Published by EH.Net (September 2014)

Charles W. Calomiris and Stephen H. Haber, Fragile by Design: The Political Origins of Banking Crises and Scarce Credit.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014.  xi + 570 pp. $35 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-691-15524-1.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Hugh Rockoff, Department of Economics, Rutgers University.

Charles W. Calomiris and Stephen H. Haber, two of America’s leading financial historians, have written an ambitious and in my view a largely successful book to provide an explanation for the political economy of banking through history and across nations. The central question is why some banking systems provide both abundant credit and financial stability over long periods while others, including unfortunately the financial system of the United States, fail to do so.


Calomiris and Haber develop their analytic framework in chapters 1 through 3. They do so in words. There are no equations to deter the mathematically challenged and prevent their book from reaching a wide audience. Their main point is that banking systems are always and everywhere a political construct: the outcome of what they call the “game of bank bargains.” The players in this game are the government, the public, and various interest groups including, of course, bankers and would be bankers. Governments want the revenues that can be extracted from the banking system and political support. Interests groups in turn want favors from the banking system, typically cheaper credit. The public wants abundant credit and a stable banking system. The outcome of the game of bank bargains depends on the underlying political system. The most important distinction is between democracies and autocracies.  In some democracies, but by no means all, the outcome of the game of bank bargains is a system that provides stable and abundant credit. A democratic government must provide a system that works in some measure for the general public if it is to stay in power. Sometimes, however, the tendency for the game of bank bargains to end favorably in democracies is undermined by what Calomiris and Haber refer to as populism and in particular agrarian populism. To secure the support of agricultural interests governments may impose restrictions on banks — restrictions on where they can locate, who they can lend to, how much they can charge on loans, on when and how much they can collect on debts, and so on. These restrictions may benefit the agrarian interests that sought them while reducing the overall supply of credit and the stability of the system. But an alliance with agrarians may help the ruling party to stay in power. The story with autocratic governments is different. Here there is a tendency for the government to extract as much revenue as possible from the banking system, even at the cost of the overall growth and stability of the economy.

This thesis (which is developed in considerably more detail) is illustrated with historical studies of banking in three democracies, Britain, the United States and Canada, and two autocracies (during much of their history) Mexico and Brazil, with briefer looks at other countries. Britain is covered in chapters 4 and 5. There is a great deal of historical material in these chapters. Along the way one learns about the gradual evolution of democracy in Britain, the disruptive economic and financial effects of wars, and the gradual and fluctuating transformation of the banking system from one at the service of the state to one responsive to the private sector. Professors of economic history may find themselves skipping parts of the narrative here, but the non-specialist can learn a great deal by reading straight through. In general, the earlier history will be less likely to provoke controversy than the more recent history. Perhaps it is simply the clarity of hindsight. Their story of how Britain relied on inflationary finance during the Napoleonic wars, for example, will raise few eyebrows. The authors’ apparent enthusiasm for Margaret Thatcher’s economic revolution (pp. 147-48) is likely to meet more resistance. The recent crisis, unfortunately, is not analyzed in detail. We learn that British banks were vulnerable to an international crisis because of the boom in the housing market and the high leverage of the banks, but not how these vulnerabilities were the outcome of the game of bank bargains.

The American experience is covered in chapters 6 through 8. Here they address one of the great mysteries of financial history: Why has the United States, a world leader in business, education, and technology lurched from one financial crisis to another through so much of its history? The answer for Calomiris and Haber is, to simplify a complex argument, agrarian populism. Indeed, chapter 6 is called “Crippled by Populism: U.S. Banking from Colonial Times to 1990.” The key for Calomiris and Haber is that farmers, particularly prosperous farmers, did better with local unit banks than they would have with a system of nationwide branch banking. In the short run the rates influential farmers paid might have been higher than they would have been with a nationwide branch banking system, but these farmers knew that the local bank would always be willing to lend to them, even in hard times, because it had no alternatives. The populists, who drew their strength from farmers, then formed an alliance with the unit bankers. Deposit insurance is an important outcome of that alliance. It was pushed by the populists as a protection for the common man, but helped make the unit banks competitive with the large urban banks. The resulting system, with its myriad of local unit banks, was “fragile by design.” Eventually, however, the system of unit banks was broken because of the declining economic role and political power of agriculture.

The crisis of 2008 in the United States is covered in chapters 7 and 8. As with the case of Britain their account of recent events will be more controversial than their account of earlier periods. Chapter 7, “The New U.S. Bank Bargain: Megabanks, Urban Activists, and the Erosion of Mortgage Standards” describes the origins of the subprime mortgage mania. The story they tell draws on a number of accounts, for example Raghuram Rajan (2011), but it fits well with their earlier emphasis on political bargains. As Calomiris and Haber see it, the crisis began with a bargain between regional banks seeking permission from regulators to merge and urban activists seeking credit for people who were too poor to qualify for home mortgages under traditional standards.  By making subprime loans the banks got the approval of activist groups which in turn meant approval by regulators for mergers — the banks were being good citizens — and the activist groups got what they thought they wanted, more credit for low income borrowers. But that was just the beginning. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were drawn into the coalition and then subprime loan originators such as Countrywide. Politicians benefitted directly through campaign contributions, and indirectly because they could claim to be helping the urban poor without having to levy higher taxes on the middle class.

Chapter 9 then attacks the question of why regulators didn’t force financial institutions to hold capital appropriate for the risks they were taking. In the opinion of Calomiris and Haber that would have been the key to preventing the inevitable losses on bad loans from becoming a crisis. They argue against the view that the problem was deregulation, particularly the often cited removal of the separation of commercial banking from investment banking that had been in place since the1930s. Here I was completely persuaded, although to be honest, this was my belief going in. Ending the separation of commercial banking and investment banking they show, permitted mergers and conversions that helped ameliorate the crisis. The real problem was that prudential regulators didn’t do their job of demanding capital to match risky lending. In part, the reason they failed was that raising capital requirements would have discouraged subprime lending and that would have meant taking on a powerful political coalition. Not all readers will be convinced that higher capital ratios would have prevented the crisis, but most will agree that this was a part of the story.

In chapter 9 Calomiris and Haber turn from the bad boy, the United States, to the good boy, Canada. Although there have been bank failures in Canada, including large institutions, there has never been a financial crisis, not even during the Great Depression. Why? The answer, according to Calomiris and Haber, is a system of large banks with nationwide branching systems, and the resulting efficiency and diversification of risk. That happy outcome was the result of the authority to charter banks being located, from the very beginning, at the national level. I found few things to disagree with in their discussion of Canada and the contrast with the U.S. Michael Bordo, Angela Redish, and I reach a similar conclusion in a paper forthcoming in the Economic History Review.

In section three, chapters 10 through 13, Calomiris and Haber turn from democracies to authoritarian regimes. Here, not surprisingly, things turn out worse than in the democracies. Chapters 10 and 11 describe the history of banking in Mexico. Haber has written extensively about Mexico and these chapters are wonderfully detailed. Here I will just summarize a few observations that are particularly striking. Under General Porfirio Diaz (1877-1911) the banking system was controlled by favored industrialists closely tied to the government. The industrialists benefitted and the government benefitted by extracting revenues from the banking system, but the resulting system failed to provide abundant credit to fuel widespread economic development. It provided, however, at least a modicum of stability.  During the period of the Mexican Civil War (1911-1929), the banking system deteriorated as rival warlords tried to extract resources from banks in regions they controlled. Under the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), the government established investment banks that helped finance the coalition that supported this authoritarian regime. Commercial banking remained depressed, even when compared to the Diaz era.

Chapter 11 covers Mexico after 1982, a tumultuous period. Budget problems led to reliance on inflationary finance that undermined the banking system and support for the PRI. This was followed by a misguided privatization of the banking system, with the purpose of raising revenue for the government, a run up of bank credit, and finally a crash and a bailout that created further political problems. This story sounds much like the story of the savings banks in the United States. Since the bailout, a new partnership has arisen between the government and foreign banks that have entered to fill the void left by the collapse of the older system. Although Calomiris and Haber see some positives in the new system, they point out that the amount of bank credit relative to GDP — their favorite measure of the abundance of bank credit — was about the same in 2010 as it was in 1910.

Chapters 12 and 13 cover Brazil. Chapter 12 covers the period up to 1889, and chapter 13, the period after, focusing on the transition to democracy. Much of Brazil’s financial history was characterized by heavy reliance on an inflation tax. Weak autocratic regimes couldn’t tax the wealthy oligarchs who supported them. An inflation tax was the easiest alternative. The transition to democracy has, after many steps forward and backward, produced a system that is more responsive to the general interests of Brazil. Even left-of-center governments, however, have faced the problem that it is hard to tax the wealthy elite in Brazil because of their high international mobility. Calomiris and Haber end on a cautiously optimistic note, but warn that populism in Brazil, like populism in the United States, will produce a banking system that subsidizes influential interest groups at the expense of the public.

Chapter 14 looks briefly at banking in other countries – via cross country empirical studies, and short narrative histories of China, Germany, Japan, and Chile — to test the viability of the conclusions reached on the basis of the detailed case studies. Again the ability of Calomiris and Haber to master and organize a huge amount of material is impressive.

Chapter 15, the concluding chapter, wrestles with the dispiriting implication of their argument that has been growing in the background since the first chapter. If banking is always and everywhere the result of a “game of bank bargains” played by the government and powerful interest groups, what role is there for ideas? Can an economist or historian make a difference? Calomiris and Haber struggle mightily to end on an upbeat note. They argue, for one thing, that there are windows of opportunity: economic crises so severe that people are willing to turn to someone with a new set of ideas. They suggest Alexander Hamilton and Margaret Thatcher as examples. But as these examples illustrate, most of the time economists and financial historians are likely to be chroniclers of events rather than makers of history.


Calomiris and Haber blame America’s banking troubles before 1990 on “agrarian populism” and its support for unit banking. But I think there was another, albeit related, factor that needs to be added to complete story. After all, although unit banks were popular in some parts of the United States, Americans often showed themselves willing to support branch banking. Before the Civil War many southern states, as Calomiris and Haber note, had branch banking systems (pp. 171-73). And Ohio, Indiana, and Iowa had mutual support systems that Calomiris and Haber (pp.174-75) celebrate. The unique weakness of the American banking system was that branching, even when permitted, ended through much of our history at the state line. But why were state governments able to keep their control over banking for so long? Support for state control of banking was an outcome of the larger battle between the states and the federal government for power. And that battle, of course, was to a great extent about race: the South was always the strongest advocate of state power. Keeping the right to charter and regulate banks at the state level, in other words, was simply one more battle in an ongoing war. The fight over the Second Bank of the United States is a good example. The bill to recharter the Bank passed the House and Senate only to be vetoed by Andrew Jackson. That vote, in itself, shows that there was strong support for nationwide branch banking. Recall that the Second Bank was not simply a banker’s bank on the Federal Reserve model. The Second Bank had branches in all parts of the country that made commercial loans. This was by any definition nationwide branch banking. Was there any opposition to rechartering the Second bank? Or was it just Andrew Jackson who was opposed? New England, the Western States, even the slave states that would remain within the Union in the Civil War all voted to recharter in both the House and Senate. The future Confederate States were different. With the exception of Louisiana, they voted overwhelmingly against recharter (Wilburn 1967, 9). Racism and populism, tragically, became entwined in the South. But the battle over states’ rights and racism, I believe, needs to be brought into the story as one of the reasons for the long delay in the adoption of nationwide branch banking. Racism also helps explain the desire in the United States to find a way to help poor people that did not involve higher taxes and transfers that Calomiris and Haber discuss when they explain the origins of the subprime crisis.

Calomiris and Haber use the term populism to refer simply to all politicians and parties who put great store in the will of the common man. By their definition Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and William Jennings Bryan (p. 150) were all populists. But what about populism more narrowly: the People’s Party and its charismatic leader William Jennings Bryan? The Bryanites, as Calomiris and Haber point out, eventually supported deposit insurance which protected private unit banks. But the main goals of the populists, as can be seen in their party platforms, were nationalist and socialist, which would have ultimately undermined the local unit banks. The populists wanted to end the National banking system and replace its bond-backed currency with fiat paper issued by the federal government. They wanted a postal savings system to provide a safe haven for the deposits of farmers and the urban poor, and they wanted the federal government to provide low interest rate loans to farmers by issuing paper money based on deposits of excess grain: the subtreasury plan.  These goals were all achieved in some measure: the postal savings system was established in 1910, the Federal Reserve with its government-issued currency in 1913, and various agricultural programs that provided federal loans to farmers were enacted in the 1920s and 1930s.

Finally, I would add that Calomiris and Haber focus on only two outcomes for the banking system: abundant credit and stability. These are clearly the most important. Much of the support for unit banking, however, was based on other considerations. One argument, although I have never seen much evidence for it, was that locally owned banks provided and continue to provide credit differently from branches of large national chains. Local bankers know the background of potential borrowers. So a borrower with a sterling character but few assets to put up as collateral would be more likely to get a loan from a locally-owned bank than from a branch of a big chain. There was also the stability and continuity of the local community to think about. A local bank, it might be argued, would be more likely to provide ongoing community leadership than a branch filled with managers hoping to be promoted to the main office in New York or San Francisco as soon as possible. Perhaps it was all a fiction — Jimmy Stewart in It’s A Wonderful Life — but nevertheless it’s a possibility that we shouldn’t dismiss out of hand. Economic progress is not just about real GDP per capita.

Bottom line

This is a beautifully-written book. Calomiris and Haber are always thoughtful, always clear, and they have an eye for the telling metaphor and the thought-provoking fact.  More importantly, the book reflects the authors’ mastery of a vast amount of material on the history of banking. No one will be persuaded by all of their analyses, and there will be some pushback when it comes to their analyses of more recent and controversial events. Nevertheless, Fragile by Design is a must-read for economic historians, a book to be put on the shelf with O.M.W. Sprague’s History of Crises under the National Banking System, Bray Hammond’s Banks and Politics in America from the Revolution to the Civil War, and similar classics.


Bordo, Michael, Angela Redish, and Hugh Rockoff (forthcoming), “Why Didn’t Canada Have a Banking Crisis in 2008 (or in 1930, or 1907, or . . .)?” Economic History Review.

Hammond, Bray (1957), Banks and Politics in America from the Revolution to the Civil War, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Rajan, Raghuram G. (2011), Fault Lines: How Hidden Fractures Still Threaten the World Economy, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Sprague, O. M. W. (1910), History of Crises under the National Banking System, Washington: Govt. Print. Office.

Wilburn, Jean Alexander (1967), Biddle’s Bank: The Crucial Years, New York: Columbia University Press.

Hugh Rockoff’s most recent book is America’s Economic Way of War: War and the U.S. Economy from the Spanish-American War to the Persian Gulf War. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

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