FRBNY Economic Policy Review / July 2009 19
Why Did FDRâ€™s Bank Holiday
n Sunday, March 5, 1933, after a month-long run on
American banks, the newly inaugurated President of the
United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, proclaimed a fourday suspension of all banking transactions, beginning the
following day. The nationâ€™s stock exchanges also closed, even
though they were not mentioned in the Presidentâ€™s executive
order. On Thursday, March 9, Roosevelt did not reopen the
banks as planned; rather, he extended the closure for three
days. Americans should have reacted in horror to the
Presidentâ€™s proclamation and his decision to abandon his
original schedule. Instead, they waited to hear his plan.
Rooseveltâ€™s fifteen-minute radio address to the American
people on Sunday evening, March 12â€”his first Fireside Chatâ€”
informed the public that only sound banks would be licensed
to reopen by the U.S. Treasury: â€œI can assure you that it is safer
to keep your money in a reopened bank than under the
Much to everyoneâ€™s relief, when the institutions
reopened for business on March 13, depositors stood in line to
return their hoarded cash to neighborhood banks. Within two
weeks, Americans had redeposited more than half of the
currency that they had squirreled away before the suspension.
1 New York Times, March 13, 1933, p. 1 cont.
William L. Silber is the Marcus Nadler Professor of Finance and Economics
at New York Universityâ€™s Stern School of Business.
The author acknowledges helpful comments from an anonymous referee and
from Stephen Cecchetti, Hugh Rockoff, Anna Schwartz, Richard Sylla, George
Tavlas, Paul Wachtel, Eugene White, and Lawrence J. White. He extends special
thanks to Kenneth Garbade and Thomas Sargent for encouragement and advice;
to Rik Sen for excellent research assistance; and to Joseph Komljenovich and
Marja Vitti, archivists at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, for their help.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the
position of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York or the Federal Reserve System.
â€¢ After a month-long run on banks, on March 5,
1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt
declared a nationwide Bank Holiday that shut
down the banking system.
â€¢ The following week, in his first Fireside Chat,
Roosevelt appealed directly to Americans to
prevent a resumption of bank withdrawals; when
the banks reopened on March 13, depositors
stood in line to return their hoarded cash.
â€¢ The success of the Bank Holiday and the
turnaround in public confidence can be
attributed to the Emergency Banking Act
of 1933, passed by Congress on March 9.
â€¢ The President used the emergency currency
provisions of the Act to encourage the Federal
Reserve to create de facto 100 percent deposit
insurance in the reopened banks.
â€¢ The Bank Holiday and the Emergency Banking
Act reestablished the integrity of the
U.S. payments system and demonstrated the
power of credible regime-shifting policies.
William L. Silber
20 Why Did FDRâ€™s Bank Holiday Succeed?
The market registered its approval as well. On March 15, 1933,
the first day of trading after the extended closure, the New York
Stock Exchange recorded the largest one-day percentage price
With the benefit of hindsight, the nationwide
Bank Holiday in March 1933 ended the bank runs that had
plagued the Great Depression.
How, then, did Roosevelt manage to accomplish in one
week what Herbert Hoover failed to do in three years?
Contemporary observers consider the Bank Holiday and the
Fireside Chat a one-two punch that broke the back of the Great
Depression. According to Beard and Smith (1940, p. 78), â€œthe
sudden nationwide holiday performed the same function for
the bank panic as may a slap in the face for a person gripped by
unreasoning hysteria.â€ Allen (1939, p. 111) notes that the bank
reopening succeeded because â€œthe people had been catapulted
and persuaded by a president who seemed to believe in them
and was giving them action. . . .â€ Alter (2006, p. 269) confirms
the importance of Rooseveltâ€™s communication skills by quoting
Will Rogers on the Presidentâ€™s description of the reopening:
â€œHe made everyone understand it, even the bankers.â€
Rooseveltâ€™s oratory certainly played an important role, but
only the financially naive would have believed that the
government could examine thousands of banks in one week to
identify those that should survive. According to Wigmore
(1987, p. 752), â€œThe federal review procedure for reopening
banks also had too many weaknesses to create much
confidence, given the number of banks reopened, the speed
with which they opened, and the lack of current information
on them. There were no standards for judging which banks
should reopen.â€ Thus, Temin and Wigmore (1990, p. 491)
dismiss the importance of the Bank Holiday: â€œThe value of
stocks . . . rose sharply from its trough in Marchâ€”at the time
of the Bank Holidayâ€”to a peak in July. . . . This abrupt
turnaround was hardly the result of the interregnum or the
Bank Holiday itself. They contained bad news about the health
of the economy. Only after Rooseveltâ€™s commitment to
inflationary policies became clear during the Hundred Days
did the value of stocks rise. The stock market rose and fell with
the value of the dollar during 1933, illustrating dramatically the
link between devaluation and expectations for the economy.â€
See Siegel (1998, p. 183).
Temin and Wigmore (pp. 488-9) ignore the March 15, 1933,
stock price increase in their assessment of the Bank Holiday.
They go further to state: â€œFor the first month the administration
was absorbed with the Bank Holiday and preparing for action.
Stock, bond, foreign exchange, and commodities markets were
quiet and little changedâ€ [italics added].
This article demonstrates that the Bank Holiday that began
on March 6, 1933, marked the end of an old regime, and the
Fireside Chat a week later inaugurated a new one. The
Emergency Banking Act of 1933, passed by Congress on
March 9â€”combined with the Federal Reserveâ€™s commitment
to supply unlimited amounts of currency to reopened banksâ€”
created de facto 100 percent deposit insurance. Moreover, the
evidence shows that people recognized this guarantee and, as a
result, believed the President on March 12, 1933, when he said
that the reopened banks would be safer than the proverbial
â€œmoney under the mattress.â€ Confirmation of the turnaround
in expectations came in two parts: the Dow Jones Industrial
Average rose by a statistically significant 15.34 percent on
March 15, 1933 (taking into account the two-week trading halt
during the Bank Holiday), and by the end of the month, the
public had returned to the banks two-thirds of the currency
hoarded since the onset of the panic.
Together, the Emergency Banking Act and the de facto
100 percent deposit insurance created a safety net for banks
and produced a regime shift with instantaneous results, similar
to Sargentâ€™s (1986) description of â€œThe Ends of Four Big
Inflations.â€ This result would come as no surprise to Friedman
and Schwartz (1963, p. 434), who observe that â€œFederal
insurance of bank deposits was the most important structural
change in the banking system to result from the 1933 panic,
and . . . the structural change most conducive to monetary
stability since state bank notes were taxed out of existence
immediately after the Civil War.â€3 However, Friedman and
Schwartz (pp. 421-2) simply review the provisions of the
The Banking Act of 1933, which included a provision for creating the Federal
Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), was passed on June 13, 1933. FDIC
insurance, which was not retroactive, became effective on January 1, 1934.
Although Roosevelt himself opposed deposit insurance legislation (Calomiris
and White 2000, p. 193), as we discuss, the Presidentâ€™s opposition did not
interfere with his commitment to the success of de facto depositor protection
that began with the earlier Emergency Banking Act of 1933.
Contemporary observers consider
the Bank Holiday and the Fireside Chat
a one-two punch that broke the back
of the Great Depression.
People . . . believed the President on
March 12, 1933, when he said that the
reopened banks would be safer than the
proverbial â€œmoney under the mattress.â€
FRBNY Economic Policy Review / July 2009 21
Emergency Banking Act of 1933 and do not recognize the
implicit guarantee for deposits in the reopened banks. Both
Meltzer (2003, p. 423) and Wicker (1996, p. 146) maintain that
the government understood the need to guarantee deposits in
reopened banks, but they do not show that the public
recognized this new policy and acted accordingly.
Friedman and Schwartz correctly praise the stabilizing role
of deposit insurance, but they do not distinguish between a
100 percent guarantee and the insurance program created by
the FDIC that began on January 1, 1934. FDIC insurance caps
its guarantee at a maximum dollar amount for each deposit
account, initially set at $2,500. Small depositors with FDIC
insurance did not have to worry about their accounts, but large
depositors, who were only partially insured, could still be
panicked into a run. Rooseveltâ€™s implicit 100 percent guarantee
on March 12, 1933, convinced all depositors to trust the
The nationwide Bank Holiday in March 1933 was a unique
event in American financial history. In the past, banks had
suspended the convertibility of deposits into currency, but
never had there been a complete stoppage of the entire
U.S. payments system. The evidence presented here on the
speed with which the Bank Holiday and the Emergency
Banking Act of 1933 reestablished the integrity of the payments
system demonstrates the power of credible regime-shifting
The article is organized as follows. Section 2 describes the
February 1933 banking system crisis that culminated in the
formal suspension of all banking transactions upon Rooseveltâ€™s
proclamation of a nationwide Bank Holiday. Section 3 reviews
the reasons for the suspension, and Section 4 describes the
solution to the crisis: the Emergency Banking Act of 1933.
Evidence from the contemporary press confirms that an
important segment of the American public understood the
implicit federal guarantee for all deposits of reopened banks.
Section 5 shows that people responded by redepositing the
currency they had withdrawn and by bidding up stock prices.
2. The Collapse
â€œThe straw that broke the camelâ€™s back occurred in Detroit,
Michigan,â€ in February 1933, according to Acting Comptroller
of the Currency Francis Awalt.4
Michigan Governor William A.
Comstock declared a statewide banking holiday on
February 14, 1933, to prevent the failure of the Union
Guardian Trust Company of Detroit, a bank with close ties to
Henry Ford. The story of the battle between Fordâ€”Union
Guardianâ€™s largest depositorâ€”and Under Secretary of the
Treasury Arthur Ballantine over how to save the bank from
insolvency has been told many times (Kennedy 1973; Wigmore
1985; Wicker 1996). The failure of Ford and Ballantine to arrive
at a mutually agreeable solution forced the governor to suspend
banking operations in the entire state. The fallout from that
decision gave new meaning to the law of unintended
consequences. Instead of preventing a panic, the Michigan
bank holiday precipitated one. The suspension confirmed the
publicâ€™s worst fearsâ€”that the banks were unsafeâ€”and sparked
a nationwide rush to cash.
The damage from the February 14 Michigan proclamation
came from contagion. According to Wicker (1996, p. 121), the
Michigan bank holiday â€œspread fear and uncertainty quickly to
the contiguous states of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.â€ The
contemporary press suggests, however, that those states
recognized the danger of imitating the Michigan example. On
February 17, the office of Ohio Governor George White issued
this statement: â€œThere is no occasion for a proclamation by
Governor White of a banking holiday in the state of Ohio.â€5
On February 23, the New York Times reported that Indiana
Governor Paul McNutt declared that there would be â€œno bank
moratorium in Indianaâ€ in order to quiet â€œunwarranted
reports from Chicago that there would be [one].â€6
Unlike Michiganâ€™s Midwestern neighbors, Maryland failed
to hold the line. On February 24, Governor Albert Ritchie
remarked: â€œI attended the meeting of bankers this evening with
the idea of doing whatever is best for the depositors. . . . I
believe there is no justification for the withdrawals which have
recently been taking place. But to protect the property and
saving[s] of the people of the city [of Baltimore] and the State
these large withdrawals should stop. It was the consensus of
opinion that a bank holiday should be declared tomorrow.â€7
In the weeks following the Michigan moratorium, there
were large increases in the demand for currency (Table 1). For
the six weeks ending February 8, 1933, currency in circulation
was quite stable, averaging $5.36 billion. After February 8,
Awalt (1969, p. 349).
5 New York Times, February 18, 1933, p. 5.
February 23, 1933, p. C31.
7 New York Times, February 24, 1933, p. 21.
The nationwide Bank Holiday in March
1933 was a unique event in American
financial history. In the past, banks had
suspended the convertibility of deposits
into currency, but never had there been
a complete stoppage of the entire
U.S. payments system.
22 Why Did FDRâ€™s Bank Holiday Succeed?
currency held by the public rose steadily, reaching $7.25 billion
in the week ending March 8, 1933. The $1.78 billion jump in
currency held by the public between February 8 and March 8â€”
an increase of more than 30 percentâ€”confirms the hoarding of
cash.8 Almost all of the increase occurred after February 15.
The weekly data in Table 1 are not seasonally adjusted, but monthly seasonal
factors show that virtually no adjustment is required for February and March
(see Banking and Monetary Statistics, Table 111, Board of Governors of the
Federal Reserve System, 1943).
The rush to cash during the weeks following the Michigan bank
holiday triggered bank closures or deposit restrictions in every
state, even before Rooseveltâ€™s proclamation of March 5, 1933
(Wicker 1996, p. 128). According to the New York Times, â€œA bank
holiday â€˜until further noticeâ€™ was declared tonight [March 4] in
Delaware, the last of the forty-eight states in which restrictions
have been made.â€9
However, there is disagreement over the
precise number of bank holidays in force before Rooseveltâ€™s
presidential decree. According to Friedman and Schwarz (1963,
p. 325), â€œBy March 3, holidays in about half the states had been
declaredâ€; Meltzer (2003, p. 382) indicates â€œBy inauguration day
[March 4], thirty-five states had declared bank holidaysâ€; and
Alter (2006, p. 190) maintains â€œBy the early evening of Friday
March 3, banks in thirty-two of forty-eight states were closed.â€
Why is there such confusion? To some extent, the
disagreement stems from the use of different sources or time
periods; only Wicker (1996) provides a reference for his
discussion (the New York Times). The more likely source of
confusion is that some states went to great lengths to avoid a
de jure holiday. For example, the Chicago Tribune reported that
â€œIndiana Governor Paul V. McNutt today informed state
officials . . . [that] Indiana banks, under the new bank code law
recently rushed through the state legislature, have the power to
limit withdrawals to one-tenth of one percent. Therefore, no
state-wide bank moratorium will be declared in Indiana.â€10
A detailed examination of the Associated Press list of
banking restrictions by state (including the District of
Columbia) as of the close of business on March 4, 1933, reveals
that â€œBanks in 28 states are â€˜closedâ€™; Banks in 10 states are â€˜some
or mostly closedâ€™; Banks in 11 states have deposits that are
â€˜restricted to withdrawals of 5 (or some unspecified)
percent.â€™â€11 The Associated Press characterized Indiana as:
â€œAbout half [of the banks] restricted to 5 percent [withdrawals]
indefinitely.â€ If the term bank holiday means an unqualified
shutdown of banking transactions by state governments, then
the Associated Press limited the number to twenty-eight.12
As these accounts suggest, Franklin Delano Roosevelt did
not invent the bank holiday. So why is his March 5
proclamation credited with launching a process that was
crucial to restoring confidence in Americaâ€™s banking system?
The answer is that Rooseveltâ€™s initiative turned a maze of state
restrictions into a uniform national policy. This action was the
key first step to resolving the banking crisis: It shifted the
March 5, 1933, p. F24.
10 March 5, 1933, p. A5.
11 New York Times, March 5, 1933, p. F24.
12 Although the Associated Press listed New York as â€œclosed,â€ the New York
Times (March 5, 1933, p. 23) reported that â€œAt least two banks in New York
City did not avail themselves of the banking holiday proclaimed yesterday by
Governor Lehman. They were the Sterling National Bank, 1410 Broadway and
the National Bank of Far Rockaway.â€
Currency in Circulation, January-July 1933
(Billions of Dollars)
Source: Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, Banking and
Monetary Statistics (1943, p. 387).
FRBNY Economic Policy Review / July 2009 23
responsibility for the integrity of the payments system to the
federal government, where it belonged.
3. The Challenge
Rooseveltâ€™s challenge was to figure out how to reopen the banks
without triggering a resumption of the deposit withdrawals
that led to the suspensions. His solutionâ€”the Bank Holidayâ€”
was a more extensive form of bank suspension that had last
occurred in the United States in 1907 under the national
banking system. Indeed, Congress had established the Federal
Reserve System in 1913 precisely to prevent banks from
suspending the convertibility of deposits into currency.
Friedman and Schwartz (1963, p. 330) compare the Bank
Holiday with earlier restrictions: â€œOne would be hard put to . . .
find a more dramatic example of how far the result of
legislation can deviate from intention.â€
Why did the national banking system fail in 1933? Friedman
and Schwartz (p. 330) acknowledge that, even with the benefit
of hindsight, â€œthe answer is by no means clear.â€ However, a
number of points are worth considering.13 First, the weakened
capital position of the commercial banks made them
vulnerable to even minor drains.14 Second, the publicâ€™s
demand for currency during February and March 1933 was
exacerbated by a demand for gold.15 Third, although the
Federal Reserve Act provided for an elastic currency by
allowing a Reserve Bank to discount eligible commercial paper
and ship currency in the form of Federal Reserve Notes to a
commercial bank, the Act also imposed a reserve requirement
of 40 percent gold backing for Federal Reserve Notes
outstanding. Finally, by March 3, 1933, the gold drain at the
Federal Reserve Bank of New York reduced its gold reserve
ratio to 24 percent. Meltzer (2003, p. 387) states that the
Federal Reserve Board then suspended the gold reserve
requirement, but quotes Federal Reserve Bank of New York
Governor George Harrison, saying that â€œhe would not take the
responsibility of running [the] bank with deficient reservesâ€
(p. 386). Perhaps Wicker (1996, p. 145) sums up the situation
best: â€œ[Using] the pre-1914 remedy of suspension of cash
payments can be explained quite easily. Bold and courageous
13 See Meltzer (2003, pp. 381-9) and Friedman and Schwartz (1963, pp. 324-32).
14 Friedman and Schwartz (1963, p. 330) emphasize that â€œThe recorded capital
figures were widely recognized as overstating the available capital because assets
were being carried on the books at a value higher than their market value.â€
15 According to Wigmore (1987, p. 744), weekly data show a $1.8 billion
increase in currency in circulation and a gold drain of $563 million from the
Federal Reserve System. Wigmore also provides daily data showing a larger
gold outflow from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York during the first few
days of March.
leadership was absent. Neither the Fed nor the RFC
[Reconstruction Finance Corporation] was willing to accept
lender of last resort responsibilities.â€
The absence of leadership created a vacuum filled with fear
and uncertainty, making the reopening of banks a precarious
undertaking. According to Acting Comptroller of the Currency
Awalt, â€œNo one knew how the public would react when the
banks reopened. If they demanded their money they either had
to have it or the reopening would be a failure.â€16
To prevent a resumption of bank withdrawals, the President
appealed directly to the people on March 12, 1933, in his first
Fireside Chat.17 His opening words set the tone: â€œMy friends, I
want to talk for few minutes with the people of the United
States about bankingâ€”with the comparatively few who
understand the mechanics of banking, but more particularly
with the overwhelming majority of you who use banks for the
making of deposits and the drawing of checks. I want to tell you
what has been done in the last few days, and why it was done,
and what the next steps are going to be.â€ In clear and simple
terms, Roosevelt explained the procedure for reopening the
banks and claimed that only sound banks would be reopened.
The novelty of this event is captured by the description, the
day after the talk, in the Christian Science Monitor: â€œHe speaks
to the nation over the radio in what is quite possibly the most
remarkable address ever made by any President. In man-toman fashion, in words of only one syllable, he uses the tones of
a friend on the inside to assure a people . . . that the bank
situation is sound. He recites the problems [and] explains the
remedy: â€˜when people find they can get their money when they
want it the phantom of fear will soon be laid [to rest]. . . . It was
the governmentâ€™s job to straighten out this situation and the
job is being performed.â€™â€18
16 Awalt (1969, p. 368).
17 The text of the Fireside Chat, and the excerpts that follow, can be found in
the New York Times (March 13, 1933, p. 1).
18 March 13, 1933, p. 1.
Rooseveltâ€™s challenge was to figure out how
to reopen the banks without triggering a
resumption of the deposit withdrawals that
led to the suspensions. His solutionâ€”the
Bank Holidayâ€”was a more extensive form
of bank suspension that had last occurred in
the United States in 1907 under the national
24 Why Did FDRâ€™s Bank Holiday Succeed?
Frederick Lewis Allen, the contemporary social historian,
confirmed the power of the Presidentâ€™s oratory (Allen 1939,
p. 110): â€œRooseveltâ€™s first Fireside Chat was perfectly attuned.
Quiet, uncondescending [sic], clear, and confident, it was an
incredibly skillful performance.â€ However, Allen also
emphasized that most people did not understand how the
government could accomplish its objective: â€œThe banks opened
without any such renewed panic as had been feared. They
might not have done so had the people realized that it was
impossible, in a few days, to separate the sound banks from the
unsoundâ€ (p. 110).
Allen suggests that most people did not care what the
President saidâ€”only the way he said it. But the Presidentâ€™s
opening words identified two groups of people: the
â€œcomparatively few who understand the mechanics of banking
. . . [and] the overwhelming majority.â€ How did the President
assure the more sophisticated publicâ€”and a skeptical pressâ€”
who could blow the whistle if there was no substance to his
Roosevelt, in fact, delivered a double-barreled message
during his Fireside Chatâ€”one for the general public and one
for the financiers. To those who understood the mechanics of
banking, he said, â€œLast Thursday [March 9] was the legislation
promptly and patriotically passed by the Congress . . . [that]
gave authority to develop a program of rehabilitation of our
banking facilities. . . . The new law allows the twelve Federal
Reserve Banks to issue additional currency on good assets and
thus the banks that reopen will be able to meet every legitimate
call. The new currency is being sent out by the Bureau of
Engraving and Printing to every part of the country.â€
The Emergency Banking Act, passed by Congress on March 9,
1933, gave the President the backing that he needed to ensure the
safety of the reopened banks.19 Without that legislation, the
Presidentâ€™s words could not have carried the day.
19 The text of the Emergency Banking Act of 1933 appears in its entirety in
the New York Times (March 10, 1933, p. 2).
4. The Emergency Banking Act of 1933
The key provision of the Emergency Banking Act, mentioned
by Roosevelt, allowed the Federal Reserve Banks to issue
emergency currency, similar to that issued in 1914 under the
Aldrich-Vreeland Act. According to the New York Times: â€œTo
many of the Presidentâ€™s closest advisors the Aldrich-Vreeland
Act, repealed when the Federal Reserve Act came into effect,
provides the model scheme for the projected expansion of
currency through Federal Reserve Notes.â€20 Titles I through IV
of the Emergency Banking Act went much further, however,
granting the President near dictatorial powers.
Title I of the Act approved the Presidentâ€™s declaration of
the Bank Holiday and allowed the President, during the
period of emergency, to regulate all banking functions,
including â€œany transactions in foreign exchange, transfers of
credit between or payments by banking institutions as
defined by the President, and export, hoarding, melting, or
earmarking of gold or silver coin.â€ Title II gave the
Comptroller of the Currency the power to restrict the
operations of a bank with impaired assets and to appoint a
conservator, who â€œshall take possession of the books,
records, and assets of every description of such bank, and
take such action as may be necessary to conserve the assets
of such bank pending further disposition of its business.â€
Title III allowed the Secretary of the Treasury to determine
whether a bank needed additional funds to operate and
â€œwith the approval of the President request the
Reconstruction Finance Corporation to subscribe to the
preferred stock in such association, State bank or trust
company, or to make loans secured by such stock as
collateral.â€ Title IV provided for issuance by the Federal
Reserve Banks of emergency currency, called Federal
20 March 9, 1933, p. 2. The emergency currency provision of the AldrichVreeland Act, passed in May 1908 to prevent a replay of the Panic of 1907, had
been scheduled to expire by legislative design on June 30, 1914. The Federal
Reserve Act, passed in December 1913, extended the expiration date for one
year, until June 30, 1915, to provide protection against panics while the Federal
Reserve System was being organized. The extension allowed Treasury Secretary
William McAdoo to invoke the Aldrich-Vreeland Act to prevent a panic in
August 1914 at the outbreak of the Great War (see Silber [2007b]).
Roosevelt . . . delivered a doublebarreled message during his Fireside
Chatâ€”one for the general public and
one for the financiers.
The key provision of the Emergency
Banking Act . . . allowed the Federal
Reserve Banks to issue emergency
currency, similar to that issued in 1914
under the Aldrich-Vreeland Act.
FRBNY Economic Policy Review / July 2009 25
Reserve Bank Notes, backed either by â€œ(A) any direct
obligations of the United States or (B) any notes, drafts, bills
of exchange, or bankersâ€™ acceptances, acquired under the
provisions of this act.â€ Federal Reserve Bank Notes would
circulate alongside normal Federal Reserve Notes, even
though they were not backed by gold, because the Act
provided that the new notes â€œshall be receivable at par in all
parts of the United States . . . and shall be redeemable in
lawful money of the United States on presentation at the
United States Treasury.â€
Title I of the Emergency Banking Act conferred on the
President considerable power to deal with the crisis. The
Administration did not shy away from using that power. In his
Fireside Chat on Sunday night, March 12, Roosevelt ordered
banks to be opened sequentially: â€œFirst in the Twelve Reserve
Bank citiesâ€”those banks which on first examination by the
Treasury have been already found to be all right . . . followed on
Tuesday . . . by banks already found to be sound in cities where
there are recognized clearing houses . . . [and] on Wednesday
and succeeding days, banks in smaller places . . . subject, of
course to the governmentâ€™s physical ability to complete its
survey.â€21 The Treasury issued emergency regulations designed
to prevent runs on the reopened banks, including: â€œNo banking
institution shall permit any withdrawal by any person when
such institution, acting in good faith, shall deem that the
withdrawal is intended for hoarding.â€22
Roosevelt recognized that the restoration of confidence was
the most important ingredient for a successful reopening:
â€œConfidence and courage are the essentials of success in
carrying out our plan.â€23 Friedman and Schwartz (1963,
p. 440) confirm the role of confidence: â€œPanics arose out of or
were greatly intensified by a loss of confidence in the ability of
banks to convert deposits into currency.â€ However, Roosevelt
did not inspire great confidence when he said the first banks to
be reopened were those that â€œon first examination by the
Treasury have been already found to be all right.â€ Nor did
regulations against hoarding assure people that the banks were
sound; if anything, the reverse was more likely. The key to
creating confidence in the reopened banks rested with Titles III
and IV of the Emergency Banking Act.
Title IV gave the Federal Reserve the flexibility to issue
emergency currencyâ€”Federal Reserve Bank Notesâ€”backed by
any assets of a commercial bank. The contemporary press
recognized the power of the emergency currency provision:
â€œThe new currency feature of the law is one of the most
important of the many extraordinary powers given to this
administration . . . which stem from the Aldrich-Vreeland Act
21 New York Times, March 13, 1933, p. 1 cont.
22 New York Times, March 13, 1933, p. 2.
23 New York Times, March 13, 1933, p. 1 cont.
. . . invoked in 1914 for the issuance of about $386,000,000 in
emergency currency.â€24 The link to Aldrich-Vreeland
currency, which succeeded in defusing the financial crisis at the
outbreak of World War I, conferred credibility on the power of
Title IV of the Emergency Banking Act of 1933.25 The Wall
Street Journal wrote: â€œBanks which are believed to be 100%
sound would be reopened as soon as their condition could be
checked. . . . All banks so reopened, it was pointed out, could
under Title 4 and under machinery already in existence obtain
the cash resources necessary from the Federal Reserve banks.â€26
Title IV of the Emergency Banking Act promised more than
just the availability of cash to reopened banks. It also created
the expectation that the government would guarantee all
depositors against loss, without limit. As the New York Times
reported: â€œSome bankers who were here today . . . interpreted
the emergency banking act as a measure under which the
government practically guarantees, not officially but morally,
the deposits in the banks which it permits to reopen. This point
of view was based on the fact that banks permitted to open are
characterized as 100 per cent sound and assured of sufficient
currency to meet all obligationsâ€ [italics added].27
Title III of the Emergency Banking Act added to the publicâ€™s
perception of a guarantee, according to the New York Times:
â€œThe privilege to be extended to banks to issue preferred stock
to be taken over by the Reconstruction Finance Corporation
when they are in need of funds for capital purposes or
reorganization, is also pointed to as another feature of the
governmental program which fits in with the theory that a
virtual guarantee is extended to depositors.â€28 Two days earlier,
a New York Times headline had announced: â€œDeposit
Guarantee Seen in Bank Law,â€ and the newspaper attributed
the view to â€œan interpretation of the measure . . . by some
officials in one of the government departments it concerns.â€29
The availability of capital funds through the Reconstruction
Finance Corporation would certainly help a bankâ€™s balance
24 New York Times, March 10, 1933, p. 3.
25 See Silber (2007a) for a discussion of the 1914 financial crisis.
26 March 10, 1933, p. 1 cont.
27 March 13, 1933, p. 1 cont.
28 March 13, 1933.
29 March 11, 1933, p. 2.
Roosevelt recognized that the
restoration of confidence was the most
important ingredient for a successful
reopening [of banks].
26 Why Did FDRâ€™s Bank Holiday Succeed?
sheet, but only the Federal Reserve could provide unlimited
currency to banks to meet a run on deposits. Acting
Comptroller of the Currency Awalt confirmed the implicit
guarantee many years later, but also hinted at concern over
Federal Reserve support: â€œIt was felt that the various Federal
Reserve Banks must back the reopened banks to the hilt, and
that it was no time for any conservative head of a Federal
Reserve Bank to exercise his conservatism, should demand be
made for currency. We reasoned, therefore, that if the Federal
Reserve agreed to a reopening of a particular bank, it would
necessarily be forced to back it one hundred percentâ€ [italics
How could a conservative Federal Reserve throttle the
guarantee? A bank in need of cash could get the new Federal
Reserve Bank Notes, according to Title IV of the Emergency
Banking Act, by discounting with its regional Federal Reserve
Bank â€œ(A) any direct obligations of the United States or (B) any
notes, drafts, bills of exchange, or bankersâ€™ acceptances,
acquired under the provisions of this act.â€ However, an
individual Federal Reserve Bank could refuse to accept a bankâ€™s
assets as collateral if the assets were considered too risky.
Central bankers are always concerned with credit risk. The
Federal Reserve Banks may have been especially sensitive
because they are private corporations owned by the
commercial banks that are members of the System. In a
discussion titled â€œTragic Interlude in March, 1933,â€
Emanuel A. Goldenweiser, Director of Research and Statistics
at the Federal Reserve Board from 1926 through 1945, wrote:
â€œThe Federal Reserve Banks and their management were still
under the spell of commercial banking practice and theory and
were dominated by the concept of liquidity as protection to a
bank. They were also concerned about protecting the liquidity
and solvency of the Federal Reserve Banks themselves as
custodians of the countryâ€™s ultimate reserves.â€31
An agreement to indemnify the Federal Reserve Banks
against losses ensured their cooperation in lending freely to
banks in need of cash. The promise to protect the Reserve
Banks came in the form of a telegram, dated March 11, 1933,
30 Awalt (1969, p. 368).
31 Goldenweiser (1951, p. 165).
from Rooseveltâ€™s Treasury Secretary, William Woodin, to
Governor George Harrison of the Federal Reserve Bank of
New York, quoting President Roosevelt: â€œIt is inevitable that
some losses may be made by the Federal Reserve banks in loans
to their member banks. The country appreciates, however, that
the 12 regional Federal Reserve Banks are operating entirely
under Federal Law and the recent Emergency Bank Act greatly
enlarges their powers to adapt their facilities to a national
emergency. Therefore, there is definitely an obligation on the
federal government to reimburse the 12 regional Federal
Reserve Banks for losses which they may make on loans made
under these emergency powers. I do not hesitate to assure you
that I shall ask the Congress to indemnify any of the 12 Federal
Reserve banks for such losses. I am confident that Congress will
recognize its obligation to these Federal Banks should the
occasion arise, and grant such request.â€32 Roosevelt clearly
went out on a limb to ensure the Federal Reserveâ€™s cooperation.
Congress understood the role of emergency currency in
guaranteeing bank deposits. As the New York Times observed:
â€œthe framing and adoption of the emergency banking law . . .
went far to offset demands in Congress for a separate guarantee
bill.â€33 Of course, the public did not know the details of the
Federal Reserveâ€™s reluctance to lend, nor did it know of
Rooseveltâ€™s indemnification scheme.34 Most Americans, in
fact, did not read the New York Times, so they were unaware of
the publicity accorded the implicit guarantee.
32 Federal Reserve Bank of New York Archives, Central Files Unit, 017.1. The
Honorable Ogden Mills, outgoing Treasury secretary, was invited to the Board
of Directors meeting of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to read the
telegram and to brief the Directors on â€œrecent discussions of the problems
involved in reopening the banks of the country which have taken place in
Washington, D.C.â€ (Minutes, March 11, 1933, p. 179, Federal Reserve Bank of
New York Archives). William Woodin, incoming Treasury secretary, had asked
Mills to stay on and help draft the Emergency Banking Act. Also see
Alter (2006) and Meltzer (2003) for discussions of the role that Mills played.
33 March 13, 1933, p. 1 cont.
34 The Directors of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York were sufficiently worried
about the riskiness of loans to reopened banks that they transmitted the following
resolution to the Treasury secretary: â€œPending the legal assumption of the
responsibility of the government [to indemnify the Reserve Banks] . . . we believe
that banks should be licensed to reopen only with our approval, as the principal
burden of taking care of such banks as are reopened will be oursâ€ (Minutes,
March 12, 1933, p. 189, Federal Reserve Bank of New York Archives).
An agreement to indemnify the Federal
Reserve Banks against losses ensured
their cooperation in lending freely to
banks in need of cash.
The key question is: When the banks
reopened, did the public behave as
though it believed in the newly guaranteed
safety of the banking system?
FRBNY Economic Policy Review / July 2009 27
Perhaps the articles in the New York Times reflected the
strategy outlined by Raymond Moley, a member of
Rooseveltâ€™s brain trust. Moley had worked with Treasury
Secretary William Woodin to formulate the Emergency
Banking Act and had helped draft the March 12 Fireside Chat.
He stated: â€œThose who conceived and executed . . . the policies
which vanquished the bank crisis . . . were intent upon
rallying the confidence, first, of the conservative business and
banking leaders of the country and then, through them, of the
public generallyâ€ (Moley 1939, p. 155).
Indicative evidence of the strategy described by Moley
comes from comparing the Minutes of the Board of Directors
of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York with comments in the
New York Times. On March 10, 1933, the following entry
appeared in the Minutes: â€œUnder this law, enacted as a part of
the program for reopening the banks, the Federal Reserve
Banks become in effect guarantors of the deposits of the
reopened banks. While they are not legally bound there is a
large moral responsibilityâ€ [italics added].35 Two days later, the
New York Times echoed precisely that sentiment: â€œSome
bankers who were here today . . . interpreted the emergency
banking act as a measure under which the government
practically guarantees, not officially but morally, the deposits in
the banks which it permits to re-openâ€ [italics added].36 There
is no evidence of a purposeful leak, but Treasury Secretary
William Woodin had been a member of the Board of Directors
of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York until March 3, 1933,
and could have easily arranged a discreet disclosure.37
In sum, the contemporary commentary suggests that
Rooseveltâ€™s rhetoric in his first Fireside Chat gave the public
confidence in the opened banks. Business and banking
leadersâ€”and the pressâ€”could rely on the Emergency Banking
Act to deliver on the governmentâ€™s moral obligation to
guarantee all deposits. The key question is: When the banks
reopened, did the public behave as though it believed in the
newly guaranteed safety of the banking system?
5. The Evidence
On the very first day that the banks reopened, the press
described depositors anxious to redeposit their cash. A front
35 Minutes, March 11, 1933, p. 172, Federal Reserve Bank of New York
36 March 13, 1933, p. 1 cont.
37 This tactic is consistent with the approach of the new Administration. Alter
(2006, pp. 179-81) confirms Rooseveltâ€™s Machiavellian side by documenting
his failure to cooperate with Hoover in the month before the election. He
suggests that â€œIt is hard to avoid the conclusion that [Roosevelt] intentionally
allowed the economy to sink lower so that he could enter the presidency in a
more dramatic fashion.â€
page headline in the Chicago Tribune read: â€œCity Recovers
Confidence as 34 Banks Open.â€38 The front page of the
New York Times carried similar news: â€œRush to Put Money
Back Shows Restored Faith as Holiday Ends.â€39 The Times
article explained: â€œThe public plainly showed that it recovered
from the fear and hysteria which characterized the last few days
before the banking holiday was proclaimed. It was obvious that
the people had full confidence in the banks which received
licenses to reopen from the Federal Reserve Bank . . . there was
a general â€˜runâ€™ yesterday [March 13] to deposit or redeposit
money. . . . Conditions in New York were duplicated in each of
the other Federal Reserve cities throughout the country where
full banking facilities were restored.â€40 The process continued
the following day, according to the Times: â€œWith the reopening
of the banks in clearing house centers . . . currency poured in
from private hoards and from the tills of business houses to be
deposited in the banks.â€41
The success of the reopening had the somewhat anomalous
result of making the emergency currency appear redundant. On
March 15, a Times headline announced: â€œNew Currency Put at
$2,000,000,000: Bureau made first Delivery of Money 24 Hours
after Receiving Order.â€42 The newspaper then concluded: â€œIf this
movement [of returning currency] keeps up, bankers remarked,
only a comparatively small amount of the new Federal Reserve
Bank Notes will be needed to supplement the existing supplies of
regular currency.â€ The publicâ€™s behavior supports the old banker
adage: â€œWhen they know they can get their money, they are not
so eager to have it.â€43
The data on currency in circulation in Table 1 support the
descriptive comments in the press. Currency held by the public
had increased by $1.78 billion in the four weeks ending
March 8, 1933. The public returned two-thirds of the
increaseâ€”$1.18 billionâ€”by the end of the month.44 This
remarkable turnaround is all the more impressive considering
that when the governmentâ€™s initial licensing program ended on
38 March 14, 1933.
39 March 14, 1933.
40 March 14, 1933.
41 March 15, 1933, p. 5.
42 March 15, 1933, p. 5.
43 The quote comes from the Wall Street Journal (September 15, 1914, p. 5).
It refers to British investors not liquidating their American investments as the
crisis of 1914 came under control. See Silber (2007a, p. 128).
On the very first day that the banks
reopened, the press described depositors
anxious to redeposit their cash.
28 Why Did FDRâ€™s Bank Holiday Succeed?
April 12, 1933, a total of 4,215 banks, with deposits of nearly
$4 billion, remained closed (Wicker 1996, pp. 146-7).45
The stock market provides a second assessment of the events
from March 3, 1933 (the last trading day before the Bank
Holiday), to March 15, 1933 (the day the New York Stock
Exchange resumed trading). The Dow Jones Industrial Average
increased by a record 15.34 percent on March 15, 1933â€”the
largest one-day percentage price increase ever recorded,
according to Siegel (1998, p. 183). However, Siegel omits this
day from his ranking of largest daily stock price increases,
presumably because trading had been suspended for almost
two calendar weeks. Recall that Temin and Wigmore (1990,
p. 488) dismiss entirely the March 15 price increase,
maintaining that the market was quiet and little changed.
Is the 15.34 percent jump in the Dow Jones Industrial
Average significant after accounting for the trading
suspension? A simple t-test on the continuously compounded
return of 14.27 percent on March 15, 1933, can determine
whether this increase is statistically significant. The relevant
daily standard deviation of returns is 2.48 percent.46 Allowing
for eight regular trading days between March 3, 1933, and
March 15, 1933, the t-statistic has a value of 2.03, which is
significant at conventional levels.47 Table 2 presents the same
set of statistics for three other stock market indexes: the
S&P 500 Index (which consisted of ninety stocks at that time);
44 The weekly data are not seasonally adjusted, but the monthly seasonal
adjustments for March are minimal (see footnote 8). Moreover, the changes in
currency in circulation for the corresponding weeks in each of the three
previous years are small and show no pattern. In 1932, currency in circulation
declined from $5.26 billion in the second week of March to $5.15 billion in the
last week of March; in 1931, it grew from $4.27 billion to $4.33 billion; in 1930,
it rose from $4.21 billion to $4.23 billion (source: Banking and Monetary
Statistics, pp. 384-7, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, 1943).
45 The history of bank suspensions provides some perspective. Over the
1930-32 period, bank suspensions averaged 1,699 per year; from 1934 through
1940, they averaged 45 per year (source: Banking and Monetary Statistics,
Table 66, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, 1943).
the Chicago Booth Center for Research in Security Prices
(CRSP) equally weighted index; and the CRSP value-weighted
index. The t-statistics for the Bank Holiday returns using the
CRSP indexes allow for ten trading days between the two dates
because, unlike the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the
S&P 500 Index, the CRSP data include abbreviated Saturday
sessions.48 All of the t-statistics are significant.
Stock prices fluctuate for many reasonsâ€”and sometimes for
no reason at allâ€”but the magnitude of the favorable response
on March 15, 1933, implies that the successful reopening of the
banking system cannot be ignored. The contemporary press
confirms the connection. The day after the market reopened,
the New York Times observed: â€œThe robust advance in stocks
and bonds was interpretedâ€”and correctly soâ€”as Wall Streetâ€™s
mark of approval of the steps taken by the President and
Congress in the interval to end the financial disorder.â€49 The
Wall Street Journal added: â€œThe emergency banking act lifted
46 To measure the normal variability of returns during this period, we first
calculate the daily standard deviation of returns (continuously compounded)
on the Dow Jones Industrial Average from January 4, 1932, through March 3,
1933. We then split the sample on November 8, 1932, the date of Rooseveltâ€™s
election, and perform an F-test to determine whether the pre-election
(January 4, 1932, through November 7, 1932) daily standard deviation of
3.45 percent equals the post-election (November 9, 1932, through March 3,
1933) daily standard deviation of 2.48 percent. The F-statistic equals 2.03, with
213 and 77 degrees of freedom, implying a p-value of .001. Thus, we reject the
hypothesis of equality for the pre- and post-election standard deviation of
returns. Daily data on the Dow Jones Industrial Average (and the estimate of
the daily standard deviation) did not include the abbreviated Saturday trading
47 The eight trading days between March 3 and March 15 exclude Saturdays.
Recognition that variance over nontrading days is lower than variance over
trading days (see French and Roll  and Lockwood and Linn )
would increase the t-statistic.
48 The reduced daily standard deviations for the CRSP indexes compared with
the S&P 500 Index and the Dow Jones Industrial Average are due, in part, to
the lower standard deviation of returns on the abbreviated Saturday sessions
compared with the rest of the week.
49 March 16, 1933, p. 25.
Significance Tests for Stock Returns: March 3-15, 1933
Dow Jones Industrial Average S&P 500 Index CRSP Equally Weighted Index CRSP Value-Weighted Index
Return over Bank Holiday (percent) 14.27 15.37 18.48 14.41
Post-election standard deviation
of returns (percent) 2.48 2.45 1.81 1.94
t-statistic (with eight trading days) 2.03 2.22 â€” â€”
t-statistic (with ten trading days) â€” â€” 3.23 2.35
Source: University of Chicago, Booth School of Business, Center for Research in Security Prices (CRSP).
Note: All data are continuously compounded.
FRBNY Economic Policy Review / July 2009 29
from security and commodity markets an enormous weight of
potential liquidation.â€50And the Chicago Tribune waxed
eloquent in its assessment: â€œThe zooming upward of prices on
the reopened stock markets today is regarded as barometrical
indication of the economic weather test that is settling in. . . .
The courage, determination, and resourcefulness of the new
President have apparently taken the country by storm. The
reopening of the banks with deposits everywhere exceeding
withdrawals crowned with success the first action taken by the
A number of forces contributed to the success of the Bank
Holiday declared by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933.
The President placed the responsibility for safeguarding the
integrity of the payments system with the federal government.
Congress passed the Emergency Banking Act of 1933, giving
the President the power to restore confidence in the banking
system by establishing 100 percent guarantees for bank
deposits. And Roosevelt did not hesitate to use that power to
end the banking crisis.
We can draw three main conclusions from this event. First,
management of the banking crisis required bold and decisive
action. Second, rhetoric alone did not solve the crisis; a
substantive component was required to restore the banking
system to normal operations. Finally, the speed with which the
Bank Holiday and the Emergency Banking Act reestablished
the integrity of the payments system demonstrates the power of
credible regime-shifting policies.
50March 16, 1933, p. 6.
51March 16, 1933, p. 1. The press cited a second factor buoying stock prices:
favorable Congressional legislation giving Roosevelt the power to reduce
veteransâ€™ benefits and federal salaries. According to the Chicago Tribune
(March 16, 1933, p. 1): â€œWhat the country is witnessing is a president doing
swiftly and certainly what the overwhelming majority of the people
demanded. . . . No sooner had he ended the bank panic than Mr. Roosevelt
began pushing through Congress the bill for a 500 million dollar reduction in
the cost of the federal government and the bill to legalize and tax beer.â€
30 Why Did FDRâ€™s Bank Holiday Succeed?
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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York,
the Federal Reserve Board, or the Federal Reserve System. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York provides no warranty, express or
implied, as to the accuracy, timeliness, completeness, merchantability, or fitness for any particular purpose of any information
contained in documents produced and provided by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in any form or manner whatsoever.
FRBNY Economic Policy Review / July 2009 19