Banking crises and the international monetary system in the Great Depression and now

BIS Working Papers No 333
December 2010

Published in: Financial History Review, vol 18, no 1, 2011, pp 1-20.


We compare the banking crises in 2008-09 and in the Great Depression, and analyse differences in the policy response to the two crises in light of the prevailing international monetary systems. The scale of the 2008-09 banking crisis, as measured by falls in international short-term indebtedness and total bank deposits, was smaller than that of 1931. However, central bank liquidity provision was larger in 2008-09 than in 1931, when it had been constrained in many countries by the gold standard. Liquidity shortages destroyed the international monetary system in 1931. By contrast, central bank liquidity could be, and was, provided much more freely in the flexible exchange rate environment of 2008-9. The amount of liquidity provided was 5 ½ - 7 ½ times as much as in 1931. This forestalled a general loss of confidence in the banking system. Drawing on historical experience, central banks, led by the Federal Reserve, established swap facilities quickly and flexibly to provide international liquidity, in some cases setting no upper limit to the amount that could be borrowed.

JEL Classification: E58, F31, N1

Keywords: Banking crisis, international monetary system, Great Depression, central bank liquidity