Federal Reserve System, Great Depression, Banking Crises, Gold Reserves, Gold Exchange Standard, Interest Rates and Money Supply

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 31st, 2012

History 101

The Gold Exchange Standard provided Stability for International Trade

Congress created the Federal Reserve System (the Fed) with the passage of the Federal Reserve Act in 1913.  They created the Fed because of some recent bad depressions and financial panics.  Which they were going to make a thing of the past with the Fed.  It had three basic responsibilities.  Maximize employment.  Stabilize prices.  And optimize interest rates.  With the government managing these things depressions and financial panics weren’t going to happen on the Fed’s watch.

The worst depression and financial panic of all time happened on the Fed’s watch.  The Great Depression.  From 1930.  Until World War II.  A lost decade.  A period that saw the worst banking crises.  And the greatest monetary contraction in U.S. history.  And this after passing the Federal Reserve Act to prevent any such things from happening.  So why did this happen?  Why did a normal recession turn into the Great Depression?  Because of government intervention into the economy.  Such as the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act that triggered the great selloff and stock market crash.  And some really poor monetary policy.  As well as bad fiscal policy.

At the time the U.S. was on a gold exchange standard.  Paper currency backed by gold.  And exchangeable for gold.  The amount of currency in circulation depended upon the amount of gold on deposit.  The Federal Reserve Act required a gold reserve for notes in circulation similar to fractional reserve banking.  Only instead of keeping paper bills in your vault you had to keep gold.  Which provided stability for international trade.  But left the domestic money supply, and interest rates, at the whim of the economy.  For the only way to lower interest rates to encourage borrowing was to increase the amount of gold on deposit.  For with more gold on hand you can increase the money supply.  Which lowered interest rates.  That encouraged people to borrow money to expand their businesses and buy things.  Thus creating economic activity.  At least in theory.

The Fed contracted the Money Supply even while there was a Positive Gold Flow into the Country

The gold standard worked well for a century or so.  Especially in the era of free trade.  Because it moved trade deficits and trade surpluses towards zero.  Giving no nation a long-term advantage in trade.  Consider two trading partners.  One has increasing exports.  The other increasing imports.  Why?  Because the exporter has lower prices than the importer.  As goods flow to the importer gold flows to the exporter to pay for those exports.  The expansion of the local money supply inflates the local currency and raises prices in the exporter country.  Back in the importer country the money supply contracts and lowers prices.  So people start buying more from the once importing nation.  Thus reversing the flow of goods and gold.  These flows reverse over and over keeping the trade deficit (or surplus) trending towards zero.  Automatically.  With no outside intervention required.

Banknotes in circulation, though, required outside intervention.  Because gold isn’t in circulation.  So central bankers have to follow some rules to make this function as a gold standard.  As gold flows into their country (from having a trade surplus) they have to expand their money supply by putting more bills into circulation.  To do what gold did automatically.  Increase prices.  By maintaining the reserve requirement (by increasing the money supply by the amount the gold deposits increased) they also maintain the fixed exchange rate.  An inflow of gold inflates your currency and an outflow of gold deflates your currency.  When central banks maintain this mechanism with their monetary policy currencies remain relatively constant in value.  Giving no price advantage to any one nation.  Thus keeping trade fair.

After the stock market crash in 1929 and the failure of the Bank of the United States in New York failed in 1930 the great monetary contraction began.  As more banks failed the money they created via fractional reserve banking disappeared.  And the money supply shrank.  And what did the Fed do?  Increased interest rates.  Making it harder than ever to borrow money.  And harder than ever for banks to stay in business as businesses couldn’t refinance their loans and defaulted.  The Fed did this because it was their professional opinion that sufficient credit was available and that adding liquidity then would only make it harder to do when the markets really needed additional credit.  So they contracted the money supply.  Even while there was a positive gold flow into the country.

The Gold Standard works Great when all of your Trading Partners use it and they Follow the Rules

Those in the New York Federal Reserve Bank wanted to increase the money supply.  The Federal Reserve Board in Washington disagreed.  Saying again that sufficient credit was available in the market.  Meanwhile people lost faith in the banking system.  Rushed to get their money out of their bank before it, too, failed.  Causing bank runs.  And more bank failures.  With these banks went the money they created via fractional reserve banking.  Further deflating the money supply.  And lowering prices.  Which was the wrong thing to happen with a rising gold supply.

Well, that didn’t last.  France went on the gold standard with a devalued franc.  So they, too, began to accumulate gold.  For they wanted to become a great banking center like London and New York.  But these gold flows weren’t operating per the rules of a gold exchange.  Gold was flowing generally in one direction.  To those countries hoarding gold.  And countries that were accumulating gold weren’t inflating their money supplies to reverse these flows.  So nations began to abandon the gold exchange standard.  Britain first.  Then every other nation but the U.S.

Now the gold standard works great.  But only when all of your trading partners are using it.  And they follow the rules.  Even during the great contraction of the money supply the Fed raised interest rates to support the gold exchange.  Which by then was a lost cause.  But they tried to make the dollar strong and appealing to hold.  So people would hold dollars instead of their gold.  This just further damaged the U.S. economy, though.  And further weakened the banking system.  While only accelerating the outflow of gold.  As nations feared the U.S. would devalue their currency they rushed to exchange their dollars for gold.  And did so until FDR abandoned the gold exchange standard, too, in 1933.  But it didn’t end the Great Depression.  Which had about another decade to go.

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