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Economics U$A: 21st Century Edition

The Banking System (Macroeconomics)

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The Knickerbocker Bank’s failure led to the Bank Panic of 1907, and ultimately inspired a need for a central bank. When thousands of banks failed in the 1930s, President Roosevelt declared a National Bank Holiday closing individual banks, and created new regulatory agencies to guard the system. But in the wake of the 2008 Great Recession and the failure of regulators to act, the Dodd/Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act became law. These stories explain the role of banks in the U.S. economy and how government agencies act to prevent individual bank failures from becoming banking crises.

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Unit Overview


To help viewers understand the key role of banks in the U.S. economy and how government agencies act to try to prevent individual bank failures from becoming banking crises.


  1. Banks play a key role in the economy by holding deposits, handling withdrawals, and making loans.
    • Banks only need a small fraction of their deposits in cash to handle withdrawals.
    • Banks are forced by banking regulations to hold a certain percentage of their deposits as reserves.
  2. A balance sheet tallies a bank’s assets and liabilities.
    • Cash and loans are the primary assets.
    • Deposits are the primary liabilities.
  3. The banking system can expand the amount of money in circulation by making loans.
    • The amount of the expansion is limited by the reserve ratio.
    • During depressions deposit contraction takes place.
  4. Various government agencies regulate banks and are able to reduce the risk of bank failure—in theory, though not always in practice.
    • The Federal Reserve acts as a lender of last resort.
    • The FDIC insures the deposits of some banks.
    • Regulators examine banks’ books in order to prevent excessively risky
 bank practices—they don’t always succeed.

Meet the Series Experts

Henry Kaufman

President of Henry Kaufman & Company Inc., which specializes in financial and economic counseling as well as investment management. For 26 years preceding the creation of his company, he was Managing Director for Salomon Brothers, Inc., where he made a name for himself predicting the rise and fall of bond prices. Before joining Salomon Brothers, he served as an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. In 1995, he joined Lehman Brothers Holdings, Inc., serving as Chairman of the Finance Committee before the firm went bankrupt in 2008. He has also been a Director of the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. and Freddie Mac. Dr. Kaufman received his B.A. from New York University, M.S. from Columbia University, and Ph.D. in Banking and Finance from the New York University Graduate School of Business Administration.

Steven Pearlstein

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and business and economics columnist for the Washington Post, cited for “his insightful columns that explore the nation’s complex economic ills with masterful clarity.” Earlier, he worked for two newspapers in New Hampshire, then joined U.S. Senator John Durkin’s administrative staff, and worked for the Senate and House of Representatives for several years. He held a brief stint as a television reporter before returning to print, founding the critically acclaimed Boston Observer. When the Observer lost its funding, he worked for Inc. magazine before joining the Washington Post. In 2009, he garnered controversy for a column he published lambasting Republican politicians for blocking new health-care legislation. Mr. Pearlstein received his B.A. from Trinity College in 1973.

Karen Petrou

Co-founder and Managing Partner of Federal Financial Analytics, Inc., a privately held company that provides analytical and advisory services on legislative, regulatory, and public-policy issues affecting financial services companies doing business in the U.S. and abroad. She is a frequent speaker on topics affecting the financial services industry. In addition to presentations to Congress and government agencies, she has spoken before the American Bankers Association, the Financial Services Roundtable, the American Bar Association, the Brookings Institution, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, the National Association of Manufacturers, and many other groups. She has also authored many articles in publications such as American Banker, Bankers Magazine, and International Economy, as well as general-interest media like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Ms. Petrou received her B.A. from Wellesley and M.A. in Political Science from the University of California at Berkeley, where she was also a doctoral candidate.

Peter Wallison

Arthur F. Burns Fellow in Financial Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and Co-Director of AEI’s program on financial policy studies, specializing in banking, insurance, and securities regulation. Earlier, as General Counsel of the U.S. Treasury Department, he had a significant role in developing proposals for the deregulation of the financial services industry. He also served as White House Counsel to President Ronald Reagan. His books include: Ronald Reagan: The Power of Conviction and the Success of His Presidency; Competitive Equity: A Better Way to Organize Mutual Funds; Privatizing Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Federal Home Loan Banks; The GAAP Gap: Corporate Disclosure in the Internet Age; and Optional Federal Chartering and Regulation of Insurance Companies. Mr. Wallison attended the Capitol Page School and received his B.A. from Harvard University and L.L.B. from Harvard Law School.


  • asset
    Any item of economic value owned by an individual or corporation, especially that which could be converted to cash.
  • balance sheet
    A quantitative summary of a company’s financial condition at a specific point in time, including assets, liabilities, and net worth.
  • bank run
    Takes place when the customers of a bank fear that the bank will become insolvent, and so rush to the bank to take out their money as quickly as possible to avoid losing it.
  • deposit contraction
    Reduction in the quantity of money following the drain of currency from banks to reduce their reserves.
  • deposit insurance
    Protection provided by a government agency to depositors against risk of loss arising from failure of a bank or other depository institution.
  • excessive risk taking and leverage
    The overemphasis on practicing behaviors that have the potential to be harmful or dangerous, yet at the same time provide the opportunity for some kind of outcome that can be perceived as positive.
  • FDIC – The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation
    A federal agency that insures deposits in member banks and thrifts up to $250,000 per account.
  • Federal Reserve System
    A system established by Congress in 1913 that includes commercial banks, the twelve Federal Reserve Banks, and the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.
  • fractional-reserve banking
    The practice whereby banks hold less cash than the amount they owe their depositors.
  • loans
    An arrangement in which a lender gives money or property to a borrower, and the borrower agrees to return the property or repay the money, usually along with interest, at some future point(s) in time.
  • lender of last resort
    Lender who acts as the ultimate source of credit to the banking system. In the United States, this role is carried out by the twelve Federal Reserve Banks, which supply credit through the Federal Reserve Discount Window.
  • liabilities
    The debts of a firm.
  • multiple expansion of bank deposits
    When banks lend and create deposits, thereby losing their reserves to other banks, which in turn increase their loans and thus create new deposits.
  • reserve ratio
    The portion (expressed as a percentage) of depositors’ balances banks must have on hand as cash.

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Economics U$A: 21st Century Edition


Produced by the Educational Film Center. 2012.
  • Closed Captioning
  • ISBN: 1-57680-895-5