Bank Run — Meaning, Causes & Historical Examples

Have you ever heard of a ‘bank run’? It’s an event that can create global financial turmoil and have long-lasting impacts. In this article, we’ll explore the meaning, causes and historical examples of bank runs, so you can understand the potential consequences.

A bank run is when a large number of people withdraw their money from a particular bank at once. This happens due to customers’ lack of faith in the bank’s ability to pay out deposits as they become due. When enough customers panic and withdraw their money all at once, it leads to widespread economic disruption.

Bank runs are historically significant events that have had devastating effects on the economy. We’ll explore some key examples throughout history to understand why financial institutions must work hard to maintain public trust and confidence in their operations. So let’s get started!

Definition Of A Bank Run

A bank run is when a large number of people withdraw their deposits from a banking institution in fear that the bank will become insolvent. This sudden and unexpected outflow of funds can cause serious financial losses for the bank and lead to its collapse. It is typically the result of rumors or concerns about the safety of depositors’ funds, though it can also be caused by a lack of confidence in the management of the bank.

Typically, a bank run begins with one or two customers making large withdrawals, which causes other customers to become worried and follow suit. As more people withdraw their deposits, the amount of money available to other customers decreases—further increasing their fears and eventually leading to a full-blown panic. Bank runs are usually self-fulfilling prophecies; if enough people believe that a bank is insolvent, it will likely become so due to a lack of liquidity.

In extreme cases, governments have had to step in with emergency measures such as suspending convertibility (the ability for depositors to exchange their money for gold) or introducing deposit insurance schemes, in order to prevent financial instability or collapse.

Potential Causes For Bank Runs

Having now discussed the definition of a bank run, it is important to consider potential causes for such an event. The first possible cause of a bank run is depositors’ lack of confidence in the banking system. This can be due to uncertainty about the safety of their deposits, or simply a general distrust of banks and other financial institutions. In some cases, rumors can quickly spread regarding a bank’s stability, leading to panic withdrawals even if the rumors are unfounded.

A second possible cause of a bank run is poor management decisions taken by the bank or its owners. These could include bad investments that lead to losses, high levels of debt, and inadequate liquidity reserves. Poor communication from the bank’s leadership can also contribute to uncertainty and mistrust among customers, leading them to withdraw their deposits before further losses occur.

The third and final potential cause for a bank run is economic instability or crisis. During periods of recession or deflation, people may be more likely to withdraw their savings in order to protect their wealth from further loss due to currency devaluation. In addition, during times of extreme depression, such as during the Great Depression in the 1930s, many banks failed due to lack of available capital from customers and investors alike.

Economic Consequences Of Bank Runs

The economic consequences of a bank run are far-reaching and can be incredibly costly. When customers withdraw all their deposits, banks have to liquidate assets in order to pay them out. This means selling off any assets they have, such as stocks, bonds and other investments, at a discount. This can have a disastrous effect on the markets, leading to decreased consumer spending, rising unemployment and reduced business investment.

Another consequence of bank runs is the loss of confidence in the banking system. If customers become suspicious about the security of their deposits, it could lead to more bank runs and further losses for banks. This could ultimately lead to a collapse in the whole banking system if left unchecked.

In addition to these direct effects on financial institutions and markets, bank runs can also cause significant damage to individuals and businesses who rely on banking services for day-to-day operations. Without access to credit or loans from banks, businesses may find it difficult or impossible to finance their operations or invest in new projects. In turn, this could lead to job losses and an overall weakening of the economy. Ultimately, the costs associated with a bank run can be severe and long lasting.

Historical Examples Of Bank Runs

Moving on from the economic consequences of bank runs, let’s look at some historical examples. Bank runs are not a new phenomenon – they have occurred since the early days of banking. As far back as the 18th century, there have been episodes of bank runs in Europe and America.

The earliest known example is the Panic of 1772 in Britain. This was caused by a lack of confidence in the banking system due to the issuance of too many notes backed by insufficient gold reserves. As a result, many people began to withdraw their deposits, leading to a liquidity crisis and widespread financial panic.

Another well-known example is the Panic of 1837 in the United States. This was caused by speculation in railroads and land that led to an overextension of credit and a drop in asset values. Once again, this caused depositors to lose confidence in banks and led to large withdrawals that further weakened banks’ financial stability. By 1838, hundreds of banks had failed due to these problems.

Prevention Approaches For Bank Runs

The purpose of prevention approaches for bank runs is to ensure the safety of funds and financial stability. Banks have developed a variety of methods to reduce the risk of a bank run. These include providing liquidity support, increasing the public’s confidence in banks, limiting withdrawals, and introducing deposit insurance schemes.

Liquidity support is when banks provide additional funding to meet customer needs should they experience large outflows of funds. This can help prevent runs, as customers know their deposits are secure even if there is an unexpected cash shortage.

Increasing public confidence in banks also helps to reduce the likelihood of a run. Banks can do this by having strong capital buffers, transparent accounting practices, and good governance structures in place. They can also be more proactive in communicating with customers about their financial health and any potential risks that may arise. This can help reassure depositors that their money is safe and encourage them to remain with the bank rather than withdrawing their funds.

Finally, banks may limit withdrawals or introduce deposit insurance schemes to protect customer funds from losses due to insolvency or fraud. By doing this, they reduce the incentive for customers to withdraw their deposits during times of uncertainty or panic. Additionally, having deposit insurance can provide peace of mind for customers who feel uncertain about leaving their money with a particular bank.

Long-Term Impact Of Bank Runs

The long-term impact of bank runs on the economy can be devastating. The lack of confidence in banking institutions can lead to a decline in production, employment and investment opportunities. As people become increasingly uncertain about the future of their money, they often shift their wealth into less risky assets, or keep it out of the banking system altogether. This can have a snowball effect on the economy, creating a further decline in trust and liquidity.

In addition to economic decline, bank runs can contribute to increased government regulation. With banks unable to sustain themselves due to lack of customer confidence and liquidity, governments may step in with bailouts or other forms of intervention. This can lead to greater oversight and control over banking activities as well as higher taxes for citizens.

The effects of bank runs are far reaching, from economic decline and decreased investment opportunity to increased government regulation that affects all citizens. By understanding the causes and historical examples of bank runs, we can better prepare ourselves for any potential future instances.


In conclusion, a bank run can have serious repercussions for the economy. While there are a variety of potential causes for a bank run, the most important thing is to take preventative measures to avoid them from occurring in the first place. Governments and businesses need to understand the long-term impact such events can have and take steps to make sure they don’t happen.

One way to do this is by creating regulations that ensure banks are transparent with their customers and keep appropriate reserves. It’s also important for governments and central banks to be prepared with strategies in case a bank run does occur so as to limit its effects.

Ultimately, bank runs have happened throughout history and will likely continue to occur in some form or another. By being proactive about prevention and understanding the consequences, we can hopefully protect ourselves from the negative effects of these events.

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