The Federal Reserve is celebrating its 100th birthday with due modesty, given the Fed’s complicity in generating the recent financial crisis and its inability to adequately resuscitate the still-troubled economy. Woodrow Wilson signed the original Federal Reserve Act on December 23, 1913. Eleven months later, the Federal Reserve System’s twelve regional banks opened for business. But in a sense the central bank was born in the autumn of 1907, when another devastating financial crisis swept the nation, destroying banks, businesses and farmers on a frightening scale.
J.P. Morgan and his fraternity of New York bankers intervened with brutal decisiveness in the efforts to halt the Panic of 1907, choosing which banks would fail and which would survive. Afterward, Morgan was hailed in elite circles as a heroic figure who had saved the country and free-market capitalism. The nostalgia for Morgan was misplaced, however: as insiders knew, the real story of 1907 was that Washington intervened to save Wall Street—the twentieth century’s own inaugural bailout.
When Morgan’s manipulations failed to heal the hemorrhaging banking system, the Morgan men turned to Treasury Secretary George Cortelyou and implored him to send money—lots of it. The next day, some $25 million in emergency federal deposits were sent to New York, and the Morgan team spread the money around among the desperate banks. About the same time, Morgan dispatched two industrialists from US Steel to meet with President Teddy Roosevelt and get his assurance that the government would look the other way as they executed a corporate merger likely to violate anti-trust laws.
The government saved the day, but it was a close call. Wall Street’s wiser heads recognized that the country’s banking system had become dangerously unstable, prone to reckless excess and recurring panics and depressions. Banking needed a safety net. Leading financiers designed one: a central bank empowered to stabilize the financial system and rescue it in times of crisis.
The bankers not only wanted access to the Federal Reserve’s money but insisted on controlling this new institution themselves. They pretty much got what they wanted. The Federal Reserve Banks in twelve major cities would literally be owned by local banks, which would function as private shareholders (they still do). The Federal Reserve Board in Washington, with governors appointed by the president, was a modest concession to democratic sensibilities.
This hybrid institution, in which private economic interests share power alongside the elected government, was founded on an absurd pretense. Decisions at the Federal Reserve, it was said, should be made by disinterested technocrats, not officeholders, and deliberately shielded from the hot-blooded opinions of voters as well as politicians. Representative Carter Glass of Virginia, a leading sponsor, promised “an altruistic institution…a distinctly non-partisan organization whose functions are to be wholly divorced from politics.”
Of course, the claim was ridiculous on its face. Given the enormous size of the Fed’s power to affect economic outcomes and people’s lives, the central bank’s decisions inescapably favor some interests and injure others. By controlling interest rates and the availability of credit, Fed governors necessarily referee the conflicts between lenders and debtors. Whatever you call it, that’s the realm of politics.