Anti-Bernanke by George Selgin


Despite the bright light streaming into my office window, reminding me of the beautiful spring weather here in Athens, I managed to spend most of yesterday afternoon listening to the first installment of Ben Bernanke’s 4-part lecture series on “The Federal Reserve and the Financial Crisis.” The lecture was given at George Washington University yesterday; the other parts will be given on the 22nd, 27th, and 29th of this month.

In this opening lecture Bernanke offers a brief overview of the role of central banks, their general origins, the specific origins of the Federal Reserve System, and the Fed’s early performance.

It would of course be silly to expect any sitting central banker, much less the head of the world’s most important central bank, to deliver an entirely candid lecture on the origins of central banking. But then again, Ben Bernanke is no run-of-the-mill central banker: he is a former academic economist and economic historian, and one with very high standing in the profession. So one might expect him to at least avoid gross distortions of the historical record to which his less academically-minded counterparts might be expected to resort. But no: as the lecture lumbered on (for Chairman Bernanke’s classroom demeanor is all too reminiscent of his demeanor when testifying to Congress), it became increasingly evident that the man lecturing at Duquès Hall was at least 99 and 44/100ths percent pure Federal Reserve spokesman.

So like any central banker, and unlike better academic economists, Bernanke consistently portrays inflation, business cycles, financial crises, and asset price “bubbles” as things that happen because…well, the point is that there is generally no “because.” These things just happen; central banks, on the other hand, exist to prevent them from happening, or to “mitigate” them once they happen, or perhaps (as in the case of “bubbles”) to simply tolerate them, because they can’t do any better than that. That central banks’ own policies might actually cause inflation, or contribute to the business cycle, or trigger crises, or blow-up asset bubbles–these are possibilities to which every economist worth his or her salt attaches some importance, if not overwhelming importance. But they are also possibilities that every true-blue central banker avoids like so many landmines. Are you old enough to remember that publicity shot of Arthur Burns holding a baseball bat and declaring that he was about to “knock inflation out of the economy”? That was Burns talking, not like a monetary economist, but like the Fed propagandist that he was. Bernanke talks the same way throughout much (though not quite all) of his lecture.

In describing the historical origins of central banking, for instance, Bernanke makes no mention at all of the fiscal purpose of all of the earliest central banks–that is, of the fact that they were set up, not to combat inflation or crises or cycles but to provide financial relief to their sponsoring governments in return for monopoly privileges. He is thus able to steer clear of the thorny challenge of explaining just how it was that institutions established for function X happened to prove ideally suited for functions Y and Z, even though the latter functions never even entered the minds of the institutions’ sponsors or designers!

By ignoring the true origins of early central banks, and of the Bank of England in particular, and simply asserting that the (immaculately conceived) Bank gradually figured-out its “true” purpose, especially by discovering that it could save the British economy now and then by serving as a Lender of Last Resort, Bernanke is able to overlook the important possibility that central banks’ monopoly privileges–and their monopoly of paper currency especially–may have been a contributing cause of 19th-century financial instability. Why this is likely to be the case is something I’ve explained elsewhere. More to the point, it is something that Walter Bagehot was perfectly clear about in his famous 1873 work, Lombard Street. Bernanke, in typical central-bank-apologist fashion, refers to Bagehot’s work, but only to recite Bagehot’s rules for last-resort lending. He thus allows all those innocent GWU students to suppose (as was surely his intent) that Bagehot considered central banking a jolly good thing. In fact, as anyone who actually reads Bagehot will see, he emphatically considered central banking–or what he called England’s “one-reserve system” of banking–a very bad thing, best avoided in favor of a “natural” system, like Scotland’s, in which numerous competing banks of issue are each responsible for maintaining their own cash reserves.

Besides ignoring the destabilizing effects of central banking–or of any system based on a currency monopoly–Bernanke carefully avoids any mention of the destabilizing effects of other sorts of misguided financial regulation. He thus attributes the greater frequency of banking crisis in the post-Civil War U.S. than in England solely to the lack of a central bank in the former country, making one wish that some clever GWU student had interrupted him to observe that Canada and Scotland, despite also lacking central banks, each had far fewer crises than either the U.S. or England. Hearing Bernanke you would never guess that U.S. banks were generally denied the ability to branch, or that state chartered banks were prevented by a prohibitive federal tax from issuing their own notes, or that National banks found it increasingly difficult to issue their own notes owing to the high cost of government securities required (originally for fiscal reasons) as backing for their notes. Certainly you would not realize that economic historians have long recognized how these regulations played a crucial part in pre-Fed U.S. financial instability. No: you would be left to assume that U.S. crises just…happened, or rather, that they happened “because” there was no central bank around to put a stop to them.

Because he entirely overlooks the role played by legal restrictions in destabilizing the pre-1914 U.S. financial system, Bernanke is bound to overlook as well the historically important “asset currency” reform movement that anticipated the post-1907 turn toward a central-bank based monetary reform. Instead of calling for yet more government intervention in the monetary system the earlier movement proposed a number of deregulatory solutions to periodic financial crises, including the repeal of Civil-War era currency-backing requirements and the dismantlement of barriers to nationwide branch banking. Canada’s experience suggested that this deregulatory program might have worked very well. Unfortunately concerted opposition to branch banking, by both established “independent” bankers and Wall Street (which gained lots of correspondent business thanks to other banks’ inability to have branches there) blocked this avenue of reform. Instead of mentioning any of this, Bernanke refers only to the alternative of relying upon private clearinghouses to handle panics, which he says “just wasn’t sufficient.” True enough. But the Fed, first of all (as Bernanke himself goes on to admit, and as Friedman and Schwartz argue at length), turned out be be even more inadequate a solution than the clearinghouses had been; more importantly, the clearinghouses themselves, far from having been the sole or best alternative to a central bank, were but a poor second-best substitute for needed deregulation.

To be fair, Bernanke does eventually get ’round to offering a theory of crises. The theory is the one according to which a rumor spreads to the effect that some bank or banks may be in trouble, which is supposedly enough to send everyone scrambling for their dough. Bernanke refers listeners to Frank Capra’s movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” though he might just as well have had them plow through Diamond and Dybvig’s (1983) even less factual paper. Either way, the impression left is one that ought to make any thinking person wonder how any bank ever managed to last for more than a few hours in those awful pre-deposit insurance days. That quite a few banks, and especially ones that could diversify through branching, did considerably better than that is of course a problem for the theory, though one Bernanke never mentions. (To be fair, neither do many monetary economists who seem to judge theories, not according to how well they stand up to the facts, but according to how many papers you can spin off from them.) In particular, he never mentions the fact that Canada had no bank failures at all during the 1930s, despite having had no central bank until 1935, and no deposit insurance until many decades later. And although Bernanke shows a chart depicting high U.S. bank failure rates in the years prior to the Fed’s establishment, he cuts it off so that no one can observe how those failure rates increased after 1914. Finally, Bernanke suggests that the Fed, acting in accordance with his theory, only offers last-resort aid to solvent (“Jimmy Stewart”) banks, leaving others to fail, whereas in fact the record shows that, after the sorry experience of the Great Depression (when it let poor Jimmy fend for himself), the Fed went on to employ its last resort lending powers, not to rescue solvent banks (which for the most part no longer needed any help from it), but to bail out manifestly insolvent ones. All of these “overlooked” facts suggest that there is something not quite right about the suggestion that bank failure rates are highest when there is neither a central bank nor deposit insurance. But why complicate things? The story is a cinch to teach, and the Diamond-Dybvig model is so…”elegant.” Besides, who wants to spoil the plot of “It’s a Wonderful Life?”

Bernanke’s discussion of the gold standard is perhaps the low point of a generally poor performance, consisting of little more than the usual catalog of anti-gold clichés: like most critics of the gold standard, Bernanke is evidently so convinced of its rottenness that it never occurred to him to wonder whether the standard arguments against it have any merit. Thus he says, referring to an old Friedman essay, that the gold standard wastes resources. He neglects to tell his listeners (1) that for his calculations Friedman assumed 100% gold reserves, instead of the “paper thin” reserves that, according to Bernanke himself, where actually relied upon during the gold standard era; (2) that Friedman subsequently wrote an article on “The Resource Costs of Irredeemable Paper Money” in which he questioned his own, previous assumption that paper money was cheaper than gold; and (3) that the flow of resources to gold mining and processing is mainly a function of gold’s relative price, and that that relative price has been higher since 1971 than it was during the classical gold standard era, thanks mainly to the heightened demand for gold as a hedge against fiat-money-based inflation. Indeed, the real price of gold is higher today than it has ever been except for a brief interval during the 1980s. So, Ben: while you chuckle about how silly it would be to embrace a monetary standard that tends to enrich foreign gold miners, perhaps you should consider how no monetary standard has done so more than the one you yourself have been managing!

Bernanke’s claim that output was more volatile under the gold standard than it has been in recent decades is equally unsound. True: some old statistics support it; but those have been overturned by Christina Romer’s new estimates, which show the standard deviation of real GNP since World War II to be only slightly greater than that for the pre-Fed period. (For a detailed and up-to-date comparison of pre-1914 and post-1945 U.S. economic volatility see my, Bill Lastrapes, and Larry White’s forthcoming Journal of Macroeconomics paper, “Has the Fed Been a Failure?”).

Nor is Bernanke on solid ground in suggesting that the gold standard was harmful because it resulted in gradual deflation for most of the gold-standard era. True, farmers wanted higher prices for their crops, if not general inflation to erode the value of their debts–when haven’t they? But generally the deflation of the 19th century did no harm at all, because it was roughly consistent with productivity gains of the era, and so reflected falling unit production costs. As a self-proclaimed fan of Friedman and Schwartz, Bernanke ought to be aware of their own conclusion that the secular deflation he complains about was perfectly benign. Or else he should read Saul’s The Myth of the Great the Great Depression, or Atkeson and Kehoe’s more recent AER article, or my Less Than Zero. In short, he should inform himself of the fundamental difference between supply-drive and demand-driven deflation, instead of lumping them together, and lecture students accordingly.

Finally, Bernanke repeats the tired old claim that the gold standard is no good because gold supply shocks will cause the value of money to fluctuate. It is of course easy to show that gold will be inferior on this score to an ideally managed fiat standard. But so what? The question is, how do the price movements under gold compare to those under actual fiat standards? Has Bernanke compared the post-Sutter’s Mill inflation to that of, say, the Fed’s first five years? Has he compared the average annual inflation rate during the so-called “price revolution” of the 16th century–a result of massive gold imports from the New-World–to the average U.S. rate during his own tenure as Fed chairman? If he bothered to do so, I dare say he’d clam up about those terrible gold supply shocks.

Speaking of the Fed’s first years, I myself chuckled at hearing Bernanke say, matter of factly, that “The Fed was established in 1914, and for while life was not so bad,” as if the Fed did a dandy job until 1930 or so. No mention of the high inflation before 1921–as high as 40%, on an annualized basis, during some quarters; no mention of the record numbers of bank failures throughout the 1914-1930 period; no mention of the sharp recession of 1920-21; and no mention of any possible contribution by the Fed to the stock market boom (or “bubble,” as Bernanke would have it) of the 1920s. Rather less amusing was his quotation of that “famous statement by Andrew Mellon” about liquidating stocks etc.: poor Mellon never said it, in fact: the words were Hoover’s, and were intended as parody. But why waste a perfectly good straw man? Besides, those lazy GWU students will never check.

It’s true that Bernanke’s whitewashing of the Fed isn’t quite complete: he devotes considerable time to explaining how it “blew it” during the Great Depression. But the admission is intended to be anything but fatal to the case for central banking. On the contrary: the depression was a crucial learning experience. Since then, the Fed, we are assured, has gotten its act together. Well, O.K.: there are still be a few bugs to be worked out. But never mind: some future Fed Chairman will manage to spin them away.


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