(Excerpt from The Great Deformation: The Corruption of Capitalism in America by David A. Stockman. Published by PublicAffairs.)
When Professor Friedman Opened Pandora’s Box: Open Market Operations
At the end of the day, Friedman jettisoned the gold standard for a remarkable statist reason. Just as Keynes had been, he was afflicted with the economist’s ambition to prescribe the route to higher national income and prosperity and the intervention tools and recipes that would deliver it. The only difference was that Keynes was originally and primarily a fiscalist, whereas Friedman had seized upon open market operations by the central bank as the route to optimum aggregate demand and national income.
There were massive and multiple ironies in that stance. It put the central bank in the proactive and morally sanctioned business of buying the government’s debt in the conduct of its open market operations. Friedman said, of course, that the FOMC should buy bonds and bills at a rate no greater than 3 percent per annum, but that limit was a thin reed.
Indeed, it cannot be gainsaid that it was Professor Friedman, the scourge of Big Government, who showed the way for Republican central bankers to foster that very thing. Under their auspices, the Fed was soon gorging on the Treasury’s debt emissions, thereby alleviating the inconvenience of funding more government with more taxes.
Friedman also said democracy would thrive better under a régime of free markets, and he was entirely correct. Yet his preferred tool of prosperity promotion, Fed management of the money supply, was far more anti-democratic than Keynes’s methods. Fiscal policy activism was at least subject to the deliberations of the legislature and, in some vague sense, electoral review by the citizenry.
By contrast, the twelve-member FOMC is about as close to an unelected politburo as is obtainable under American governance. When in the fullness of time, the FOMC lined up squarely on the side of debtors, real estate owners, and leveraged financial speculators—and against savers, wage earners, and equity financed businessmen—the latter had no recourse from its policy actions.
The greatest untoward consequence of the closet statism implicit in Friedman’s monetary theories, however, is that it put him squarely in opposition to the vision of the Fed’s founders. As has been seen, Carter Glass and Professor Willis assigned to the Federal Reserve System the humble mission of passively liquefying the good collateral of commercial banks when they presented it.
Consequently, the difference between a “banker’s bank” running a discount window service and a central bank engaged in continuous open market operations was fundamental and monumental, not merely a question of technique. By facilitating a better alignment of liquidity between the asset and liability side of the balance sheets of fractional reserve deposit banks, the original “reserve banks” of the 1913 act would, arguably, improve banking efficiency, stability, and utilization of systemwide reserves.
Yet any impact of these discount window operations on the systemwide banking aggregates of money and credit, especially if the borrowing rate were properly set at a penalty spread above the free market interest rate, would have been purely incidental and derivative, not an object of policy. Obviously, such a discount window-based system could have no pretensions at all as to managing the macroeconomic aggregates such as production, spending, and employment.
In short, under the original discount window model, national employment, production prices, and GDP were a bottoms-up outcome on the free market, not an artifact of state policy. By contrast, open market operations inherently lead to national economic planning and targeting of GDP and other macroeconomic aggregates. The truth is, there is no other reason to control M1 than to steer demand, production, and employment from Washington.
Why did the libertarian professor, who was so hostile to all of the projects and works of government, wish to empower what even he could have recognized as an incipient monetary politburo with such vast powers to plan and manage the national economy, even if by means of the remote and seemingly unobtrusive steering gear of M1? There is but one answer: Friedman thoroughly misunderstood the Great Depression and concluded erroneously that undue regard for the gold standard rules by the Fed during 1929–1933 had resulted in its failure to conduct aggressive open market purchases of government debt, and hence to prevent the deep slide of M1 during the forty-five months after the crash.
Yet the historical evidence is unambiguous; there was no liquidity shortage and no failure by the Fed to do its job as a banker’s bank. Indeed, the six thousand member banks of the Federal Reserve System did not make heavy use of the discount window during this period and none who presented good collateral were denied access to borrowed reserves. Consequently, commercial banks were not constrained at all in their ability to make loans or generate demand deposits (M1).
But from the lofty perch of his library at the University of Chicago three decades later, Professor Friedman determined that the banking system should have been flooded with new reserves, anyway. And this post facto academician’s edict went straight to the heart of the open market operations issue.
The discount window was the mechanism by which real world bankers voluntarily drew new reserves into the system in order to accommodate an expansion of loans and deposits. By contrast, open market bond purchases were the mechanism by which the incipient central planners at the Fed forced reserves into the banking system, whether sought by member banks or not.
Friedman thus sided with the central planners, contending that the market of the day was wrong and that thousands of banks that already had excess reserves should have been doused with more and still more reserves, until they started lending and creating deposits in accordance with the dictates of the monetarist gospel. Needless to say, the historic data show this proposition to be essentially farcical, and that the real-world exercise in exactly this kind of bank reserve flooding maneuver conducted by the Bernanke Fed forty years later has been a total failure—a monumental case of “pushing on a string.”
Friedman's Erroneous Critique of the Depression-Era Fed Opened the Door to Monetary Central Planning
The historical truth is that the Fed’s core mission of that era, to rediscount bank loan paper, had been carried out consistently, effectively, and fully by the twelve Federal Reserve banks during the crucial forty-five months between the October 1929 stock market crash and FDR’s inauguration in March 1933. And the documented lack of member bank demand for discount window borrowings was not because the Fed had charged a punishingly high interest rate. In fact, the Fed’s discount rate had been progressively lowered from 6 percent before the crash to 2.5 percent by early 1933.
More crucially, the “excess reserves” in the banking system grew dramatically during this forty-five-month period, implying just the opposite of monetary stringency. Prior to the stock market crash in September 1929, excess reserves in the banking system stood at $35 million, but then rose to $100 million by January 1931 and ultimately to $525 million by January 1933.
In short, the tenfold expansion of excess (i.e., idle) reserves in the banking system was dramatic proof that the banking system had not been parched for liquidity but was actually awash in it. The only mission the Fed failed to perform is one that Professor Friedman assigned to it thirty years after the fact; that is, to maintain an arbitrary level of M1 by forcing reserves into the banking system by means of open market purchases of Uncle Sam’s debt.
As it happened, the money supply (M1) did drop by about 23 percent during the same forty-five-month period in which excess reserves soared tenfold. As a technical matter, this meant that the money multiplier had crashed. As has been seen, however, the big drop in checking account deposits (the bulk of M1) did not represent a squeeze on money. It was merely the arithmetic result of the nearly 50 percent shrinkage of the commercial loan book during that period.
As previously detailed, this extensive liquidation of bad debt was an unavoidable and healthy correction of the previous debt bubble. Bank loans outstanding, in fact, had grown at manic rates during the previous fifteen years, nearly tripling from $14 billion to $42 billion. As in most credit-fueled booms, the vast expansion of lending during the Great War and the Roaring Twenties left banks stuffed with bad loans that could no longer be rolled over when the music stopped in October 1929.
Consequently, during the aftermath of the crash upward of $20 billion of bank loans were liquidated, including billions of write-offs due to business failures and foreclosures. As previously explained, nearly half of the loan contraction was attributable to the $9 billion of stock market margin loans which were called in when the stock market bubble collapsed in 1929.
Likewise, loan balances for working capital borrowings also fell sharply in the face of falling production. Again, this was the passive consequence of the bursting industrial and export sector bubble, not something caused by the Fed’s failure to supply sufficient bank reserves. In short, the liquidation of bank loans was almost exclusively the result of bubbles being punctured in the real economy, not stinginess at the central bank.
In fact, there has never been any wide-scale evidence that bank loans outstanding declined during 1930–1933 on account of banks calling performing loans or denying credit to solvent potential borrowers. Yet unless those things happened, there is simply no case that monetary stringency caused the Great Depression.
Friedman and his followers, including Bernanke, came up with an academic canard to explain away these obvious facts. Since the wholesale price level had fallen sharply during the forty-five months after the crash, they claimed that “real” interest rates were inordinately high after adjusting for deflation.
Yet this is academic pettifoggery. Real-world businessmen confronted with plummeting order books would have eschewed new borrowing for the obvious reason that they had no need for funds, not because they deemed the “deflation-adjusted” interest rate too high.
At the end of the day, Friedman’s monetary treatise offers no evidence whatsoever and simply asserts false causation; namely, that the passive decline of the money supply was the active cause of the drop in output and spending. The true causation went the other way: the nation’s stock of money fell sharply during the post-crash period because bank loans are the mother’s milk of bank deposits. So, as bloated loan books were cut down to sustainable size, the stock of deposit money (M1) fell on a parallel basis.
Given this credit collapse and the associated crash of the money multiplier, there was only one way for the Fed to even attempt to reflate the money supply. It would have been required to purchase and monetize nearly every single dime of the $16 billion of US Treasury debt then outstanding.
Today’s incorrigible money printers undoubtedly would say, “No problem.” Yet there is no doubt whatsoever that, given the universal antipathy to monetary inflation at the time, such a move would have triggered sheer panic and bedlam in what remained of the financial markets. Needless to say, Friedman never explained how the Fed was supposed to reignite the drooping money multiplier or, failing that, explain to the financial markets why it was buying up all of the public debt.
Beyond that, Friedman could not prove at the time of his writing A Monetary History of the United States in 1965 that the creation out of thin air of a huge new quantity of bank reserves would have caused the banking system to convert such reserves into an upwelling of new loans and deposits. Indeed, Friedman did not attempt to prove that proposition, either. According to the quantity theory of money, it was an a priori truth.
In actual fact, by the bottom of the depression in 1932, interest rates proved the opposite. Rates on T-bills and commercial paper were one-half percent and 1 percent, respectively, meaning that there was virtually no unsatisfied loan demand from creditworthy borrowers. The dwindling business at the discount windows of the twelve Federal Reserve banks further proved the point. In September 1929 member banks borrowed nearly $1 billion at the discount windows, but by January 1933 this declined to only $280 million. In sum, banks were not lending because they were short of reserves; they weren’t lending because they were short of solvent borrowers and real credit demand.
In any event, Friedman’s entire theory of the Great Depression was thoroughly demolished by Ben S. Bernanke, his most famous disciple, in a real-world experiment after September 2008. The Bernanke Fed undertook massive open market operations in response to the financial crisis, purchasing and monetizing more than $2 trillion of treasury and agency debt.
As is by now transparently evident, the result was a monumental wheel-spinning exercise. The fact that there is now $1.7 trillion of “excess reserves” parked at the Fed (compared to a mere $40 billion before the crisis) meant that nearly all of the new bank reserves resulting from the Fed’s bond-buying sprees have been stillborn.
By staying on deposit at the central bank, they have fueled no growth at all of Main Street bank loans or money supply. There is no reason whatsoever, therefore, to believe that the outcome would have been any different in 1930–1932.
Milton Friedman: Freshwater Keynesian and the Libertarian Professor Who Fathered Big Government
The great irony, then, is that the nation’s most famous modern conservative economist became the father of Big Government, chronic deficits, and national fiscal bankruptcy. It was Friedman who first urged the removal of the Bretton Woods gold standard restraints on central bank money printing, and then added insult to injury by giving conservative sanction to perpetual open market purchases of government debt by the Fed. Friedman’s monetarism thereby institutionalized a régime which allowed politicians to chronically spend without taxing.
Likewise, it was the free market professor of the Chicago school who also blessed the fundamental Keynesian proposition that Washington must continuously manage and stimulate the national economy. To be sure, Friedman’s “freshwater” proposition, in Paul Krugman’s famous paradigm, was far more modest than the vast “fine-tuning” pretensions of his “saltwater” rivals. The saltwater Keynesians of the 1960s proposed to stimulate the economy until the last billion dollars of potential GDP was realized; that is, they would achieve prosperity by causing the state to do anything that was needed through a multiplicity of fiscal interventions.
By contrast, the freshwater Keynesian, Milton Friedman, thought that capitalism could take care of itself as long as it had precisely the right quantity of money at all times; that is, Friedman would attain prosperity by causing the state to do the one thing that was needed through the single spigot of M1 growth.
But the common predicate is undeniable. As has been seen, Friedman thought that member banks of the Federal Reserve System could not be trusted to keep the economy adequately stocked with money by voluntarily coming to the discount window when they needed reserves to accommodate business activity. Instead, the central bank had to target and deliver a precise quantity of M1 so that the GDP would reflect what economic wise men thought possible, not merely the natural level resulting from the interaction of consumers, producers, and investors on the free market.
For all practical purposes, then, it was Friedman who shifted the foundation of the nation’s money from gold to T-bills. Indeed, in Friedman’s scheme of things central bank purchase of Treasury bonds and bills was the monetary manufacturing process by which prosperity could be managed and delivered.
What Friedman failed to see was that one wise man’s quantity rule for M1 could be supplanted by another wise man’s quantity rule for M2 (a broader measure of money supply that included savings deposits) or still another quantity target for aggregate demand (nominal GDP targeting) or even the quantity of jobs created, such as the target of 200,000 per month recently enunciated by Fed governor Charles Evans. It could even be the quantity of change in the Russell 2000 index of stock prices, as Bernanke has advocated.
Yet it is hard to imagine a world in which any of these alternative “quantities” would not fall short of the “target” level deemed essential to the nation’s economic well-being by their proponents. In short, the committee of twelve wise men and women unshackled by Friedman’s plan for floating paper dollars would always find reasons to buy government debt, thereby laying the foundation for fiscal deficits without tears.