The World Before Central Banking

In today’s world, there are many who want government to regulate and control everything. The most bizarre instance, though — more bizarre even than banning the sale of large-sized sugary drinks — is surely central banking.

Why? Well, central banking was created to replace something that was already working well. Banking panics and bank runs happen, and they have always happened as long as there has been banking.

But the old system that the Fed displaced wasn’t really malfunctioning — unlike what the defenders of central banking today would have us believe. Following the Panic of 1907, a group of private bankers led by J.P. Morgan successfully bailed out the system by acting as lender of last resort. The amount of new liquidity disbursed into the system was set not by academics like Ben Bernanke, but by experienced market participants. And because the money was directed from private purses, rather than being created out of thin air, only assets and companies with value were bought up.

The rationale of the supporters of the Federal Reserve Act was that a central banking liquidity mechanism would act as a safeguard against such events, to act as a permanent lender-of-last-resort backed by government fiat. They wanted something bigger and better than a private response.

Yet the Banking Panic of 1907 — a comparable market drop to both 1929 or 2008 — didn’t result in a residual depression.

As the WSJ noted:

The largest economic crisis of the 20th century was the Great Depression, but the second most significant economic upheaval was the panic of 1907. It was from beginning to end a banking and financial crisis. With the failure of the Knickerbocker Trust Company, the stock market collapsed, loan supply vanished and a scramble for liquidity ensued. Banks defaulted on their obligations to redeem deposits in currency or gold.

Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz, in their classic “A Monetary History of the United States,” found “much similarity in its early phases” between the Panic of 1907 and the Great Depression. So traumatic was the crisis that it gave rise to the National Monetary Commission and the recommendations that led to the creation of the Federal Reserve. The May panic triggered a massive recession that saw real gross national product shrink in the second half of 1907 and plummet by an extraordinary 8.2% in 1908. Yet the economy came roaring back and, in two short years, was 7% bigger than when the panic started.

Ben Bernanke, widely seen as the pre-eminent scholar of the Great Depression thought things would be much, much better under his watch. After all, he has claimed that he understood the lessons of Friedman and Schwartz who criticised the 1930s Federal Reserve for continuing to contract the money supply, worsening the Great Depression; M2 in 1933 was just 72% of its 1929 peak.

So a bigger crash and liquidation in 1907 allowed the economy to roar back, and continue growing. Meanwhile, in today’s controlled, planned and dependent world of central liquidity insurance, quantitative easing and TARP, growth remains anaemic four years after the crash. Have the last four years proven conclusively that central banking — even after the lessons of the 1930s — is inferior to the free market?

Certainly, Bernanke’s response to 2008 has been superior to the 1930s Fed — M2 has not dropped by anything like what it did from 1929:

Industrial production has not fallen by as significant an amount as 1929, nor has homebuilding. And there are many other wide-scale economic differences between 1907 and 2008 in terms of the shape of the economy, and the shape of employment, the capital structure, and the wider geopolitical reality. But the bounce-back is still vastly inferior to the free-market reality of 1907. I think there are greater problems to central banking, ones of which Friedman, Schwartz and Bernanke were unaware (but of which Rothbard and von Mises were acutely aware).

Does central banking retard the economy by providing liquidity insurance and a backstop to bad companies that would not otherwise be saved under a free market “bailout” (like that of 1907)? And is it this effect — that I call zombification — that is the force that has prevented Japan from fully recovering from its housing bubble, and that is keeping the West depressed from 2008? Will we only return to growth once the bad assets and bad companies have been liquidated? That conclusion, I think, is becoming inescapable.


Default & the Argentinosaurus

One thing is clear:

A huge mountain of interlocking, interconnected debt is a house of cards, and a monetary or financial system based upon such a thing is prone to collapse by default-cascade: one weak link in the chain breaks down the entire system.

But the next collapse of the debt-pyramid is a long-term trend that may be a long way — and a whole host of bailouts — away yet. A related but different problem is that of government spending. Here’s American government debt-to-GDP since the end of WW2:

After reducing the national debt to below 40% in the 70s and 80s America’s credit binges since that era have quickly piled on and on to the point that without a major war like World War 2, the national debt is above 100% of GDP, and therefore in a similar region to that period.

Simply, America’s government must find a way not only of balancing the budget, but of producing enough revenue to pay down the debt. This has inspired the current crop of Republican nominees to produce a slew of deficit-reduction plans, including Herman Cain’s hole-ridden 9-9-9 plan  which shifts a significant burden of taxation from the wealthy and onto the middle classes. Worse still, taxes on spending hurt the economy by discouraging spending. Want to expand your business with the purchase of new capital goods? 9% tax. Want to increase revenues through advertising? 9% tax. Want to spend your earnings on goods? 9% tax. That’s a hardly a policy that will encourage economic activity in an economy that is (for better or worse) led by consumption.

Whichever way the tax burden falls, the sad reality is that any plan that focuses on taxing-more-than-disbursing is just sucking productive capital out of the economy, constraining growth. The other “remedy” inflating the currency (to inflate away the debt), punishes savers, whose investment is necessary for productive growth.

Dean Baker shows a historical case of such an event. Argentina, crippled by its peg to the dollar, defaulted on its debt since 2001:

All the crushing weight of taking productive capital out of the economy crushed growth. Then Argentina defaulted on its debts, and rebounded, astonishingly. Of course, most of blogosphere is looking at Greece in this debate. I am not, because I recognise the Argentinosaurus in the room: America’s foreign-held debt load (payment for all those Nixonian free lunches) is undermining the dollar’s status as global reserve currency, a pattern of development that will ultimately force exporters — on whom America relies — out of exporting to America for worthless sacks of paper and digital. International trade has always been on a quid pro quo basis — and since 1971 that has worked fine for America — dollars have been a necessary prerequisite to acquire oil, other commodities and supplies and pay dollar-denominated debts.

So I think the time has come to explicitly advocate a radical solution to save the dollar — but just as importantly to save the middle classes, and productive capital from the punitive taxation (and welfare cuts) required by austerity.

America needs to balance its budget by gradually (and with negotiation) defaulting on its debts. The first prong of this is totally defaulting on the debt held by the Federal Reserve — this is simply just a circuitous way of cycling money from government to a private agency and back again to the government, while the private agency (the Fed) pays member banks 6% annual no-risk dividends. The second prong is to begin negotiations with international creditors to revalue American debt proportionate to what America can afford to pay in the long run.

Far from infuriating creditors, I think that the evidence shows that this move would benefit everyone. A strong American economy is important to Eurasian producers and exporters. An American-economy dragged down by debt-forced-austerity means a smaller market to sell to, and to gain investment from. The only significant counter-demand for such an arrangement might be a balanced-budget amendment, so that America could no longer borrow more than it can raise in revenues.

Of course, there are other avenues to explore: slashing military spending (and giving the money back to the taxpayer, or to the jobless, or to infrastructure programs) is one such avenue: as I have explained at length before, American military spending is subsidising a flat-market, and making non-American goods artificially competitive in America.

But the real issue today is that liberals mostly want to talk about higher taxes, and conservatives mostly want to talk about austerity. They’re missing the Argentinosaurus in the room: the transfer of wealth from the American public — and the productive American economy — to foreign (and domestic) creditors, and the downward pressure that this is exerting on American output.

Debts — even AAA-rates debt (or AAAAAAAAA as an Oracle once put it) — all carry risk: the risk that the debtor is getting into too much debt and won’t be able to pay back his obligations in a timely or honest fashion. Creditors are making a mistake to be ending money to a fiscal nightmare whose only economic refuge is money printing.

So will America continue to tread the bone-ridden road of austerity, high taxation and crushing economic contraction, leading to excessive money-printing, and ending in the death of the dollar and an inflationary firestorm? Or will it choose the sustainable route of negotiated default, low taxes, a return to productive, organic growth, and the opportunity to decrease reliance on foreign energy and goods?

What’s that sound? No, not the crashing Argentinosaurus.