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April 10, 2012

The Age of the Shadow Bank Run

I RECENTLY asked a group of colleagues — and myself — to identify the single most important development to emerge from America’s financial crisis. Most of us had a common answer: The age of the bank run has returned.

Since the end of World War II, economists have generally thought that runs on banks were dead, at least as a phenomenon in advanced nations. In the United States, for example, bank deposits are insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and, as a last resort, the Federal Reserve can back deposits by printing money.

The new complication is that bank deposits are no longer the dominant form of modern short-term finance. The modern bank run means a rush to withdraw from money market funds, the disappearance of reliable collateral for overnight loans between banks or the sudden pulling of short-term credit to a troubled financial institution. But these new versions are in some ways still similar to the old: both reflect the desire to pull money out of an endeavor — and to be the first out the door. And both can set off a crash.

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