When policymakers analyze banking crises, they often search for diagnostic clues in the specific environment in which they occurred. This paper analyzes the 1855 failures of the largest banks in Gold Rush San Francisco, arguing that the antecedents of those failures — excessive leverage, interlocking ownership, inadequate segregation of assets, and concentration of risk in non- banking enterprises — were independent of the monetary and economic regime in place at the time. Those antecedents exposed Gold Rush bankers to external risks originating in events in which they had no involvement, and over which they had no control. The external events that felled the largest banks in San Francisco emerged from the Crimean War.
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volleyed and thundered
—Alfred, Lord Tennyson,
“The Charge of the Light Brigade”, 1854
Click the image to download “Contagion” by Dr. Tiemann
What is money? You might as well ask, “What is time?” It’s one of those concepts we all think we understand until we really examine them. After all, we use money in its various form to buy things every day. But where does it come from? What does it represent? And most important of all, what stands behind our confidence that if we use our money to pay for something, the seller will accept it? This note answers all of those questions, and more.