December 5, 2014

Since coming into existence in 1913, the Federal Reserve has helped facilitate a massive decline in the purchasing power of the US dollar. However, the Fed is not the root of the US monetary problem, as evidenced by the fact that there were several US financial crises/panics during the half-century prior to the establishment of the Fed. As explained by Murray Rothbard (America’s greatest economics historian), these pre-Fed financial panics “were a result of the arbitrary credit creation powers of the banking system.” In other words, the root of the problem is — and has always been — the legal ability of banks to create credit ‘out of thin air’, commonly referred to as fractional reserve banking. With or without a central bank, fractional reserve banking will tend to bring about a boom/bust cycle and thus reduce the long-term rate of economic progress.

Central banking is perhaps history’s best example of government attempting to fix a problem — in this case, the instability resulting from the practice of fractional reserve banking — and making things much worse in the process. The fact that fractional reserve banking leads to periodic crises suggests the following solution: banks should not be allowed to create new money out of nothing, that is, banks should be subject to the same laws as everyone else. However, the big banks tend to be politically influential, and imposing proper restrictions on the banking industry’s ability to expand its collective balance sheet would also restrict the government’s ability to grow, so rather than address the underlying problem the government put in place a system that would enable arbitrary credit creation to continue for much longer and to a much greater extreme without a ‘cleansing’ crisis. In the US, this “system” is called the Federal Reserve. Since the advent of the Federal Reserve there have been longer periods of apparent stability followed by much greater financial crises and economic downturns (the three most severe peace-time economic downturns in the US (the downturns of the 1930s, the 1970s and the 2000s) occurred since the birth of the Fed). There has also been a dramatic increase in the size of the US federal government, with its adverse consequences for freedom.

So, fractional reserve banking caused financial panics and boom-bust economic cycles in the US prior to the creation of the Fed, but crises and recessions in the pre-Fed era were relatively short and the economy tended to recover far more quickly. How, then, do I explain the “great depression” of 1873-1896, which some commentators cite in an effort to ‘prove’ that the Gold Standard doesn’t work and that central banking can be beneficial? 

The short answer is that there was no “great depression” during 1873-1896. Thanks to excessive deposit creation (fractional reserve banking) there were three financial panics during this period (in 1873, 1884 and 1893), but the overall economy achieved very strong real growth. 

For a longer answer I turn to the following excerpts from Murray Rothbard’s “A History of Money and Banking in the United States”:

“Orthodox economic historians have long complained about the “great depression” that is supposed to have struck the United States in the panic of 1873 and lasted for an unprecedented six years, until 1879. Much of this stagnation is supposed to have been caused by a monetary contraction leading to the resumption of specie payments in 1879. Yet what sort of “depression” is it which saw an extraordinarily large expansion of industry, of railroads, of physical output, of net national product, of real per capita income? As Friedman and Schwartz admit, the decade from 1869 to 1879 saw a 3-percent-perannum increase in money national product, an outstanding real national product growth of 6.8 percent per year in this period, and a phenomenal rise of 4.5 percent per year in real product per capita. Even the alleged “monetary contraction” never took place, the money supply increasing by 2.7 percent per year in this period. From 1873 through 1878, before another spurt of monetary expansion, the total supply of bank money rose from $1.964 billion to $2.221 billion — a rise of 13.1 percent or 2.6 percent per year. In short, a modest but definite rise, and scarcely a contraction.

It should be clear, then, that the “great depression” of the 1870s is merely a myth — a myth brought about by misinterpretation of the fact that prices in general fell sharply during the entire period. Indeed, they fell from the end of the Civil War until 1879.

Friedman and Schwartz estimated that prices in general fell from 1869 to 1879 by 3.8 percent per annum. Unfortunately, most historians and economists are conditioned to believe that steadily and sharply falling prices must result in depression: hence their amazement at the obvious prosperity and economic growth during this era. For they have overlooked the fact that in the natural course of events, when government and the banking system do not increase the money supply very rapidly, freemarket capitalism will result in an increase of production and economic growth so great as to swamp the increase of money supply. Prices will fall, and the consequences will be not depression or stagnation, but prosperity (since costs are falling, too), economic growth, and the spread of the increased living standard to all the consumers.”

…”It might well be that the major effect of the panic of 1873 was not to initiate a great depression, but to cause bankruptcies in overinflated banks and in railroads riding on the tide of vast government subsidy and bank speculation.”

…”The record of 1879-1896 was very similar to the first stage of the alleged great depression from 1873 to 1879. Once again, we had a phenomenal expansion of American industry, production, and real output per head. Real reproducible, tangible wealth per capita rose at the decadal peak in American history in the 1880s, at 3.8 percent per annum. Real net national product rose at the rate of 3.7 percent per year from 1879 to 1897, while per-capita net national product increased by 1.5 percent per year.

Once again, orthodox economic historians are bewildered, for there should have been a great depression since prices fell at a rate of over 1 percent per year in this period. Just as in the previous period, the money supply grew, but not fast enough to overcome the great increases in productivity and the supply of products. The major difference in the two periods is that money supply rose more rapidly from 1879 to 1897, by 6 percent per year, compared with the 2.7 percent per year in the earlier era. As a result, prices fell by less, by over 1 percent per annum as contrasted to 3.8 percent. Total bank money, notes, and deposits rose from $2.45 billion to $6.06 billion in this period, a rise of 10.45 percent per annum — surely enough to satisfy all but the most ardent inflationists.”

“The financial panics throughout the late nineteenth century were a result of the arbitrary credit creation powers of the banking system. While not as harmful as today’s inflation mechanism, it was still a storm in an otherwise fairly healthy economic climate.”

In summary, a 23-year period in which the US economy achieved the strongest real growth in its history is strangely characterised in some quarters as a “great depression”, quite likely because so many economists and historians do not understand that real economic progress puts DOWNWARD pressure on prices. Unfortunately, there is no chance that the next 10 years will be anything like the so-called “great depression” of late 19th Century. We won’t be so lucky.

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