Unshackling ‘The Fed’: Richard Nixon, Milton Friedman and the rise of the floating dollar
Since the end of World War II, the US Federal Reserve Bank has set the tone for all the world’s central banks. From then until 1971, the US Dollar (under the “management” of the US Federal Reserve*) was the world’s reserve currency and the last official link between money and gold—the “gold-exchange standard” for which it was the buttress forming the “anchor” that “fixed” exchange rates between all the world’s currencies, and provided some last discipline on their spending.
In 1971, after a quarter-century of indiscipline, this “Bretton Woods” system collapsed when Richard Nixon and his advisers defaulted spectacularly on US promises. David Stockman describes the world we’ve been living in ever since.
(Excerpt from THE GREAT DEFORMATION: The Corruption of Capitalism in America by David A. Stockman. Published by PublicAffairs.)
[In 1971, after a quarter-century of Fed-driven inflation,] the stage was … set for the final “run” on the dollar and for a spectacular default by the designated “reserve currency” provider under the gold exchange standard’s second outing. And as it happened, the American people saw fit to install in the White House in January 1969 just the man to crush what remained of gold-based money and the financial discipline that it enabled.
Richard M. Nixon, as we know, possessed numerous and notable flaws. Foremost was his capacity to carry a grudge against anyone whom he believed had caused him to lose an election, especially any economist, policy maker, or bystander who could be pinned with accountability for the mild 1960 recession that he believed responsible for his loss to John F. Kennedy.
Nixon’s vendetta on the matter of the 1960 election literally knew no limits. For example, he insisted that a mid-level career bureaucrat named Jack Goldstein, who headed the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), had deliberately spun the monthly unemployment report issued on the eve of the 1960 election so as to damage his campaign. Eight years later, Nixon informed the White House staff that job one was to determine if Goldstein was still at the BLS, and to get him fired if he was.
It is not surprising, therefore, that Nixon rolled into the Oval Office obsessed with replacing Federal Reserve Chairman William McChesney Martin [who he blamed for tanking the economy when then-Vice President Nixon was beginning his electioneering], and bringing the Fed to heel. To be sure, his only real interest in monetary policy consisted of ensuring that the one great threat to Republican success, a rising unemployment rate, did not happen again in the vicinity of an election.
Yet it was that very cynicism which made him prey to Milton Friedman’s alluring doctrine of floating paper money. As has been seen, Nixon wanted absolute freedom to cause the domestic economy to boom during his 1972 re-election campaign. Friedman’s disciples at Camp David served up exactly that gift, and wrapped it in the monetary doctrine of the nation’s leading conservative intellectual.
Friedman’s Rule of Fixed Money Supply Growth Was Academic Poppycock
Those adhering to traditional monetary doctrine always and properly feared the inflationary threat of state-issued fiat money. So when the Consumer Price Index reached the unheard of peacetime level of 6.3 percent by January 1969, it was a warning that the tottering structure of Bretton Woods was reaching a dangerous turning point and that the monetary foundation of the post-war world was in peril.
But not according to Professor Milton Friedman. As was typical of the Chicago school conservatives, he simply brushed off the gathering inflationary crisis as the product of dimwits at the Fed. Martin’s “mistake” in succumbing to pressure to open up the monetary spigot to fund LBJ’s deficits, Friedman insisted, could be easily fixed. Literally, with the flick of a switch.
According to Professor Friedman’s vast archive of historic data, inflation would be rapidly extinguished if money supply was harnessed to a fixed and unwavering rate of growth, such as 3 percent per annum. If that discipline was adhered to consistently, nothing more was needed to unleash capitalist prosperity—not gold convertibility, fixed exchange rates, currency swap lines, or any of the other accoutrements of central banking which had grown up around the Bretton Woods system.
Indeed, once the central bank got the money supply growth rate into a fixed and reliable groove, the free market would take care of everything else, including determination of the correct exchange rate between the dollar and every other currency on the planet. Under Friedman’s monetary deus ex machina, for example, the unseen hand would silently and efficiently mete out rewards for success and punishments for failure in the banking and securities markets. The need for clumsy and inefficient regulation of financial institutions would be eliminated.
Friedman’s “fixed rule” monetary theory was fundamentally flawed, however, for reasons Martin had long ago discovered down in the trenches of the financial markets. The killer was that the Federal Reserve couldn’t control Friedman’s single variable, which is to say, the “money supply” as measured by the sum of demand deposits and currency (M1).
During nearly two decades at the helm, Martin learned that the only thing the Fed could roughly gauge was the level of bank reserves in the system. Beyond that there simply weren’t any fixed arithmetic ratios, starting with the “money multiplier.”
The latter measured the ratio between bank reserves, which are potential money, and bank deposits, which are actual money. Commercial banks don’t create actual money (checking account deposits) directly; they make loans and then credit the proceeds to customer accounts. So the transmission process between bank reserves and money supply wends through bank lending departments and the credit creation process.
Needless to say, the Fed couldn’t control the animal spirits of either lenders or borrowers; that was the job of free market interest rates. Accordingly, banks would utilize their reserves aggressively during periods of robust loan demand until borrower exuberance was choked off by high interest rates. By contrast, bank reserves would lie fallow during times of slumping loan demand and low free market rates. The “money multiplier” therefore varied enormously, depending upon economic and financial conditions.
Furthermore, even if the resulting “money supply” could be accurately measured and controlled, which was not the case, it did not have a fixed “velocity” or relationship to economic activity or GDP, either. In fact, during times of weak credit expansion, this “velocity” tended to fall, meaning less new GDP for each new dollar of M1. On the other hand, during more inflationary times of rapid bank credit expansion it would tend to rise, resulting in higher GDP gains per dollar of M1 growth.
So the chain of causation was long and opaque. The linkages from open market operations (adding to bank reserves) to commercial bank credit creation (adding to the money supply) to credit-fuelled additional spending (adding to GDP) resembled nothing so much as the loose steering gear on an old jalopy: turning the steering wheel did not necessarily mean the ditch would be avoided.
Most certainly there was no possible reason to believe that M1 could be managed to an unerring 3 percent growth rate, and that, in any event, keeping M1 growth on the straight and narrow would lead to any predictable rate of economic activity or mix of real growth and inflation. In short, Friedman’s single variable–fixed money supply growth rule was basically academic poppycock.
The monetarists, of course, had a ready answer to all of these disabilities; namely, that there were “leads and lags” in the transmission of monetary policy, and that given sufficient time the money multipliers and velocity would regress to a standard rate. Yet that “sufficient time” caveat had two insurmountable flaws: it meant that Friedman’s fixed rule could not be implemented in the real day-to-day world of fast-moving financial markets; and more importantly, it betrayed the deep, hopeless political naïveté of the monetarists and Professor Friedman especially.
The Monetarist Cone: Silly Putty on the White House Graphs
As to practicality, I had a real-time encounter with it later, during the Reagan years, when the Treasury’s monetary policy post was held by a religious disciple of Friedman: Beryl Wayne Sprinkel. Week after week at White House economic briefings he presented a graph based on the patented “monetarist cone.” The graph consisted of two upward-sloping dotted lines from a common starting date which showed where the money supply would be if it had been growing at an upper boundary of, say, 4 percent and a lower boundary of, say, 2 percent.
The implication was that if the Fed were following Professor Friedman’s rule, the path of the actual money supply would fall snugly inside the “cone” as it extended out over months and quarters, thereby indicating that all was well on the monetary front, the only thing which mattered. Except the solid line on the graph tracking the actual week-to-week growth of money supply gyrated wildly and was almost always outside the cone, sometimes on the high side and other times on the low.
In other words, the greatest central banker of modern times, Paul Volcker [the Fed chairman who ended the Nixon stagflation], was flunking the monetarists’ test week after week, causing Sprinkel to engage in alternating bouts of table pounding because the Fed was either dangerously too tight or too loose. Fortunately, Sprinkel’s graphs didn’t lead to much: President Reagan would look puzzled, Jim Baker, the chief of staff, would yawn, and domestic policy advisor Ed Meese would suggest moving on to the next topic.
More importantly, Volcker could easily explain the manifold complexities and anomalies in the short-term movement of the reported money supply numbers, and that on an “adjusted” basis he was actually inside the cone. Besides that, credit growth was slowing sharply, from a rate of 12 percent in 1979 to 7 percent in 1981 and 3 percent in 1982. That caused the economy to temporarily buckle and inflation to plunge from double digits to under 4 percent in less than twenty-four months. Volcker was getting the job done, in compliance with the monetarist cone or not.
In fact, the monetarist cone was just a Silly Putty numbers exercise, representing annualized rates of change from an arbitrary starting date that kept getting reset owing to one alleged anomaly or another. The far more relevant imperative was to slow the perilous expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet. It had doubled from $60 billion to $125 billion in the nine years before Volcker’s arrival at the Eccles Building, thereby saturating the banking system with newly minted reserves and the wherewithal for inflationary credit growth.
Volcker accomplished this true anti-inflation objective with alacrity. By curtailing the Fed’s balance sheet growth rate to less than 5 percent by 1982, Volcker convinced the markets that the Fed would not continue to passively validate inflation, as Burns and Miller had done, and that speculating on rising prices was no longer a one-way bet. Volcker thus cracked the inflation spiral through a display of central bank resolve, not through a single-variable focus on a rubbery monetary statistic called M1.
Volcker also demonstrated that the short-run growth rate of M1 was largely irrelevant and impossible to manage, but that the Fed could nevertheless contain the inflationary furies by tough-minded discipline of its own balance sheet. Yet that very success went straight to an even more fatal flaw in the monetarist fixed money growth rule: Friedman never explained how the Fed, once liberated from the external discipline of the Bretton Woods gold exchange standard, would be continuously populated with iron-willed statesmen like Volcker, and how they would even remain in office when push came to shove like it did during the monetary crunch of 1982.
In fact, Volcker’s reappointment the next year was a close call because most of the White House staff and the Senate Republican leadership wanted to take him down, owing to the considerable political inconvenience of the recessionary trauma his policies had induced. Senate leader Howard Baker, for example, angrily demanded that Volcker “get his foot off the neck of American business now.”
Volcker survived only because of Ronald Reagan’s stubborn (and correct) belief that the Fed’s long bout of profligacy had caused inflation and that only a period of painful monetary parsimony could cure it. The next several decades would prove decisively, however, that the process of American governance produces few Reagans and even fewer Volckers.
So Friedman unleashed the demon of floating-rate money based on the naïve view that the inhabitants of the Eccles Building could and would follow his monetary rules. That was a surprising posture because Friedman’s splendid scholarship on the free market, going all the way back to his pioneering critique of New York City rent controls in the late 1940s, was infused in almost every other case with an abiding skepticism of politicians and all of their mischievous works.
Yet by unshackling the Fed from the constraints of fixed exchange rates and the redemption of dollar liabilities for gold, Friedman’s monetary doctrine actually handed politicians a stupendous new prize. It rendered trivial by comparison the ills owing to garden variety insults to the free market, such as rent control or the regulation of interstate trucking.
Implicit Rule by Monetary Eunuchs
The Friedman monetary theory actually placed the nation’s stock of bank reserves, money, and credit under the unfettered sway of what amounted to a twelve-member monetary politburo. Once relieved of the gold standard’s external discipline, the central banking branch of the state thus had unlimited scope to extend its mission to plenary management of the nation’s entire GDP and for deep, persistent, and ultimately suffocating intervention in the money and capital markets.
It goes without saying, of course, that the libertarian professor was not peddling a statist scheme. So the implication was that the Fed would be run by self-abnegating monetary eunuchs who would never be tempted to deviate from the fixed money growth rule or by any other manifestation of mission creep. Needless to say, Friedman never sought a franchise to train and appoint such governors, nor did he propose any significant reforms with respect to the Fed’s selection process or of the manner in which its normal operations were conducted.
This glaring omission, however, is what made Friedman’s monetarism all the more dangerous. His monetary opus, A Monetary History of the United States, was published only four years before his disciples, led by George Shultz, filled the ranks of the Nixon White House in 1969.
Possessed with the zeal of recent converts, they soon caused a real-world experiment in Friedman’s grand theory. In so doing, they were also implicitly betting on an improbable proposition: that monetarism would work because the run-of-the-mill political appointees—bankers, economists, businessmen, and ex-politicians who then sat on the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC), along with their successors—would be forever smitten with the logic of 3 percent annual money supply growth.
Friedman’s Great Gift to Wall Street
The very idea that the FOMC would function as faithful monetary eunuchs, keeping their eyes on the M1 gauge and deftly adjusting the dial in either direction upon any deviation from the 3 percent target, was sheer fantasy. And not only because of its political naïveté, something Nixon’s brutalization of the hapless Fed Chairman Arthur Burns aptly conveyed.
Friedman’s austere, rule-bound version of discretionary central banking also completely ignored the Fed’s susceptibility to capture by the Wall Street bond dealers and the vast network of member banks, large and small, which maintained their cash reserves on deposit there. Yet once the Fed no longer had to worry about protecting the dollar’s foreign exchange value and the US gold reserve, it had a much wider scope to pursue financial repression policies, such as low interest rates and a steep yield curve, that inherently fuel Wall Street prosperity.
As it happened, the Fed’s drift into these Wall Street–pleasing policies was temporarily stalled by Volcker’s epic campaign against the Great Inflation. Dousing inflation the hard way, through brutal tightening of money market conditions, Volcker had produced the singular nightmare that Wall Street and the banking system loathe; namely, a violent and unprecedented inversion of the yield curve.
With short-term interest rates at 20 percent or more and way above long-term bond yields (12–15 percent), it meant that speculators and banks could not make money on the “carry trade,” and that the value of dealer stock and bond inventories got clobbered: high and rising interest rates mean low and falling financial asset values. Accordingly, the Volcker Fed did not even dream of levitating the economy through the “wealth effects” or by coddling Wall Street speculators.
Yet once Volcker scored an initial success and was unceremoniously dumped by the Baker Treasury Department (in 1987), the anti-inflation brief passed on to a more congenial mechanism; that is, Mr. Deng’s industrial army and the “China price” deflation that rolled across the US economy in the 1990s and after. With inflation-fighting stringency no longer having such immediate urgency, it did not take long for the Greenspan Fed to adopt a prosperity promotion agenda.
First, however, it had to rid itself of any vestigial restraints owing to the Friedman fixed money-growth rule. The latter was dispatched easily by a regulatory change in the early 1990s which allowed banks to offer “sweep” accounts; that is, checking accounts by day which turned into savings accounts overnight. Accordingly, Professor Friedman’s M1 could no longer be measured accurately.
Out of sight was apparently out of mind: for the last two decades, the central bank that Friedman caused to be liberated from the alleged tyranny of Bretton Woods so that it could swear an oath of fixed money supply growth has not even bothered to review or mention money supply. Indeed, the Greenspan and Bernanke Fed have been wholly preoccupied with manipulation of the price of money, that is, interest rates, and have relegated Friedman’s entire quantity theory of money to the dustbin of history. And Bernanke claims to have been a disciple!
Constrained neither by gold nor a fixed money growth rule, the Fed in due course declared itself to be the open market committee for the management and planning of the nation’s entire GDP. In this Brobdingnagian endeavor, of course, the Wall Street bond dealers were the vital transmission belt which brought credit-fuelled short-term prosperity to Main Street, and delivered the elixir of asset price inflation to the speculative classes. Consequently, when it came to Wall Street, the Fed became solicitous at first, and craven in the end.
Apologists might claim that Milton Friedman could not have foreseen that the great experiment in discretionary central banking unleashed by his disciples in the Nixon White House would result in the abject capitulation to Wall Street which emerged during the Greenspan era and became a noxious, unyielding reality under Bernanke. But financial statesmen of an earlier era had embraced the gold standard for good reason: it was the ultimate bulwark against the pretensions and follies of central bankers.
David Stockman was director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Ronald Reagan, serving from 1981 until August 1985. He was the youngest cabinet member in the 20th century.
This post first appeared at Mises Daily, with the author’s permission.
* “Management” that saw the dollar devalued to around one-sixty-fifth of its value in just over half a century!