May 31, 2016

How bank networks amplify financial crises: Evidence from the Great Depression

How financial networks propagate shocks and magnify recessions is of interest to both scholars and policymakers. The financial crisis of 2007-8 convinced many observers that financial networks were fragile, and while reforms are underway, much remains to be learned about how and why connections between financial firms matter for the macroeconomy. Indeed, the complexity and sheer number of linkages has made it particularly challenging to formulate empirical estimates of their role in amplifying downturns.

Economic theory suggests many channels through which networks may transmit shocks (Allen and Gale 2000, Cabellero and Simesek 2013) and empirical research has provided some evidence of contagious failures flowing through interbank markets, particularly for the recent financial crisis in the US and Europe (Puhr et al. 2012, Fricke and Lux 2012). History should have a lot to say about the role of networks in contributing to the severity of financial crises, but it is a surprisingly lightly studied aspect of earlier periods of financial turmoil – even for well-researched episodes such as the Great Depression. This lacuna exists despite the fact that financial networks of the past may be simpler in structure, thus making it somewhat easier to identify empirically how aggregate variables, such as lending, were affected when linkages were disrupted.

In a recent paper, we document how the interbank network transmitted liquidity shocks through the US banking system and how the transmission of these shocks amplified the contraction in real economic activity during the Great Depression (Mitchener and Richardson 2016). The paper contributes to the growing literature on financial networks and the real economy, illuminating both a mechanism for transmission (interbank deposits) as well as a source of amplification (balance-sheet effects). It also introduces an additional channel through which banking distress deepened the Great Depression and complements existing research on how bank distress during the Great Depression influenced the real economy.

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