Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Panic of 1907 and the Analysis of Financial Crises

I started to research the Panic of 1907 late in 2009. I came to the topic by a rather circuitous route. While working on my dissertation on the origins of the 1898 Bankruptcy Act, I also started to study the evolution of corporate reorganization, which wasn’t covered by the Act. That research ultimately appeared in Business History Review. Several important reorganization cases involved the Farmers’ Loan and Trust Company. The name was familiar to me from teaching American Economic History because of the income tax case, Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan and Trust Co., and two important railroad regulation cases, Reagan v. Farmers’ Loan and Trust Co. and Stone v. Farmers’ Loan and Trust Co.  I was curious what this company did that left its fingerprints all over nineteenth century legal and economic history. So I wrote a book about the Farmers’ Loan and Trust company and its influence on the law.

About the time that I finished the book there was increased attention to the Panic of 1907. The descriptions of New York City trust companies as novel, unregulated and reckless did not fit with what I had been reading and writing about trust companies like the Farmers’ Loan and Trust Co.  So I ended up writing a paper that argued that the panic was not the result of inadequate regulation of trust companies and that to understand the Panic one has to understand that not all trust companies were the same.

 What is really remarkable is that we know so much more about the panic of 1907 than when I started my work in 2009.

Rodgers and Payne have shown how gold shipments from France played a role in ending the Panic.

Hilt, Frydman and Zhou show how the Panic impacted the companies doing business with the trust companies that experienced runs.

Most recently, Fohlin, Gehrig and Haas have shown the role that lack of transparency played in the panic in the stock market.

I believe that we have a much more about what happened in 1907 than we did just a few years ago, but these additions to our knowledge about financial crises in history should also promote caution. I like to think that my work will stand up to the test of time, but I’m sure previous authors did as well. It seems to me that the fact that we are still learning about the Panic of 1907 should cause economists to speak with some caution about the current economic events.

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