The Reckless Federal Reserve, Bernard Madoff and Elihu Root: Lessons for Today

The Federal Reserve has now moved to escalate even further its inflationary jihad in a vain and highly dangerous attempt to “stimulate” the economy. As reported in the New York Times:

The Federal Reserve entered a new era on Tuesday, lowering its benchmark interest rate virtually to zero and declaring that it would now fight the recession by pumping out vast amounts of money to businesses and consumers through an expanding array of new lending programs.

Going further than expected, the central bank cut its target for the overnight federal funds rate to a range of zero to 0.25 percent and brought the United States to the zero-rate policies that Japan used for years in its own fight against deflation. Since September, the Fed’s balance sheet has ballooned from about $900 billion to more than $2 trillion as the central bank has created new money and lent it out through all its new programs. As soon as the Fed completes its plans to buy up mortgage-backed debt and consumer debt, the balance sheet will be up to about $3 trillion.

In response, in a superb article in the Wall Street Journal, “Is the Medicine Worse Than the Illness?”, investment guru James Grant compares the criminal charges of the $50 billion Ponzi scheme of financier Bernard Madoff with the Federal Reserve’s unprecedented decision under Ben Bernanke this week to debase its own currency in its gigantic government pyramid scheme.

Barely nudging Mr. Madoff out of the top of the news was the Federal Reserve’s announcement last Tuesday that it intends to debase its own paper money. The year just ending has been a time of confusion as much as it has been of loss. But here, at least, was the bright beam of clarity. Specifically, the Fed pledged to print dollars in unlimited volume and to trim its funds rate, if necessary, all the way to zero. Nor would it rest on its laurels even at an interest rate low enough to drive the creditor class back to work. It would, on the contrary, “continue to consider ways of using its balance sheet to further support credit markets and economic activity.”

Wall Street that day did handsprings. . . . Economic commentators praised the central bank’s determination to fight deflation—that is, to reinstate inflation. All hands, including President-elect Obama, seemed to agree that wholesale money-printing was the answer to the nation’s prayers.

Grant then discusses both the current crisis and previous monetary crises, noting that so long as the dollar was pegged to gold, such crises were minimal:

The underlying cause of these mishaps is the dollar and the central bank that manipulates it. In ages past, it was so simple. A central banker had one job only, and that was to assure that the currency under his care was exchangeable into gold at the lawfully stipulated rate. It was his office to make the public indifferent between currency or gold. In a crisis, the banker’s job description expanded to permit emergency lending against good collateral at a high rate of interest. But no self-respecting central banker did much more. Certainly, none arrogated to himself the job of steering the economy by fixing an interest rate. None, I believe, had an economist on the payroll. None facilitated deficit spending by buying up his government’s bonds. None cared about the average level of prices, which rose in wartime and sank in peacetime.

. . .

The times were hard in the 1870s and, for that matter, again in the 1890s, but Americans repeatedly spurned the Populist cries for a dollar you didn’t have to dig out of the ground but could rather print up by the job lot. “If the Government can create money,” as a hard-money propagandist put it in an 1892 broadside entitled “Cheap Money,” “why should not it create all that everybody wants? Why should anybody work for a living?” And—in a most prescient rhetorical question—he went on to ask, “Why should we have any limit put to the volume of our currency?”

A couple of panics later, the Federal Reserve came along—the year was 1913. Promoters of the legislation to establish America’s new central bank protested that they wanted no soft currency. The dollar would continue to be exchangeable into gold at the customary rate of $20.67 an ounce. But, they added, under the Fed’s enlightened stewardship, the currency would become “expansive.” Accordion-fashion, the number of dollars in circulation would expand or contract according to the needs of commerce and agriculture.

Grant then quotes from the prophetic statements by then New York Senator Elihu Root, who “thought he smelled a rat”:

Anticipating the credit inflations of the future and recalling the disturbances of the past, Mr. Root attacked the bill in this fashion: “Little by little, business is enlarged with easy money. With the exhaustless reservoir of the Government of the United States furnishing easy money, the sales increase, the businesses enlarge, more new enterprises are started, the spirit of optimism pervades the community. . . . Bankers are not free from it. They are human. The members of the Federal Reserve board will not be free of it. They are human. . . . Everyone is making money. Everyone is growing rich. It goes up and up, the margin between costs and sales continually growing smaller as a result of the operation of inevitable laws, until finally someone whose judgment was bad, someone whose capacity for business was small, breaks; and as he falls he hits the next brick in the row, and then another, and then another, and down comes the whole structure.”

“That, sir,” Mr. Root concluded, “is no dream. That is the history of every movement of inflation since the world’s business began, and it is the history of many a period in our own country. That is what happened to greater or less degree before the panic of 1837, of 1857, of 1873, of 1893 and of 1907. The precise formula which the students of economic movements have evolved to describe the reason for the crash following the universal process is that when credit exceeds the legitimate demands of the country the currency becomes suspected and gold leaves the country.”

Grant further points out that:

In this crisis, the Fed’s assets have grown much faster than its capital. The truth is that the Federal Reserve is itself a highly leveraged financial institution. The flagship branch of the 12-bank system, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, shows assets of $1.3 trillion and capital of just $12.2 billion. Its leverage ratio, a mere 0.9%, is less than one-third of that prescribed for banks in the private sector. . . . A writedown of just 18.3% in the value of those risky portfolios would erase the New York Fed’s capital account.

. . .

After Mr. Bernanke gets a good night’s sleep, he should be called to account for once again cutting interest rates at the expense of the long-suffering (and possibly hungry) savers. He should be asked to explain how the central-banking methods of the paper-dollar era represent any improvement, either in practice or theory, over the rigor, elegance, simplicity and predictability of the gold standard. He should be directed to read aloud the text of critique by Elihu Root and explain where, if at all, the old gentleman went wrong. Finally, he should be directed to put himself into the shoes of a foreign holder of U.S. dollars. “Tell us, Mr. Bernanke,” a congressman might consider asking him, “if you had the choice, would you hold dollars? And may I remind you, Mr. Chairman, that you are under oath?”

Bernanke’s foolish and reckless measures reflect his and others’ complete misunderstanding of the nature of financial upheavals, including the Great Depression, its causes and why it lasted so long despite extensive government interventions. For the very best account of how government was the cause of the Great Depression debacle, please see our book by Senior Fellow Robert Higgs, Depression, War and Cold War, that was named Outstanding Academic Book by Choice Magazine.

David J. Theroux is Founder, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Independent Institute.
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