Source: National Postal Museum
Imagine an economic collapse in which millions of people lose half of their life savings and their trust in the country’s largest financial institutions is severely shaken. To help restore trust in the financial sector, the government creates a savings system operated by its postal administration. Sound unrealistic? Maybe so, until you remember that the U.S. Post Office Department offered a government-backed savings system to Americans for more than half the twentieth century.
Searching for ways to raise revenue for a postal telegraph network and inspired by Great Britain’s postal savings system, Postmaster General John A.J. Creswell first recommended a postal savings bank for the United States in 1871. But it wasn’t until the Panic of 1907, which shook the public’s trust in private banks, that the concept really gathered widespread support. Finally, in 1910, the Congress passed the Postal Savings Act that authorized the Post Office Department “to establish postal savings depositories for depositing savings at interest with the security of the Government for repayment thereof, and for other purposes.”
The creation of the postal savings system was intended to get money out of hiding and to provide safe depositories for people who had lost confidence in banks. It was also intended to provide a convenient means of saving for individuals throughout rural America.
Initially, depositors in the system were limited to a balance of $500, but this was raised to $1,000 in 1916 and to $2,500 in 1918. The system paid depositors 2 percent annual interest. During the first two decades, the system had a natural advantage over private financial institutions, because the deposits were always backed by “the full faith and credit of the United States Government.” Even so, deposits were slow at first, but by 1929, $153 million was on deposit. Because of the bank failures during the Great Depression, the amount jumped to $1.2 billion in 1934, which was one-third the amount of the entire savings and loan industry. The system continued to flourish through World War II, but by 1948, proven banking reforms and higher interest rates caused a downward trend for the postal savings system. Congress abolished it in 1966 and the Post Office Department stopped accepting deposits on April 27th of that year.
In a column for the New York Times this past October, Michael Lind proposed that a new postal savings system be created. Lind argued that “the current structure of public and private finance chronically fails to address four problems: the almost 10 percent of Americans without a bank account; the concerns of all Americans about the security of their savings, the growing indebtedness of the country to foreign governments and financial institutions, and underinvestment in public assets like sewer systems and bridges.” In his view, a postal savings bank would address these issues.
Opponents of this idea argue there are plenty of private institutions that offer banking services, even in rural areas of the country, and that the Postal Service should concentrate their efforts on collecting, processing, and delivering the nation’s mail. They also argue that since the banking reforms created during the Great Depression (the FDIC is a prime example), there is no reason why the American people should ever feel their savings are not secure. After all, if the U.S. Government could not guarantee people’s savings through the FDIC, why would their money be any more secure in a postal savings system?
The United States and Great Britain are not the only nations that have experience in combining postal services and banking. In more than 40 countries, posts provide some type of banking services (for example, China, Italy, Japan, Israel, Austria, Brazil, and India). In fact, during the current downturn, revenue from financial services has helped sustain some posts. The U.S. Postal Service, however, could not start offing savings services unilaterally. A change in current law would be required.
What do you think about a new postal savings system? Do you believe such a system is needed? If so, what are the major benefits you foresee? If not, why not?
This blog topic is hosted by the OIG’s Risk Analysis Research Center (RARC).