Posted on 2019-12-03 01:57:00
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Following the Barings crisis in 1890 the concept of a lender of last resort was widely seen to be a solution to the extremes of free markets. Initially, this meant that the bank nominated by the government to represent it in financial markets and to oversee the supply of bank notes took on a role of coordinating the rescue of a bank in difficulty, in order to stop it becoming a full-blown financial crisis. When the gold standard applied, this was the practical limitation of a central bank’s role.
This was the general situation before the First World War. In fact, even under the gold standard there was significant inflation of base money in the background. Between 1850 and 1914 above ground gold stocks increased from about 5,000 tonnes to nearly 24,000 tonnes. Not all of it went into monetary gold, but the amount that did was decided by the economic actors that used money, not the monetary planners as is the case today.
It was against this background that the US Federal Reserve Bank was founded in December 1913. Following WW1, it became a powerful institution under the leadership of Benjamin Strong. Those early post-war years were turbulent times: due to war time inflationary financing, wholesale prices had doubled in the US between 1914-1920, while the UK’s had trebled. This was followed by a post-war slump and by mid-1921 unemployment in the UK soared to 25%. In the US, the Fordney-McCumber tariffs of 1922 restricted European debtors from trading with America, necessary to pay down their dollar debts. A number of countries descended into hyperinflation, and the Dawes plan designed to bail out the Europeans followed in 1924.
While America remained on a gold standard, Britain had suspended it, only going back on to it in 1925. While the politicians decided overall policy, it was left to central bankers such as Strong at the Fed and Montague Norman at the Bank of England to manage the fallout. Their relationship was the most tangible evidence of central banks beginning to cooperate with each other in the interests of mutual financial stability.
With the backing of ample gold reserves, Strong was an advocate of price targeting through the management of money supply, particularly following the 1920-21 slump. His inflationary policies assisted the management of the dollar-sterling exchange rate, supporting sterling which at that time was not backed by gold. Strong also made attempts to develop a discount market in the US, which inflated credit markets further. One way and another, with the Fed following expansionary money policies and commercial bankers becoming more confident of lending prospects, monetary inflation fuelled what came to be known as the roaring twenties.
That came to a sharp halt in October 1929 when the credit cycle turned, and the stock market crashed. Top to bottom, that month saw the Dow fall 35%. The trigger was Congress agreeing to the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act on 30 October, widely recognised at the time as a suicide note for the economy and markets, by raising trade tariffs to an average of 60% from the Fordney-McCumber average of 38%. President Hoover signed it into law the following June and by mid-1932 Wall Street had fallen 89%.
With such a clear signal to the bankers it is not surprising they drew in their horns, contracting credit, indiscriminatingly bankrupting their customers. All the expansion of bank credit since 1920 was reversed by 1934. Small banks went bankrupt in their thousands, overwhelmed by bad debts, particularly in the agricultural sector, as well as through loss of confidence among their depositors.
The depression of the 1930s overshadowed politics in the capitalist economies for the next forty years. Instead of learning the lessons of the destruction wrought through cycles of bank credit, economists doubled down arguing more monetary and credit inflation was the solution. To help economic sentiment recover, Keynes favoured deficit spending by governments to take up the slack. He recommended a move away from savers being the suppliers of capital for investment, with the state taking a more active role in managing the economy through deficit spending and monetary inflation.
The printing of money, particularly dollars, continued under the guise of gold convertibility during the post-war Bretton Woods system. America had enormous gold reserves; by 1957 they were over 20,000 tonnes – one third of estimated above-ground gold stocks at that time. It felt secure in financing first the Korean then the Vietnam wars by printing dollars for export. Unsurprisingly, this led to the failure of the London gold pool in the late 1960s and President Nixon suspending the fig-leaf of dollar convertibility into gold in August 1971.
Once the dollar was freed from the discipline of gold, the repeating cycle of bank credit was augmented by the unfettered inflation of base money, a process that has continued to this day...