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The Collapse of Creditanstalt Bank in 1931
Brian Trumbore
President/Editor, StocksandNews.com

The other day, Paul Mason, Economics Editor of BBC News, commented:

“There are two kinds of people at present: those who know in a vague way that the 1930s was a bad time and those who have studied the detail and understand the economics of why it went bad.

“The latter are now getting publicly terrified because they can see, very clearly, the danger of doing it all again.”

On June 11, Bank of England Governor Mervyn King said, “This is the most serious financial crisis at least since the 1930s, if not ever.”

Paul Mason notes that it was the collapse of Creditanstalt bank in Vienna that sparked the 1931 banking crisis, which quickly spread to the United States.

So over ten years ago I did a piece on this event and it’s worth re-examining today.

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After the U.S. stock market collapsed in October 1929, the world was almost immediately thrown into a great funk but it wasn’t until about two years later that there was real trouble.

By mid-1930, in some ways most of the world’s economies had stabilized.  Europe, still trying to recover from the ravages of World War I, was seeing some pick up in international lending and trade.  But in September of that year, a dark event occurred in Germany as the National Socialists (the Nazis) made tremendous gains in an election and suddenly were the 2nd-largest party in the Reichstag.  The amazing result stunned the world and led to a large drop in confidence as well as capital withdrawals from Germany itself.  By 1931, Hitler’s Stormtroopers, drawn largely from the burgeoning unemployed, numbered some 300,000.

During the early part of ’31, German and Austrian banks attempted to improve their weakening capital positions by boosting their stock price and the way some went about this was to buy their own shares.  As historian Charles Kindleberger points out, “A bank buying its own stock rapidly weakens its ratios of cash and capital to deposits, as cash and capital in the open market both shrink while deposits remain unchanged in the short run.”  The other problem was that deposits were shrinking at the same time. Plus, many of the bank directors were simply trying to manipulate the share price for their own personal gain.

As for Creditanstalt Bank of Vienna, the largest commercial institution in the country, it was the victim of both a rapidly deteriorating economy, particularly in Germany and Austria, massive speculation* and poor management.

*Back in the 1850s, Creditanstalt was a wildly popular IPO, with initial shares being oversubscribed by 43 times.  [Charles Kindleberger]

By May 1931 most of Europe was in the midst of a rolling deflation, starting with the collapse of some small banks in France, which led to the fall of the government there because three officials were implicated in a scandal. The crisis grew and on May 11, Creditanstalt collapsed, declaring it had lost about $20 million, with only $7 million or so left in capital.  The Austrian government sought a loan, part of which was arranged by the newly formed (1930) Bank for International Settlements, but it was not nearly enough.

Austria then sought help from the French, but they were in no mood to lend a hand.  You see, earlier in the year Germany and Austria had sought to form a Customs Union, in order to help trade between the two.  But France – remember, World War I was still just a few years removed – correctly saw this as a violation of the Treaty of Versailles, which forbid a union between Austria and Germany, so the French, key to the loan package, refused to go along unless Austria renounced the customs idea.  The Austrians, in turn, refused and their government fell.  Soon there was a run on the banks as foreign assets were immediately withdrawn, while the Gold bloc of France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland started converting dollars into gold, exacerbating an already weak banking system in the U.S.

For its part, Germany’s official government policy was to slash government spending, which only added tens of thousands to the unemployment lines, while Chancellor Bruning declared that Germany could no longer pay its reparations.

It was a very fluid situation, even for those days, so that by June 19, U.S. President Herbert Hoover proposed a moratorium on reparations for 12 months, as well as granting America’s allies relief from its war debts.  Of course this only ticked off the French even more because Germany was gaining such a big concession.  [British Prime Minister MacDonald at the time found France’s behavior to be “inconceivably atrocious.”]  As it developed, the moratorium, which Hoover formally extended to 18 months, didn’t help and the banks went under anyway.

Of course this whole doomsday scenario, which plunged the entire world into Depression by 1932, played right into the hands of Hitler.  By mid-July 1931, the British ambassador to Germany, stationed in Berlin, couldn’t help but notice the “unnatural silence hanging over the city, and particularly (an) atmosphere of tension similar in many respects to that which I observed in the critical days immediately preceding the war.” [Piers Brendon]  Germany was being swept up in “fatalism.”

In the history of the era, the collapse of Creditanstalt stands out amongst the other banking disasters because it was Austria’s biggest and led directly to a run on institutions in Germany as well.  Soon thereafter business worldwide ground to a halt.  [In 1932, for example, both German and U.S. industrial production were just half the levels achieved in 1929.]  Author Piers Brendon adds that it also “exacerbated an already poisonous anti-Semitism.”  And regarding what followed, historian Norman Davies concludes:

“The effects of the Depression were psychological and political as well as purely economic.  Everyone from banker to bellboy was perplexed. The Great War had brought death and destruction; but it had also brought a purpose to life and full employment.  Peace appeared to bring neither.  There were men who said life amidst the danger and comradeship of the trenches was preferable to life on the dole.  The anxieties brimmed over into violence on the streets: left-wing battle squads pitched into right-wing gangs in many European cities.  It was the season for charlatans, adventurers, and extremists.”

A few parallels to today, I think you’d agree.

Sources:

Peter Bernstein, “The Power of Gold”
Piers Brendon, “The Dark Valley”
Norman Davies, “Europe: A History”
Charles Kindleberger, “Manias, Panics, and Crashes”
J.M. Roberts, “20th Century”
George Brown Tindall and David E. Shi, “America: A Narrative History”

I’m taking a little break. Wall Street History will return July 13.

Brian Trumbore

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