The Global Financial System’s Weakened Defenses

ZURICH – Eighty-five years ago this month, Credit-Anstalt, by far the largest bank in Austria, collapsed. By that July, banks in Egypt, Germany, Hungary, Latvia, Poland, Romania, and Turkey had experienced runs. A banking panic hit the United States in August, though the sources of that panic may have been domestic. In September, banks in the United Kingdom experienced large withdrawals. The parallels to the 2008 collapse of the US investment bank Lehman Brothers are strong – and crucial for understanding today’s financial risks.

For starters, neither the collapse of Credit-Anstalt nor that of Lehman Brothers caused all of the global financial tumult that ensued. Those collapses and the subsequent problems were symptoms of the same disease: a weak banking system.

In Austria in 1931, the problem was rooted in the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I, hyperinflation in the early 1920s, and banks’ excessive exposure to the industrial sector. By the time Credit-Anstalt collapsed, the world had been in deep recession for two years, banking systems in a number of countries had become fragile, and tensions were easily transmitted across national borders, with the gold standard exacerbating financial vulnerability by constraining central banks’ ability to act.

Similarly, in 2008, the entire financial system was overextended, owing to a combination of weak internal risk management and inadequate government regulation and supervision. Lehman Brothers was simply the weakest link in a long chain of brittle financial firms.