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Fighting Financial Crises

Learning from the Past

If you’ve got money in the bank, chances are you’ve never seriously worried about not being able to withdraw it. But there was a time in the United States, an era that ended just over a hundred years ago, when bank customers had to pay close attention to the solvency of the banking system, knowing they might have to rush to retrieve their savings before the bank collapsed. During the National Banking Era (1863–1913), before the establishment of the Federal Reserve, widespread banking panics were indeed rather common.

Yet these pre-Fed banking panics, as Gary B. Gorton and Ellis W. Tallman show, bear striking similarities to our recent financial crisis. Fighting Financial Crises thus turns to the past to better understand our uncertain present, investigating how panics during the National Banking Era played out and how they were eventually quelled and prevented. The authors then consider the Fed’s and the SEC’s reactions to the recent crisis, building an informative new perspective on how the modern economy works.

256 pages | 14 line drawings, 12 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2018

Economics and Business: Economics--History, Economics--Money and Banking


"Gorton and Tallman’s historical details of the panics of the 1800s for the New York banks at the epicenter of the financial system are unequaled, based on my research. The authors have taken stories from the contemporary New York press and employed available financial data from bank reports to develop a narrative and accompanying tables that bring to life the panics of that era. These details alone make the book worthy of a place on any financial historian’s bookshelf."

Regulation: The Cato Review of Business and Government

“A vital addition to crisis literature because it compares what happened in 2008 to the ways in which US bankers dealt with panics on their own in the years before there was a Fed. . . . With illustration, analysis, and nuance on every page, Fighting Financial Crises is one hundred and fifty years better than Lombard Street."

Economic Principals

"Because crises are inevitable, it is important to understand why they occur and how to respond to them. The authors are leading authorities on the history and economics of financial crises, and thus well worth listening to. . . . Gorton and Tallman provide a clear and succinct description of the crisis, and show how fundamentally it was like the banking panics of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many books and papers have been written about financial crises, but comparatively few focus on how to fight crises. . . . Their book provides many insights and lessons about the nature of financial crises and how authorities should respond to them. Economists and financial market participants will find the book informative, and it should be mandatory reading for regulators and policymakers charged with oversight of the financial system."

Business Economics

"A copy of this book should at least be on the shelves of all economists at all central banks."

Economic History Association

“Financial crises are complex economic and political events, and a historical perspective is essential. In this book, two of our best financial historians distill the key lessons for policy makers and practitioners from the US banking crises of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Their accounts of the crises are engaging and their analyses are insightful and persuasive.”

Ben S. Bernanke, former chairman of the Federal Reserve

“Those who do not study history are more likely to repeat earlier errors, particularly so in the case of financial crises. Gorton and Tallman have painstakingly recorded how US financial crises unfolded and then dissipated between 1873 and 1914, and then distilled general lessons for handling current and future crises. Besides conforming to Bagehot’s rule, they emphasize the importance of managing information in order to avoid contagion from the bank perceived as weakest, to the next weakest, and on until the whole edifice systematically collapses. Excellent history and shrewd analysis.”

Charles A. E. Goodhart, London School of Economics

“History matters, including financial history. During the recent crisis, those of us then running the Bank of England introduced a course on the history of crises for our core staff. Although I don’t agree with every one of its conclusions and prescriptions, I dearly wish we had had this book to hand then! Policy makers need more books like it, and to follow the example of Gordon and Tallman in taking insights from the past seriously.”

Paul Tucker, former deputy governor of the Bank of England

Table of Contents


1 Fighting Financial Crises: Learning from the Past
2 The New York Clearing House Association
3 The Start of a Panic
4 What the New York Clearing House Did during National Banking Era Panics
5 Information Production and Suppression and Emergency Liquidity
6 “Too Big to Fail” before the Fed
7 Certified Checks and the Currency Premium
8 The Change in Depositors’ Beliefs during Suspension
9 Aftermath
10 What Ends a Financial Crisis? Historical Reminders
11 Modern Crises: Perspectives from History
12 Guiding Principles for Fighting Crises


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