Carnegie, Rockefeller, Morgan, Interstate Commerce Act, Sherman Antitrust Act, Sherman Silver Purchase Act, Federal Reserve, Nixon and Reagan

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 31st, 2012

History 101

Government Induced Inflation caused the Panic of 1893 and caused the Worst Depression until the Great Depression

Britain kicked off the Industrial Revolution.  Then handed off the baton to the United States in the latter half of the 19th century.  As American industry roared.  Great industrialists modernize America.  And the world.  Andrew Carnegie made steel inexpensive and plentiful.  He built railroad track and bridges.  And the steel-skeleton buildings of U.S. cities.  Including the skyscrapers.  John D. Rockefeller saved the whales.  By producing less expensive kerosene to burn in lamps instead of the more expensive whale oil.  He refined oil and brought it to market cheaper and more efficiently than anyone else.  Fueling industrial activity and expansion.  J.P. Morgan developed and financed railroads.  Made them more efficient.  Profitable.  And moved goods and people more efficiently than ever before.  Raising the standard of living to heights never seen before. 

The industrial economy was surging along.  And all of this without a central bank.  Credit was available.  So much so that it unleashed unprecedented economic growth.  That would have kept on going had government not stopped it.  With the Interstate Commerce Act in 1887 and the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890.  Used by competitors who could not compete against the economy of scales of Carnegie, Rockefeller and Morgan and sell at their low prices.  So they used their friends in government to raise prices so they didn’t have to be as competitive and efficient as Carnegie, Rockefeller and Morgan.  This legislation restrained the great industrialists.  Which began the era of complying with great regulatory compliance costs.  And expending great effort to get around those great regulatory compliance costs.

Also during the late 19th century there was a silver boom.  This dumped so much silver on the market that miners soon were spending more in mining it than they were selling it for.  Also, farmers were using the latest in technology to mechanize their farms.  They put more land under cultivation and increased farm yields.  So much so that prices fell.  They fell so far that farmers were struggling to pay their debts.  So the silver miners used their friends in government to solve the problems of both miners and farmers.  The government passed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act which increased the amount of silver the government purchased.  Issuing new treasury notes.  Redeemable in both gold and silver.  The idea was to create inflation to raise prices and help those farmers.  By allowing them to repay old debt easier with a depreciated currency.  And how did that work?  Investors took those new bank notes and exchanged them for gold.  And caused a run on U.S. gold reserves that nearly destroyed the banking system.  Plunging the nation in crisis.  The Panic of 1893.  The worst depression until the Great Depression.

Richard Nixon Decoupled the Dollar from Gold and the Keynesians Cheered 

J.P. Morgan stepped in and loaned the government gold to stabilize the banking system.  He would do it again in the Panic of 1907.  The great industrialists created unprecedented economic activity during the latter half of the 19th century.  Only to see poor government policies bring on the worst depression until the Great Depression.  A crisis one of the great industrialists, J.P. Morgan, rescued the country from.  But great capitalists like Morgan wouldn’t always be there to save the country.  Especially the way new legislation was attacking them.  So the U.S. created a central bank.  The Federal Reserve System.  Which was in place and ready to respond to the banking crisis following the stock market crash of 1929.  And did such a horrible job that they gave us the worst depression since the Panic of 1893.  The Great Depression.  Where we saw the greatest bank failures in U.S. history.  Failures the Federal Reserve was specifically set up to prevent.

The 1930s was a lost decade thanks to even more bad government policy.  FDR’s New Deal programs did nothing to end the Great Depression.  Only capitalism did.  And a new bunch of great industrialists.  Who were allowed to tool up and make their factories hum again.  Without having to deal with costly regulatory compliance.  Thanks to Adolf Hitler.  And the war he started.  World War II.  The urgency of the times repealed governmental nonsense.  And the industrialists responded.  Building the planes, tanks and trucks that defeated Hitler.  The Arsenal of Democracy.  And following the war with the world’s industrial centers devastated by war, these industrialists rebuilt the devastated countries.  The fifties boomed thanks to a booming export economy.  But it wouldn’t last.  Eventually those war-torn countries rebuilt themselves.  And LBJ would become president.

The Sixties saw a surge in government spending.  The U.S. space program was trying to put a man on the moon.  The Vietnam War escalated.  And LBJ introduced us to massive new government spending.  The Great Society.  The war to end poverty.  And racial injustice.  It failed.  At least, based on ever more federal spending and legislation to end poverty and racial injustice.  But that government spending was good.  At least the Keynesians thought so.  Richard Nixon, too.  Because he was inflating the currency to keep that spending going.  But the U.S. dollar was pegged to gold.  And this devaluation of the dollar was causing another run on U.S. gold reserves.  But Nixon responded like a true Keynesian.  And broke free from the shackles of gold.  By decoupling the dollar from gold.  And the Keynesians cheered.  Because the government could now use the full power of monetary policy to make recessions and unemployment a thing of the past.

Activist, Interventionist Government have brought Great Economic Booms to Collapse 

The Seventies was a decade of pure Keynesian economics.  It was also the decade that gave us double digit interest rates.  And double digit inflation rates.  It was the decade that gave us the misery index (the inflation rate plus the unemployment rate).  And stagflation.  The combination of a high inflation rate you normally only saw in boom times coupled with a high unemployment rate you only saw during recessionary times.  Something that just doesn’t happen.  But it did.  Thanks to Keynesian economics.  And bad monetary policy.

Ronald Reagan was no Keynesian.  He was an Austrian school supply-sider.  He and his treasury secretary, Paul Volcker, attacked inflation.  The hard way.  The only way.  Through a painful recession.  They stopped depreciating the dollar.  And after killing the inflation monster they lowered interest rates.  Cut tax rates.  And made the business climate business-friendly.  Capitalists took notice.  New entrepreneurs rose.  Innovated.  Created new technologies.  The Eighties was the decade of Silicon Valley.  And the electronics boom.  Powering new computers.  Electronic devices.  And software.  Businesses computerized and became more efficient.  Machine tools became computer-controlled.  The economy went high-tech.  Efficient.  And cool.  Music videos, CD players, VCRs, cable TV, satellite TV, cell phones, etc.  It was a brave new world.  Driven by technology.  And a business-friendly environment.  Where risk takers took risks.  And created great things.

History has shown that capitalists bring great things to market when government doesn’t get in the way.  With their punishing fiscal policies.  And inept monetary policies.  Activist, interventionist government have brought great economic booms to collapse.  Who meddle and turn robust economic activity into recessions.  And recessions into depressions.  The central bank being one of their greatest tools of destruction.  Because policy is too often driven by Big Government idealism.  And not the proven track record of capitalism.  As proven by the great industrialists.  And high-tech entrepreneurs.  Time and time again.

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LESSONS LEARNED #27: “Yes, it’s the economy, but the economy is not JUST monetary policy, stupid.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 19th, 2010

WHAT GAVE BIRTH to the Federal Reserve System and our current monetary policy?  The Panic of 1907.  Without going into the details, there was a liquidity crisis.  The Knickerbocker Trust tried to corner the market in copper.  But someone else dumped copper on the market which dropped the price.  The trust failed.  Because of the money involved, a lot of banks, too, failed.  Depositors, scared, created bank runs.  As banks failed, the money supply contracted.  Businesses failed.  The stock market crashed (losing 50% of its value).  And all of this happened during an economic recession.

So, in 1913, Congress passed the Federal Reserve Act, creating the Federal Reserve System (the Fed).  This was, basically, a central bank.  It was to be a bank to the banks.  A lender of last resort.  It would inject liquidity into the economy during a liquidity crisis.  Thus ending forever panics like that in 1907.  And making the business cycle (the boom – bust economic cycles) a thing of the past.

The Fed has three basic monetary tools.  How they use these either increases or decreases the money supply.  And increases or decreases interest rates.

They can change reserve requirements for banks.  The more reserves banks must hold the less they can lend.  The less they need to hold the more they can lend.  When they lend more, they increase the money supply.  When they lend less, they decrease the money supply.  The more they lend the easier it is to get a loan.  This decreases interest rates (i.e., lowers the ‘price’ of money).  The less they lend the harder it is to get a loan.  This increases interest rates (i.e., raises the ‘price’ of money). 

The Fed ‘manages’ the money supply and the interest rates in two other ways.  They buy and sell U.S. Treasury securities.  And they adjust the discount rate they charge member banks to borrow from them.  Each of these actions either increases or decreases the money supply and/or raises or lowers interest rates.  The idea is to make money easier to borrow when the economy is slow.  This is supposed to make it easier for businesses to expand production and hire people.  If the economy is overheating and there is a risk of inflation, they take the opposite action.  They make it more difficult to borrow money.  Which increases the cost of doing business.  Which slows the economy.  Lays people off.  Which avoids inflation.

The problem with this is the invisible hand that Adam Smith talked about.  In a laissez-faire economy, no one person or one group controls anything.  Instead, millions upon millions of people interact with each other.  They make millions upon millions of decisions.  These are informed decisions in a free market.  At the heart of each decision is a buyer and a seller.  And they mutually agree in this decision making process.  The buyer pays at least as much as the seller wants.  The seller sells for at least as little as the buyer wants.  If they didn’t, they would not conclude their sales transaction.  When we multiply this basic transaction by the millions upon millions of people in the market place, we arrive at that invisible hand.  Everyone looking out for their own self-interest guides the economy as a whole.  The bad decisions of a few have no affect on the economy as a whole.

Now replace the invisible hand with government and what do you get?  A managed economy.  And that’s what the Fed does.  It manages the economy.  It takes the power of those millions upon millions of decisions and places them into the hands of a very few.  And, there, a few bad decisions can have a devastating impact upon the economy.

TO PAY FOR World War I, Woodrow Wilson and his Progressives heavily taxed the American people.  The war left America with a huge debt.  And in a recession.  During the 1920 election, the Democrats ran on a platform of continued high taxation to pay down the debt.  Andrew Mellon, though, had done a study of the rich in relation to those high taxes.  He found the higher the tax, the more the rich invested outside the country.  Instead of building factories and employing people, they took their money to places less punishing to capital.

Warren G. Harding won the 1920 election.  And he appointed Andrew Mellon his Treasury secretary.  Never since Alexander Hamilton had a Treasury secretary understood capitalism as well.  The Harding administration cut tax rates and the amount of tax money paid by the ‘rich’ more than doubled.  Economic activity flourished.  Businesses expanded and added jobs.  The nation modernized with the latest technologies (electric power and appliances, radio, cars, aviation, etc.).  One of the best economies ever.  Until the Fed got involved.

The Fed looked at this economic activity and saw speculation.  So they contracted the money supply.  This made it hard for business to expand to meet the growing demand.  When money is less readily available, you begin to stockpile what you have.  You add to that pile by selling liquid securities to build a bigger cash cushion to get you through tight monetary times.

Of course, the economy is NOT just monetary policy.  Those businesses were looking at other things the government was doing.  The Smoot-Hartley tariff was in committee.  Across the board tariff increases and import restrictions create uncertainty.  Business does not like uncertainty.  So they increase their liquidity.  To prepare for the worse.  Then the stock market crashed.  Then it got worse. 

It is at this time that the liquidity crisis became critical.  Depositors lost faith.  Bank runs followed.  But there just was not enough money available.  Banks began to fail.  Time for the Fed to step in and take action.  Per the Federal Reserve Act of 1913.  But they did nothing.  For a long while.  Then they took action.  And made matters worse.  They raised interest rates.  In response to England going off the gold standard (to prop up the dollar).  Exactly the wrong thing to do in a deflationary spiral.  This took a bad recession to the Great Depression.  The 1930s would become a lost decade.

When FDR took office, he tried to fix things with some Keynesian spending.  But nothing worked.  High taxes along with high government spending sucked life out of the private sector.  This unprecedented growth in government filled business with uncertainty.  They had no idea what was coming next.  So they hunkered down.  And prepared to weather more bad times.  It took a world war to end the Great Depression.  And only because the government abandoned much of its controls and let business do what they do best.  Pure, unfettered capitalism.  American industry came to life.  It built the war material to first win World War II.  Then it rebuilt the war torn countries after the war.

DURING THE 1980s, in Japan, government was partnering with business.  It was mercantilism at its best.  Japan Inc.  The economy boomed.  And blew great big bubbles.  The Keynesians in America held up the Japanese model as the new direction for America.  An American presidential candidate said we must partner government with business, too.  For only a fool could not see the success of the Japanese example.  Japan was growing rich.  And buying up American landmarks (including Rockefeller Center in New York).  National Lampoon magazine welcomed us to the 90s with a picture of a Japanese CEO at his desk.  He was the CEO of the United States of America, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Honda Motor Company.  The Japanese were taking over the world.  And we were stupid not to follow their lead.

But there was no invisible hand in Japan.  It was the hand of Japan Inc.  It was Japan Inc. that pursued economic policies that it thought best.  Not the millions upon millions of ordinary Japanese citizens.  Well, Japan Inc. thought wrong. 

There was collusion between Japanese businesses.  And collusion between Japanese businesses and government.  And corruption.  This greatly inflated the Japanese stock market.  And those great big bubbles finally burst.  The powerful Japan Inc. of the 1980s that caused fear and trembling was gone.  Replaced by a Japan in a deflationary spiral in the 1990s.  Or, as the Japanese call it, their lost decade.  This once great Asian Tiger was now an older tiger with a bit of a limp.   And the economy limped along for a decade or two.  It was still number 3 in the world, but it wasn’t what it used to be.  You don’t see magazine covers talking about it owning other nations any more.  (In 2010, China took over that #3 spot.  But China is a managed economy.   Will it suffer Japan’s fate?  Time will tell.)

The Japanese monetary authorities tried to fix the economy.  Interest rates were zero for about a decade.  In other words, if you wanted to borrow, it was easy.  And free.  But it didn’t help.  That huge economic expansion wasn’t real.  Business and government, in collusion, inflated and propped it up.  It gave them inflated capacity.  And prices.  And you don’t solve that problem by making it easier for businesses to borrow money to expand capacity and create jobs.  That’s the last thing they need.  What they need to do is to get out of the business of managing business.  Create a business-friendly climate.  Based on free-market principles.  Not mercantilism.  And let that invisible hand work its wonders.

MONETARY POLICY CAN do a lot of things.  Most of them bad.  Because it concentrates far too much power in too few hands.  The consequences of the mistakes of those making policy can be devastating.  And too tempting to those who want to use those powers for political reasons.  As we can see by Keynesian ‘stimulus’ spending that ends up as pork barrel spending.  The empirical data for that spending has shown that it stimulates only those who are in good standing with the powers that be.  Never the economy.

Sound money is important.  The money supply needs to keep pace with economic expansion.  If it doesn’t, a tight money supply will slow or halt economic activity.  But we have to use monetary policy for that purpose only.  We cannot use it to offset bad fiscal policy that is anti-business.  For if the government creates an anti-business environment, no amount of cheap money will encourage risk takers to take risks in a highly risky and uncertain environment.  Decades were lost trying.

No, you don’t stimulate with monetary policy.  You stimulate with fiscal policy.  There is empirical evidence that this works.  The Mellon tax cuts of the Harding administration created nearly a decade of strong economic growth.  The tax cuts of JFK were on pace to create similar growth until his assassination.  LBJ’s policies were in the opposite direction, thus ending the economic recovery of the JFK administration.  Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts produced economic growth through two decades. 

THE EVIDENCE IS there.  If you look at it.  Of course, a good Keynesian won’t.  Because it’s about political power for them.  Always has been.  Always will be.  And we should never forget this.

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