A Brief History of U.S. Bank Failures

‘Sorry we’re Closed’ on a sign in a bank window. A history of bank failures in the U.S.

Bank failures are not uncommon during times of economic stress. From the first financial panic of 1819 to the Great Recession of 2008, there are several major economic events that have caused banks to fail at high rates. Now that we have seen the first bank failure since the COVID-19 pandemic began, this seems like a great time to explore the history of bank collapses and the FDIC’s role in protecting Americans.

History of U.S. Bank Failures

In its short history, the U.S. has seen its of share economic panics that have resulted in runs on banks and bank collapses. Although the current pandemic and the Great Recession of 2009 are still very fresh in our minds, it makes sense to start at the beginning.

The Panic of 1819

The history of bank failures in the U.S. begins just over 40 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed. In 1819, the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars led to global market adjustments that tossed the U.S. into its first of many financial crises. England and France had been fighting for centuries, and the U.S. reaped the benefits by supplying agricultural products to both feuding countries. When they stopped fighting the demand for U.S. products tumbled.

To compound the effects of this crisis, rampant speculation in public lands fueled by loose issuance of paper currency by governments drove the economy into a tailspin that persisted through 1821. During this crisis, the Second Bank of the United States (SBUS) – the successor to the First Bank of the U.S. – was heavily impacted by this crisis and began reducing the credit it made available to state-chartered banks. Without this flow of funds, state-chartered banks began to collapse. Because the FDIC had yet to be created, when a bank failed, its customers lost their deposits. This led to runs on banks which led to more bank failures.

Despite the government’s efforts to curtail the damage, many farmers lost everything. This crisis led to several state-charted bank failures and paved the way for Andrew Jackson to close the SBUS in 1933.

The Panic of 1837

The financial crisis of 1837 began a recession that lasted until the mid-1840s. Some of the issues that are thought to have caused this panic were speculative lending practices in western states, a sharp decline in cotton prices and a land price bubble. Andrew Jackson’s financial policies are also considered a major contributing factor to this crisis.

During this time, 343 out of 850 U.S. banks closed entirely. In addition, 62 banks partially failed, and numerous state banks were stressed to a point where the state banking system never fully recovered. Without the FDIC to protect them, many Americans lost their life savings.

The Panic of 1873

Like the prior crises, and those that are to come, the Panic of 1873 was greatly impacted by rampant speculation, but this time in railroads. Germany and the United States were also demonetizing silver at the time, which could have contributed to the excessive inflation and high interest rates being experienced by the United States. The U.S. had arguably over expanded after the conclusion of the Civil War, and major fires in Chicago (1871) and Boston (1872) had already strained bank reserves before this crisis, creating a situation that was likely to implode.

In September of 1873, Jay Cooke & Company [JCC] began having issues marketing railway bonds. Having invested heavily in railroads, JCC became insolvent. On September 18, 1873, they declared bankruptcy. This began a string of bank failures that led to the United States’ first great depression. This was later dubbed the “Long Depression” after the incidents of 1929 took its original name. During this crisis, the New York Stock Exchange suspended trading for the first time in history. And again, since there was no FDIC, many Americans lost everything.

The Panic of 1907

In 1907, two speculators, F. Augustus Heinze and Charles W. Morse, attempted to corner the stock of United Copper, but they didn’t succeed and they suffered major losses. After this incident, Americans began to withdraw their funds from banks that were associated with these two men. A few days later, these bank runs led the New York Clearing House to announce that Heinze member banks, such as the Mercantile National Bank, had been deemed insolvent. F. Augustus Heinz, president of Heinz Bank, was forced to resign which intensified the bank runs. However, the New York Clearing House came to the rescue and offered these banks loans to make sure they could meet their depositors withdrawals, which effectively stopped the runs on their banks.  

While the runs on the Heinz banks were effectively stopped, the contagion spread to trust companies. By October, there was another bank run on Knickerbocker Trust – which had been associated with Morse. Knickerbocker Trust was then temporarily saved by a loan from the National Bank of Commerce, but this did not last. Later in the month, the run on Knickerbocker Trust intensified which led to their failure. This failure of Knickerbocker kicked off a run on New York based financial institutions. The trust companies that existed in New York at the time have many parallels with the shadow banks of today.

To combat these bank runs, the New York Clearing House Committee met and formed a panel to facilitate the issuance of clearing-house loan certificates. These certificates were the predecessors to the discount window loan system that is still operated by the Federal Reserve today. In fact, the effects of this crisis and the steps taken to mitigate it formed the intellectual basis for the Federal Reserve Bank.

The Great Depression: Stock Market Crash of 1929

The official start of the Great Depression was the stock market crash on ‘Black Tuesday’, October 29, 1929. Again, wild speculation during the ‘roaring twenties’ was a contributing factor to this collapse. Unemployment was already growing leading up to the panic, but stock prices continued to grow. In addition, many companies were less than honest with their investors about their financials during the time leading up to the crash.

Later in 1930, the U.S. began experiencing bank runs due to this crisis, which led to a massive wave of bank failures. The first of those bank runs was experienced in Nashville, Tennessee, which triggered a wave of runs across the Southeast. The U.S. financial system saw more bank runs in 1931 and 1932.

When President Roosevelt instituted a banking holiday in 1933, all banks were ordered to cease operations until they were determined solvent. This was the beginning of the end of the bank runs, but the pain was far from over. Overall, these runs, and the financial impact of the stock market crash resulted in the failure of about 9,000 banks throughout the 1930s.

This catastrophic event led to the creation of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation [FDIC] on June 16, 1933. The FDIC guaranteed that depositors would not lose their deposits in member banks in the event of a bank failure, up to a certain limit. Since the creation of the FDIC, bank runs no longer pose major threat to the U.S. banking system. The FDIC now proudly states that “since 1933, no depositor has lost a penny of FDIC-insured funds.”

Savings and Loan Crisis of the 1980’s and 1990’s

The Savings and Loan [S&L] crisis began in the 1980s and extended through the early parts of the 90s. This was a crisis that was spawned again by speculation and regulations that didn’t match market conditions.

The U.S. had just weathered the stagflation of the 1970’s which produced historically high interest rates. These high rates paired with the regulations that limited S&Ls ability to compete put them at a disadvantage. By 1982, S&Ls were losing as much as $4 billion per year after having profited strongly in 1980. More than 1,000 S&Ls had failed by 1989, and those failures continued into the early 90s. However, this time the FDIC made sure Americans didn’t lose their insured funds due to bank failure.

The Great Recession

In 2008, the U.S. began to experience the impacts of the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression. This period of economic contraction actually began in 2007, but it became a full-blown crisis in March 2008 when Bear Stearns began experiencing liquidity issues. Later in the year, both Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers investment banks became insolvent. This recession did not officially end until June 2009.

There were many factors that can be attributed to causing the Great Recession, but again, a major factor was rampant speculation in housing markets, especially regarding sub-prime mortgages.

After this crisis, congress passed regulatory reforms that included increased capital requirements and ‘stress tests’ in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. These regulations were designed to ensure that banks who were “too big to fail” were well capitalized so they could weather the next crisis. Since this time, these regulations have been loosened.

From 2008 through 2015, more than 500 banks failed as a result of this crisis, however, due to the protection extended by the FDIC, insured deposits were safe once again. For comparison, in the 7 years prior to 2008 only 25 banks failed. Because of the protection afforded by the FDIC,  the only bank runs were on ‘shadow banks’ who do not have FDIC protection.

Coronavirus COVID-19 Pandemic of 2020

The story of this crisis is largely left to be written. Just a few weeks ago, the first bank failure during this crisis was reported in West Virginia, however, this bank was already in financial trouble. Although this failure occurred during the height of the COVID-19 economic shutdown, this closure has not been attributed to the pandemic.

It could also be argued that rampant speculation in the stock market had been occurring prior to the recent stock market crash. This was evidenced by stocks like Tesla (TSLA) making huge gains just before the markets turned downward. These drastic moves driven by speculation are often signs of a “blow off top” in the market, and those signs proved to be correct this time around. Are we experiencing another era of financial turmoil brought on by rampant speculation? Only time will tell.

Protecting Your Cash

It is important to keep an eye on this situation as it unfolds to be sure your deposits are safe. But the most important step you can take is to be sure all of your bank deposits are protected by FDIC insurance. As of this writing, every individual and business depositor at a FDIC member bank is insured up to $250,000 by FDIC insurance. This insurance is backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. Government.

Protection for more than $250,000

If you’re fortunate enough to have more than $250k in cash for yourself or your business, you should be careful not to keep it all at the same bank. FDIC insurance only covers your cash up to the $250k limit per investor, per depository institution. This means that you can spread your money among many different banks to achieve FDIC protection on every penny. However, this creates a lot of work in managing multiple banking relationships, statements and reconciliations.

Thankfully, financial technology [fintech] has a solution. The American Deposit Management company has developed proprietary fintech that allows you to spread your cash among their network of hundreds of community banks to virtually unlimited FDIC coverage for your business cash. The best part is this all happens with a 10-minute application, a single deposit, and a single unified monthly statement. Our Marketplace Banking™ accounts also provide next-day liquidity on top of the MOST safety you can get for your cash. You get this all while keeping your current bank. It’s important for you to know that we’re not here to replace your bank, we’re here to enhance it.

If you need the MOST protection for your business deposits, don’t hesitate to contact a member of our team. Our team is our secret sauce and we’ll get your business on the road to the MOST protection and the MOST competitive return available for your cash.

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