Likewise, Calomiris (1991) finds that over 1875–1913 all banking panics (generalized run on all banks) happened within the quarter following an abrupt increase in business failures. Mishkin (1991) studies bank panics from 1857 to 1988, and finds that for all but that of 1873, panics occur well after the recession has started.
Secondly, banks that do go bankrupt because of a bank run are those that are pre-run insolvent. Banks that are solvent can generally borrow from other banks and other institutions, historically clearinghouses, have a large repertoire of possible solutions to help banks is crisis. While bank runs and associated liquidity problems can be aggravating factors, even in the worst bank panic episodes they are causes of bank failure only in exceptional circumstances (Kaufman 1987, 1988). Even in the most fruitful historical era in terms of banking panics and runs, the American National Banking Era, runs were a primary cause of failure in only one case out of 594 bank bankruptcies (Calomiris 1991, 154). Calomiris & Mason (1997) study the banking panic of June 1932 in Chicago and find that no pre-run solvent banks failed. Reviewing this literature, Benston & Kaufman (1995, 225) conclude that “the policy implications of the Diamond & Dybvig (1983) model are not very useful for understanding the workings of the extant banking and payments system.”
A third reason is that most runs have in fact been partial “verification” runs. Depositors eventually figure out that the bank will likely survive the crisis, and runs stop. This is impossible in the Diamond & Dybvig (1983) framework; once initiated the run must always go through and make the bank fail. Ó Gráda & White (2003) study a single bank from the 1850s. They investigate depositor behavior through individual account data, and particularly through the panics of 1854 and 1857. The bank survived both. They find that runs are not sudden, but involve a learning mechanism where random beliefs are progressively dropped, while behavior motivated by legitimate signals become more important over time. Panic does not displace learning in the market processes of bank runs.
Finally, if Diamond & Dybvig (1983) is correct, it should apply to all fractional-reserve banking systems without deposit insurance. But, as evidenced by the US-centric literature cited, bank runs are much more common in U.S. history than elsewhere, and bank panics are specific to the American National Banking Era and attributable to bank regulation of that era, such as the ban on branch banking that made mergers with insolvent banks impossible, and the bond deposit system that limited emission at a critical time (Smith 1991). Bordo (1990, 24) compares bank panics internationally and comments that “the difference in the incidence of panics is striking.” While over the 1870–1933 the US had four panics, there were none in Britain, France, Germany, Sweden, and Canada despite the fact that “in all four countries, the quantitative variables move similarly during severe recessions to those displayed here for the U.S.” Table 2-1 in Schwartz (1988, 38–39) report that from 1790 to 1927 the U.S. experienced 14 panics, while the Britain, the only other country with as many observation, experienced 8, all of them before 1867.
Not only does Diamond & Dybvig (1983) suggest bank runs have much higher costs than evidence does, but it also shrouds its benefits. My research suggests that bank runs could play an important role in initiating insolvency procedures earlier, before the bank can enlarge its losses, and therefore limit systemic externalities.