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What Economic Elites Don’t Want You to Know about Crashes

A 1921 event will change your understanding of depressions by Douglas French:

The Great Recession drags on everywhere except for Wall Street, Washington, DC, and Ben Bernanke’s consciousness. “By stabilizing the financial system, we avoided much, much worse, persistently bad consequences for our economies,” Bernanke said in an interview with his old friend Mervyn King (former head of the Bank of England) on the BBC.

Bernanke says he was stimulated by the opportunity to open up his monetary bag of tricks. “I feel that the work I did as an academic paid off and that I was able to use that to help solve these problems,” he said. “That’s very satisfying, though it’s not an experience I would voluntarily repeat.”

Maybe it’s paying off for Bernanke as he makes $200,000 per speech, but for the rest of us, not so much. The former Fed chair famously told Milton Friedman the central bank wouldn’t make the same mistakes as the 1930s Fed. From his analysis, Bernanke thinks the central bank tightened the money supply in the ‘30s to cause the Great Depression. That lesson prompted him after the 2008 crash to unleash a barrage of rounds of quantitative easing and an Operation Twist while quadrupling the central bank’s balance sheet to “stabilize the financial system.”

Jim Grant sees it differently, thinking Bernanke and company should have kept their hands off the money supply and interest rates. Grant, the financial world’s foremost wordsmith, provides the depression of 1920–21 as his evidence.

His book The Forgotten Depression: 1921: The Crash That Cured Itself chronicles how the market works marvels if left alone. Grant tells the reader right away, “The hero of my narrative is the price mechanism, Adam Smith’s invisible hand.”

Yes, there was a Treasury and a still-new Federal Reserve. But Lord Keynes had not yet published his General Theory, the bible of today’s meddling monetary bureaucrats. Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Warren G. Harding ignored the downturn at best, “or [implemented] policies that an average 21st century economist would judge disastrous,” Grant writes.

The nation’s money was backed by gold, and the monetary mandarins had actual business experience to draw upon rather than just theories and equations running through their heads. The man who headed the central bank was William P.G. Harding (no relation to the president), who was born in tiny Boligee, Alabama, and was a career commercial banker. The Treasury secretaries during the period were David F. Huston, who had been secretary of agriculture, and industrialist, businessman, and banker Andrew W. Mellon.

The depression in question lasted 18 months, from January 1920 to July 1921, far shorter than the 43 months of the 1929–33 Great Depression and a fraction of the recent Great Recession. Government’s inaction proved the point Murray Rothbard made in his book America’s Great Depression (quoted by Grant): “If a government wishes to alleviate, rather than aggravate, a depression, its only valid course is laissez-faire — to leave the economy alone.”

The numbers in 1920–21 are jaw dropping. Producer prices fell 40.8 percent, industrial production dropped 31.6 percent, corporate profits plunged 92 percent, and stock prices fell by 46.6 percent. Joblessness was as high as 19 percent.

All of this pain after the Dow Jones Industrial Average nearly doubled from 1918 to the start of 1920. Speculative fever was such that those playing the market on margin were willing to pay 20 percent interest to bet on such a sure thing. “That much was evident to the miscellaneous company of lay investors who were knocking down Wall Street’s doors,” Grant writes. “Hotel chefs, undertakers, union officials and leisured ladies were among the latecomers to the frolic.”

The Federal Reserve raised its discount rate from 6 percent to 7 percent on June 1, 1920, and by Election Day of that year, the Dow was down 29 percent. Business owners demanded wages be reduced while American Federation of Labor president Samuel Gompers countered with, “We will tolerate no reduction of wages.” In the end, management won.

Herbert Hoover, who took over as secretary of commerce in 1921, sounded almost Rothbardian about the boom and bust, quoted by Grant as saying, “we speculate, overextend our liabilities, slacken down our effort, lower our efficiency, waste our surplus in riotous living instead of creation of new capital, drive our prices to vicious levels, lose our moral and business balance.” People would “have to come into the cold water in the end.”

Upon taking office in March 1921, Andrew Mellon said citizens should save the government’s money rather than spend it. Besides fiscal constraint, America benefited from the country’s high interest rates, which attracted a continuous inflow of gold. Grant explains that in the summer of 1920, gold covered 40 percent of the notes in circulation. By May 1921 that percentage doubled and the notes at the New York Fed were collateralized completely. Commodity prices collapsed and money (gold) flowed where it was most highly valued.

As quickly as it began, the depression was over. Benjamin Anderson, then an economist for Chase National Bank, wrote in his Economics and the Public Welfare: A Financial and Economic History of the United States, 1914–1946, “In 1920–21, we took our losses, we readjusted our financial structure, we endured our depression, and in August 1921, we started up again. By the spring of 1923, we had reached new highs in industrial production and we had labor shortages in many lines.”

Note to Drs. Bernanke and Yellen: this bounce was not fueled by an increased money supply. Grant makes clear in a footnote that the money supply fell 14.4 percent from March 1920 to January 22, 1921, and what the Fed had direct control of — the monetary base — fell 17 percent from October of 1920 to January 1922. From this tightness, the Roaring ‘20s was spawned.

But Lord Keynes believed the cure — instability of prices — was instead a thorn in society’s side. “The more troublous the times, the worse does a laissez-faire system work,” Keynes told the National Liberal Club in December 1923. He believed instability caused unemployment, profiteering, and precarious expectations. In the wake of laissez-faire’s great triumph, Keynes put forth the idea that has stayed with us ever since: “Mandarin rule was the new idea: governance by economists,” Grant writes.

In February 1936, Keynes’s General Theory was published and the price system was replaced by central bank stabilization forever, so far. “The General Theory is nothing less than an epic journey out of intellectual darkness,” Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman gushed.

Grant’s Forgotten Depression makes an airtight case for a return to intellectual darkness. Keynesian enlightenment has brought us prolonged financial suffering and substandard economic growth. Bailing out big banks and failed entrepreneurs keeps capital in the hands of the inefficient, to be wasted. Remembering Hoover, we have lost our “moral and business balance.” The Fed and Treasury must get out of the way, allowing us “cold water in the end.”

ABOUT DOUGLAS FRENCH

Douglas French writes for Casey Research, Laissez Faire, and other publications. He is the author of three books: Early Speculative Bubbles and Increases in the Supply of MoneyWalk Away, and The Failure of Common Knowledge.

ABOUT JAMES GRANT

America, Our Debt-Ridden Nation

Let’s look at just some of the latest news about the U.S. economy:

  1. According to the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Fiscal Services, the federal government paid $2,007,358,200,000—over $2 trillion—in benefits and entitlements in the 2013 fiscal year, October 1, 2012 to September 30, 2013. Most of the benefits, 69.7% came from non-means tested government programs that provide them to recipients who qualify regardless of income. That would include Medicare, Social Security, unemployment compensation, veteran’s compensation, and railroad retirement, to name a few.
  2. The total federal government spending in 2013 totaled $3,454,253,000,000—over $3.4 trillion—encompassing defense, highway and transportation costs, public education, immigration services, and government worker salaries, to name a few.
  3. An astonishing amount of that spending constitutes wasted taxpayer money. In July the Government Accountability Office (CAO) testified before Congress that federal agencies made more than $100 billion in improper payments in 2013. That is an amount comparable to the combined total budgets of the Coast Guard, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, Border Patrol, Secret Service, and the Federal Emergency Agency, et cetera. Improper payments result when people collect money from government programs for which they are ineligible.
  4. By August, the total U.S. federal debt had increased to more than $7 trillion during the five and a half years since Barack Obama has been President. That is more than the debt increased under all U.S. Presidents from George Washington through Bill Clinton—combined! More debt than was accumulated in the first 227 years from 1776 through 2003.
  5. During the time President Obama has been in office the number of unemployed reached 37.2%, a 36-year high for those 16 or older who do not have a job and are not actively seeking one. From December 2013 through May of this year, the labor participation rate had been at 62.8%. The last time the labor participation rate was that low was February 1978 when Jimmy Carter was President.
  6. As the nation sank deeper into debt by the end of 2012 there were 109,631,000 Americans living in households that were receiving one or more federally funded “means-tested programs”, more generally referred to as welfare. Combined with those receiving non-means-tested benefits and it added up to 49.5% of the population.

Money BombIt is always tempting to blame everything on the President and, despite the usual rebound from a recession that has occurred in the past, it has not occurred during his first term, nor into his second at this point. In fact, the latest data reveals that the U.S. economy shrank at a 2.9% annual rate during the first quarter of 2014. Its long-run average rate of growth has been 3.3%, but the highest since Obama took office was 2.8%.

According to the World Bank, in 2013 the U.S. Gross Domestic Product, the value of its goods and services, was $16,800,000,000,000. The federal, state and governments took their share via taxation on income and/or property. The rest was saved or spent by those either holding a job or receiving government benefits; very nearly half of the population old enough to be employed if there were jobs for them.

The problem that affects all of us is the imbalance of the U.S. budget where more money is going out than coming in. The difference is deemed the “deficit.” In order to pay bills, Congress has to agree to raise the limit on how much the nation can borrow.

Nick Dranias, the constitutional policy director for the Goldwater Institute, has come up with a proposal, “The Compact for a Balanced Budget”, and it was been published by The Heartland Institute, a free market think tank, in July.

As Dranias points out, “The U.S. gross federal debt is approaching $18 trillion. That figure is more than twice what was owed ($8.6 trillion) in 2006, when Barack Obama was a junior U.S. Senator from Illinois and opposed lifting the federal debt limit.” It represents more than $150,000 per taxpayer.

“What if states could advance and ratify a powerful federal balanced budget amendment in only twelve months, asks Dranias. His proposal is “a new approach to state-originated amendments under Article V of the U.S. Constitution.

Two states, Georgia and Alaska, are expected to establish a Balanced Budget Commission, an interstate agency dedicated to organizing a convention—before 2014 ends—to propose an amendment to achieve a balanced budget. The amendment would put “an initially fixed limit on the amount of federal debt.” It would ensure Washington cannot spend more than tax revenue brought in at any point in time, with the sole exception of borrowing under the fixed debt limit. It would force Washington to reduce spending long before borrowing reaches its debt limit, preventing any default on obligations; something threatening many other nations as well.

Suffice to say, the proposed amendment involves some complex elements and, if the Compact does not receive sufficient support from many more states than just the two that have signed on, it won’t see the light of day.

What the rest of us understand, however, is that federal spending is out of control at the same time as the amount of money it takes in is more than what it “redistributes.” Add in a sluggish economy, not growing at its usual rate, and you have a recipe for a lot of trouble ahead.

Republicans are usually credited with being more financially prudent. If true, we need to elect a Congress controlled by the GOP in November and a Republican President in 2016. If we don’t, all bets are off.

© Alan Caruba, 2014