A History of the Fed's Political Power
The Power and Independence of the Federal Reserve
Princeton University Press, 2016
xiv + 347 pages
Peter Conti-Brown, a legal historian who teaches at the Wharton School, would sharply dissent from Ron Paul’s wish to End the Fed. He never cites Mises or Rothbard, and the only Austrian work that he mentions, hidden away in an endnote, is Vera Smith’s The Rationale of Central Banking and the Free Banking Alternative. Nevertheless, Austrians will find Conti-Brown’s book of great value. He has, with considerable scholarship, exposed many grave problems with the Fed in a way that strengthens and supports the anti-Fed case.
The paramount concern of Austrian criticism of the Fed has been the vital role of that organization in expanding the money supply. Doing this, as the Austrian theory of the business cycle explains, drives the money rate of interest below the “natural” rate, primarily determined by people’s rate of time preference. This leads to an artificial boom and eventually proves unsustainable, resulting in a depression. Murray Rothbard classically applied this analysis in America’s Great Depression (1963), which emphasized the expansionary monetary policy of the 1920s, pursued by the Fed at the behest of Benjamin Strong, the Governor of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, in causing the 1929 crash.
Conti-Brown tells us that this view of the Fed’s role in the 1920s was shared by none other than Herbert Hoover, who figures in Rothbard’s book as a principal villain for his futile interventionist efforts to cope with the depression. Hoover “blamed the Fed generally (and the New York Fed in particular) for causing the Great Depression. This orgy [of speculation] was not a consequence of my administrative policies, he wrote, but of the ‘mediocrities’ at the Fed” (p. 24). “Hoover further complained that the Fed (under Benjamin Strong) turned American optimism into ‘the stock-exchange Mississippi Bubble’ ” (p. 283, note 19).
The Fed continued its expansionary course during the 1930s, and here the influence of the banker Marriner Eccles was paramount. Eccles shaped the modern Fed through proposals that Congress enacted in the Banking Act of 1935, which “abolished the Federal Reserve Board created in 1913 and replaced it with the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System”(p. 27). Once ensconced in power at the Fed, “Eccles’s clear policy ... was to use all policy instruments at the government’s disposal to do for the economy what consumers could not do: spend their way out of the depression” (p. 32). Eccles greatly admired Franklin Roosevelt and was careful to coordinate his policies with him. “ ‘Coordinate’ may even suggest more separation than Eccles intended: he meant for monetary policy to be administration policy” (p. 32). His ideas resembled those of Keynes, but Eccles had developed them independently. “Though they had never met, the millionaire Mormon from Utah had anticipated the dapper Cambridge don’s worldview” (p. 26). Eccles and Keynes eventually met at Bretton Woods in 1994 but did not like each other.
Conti-Brown, as we will see, views such policies with favor; but he aptly describes the consequences of a monetary expansion that fails: “What looks like economic growth is, in fact, a monetary mirage. It’s not more jobs, goods, and services that we see; it’s just more money. And when more and more money chases the same (or shrinking) number of jobs, goods, and services, the prices of everything go up. These inflationary pressures threaten to undermine the economy’s stability and consumer confidence in the level of prices and wages” (p. 133).
If we turn from the 1930s to the recent past, we find that the Fed has continued on its reckless ways. After the Panic of 2008, Fed Chairman Bernanke assumed extreme power to meddle in the economy. “Invoking emergency lending authority that had been unused for almost eighty years, the Fed picked up its ‘lender-of-last-resort’ function and proceeded to deploy it throughout the economy ... [this] started with the investment banking giant Bear Stearns and in time extended to money market funds, traditional banks, and insurance companies” (pp. 154–55).
The extent of the Fed’s power to intervene is difficult to fathom. “When Bernanke and Secretary of the treasury Henry Paulson approached Congress in the fall of 2008 about the need to inject $85 billion into the insurance giant AIG, [Barney] Frank asked if the Fed had that kind of money. Bernanke responded that he had $800 billion. Frank was stunned. ‘He can make any loan he wants under any terms to any entity or individual in America that he thinks is economically justified’ ” (p. 155).
The Fed under Bernanke did not confine itself to aiding particular firms but aimed at a general monetary expansion. His policy came as no surprise. “In one speech in 2002, Bernanke, then a member of the Fed’s Board of Governors (but not the chair), alluded to a helicopter drop of cash on the general public as a way of getting growth and inflation back to desirable levels. In light of subsequent events, and with that precedent in mind, his critics have sometimes called him ‘Helicopter Ben’ ” (p. 143).
Once he became Chair, Bernanke followed through in a bizarre fashion, in what was called “forward guidance.” This “binds the central bank to a mast of its own in an eff ort to convince participants in the economy that the Fed will honor its policy for a certain period of time. ... [T]he central bank must commit that its monetary policy ‘will in fact be effective if the central bank can credibly promise to be irresponsible, to seek a higher future price level’ ” (p. 143, quoting Paul Krugman).
By no means does this exhaust the material a critic of the Fed can draw from Conti-Brown’s book. He points out that the Fed finances its own activities by issuing money: it is not dependent on Congressional appropriations to keep it going. “That the Fed funds itself largely from the proceeds of its substantial assets, taken together with the nature of the Fed’s ability to create money in pursuit of its monetary policy objectives, means that the Fed’s funding is unique in government. ... [T]he Fed conducts monetary policy by, among other options, creating money with which it can buy government — and more recently, nongovernment securities. These interest-bearing assets generate money that the agency can subsequently use to fund itself ” (p. 207).
If the Fed is an arbitrary and irresponsible agency in the fashion so far described, is there not an excellent case for doing away with it? Conti-Brown does not agree at all. He fears the “devastation of expected deflation” (p. 143) that might ensue were the economy on a strict gold standard and thus largely supports Bernanke’s policies.
Conti-Brown’s focus differs entirely from criticism of monetary expansion. He believes that critics of the Fed are in a grip of a false picture of how it operates, which he calls the Ulysses/ punch bowl view. “Ulysses” refers to the incident in The Odyssey in which Ulysses had himself tied to the mast of a ship so he could hear the sirens’ song; and the “punch bowl” to a comment by Fed Chairman William McChesney Martin that the Fed’s role was to withdraw the punch bowl when the party was getting interesting. “The subjects of the metaphors differ by millennia, but the idea is the same: the partygoers and Ulysses alike want something in the near term that their best selves know is bad for them in the long term. Central bank independence is the solution” (p. 3). Conti-Brown maintains that this view rests on an oversimplified view of how the Fed operates, and that “independence” is not an analytically useful concept in understanding the Fed. He may well be right on both counts; but although he repeats the metaphor interminably, he has not at all made his case that the bulk of criticism of the Fed rests on acceptance of the misleading picture he condemns. To confront criticism of the sort advanced by Ron Paul and Rothbard, Conti-Brown would have to respond to Austrian monetary theory. He instead bypasses monetary theory almost entirely, a great pity owing to his gifts of clear exposition. To do this in a book about the Fed is to offer us Hamlet without the Danish prince.