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Bernanke: Why the 2008 crisis was a lot like the Panic of 1907

Some financial history from Professor Bernanke (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

In the final panel of an all-star economic conference in Washington on Friday, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke took the stage to discuss the global financial crisis--and in particular to apply a historical lens to it. While his insights aren't new, they put the near-collapse of the global financial system in 2008--and the Fed's efforts to stop it--in a useful light.

In particular, Bernanke draws a parallel with the 1907 financial panic that spurred the creation of the Federal Reserve to begin with. Here's the key section of Bernanke's prepared remarks:

The recent crisis echoed many aspects of the 1907 panic.  Like most crises, the recent episode had an identifiable trigger--in this case, the growing realization by market participants that subprime mortgages and certain other credits were seriously deficient in their underwriting and disclosures.  As the economy slowed and housing prices declined, diverse financial institutions, including many of the largest and most internationally active firms, suffered credit losses that were clearly large but also hard for outsiders to assess.  Pervasive uncertainty about the size and incidence of losses in turn led to sharp withdrawals of short-term funding from a wide range of institutions; these funding pressures precipitated fire sales, which contributed to sharp declines in asset prices and further losses.  Institutional changes over the past century were reflected in differences in the types of funding that ran:  In 1907, in the absence of deposit insurance, retail deposits were much more prone to run, whereas in 2008, most withdrawals were of uninsured wholesale funding, in the form of commercial paper, repurchase agreements, and securities lending.  Interestingly, a steep decline in interbank lending, a form of wholesale funding, was important in both episodes.  Also interesting is that the 1907 panic involved institutions--the trust companies--that faced relatively less regulation, which probably contributed to their rapid growth in the years leading up to the panic.  In analogous fashion, in the recent crisis, much of the panic occurred outside the perimeter of traditional bank regulation, in the so-called shadow banking sector.
The responses to the panics of 1907 and 2008 also provide instructive comparisons.  In both cases, the provision of liquidity in the early stages was crucial.  In 1907 the United States had no central bank, so the availability of liquidity depended on the discretion of firms and private individuals, like Morgan.  In the more recent crisis, the Federal Reserve fulfilled the role of liquidity provider, consistent with the classic prescriptions of Walter Bagehot. The Fed lent not only to banks, but, seeking to stem the panic in wholesale funding markets, it also extended its lender-of-last-resort facilities to support nonbank institutions, such as investment banks and money market funds, and key financial markets, such as those for commercial paper and asset-backed securities.
In both episodes, though, liquidity provision was only the first step.  Full stabilization requires the restoration of public confidence.  Three basic tools for restoring confidence are temporary public or private guarantees, measures to strengthen financial institutions’ balance sheets, and public disclosure of the conditions of financial firms.  At least to some extent, Morgan and the New York Clearinghouse used these tools in 1907, giving assistance to troubled firms and providing assurances to the public about the conditions of individual banks.  All three tools were used extensively in the recent crisis:  In the United States, guarantees included the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation’s (FDIC) guarantees of bank debt, the Treasury Department’s guarantee of money market funds, and the private guarantees offered by stronger firms that acquired weaker ones.  Public and private capital injections strengthened bank balance sheets.  Finally, the bank stress tests that the Federal Reserve led in the spring of 2009 and the publication of the stress-test findings helped restore confidence in the U.S. banking system.  Collectively, these measures helped end the acute phase of the financial crisis, although, five years later, the economic consequences are still with us.

It's an interesting speech with rich historical content. It's also a reminder that when Bernanke steps down from the Fed chairmanship early next year, it will be interesting to see him put his professor hat back on (if that's what he chooses to do) and offer more of his rich perspective as both a leading economic historian and a man who has served at the top rungs of policymaking.