Article — From the February 2008 issue
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Article — From the February 2008 issue
Such transformations do not take place overnight. After World War I, Wall Street wrote checks to finance new companies that were trying to turn wartime inventions, such as refrigeration and radio, into consumer products. The consumers of the rising middle class were ready to buy but lacked funds, so the banking system accommodated them with new forms of credit, notably the installment plan. Following a brief recession in 1921, federal policy accommodated progress by keeping interest rates below the rate of inflation. Pundits hailed a “new era” of prosperity until Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929.
The crash, the Great Depression, and World War II were a brutal education for government, academia, corporate America, Wall Street, and the press. For the next sixty years, that chastened generation managed to keep the fog of false hopes and bad credit at bay. Economist John Maynard Keynes emerged as the pied piper of a new school of economics that promised continuous economic growth without end. Keynes’s doctrine: When a business cycle peaks and starts its downward slide, one must increase federal spending, cut taxes, and lower short-term interest rates to increase the money supply and expand credit. The demand stimulated by deficit spending and cheap money will thereby prevent a recession. In 1932 this set of economic gambits was dubbed “reflation.”
The first Keynesian reflation was botched. To be fair, it was perhaps impractical under the gold standard, for by the time the Federal Reserve made its attempt to ameliorate matters, debt was already out of control. Banks failed, credit contracted, and GDP shrank. The economy was running in reverse and refused to respond to Keynesian inducements. In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called in gold and repriced it, hoping to test Keynes’s theory that monetary inflation stimulates demand. The economy began to expand. But it was World War II that brought real recovery, as a highly effective, demand-generating, deficit-and-debt-financed public-works project for the United States. The war did what a flawed application of Keynes’s theories could not.
 Historians argue whether the Federal Reserve and Congress did enough soon enough to slow the rate of debt liquidation at the time. Most agree that once the inflation rate turned negative, monetary stimulus via short-term interest-rate management was ineffective, since the Fed could not lower short-term rates below zero percent. The Bank of Japan found itself in a similar predicament sixty years later.
A few weeks after D-Day, the allies met at the Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, to determine the future of the international monetary system. It wasn’t much of a negotiation. Western economies were in ruins, and the international monetary system had been in disarray since the start of the Great Depression. The United States, now the dominant economic and military power, successfully pushed to peg the currencies of member nations to the dollar and to make dollars redeemable in American gold.
Americans could now spend as wisely or foolishly as our government policy decreed and, regardless of the needs of other nations holding dollars as reserves, print as many dollars as desired. But by the second quarter of 1971, the U.S. balance of merchandise trade had run up a deficit of $3.8 billion (adjusted for inflation)—an admittedly tiny sum compared with the deficit of $204 billion in the second quarter of 2007, but until that time the United States had run only surpluses. Members of the Bretton Woods system, most famously French President General Charles de Gaulle, worried that the United States intended to repay the money borrowed to cover its trade gap with depreciated dollars. Opposed to the exercise of such “exorbitant privilege,” de Gaulle demanded payment in gold. With the balance of payments so greatly out of balance, newly elected President Richard Nixon faced a run on the U.S. gold supply, and his solution was novel: unilaterally end the U.S. legal obligation to redeem dollars with gold; in other words, default.
More than a decade of economic and financial-market chaos followed, as the dollar remained the international currency but traded without an absolute measure of value. Inflation rose not just in the United States but around the world, grinding down the worth of many securities and brokerage firms. The Federal Reserve pushed interest rates into double digits, setting off two global recessions, and new international standards and methods for measuring inflation and floating exchange rates were established to replace the gold standard. After 1975, the United States would never again post an annual merchandise trade surplus. Such high-value, finished-goods-producing industries as steel and automobiles were no longer dominant. The new economy belonged to finance, insurance, and real estate—FIRE.
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