This article argues that the poor performance of the U.S. banking industry in the 1980s was due mainly to the risk-taking of the largest banks, which was encouraged by the U.S. government's too-big-to-fail policy. The article documents the recent trend toward riskier bank portfolios and the corresponding decline in bank profitability. A breakdown of the data by location and by asset size reveals that bank problems were concentrated in areas with troubled industries (oil, real estate, and agriculture) and among banks with the largest assets. In a statistical study controlling for location, asset size remains a significant factor in bank performance. The article concludes with a rough quantitative estimate of the cost to the industry of the poor performance of large banks.
This article is an abbreviated version of "U.S. Commercial Banking: Trends, Cycles, and Policy," a paper published in the _NBER Macroeconomics Annual 1993_, ed. Olivier Jean Blanchard and Stanley Fischer, pp. 319-68, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. The article appears here with the permission of the MIT Press.