An All Too Visible Hand
When Wilson signed the Federal Reserve Act into law in 1913, the very idea of a macroeconomy—something to be measured and managed—was yet to be invented
The Federal Reserve is America’s problem and the world’s obsession. When will Janet Yellen choose to lift the federal-funds rate from its longtime resting place of zero, thereby upending or not upending (it depends on whom you ask) individuals and markets in all four corners of the earth? Her subjects await a sign. While tapping their feet, they may ponder how things ever came to this pass. How, indeed, did such all-powerful body come into existence in the first place—and why?
Roger Lowenstein’s “America’s Bank,” which chronicles the passage of the 1913 Federal Reserve Act, is victor’s history. Its worldview is that of today’s central bankers, the bailers-out of markets, suppressors of interest rates and practitioners of money conjuring. In Mr. Lowenstein’s telling, what preceded the coming of the Federal Reserve was a financial and monetary dark age. What followed was the truth and the light.
It sticks in the craw of good Democrats that, in 1832, their own Andrew Jackson vetoed the rechartering of the Second Bank of the United States, the predecessor of the Federal Reserve. Just as galling is the fact that Old Hickory’s veto message is today counted as one of America’s great state papers. In it, Jackson denies to Congress the power to delegate its constitutionally given duty to “coin money and regulate the value thereof.” To do so, Jackson affirmed, would render the Constitution a “dead letter.”
By Roger Lowenstein
Mr. Lowenstein contends that, in the creation of the Federal Reserve 80 years later, Congress and the people commendably put that hard-money Jacksonian claptrap behind them. Mandarin rule is the way forward in monetary policy, he suggests—the Ph.D. standard, as one might call it, under which former tenured economics faculty exercise vast discretionary power over the value of money and the course of interest rates, financial markets and business activity. Give Mr. Lowenstein this much: As the world awaits the raising of the Fed’s minuscule interest rate, the questions he provokes have never been timelier. Not for the first time the thoughtful citizen must wonder: What’s money and who says so?
When Woodrow Wilson signed the Federal Reserve Act into law in 1913, the dollar was defined as a weight of gold. You could exchange the paper for the metal, and vice versa, at a fixed and statutory rate. The stockholders of nationally chartered banks were responsible for the solvency of the institutions in which they owned a fractional interest. The average level of prices could fall, as it had done in the final decades of the 19th century, or rise, as it had begun to do in the early 20th, without inciting countermeasures to arrest the change and return the price level to some supposed desirable average. The very idea of a macroeconomy—something to be measured and managed—was uninvented. Who or what was in charge of American finance? Principally, Adam Smith’s invisible hand.
How well could such a primitive system have possibly functioned? In “The New York Money Market and the Finance of Trade, 1900-1913,” a scholarly study published in 1969, the British economist C.A.E. Goodhart concluded thus: “On the basis of its record, the financial system as constituted in the years 1900-1913 must be considered to have been successful to an extent rarely equalled in the United States.”
The belle epoque was not to be confused with paradise, of course. The Panic of 1907 was a national embarrassment. There were too many small banks for which no real diversification, of either assets or liabilities, was possible. The Treasury Department was wont to throw its considerable resources into the money market to effect an artificial reduction in interest rates—in this manner substituting a very visible hand for the other kind.
Mr. Lowenstein has written long and well on contemporary financial topics in such books as “When Genius Failed” (2000) and “While America Aged” (2008). Here he seems to forget that the past is a foreign country. “Throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth,” he contends, “the United States—alone among the industrial powers—suffered a continual spate of financial panics, bank runs, money shortages and, indeed, full-blown depressions.”
If this were even half correct, American history would have taken a hard left turn. For instance, William Jennings Bryan, arch-inflationist of the Populist Era, would not have lost the presidency on three occasions. Had he beaten William McKinley in 1896, he would very likely have signed a silver-standard act into law, sparking inflation by cheapening the currency. As it was, President McKinley signed the Gold Standard Act of 1900, which wrote the gold dollar into the statute books.
The doctrine that interest rates are the Federal Reserve’s to manage has come to be regarded, at least by the mandarins, as settled science. It was not so when the heroes of Mr. Lowenstein’s story were conspiring to create a new central bank. Abram Piatt Andrew Jr. took to the scholarly journals to denounce the government’s attempts to pin down money-market interest rates.
Indiana-born, Andrew came East to study, taught economics at Harvard and lent his talents to the National Monetary Commission in 1909 and 1910—the group that conducted the field work to prepare for the grand banking reform. Somewhere along the line, he conceived the idea that the money market should be free of federal manipulation. As prices had been rising—a gentle inflation had begun just before the turn of the 20th century—interest rates should have followed prices higher. That they did not was the complaint that Andrew laid at the doorstep of the government.
Andrew contended that the Treasury Department—under Lyman J. Gage, who served from 1897 to 1902, and his successor, Leslie M. Shaw, who resigned in 1907—“succeeded in keeping the money rate of interest below the rate which would have been ‘normal’ or ‘natural.’ . . . They had kept alive a continuously excessive demand for credit by making it available at less than the normal cost. They had sown the wind and their successor was to reap the whirlwind.”
It is an indictment that comes ready-written against the Federal Reserve’s policy today. Interest rates are prices. Far better that they be discovered in the marketplace than administered from on high. One has to wonder what Andrew would say if he were spirited back to earth to read a random edition of this newspaper in the seventh year of the Fed’s attempt to create prosperity through the technique of zero-percent interest rates. He might want a quiet word with Ms. Yellen.
Andrew is not the only vivid personality in this tale of unintended consequences. Mr. Lowenstein entertainingly limns a gallery of them: Paul Warburg, a German-banker immigrant eager to import European ideas into his adopted country; Carter Glass, an irritable Virginia newspaperman turned congressman (later senator) and currency reformer; Nelson Aldrich, a suspiciously affluent Rhode Island senator and central-bank exponent; Robert Owen, a former Indian agent from the Oklahoma Territory who pushed the Federal Reserve Act through the Senate; William Gibbs McAdoo Jr., the Treasury secretary who married the boss’s daughter; that boss himself, Woodrow Wilson; and Frank Vanderlip, president of what today is Citigroup.
Vanderlip, not alone among his fellow agitators for a central bank, was keen on the gold standard and “fervent,” as Mr. Lowenstein puts it, in his “denunciations of government control.” Here is a fine piece of irony. Government control is exactly what the authors of the Federal Reserve Act unintentionally achieved, though Andrew, at least, might have anticipated this public-policy reversal. He noticed that, under Leslie Shaw’s meddling stewardship in the early years of the 20th century, the Treasury had shifted government deposits to private institutions in times of crisis. “Outside relief in business, like outdoor charity,” as Mr. Lowenstein quotes him saying, “is apt to diminish the incentives to providence, and to slacken the forces of self-help.”
Centralized government control arrived in force with the Banking Act of 1935. It established the centralization of monetary power within the Federal Reserve Board in Washington, and it repealed the so-called double-liability law on bank stocks: No more would the holders of common stocks in failed banks be assessed to help defray the debts of the institutions in which they had invested. Anyway, there would be precious few failures to deal with, proponents of the new thinking contended. Knowing that the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. stood behind their money, depositors would give up running; they would rather walk to the bank.
The new doctrines repulsed H. Parker Willis, a key player during the organization of the Fed and later a professor of banking at Columbia University. “It is far better, both for the depositor and the banker,” said Willis of the FDIC, “that the actual net irreducible losses growing out of bank failure should fall where they belong. The universal experience with this kind of insurance—if it may be called—has pointed to the danger of increasing losses as the result of bad banking management induced by belief in deposit guarantee.”
Willis didn’t imagine the half of it. On top of deposit insurance evolved the notion that some banks—Citi, for instance—were too big to fail. They must be nurtured through subsidy and bank-friendly monetary policy: low money-market interest rates, for example. It happened that the Citigroup that evolved from Vanderlip’s National City Bank became a ward of the state in 2008. The massive federal bailout of Citi exacted many costs, including a level of regulatory micromanagement that Vanderlip could not have begun to conceive.
J.P. Morgan Chase, which did not fail in 2008, recently went public to describe the intensity of the federal oversight it labors under. More than 950 employees, it revealed, are dedicated to complying with 750 requirements laid down by 21 government entities to achieve and maintain capital adequacy. The Fed itself is high among those demanding overseers. The workers shuffle 20,000 pages of documentation and manipulate 225 econometric models.
The rage to micromanage spans the world. “It can’t be,” the head of Sweden’s Nordea Bank was quoted forlornly saying last year in the Financial Times, “that the only purpose of banking is to stop banks from going bankrupt.” Oh, yes it can.
One thinks back to the supposed financial dark ages when, in 1842, New Orleans bankers, setting down a kind of operational manifesto, succeeded in committing the essentials of safe and sound banking practice to one side of one page. They prospered by simple maxims—e.g., do what you will with your own capital but do not abuse the depositor’s funds—well after the Civil War. Some may protest that banking has become more complex since those days. The boggling, 23,000-page length of the Dodd Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 (complete with supporting rules) would suggest that it has become 23,000 times more complex. I doubt that.
The legislation to which President Wilson affixed his signature in 1913—Mr. Lowenstein observantly notes that he signed with gold pens—included no intimation of the revolutionary techniques of monetary control that would come into being after 2008: zero-percent interest rates, “quantitative easing,” and central-bank-sponsored bull markets in stocks and real estate, among others.
The great value of “America’s Bank” is the comparison it invites between what lawmakers intend and what they achieve. The act’s preamble described a modest effort “to provide for the establishment of the Federal Reserve banks, to furnish an elastic currency, to afford means of rediscounting commercial paper and to establish a more effective supervision of banking in the United States and for other purposes.” “And for other purposes”—our ancestors should have known.