The Free Market
How Wilson and the Fed Extended the Great War
The Free Market 32, no. 10 (October 2014)
As the world reflects on the incomprehensible horror of the Great War which erupted 100 years ago there is a question which goes unasked in the media coverage. How was there no peace deal between the belligerents in 1915 or at latest 1916 once it became clear to all — especially after the Battle of the Somme — that the conflict had developed into a stalemate and holocaust of youth?
While there had been some early hopes for peace in 1916, they quickly evaporated as it became clear that the British government would not agree to a compromise deal. The political success of those who opposed compromise was based to a considerable degree on the argument that soon the US would enter the conflict on the Entente’s (Britain and France) side.
Although the US had allowed the Entente (but not the Central Powers) to access Wall Street without restriction during the first two years of the war, the historical evidence shows that President Wilson had been inclined to threaten Britain with the ending of its access to vital US market financing for its war effort if it failed to negotiate seriously for peace. But Wilson was dissuaded from urging peace on the negotiators by his political adviser Colonel House.
A less well-known story is the role of the then-newly created Fed (which opened its doors in 1914) and its allies within the Wilson administration in facilitating Entente finance. Two prominent Fed members — Paul Warburg and Adolph Miller — had fought a rear-guard campaign seeking to restrict their new institution from discounting trade bills or buying acceptances (largely financing munitions) issued by the belligerents (in practice, the Entente Powers). But, they had been thwarted by the persistence of the New York Fed chief Benjamin Strong (closely allied to J.P. Morgan and others who were gaining tremendously from arranging loans to France and Britain) and the Treasury Secretary McAdoo, the son-in-law of President Wilson. (McAdoo, whose railroad company had been bailed out personally by J.P. Morgan, was also a voting member of the Federal Reserve Board).
Milton Friedman has argued that the creation of the Federal Reserve made no difference to the US monetary and economic outcomes during the period of neutrality (up until March 1917) or during the US participation in the war (to November 1918). The difference, Friedman contended, came afterward when the Fed allowed rapid monetary growth to continue for a further year. Under the pre-Fed regime, Friedman argues, the US would also have experienced huge inflows of gold during the period of neutrality and under existing procedures (for official US gold purchases), and these would have fueled rapid growth of high-powered money and hence inflation. In the period of war participation, the Treasury would have printed money with or without the Fed (as indeed had occurred during the Civil War).
There are two big caveats to consider about Friedman’s “the Fed made no difference” case. The first is that the administration and Wall Street’s ability to facilitate the flow of finance to the Entente would have been constricted in the absence of backdoor support (via trade acceptances and bills) by the new “creature of Jekyll Island” (the Fed). The second is that both camps within the Fed (Benjamin Strong on the one hand, and Paul Warburg and Adolph Miller on the other) were united in welcoming the accumulation of gold on their new institutions’ balance sheet. They saw this as strengthening the metallic base of the currency (both were concerned that the Fed’s creation should not be the start of a journey toward fiat money) and also as a key factor in their aims to make New York the number-one financial center in the world, displacing London in that role.
Without those hang-ups it is plausible that the US would have trodden the same path as Switzerland in dealing with the flood of gold from the belligerents and its inflationary potential. That path was the suspension of official gold purchases and effective temporary floating of the gold price. The latter might have slumped to say $10–14 per ounce from the then official level of $21 and correspondingly the dollar (like the Swiss franc) would have surged, while Sterling and the French franc come under intense downward pressure. In effect the Entente Powers would not have been able to finance their war expenditures by dumping gold in the US and having this monetized by the Fed and Treasury — a process which effectively levied an inflation tax on US citizens.
This suspension of gold purchases would have meant a better prospect of there being a gold-standard world being recreated in the ensuing peace. The exhaustion of British gold holdings during the war ruled out the resurrection of Sterling as gold money. Its so-called return to gold in 1925 was in fact a fixed exchange rate link to the US dollar. The US would have been spared much of the cumulative wartime inflation. The Fed would not have been so flush with gold that it could have tolerated the big monetary binge through 1919 before ultimately being forced by a decline in its free gold position to suddenly tighten policy sharply and induce the Great Recession of 1920–21. That episode led on to the Fed focusing during the 1920s on modern monetary management (counter-cyclical policy changes and price stabilization). The consequences of that focus, ultimately fatal to the gold order, were the Great Boom and the Great Depression.