Lords of Finance: The Backroom World of Central Banking
Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World • Liaquat Ahamed • Penguin Books, 2009
The Pulitzer Prize-winning book Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World reveals the destructive, surreptitious, incestuous, and highly corrupt nature of central banking. Although the author, Liaquat Ahamed, exposes the current financial system for all of its evils, this book is by no means a critique of central banking. Ahamed’s views are very much representative of status-quo economists of the past 100 years. He references John Maynard Keynes frequently without mentioning Nobel Prize-winner F.A. Hayek once, even though Hayek was Keynes’s greatest intellectual opponent during this period. Despite its mainstream focus the book is interesting and well-written. One of the jewels here is the rare look into the lives of the powerful men, the “lords of finance,” who were behind the solidification of modern central banking in the US and Europe during the years 1910 to 1935.
Central banks are mysterious institutions, the full details of their inner workings so arcane that very few outsiders, even economists, fully understand them. Boiled down to its essentials, a central bank is a bank that has been granted monopoly over the issuance of currency.… Despite their role as national institutions determining credit policy for their entire countries, in 1914 most central banks were still privately owned. They therefore occupied a strange hybrid zone, accountable primarily to their directors, who were mainly bankers paying dividends to their shareholders, but given extraordinary powers for entirely nonprofit purposes. (p. 11)
Since these banks exert such a tremendous amount of influence over the economy and the government, they require a greater level of exposure.
Central banks have existed for hundreds of years and still very few people understand their inner-workings. Americans resisted central banking until 1913, when, with the creation of the Federal Reserve, the responsibility of the nation’s finances (budget, taxes, and debt) shifted away from Congress—with its 535 elected representatives—into the hands of the central bankers.
With the central-banking lords firmly in control in the US and England, they helped to finance World War I via central bank inflation. Then at the end of the war, these same bankers advised the politicians on who to send to the Paris Peace Conference as negotiators. Out of this conference came the harsh penalties against Germany that would bring enormous hardship to the German people for the next generation.
In the interwar period, Congress set up commissions to deal with the aftermath of the war, debt negotiations, and to oversee the banking system. However, the central bankers such as Benjamin Strong, George Harrison, Eugene Meyer, and Andrew Mellon, were successful at blocking attempts at congressional oversight.
Central banks across Europe shared a very similar aversion to public oversight. Montagu Norman, Governor of the Bank of England, was considered “the most eminent banker in the world” and at the same time he
... was generally wary of the press and was infamous for the lengths which he would go to escape prying reporters—traveling under false identity; skipping off trains; even once, slipping over the side of an ocean vessel by way of a rope ladder in rough seas. (p. 1)
Norman had a reputation for remaining cool and collected. Then late in 1929 the British government created a committee to investigate the workings of the Bank of England. “That he and the Bank were now to be subject to the spotlight of public scrutiny filled him with dread.… [T]wo days before he was due to testify, he predictably collapsed.” The secret motto of the Bank of England was “Never explain, never apologize” (p. 371).
This elusiveness is characteristic not only of Norman and the high-ranking governors, but is shared by those private bankers who have always been closely associated with central banks. Even prior to the formation of the US Federal Reserve, operations of the bank’s key creators were deliberately kept hidden from the public, and all meetings were held behind closed doors.
The most significant of these closed-door meetings took place over a ten-day period in November 1910, at Jeykll Island, Georgia. The agenda for this meeting was the planning of the Federal Reserve System.
Henry Davidson (J.P. Morgan’s partner) was worried, and for good reason, that any plan put together by a group from Wall St. would immediately be suspect as the misbegotten product of a bankers’ cabal. He therefore chose to hold the meeting in secret on a small private island off the coast of Georgia—in effect creating the very bankers’ cabal that would have aroused so much public suspicion. The preparations were elaborate. Each guest was told to go to Hoboken Station in New Jersey on November 22 and board Senator Aldridge’s private railroad car, which they would find hitched with its blinds drawn to the Florida train. They were not to dine together, nor meet up beforehand, but to come aboard singly and as unobtrusively as possible, all under cover of going duck hunting. As an added precaution, they were to use only their first names. Strong was to be Mr. Benjamin, Warburg Mr. Paul. Davison and Vanderlip went a step further and adopted the ringingly obvious pseudonyms Wilbur and Orville. Later in life, the group used to refer to themselves as the “First Name Club.” (pp. 54–55)
Not one attendee of the Jekyll Island meeting spoke publicly about it for 20 years.
The legislation for creating the Federal Reserve passed Congress shortly before Christmas 1913, when many representatives had already left to go home for the holidays.
There are examples throughout the book of the heads of the world's largest banks conducting clandestine meetings with their respective national treasury and central bank chiefs, immediately prior to, or following, a financial crisis. In these instances, the banking heads maneuvered to not only save their banks, but to obtain more special favors, often in the form of “bailouts.” The bailouts associated with America’s 2007–2008 financial crisis should come readily to mind.
For example, in late 1929, a large group of bankers and George Harrison of the New York Fed,
...gathered at the library of Jack Morgan's house at Madison Avenue and Thirty-fifth Street, the scene of his father's legendary rescue of the New York banking system in 1907.
In an operation made possible by Harrison's promise to "provide all the reserve funds that may be needed"...
Prior to the Fed’s establishment, businesses big and small went bankrupt during panics. Under the Fed, well-connected businesses were propped up at the expense of small businesses and taxpayers.
Over the next few days…New York City banks took over $1 billion in brokers’ loan portfolios. It was an operation that did not receive the publicity of the Morgan consortium, but there is little doubt that by acting quickly and without hesitation, Harrison prevented not only an even worse stock collapse but most certainly forestalled a banking crisis. Though the crash of October 1929 was by one count the eleventh panic to grip the stock market since the Black Friday of 1869…it was the first to occur without a major bank or business failure. (p 360)
Secret meetings between elite private bankers and the heads of the central banks had become a common phenomenon by the 1930s.
On Friday, May 8 , the Credit Anstalt, based in Vienna and founded in 1855 by the Rothschilds, with total assets of $250 million and 50 percent of the Austrian bank deposits, informed the government that it had been forced to book a loss of $20 million in its 1930 accounts, wiping out most of its equity. Not only was it Austria’s biggest bank, it was the most reputable—its board, presided over by Baron Louis de Rothschild of the Vienna branch of the family, included representatives of the Bank of England, the Guaranty Trust Company of New York (J.P. Morgan), and M.M. Warburg and Co. of Hamburg. After a frantic weekend of secret meetings, the government made public on Monday, May 11, at the same time announcing a rescue package of $15 million, which it would borrow through the BIS [the Bank of International Settlements]. (p. 404)
Credit Anstalt later went on to absorb other failing financial institutions across Austria. In America, J.P. Morgan Chase, America’s largest bank, did the same thing during the 2007 financial crisis when it acquired Bear Stearns, Washington Mutual, and others.
Another theme of the book is the highly incestuous nature of central banking. If central bankers were not consorting with political leaders, they were most often found in the company of top private bankers, especially those of the Warburg, Morgan, and Rothschild families. These private bankers benefited from the business cycles caused by their political and banker friends, profiting both during the booms and the busts (thanks to bailouts), while most businesses profited during the booms and suffered during the busts.
Late in 1930, fear arose on Wall Street that one of New York’s largest banks, the Bank of the United States (or BUS, which, despite its name was a private bank with no official status), was going to collapse, because it was insolvent and runs had already begun in the city.
On the evening after the run began on December 10, all of the familiar Wall Street barons—George Harrison of the New York Fed, Thomas Lamont of J.P. Morgan, Albert Wiggin of Chase, Charles Mitchell of National City ( modern-day Citibank) and half dozen of the city’s top bankers—gathered on the 12th floor of the New York Fed to try to put together a rescue package. (p. 387)
Bankers who are not part of the elite lords of finance ambit, traditionally go bankrupt or get acquired during, or immediately prior to, panics (i.e., Lehman Brothers, Wachovia, and Merrill Lynch). BUS did not have close enough ties and was allowed to collapse shortly after the private meeting at the Fed, sparking runs on banks across the country.
Cronyism, on a large-scale, continued as Franklin D. Roosevelt took office. On the first day of his presidency, FDR stepped in to help the banks by closing them in order to stem the tide of bank runs. Roosevelt’s closest advisers were from the elite banker’s ambit, people who encouraged him to ban the export of gold and to confiscate gold from the American people. This was done so that gold would remain in the vaults of the large banks, while the Fed pumped paper money into the marketplace. George Harrison, Bernard Baruch, and Paul Warburg essentially determined Roosevelt’s early banking policies as “Roosevelt did not even pretend to fully grasp the subtleties of international finance” (p. 458). Even though FDR himself did not understand banking practices, policies were implemented in his name that targeted saving banks and providing deposit insurance for the banking industry, while most other industries across the country were rapidly collapsing.
By the 1930s, political criticism was emerging, in the US and Europe, over the secretive machinations of these powerful “lords of finance.” This surge of criticism primarily came from politicians looking for a scapegoat upon which to blame the deteriorating economic conditions.
Bankers and financiers, the heroes of the previous decade, now became the whipping boys. No one provided a better target than Andrew Mellon.… Mellon found himself accused of corruption, of granting illegal tax refunds to companies in which he had an interest, of favoring his own banks and aluminum conglomerate in Treasury decisions.… During the ensuing investigations, it turned out that he had used Treasury tax experts to help him find ways to reduce his personal tax bill and that he had made liberal use of fictitious gifts as a tax-dodging device. Being a member of the Federal Reserve Board, he had been required to divest his holdings of bank stock, with which he had duly complied—except that he had transferred the stock to his brother (pp. 439–440)
The Senate Banking committee also learned,
... that Albert Wiggins, president of Chase, had sold the stock of his bank short at the height of the bubble and collected $4 million in profits when it collapsed during the crash; that Charles Mitchell, old “Sunshine Charlie,” of the National City Bank had lent $2.4 million to bank officers without any collateral to help them carry their stock after the crash, only 5 percent of which was repaid; that Mitchell himself, despite earning $1 million a year, had avoided all federal income tax by selling his bank stock to members of his family at a loss and then paying it back; that J.P. Morgan had not paid a cent of income taxes in the three years from 1929 to 1931. (pp. 440–441)
The names have changed but the modern-day lords of finance do their forebearers proud. Presidents continue to surround themselves with top Wall Street insiders. Some could argue that Goldman Sachs executives best understand our financial system and are a logical choice to advise these presidents and influence Federal Reserve policy. What is also clear is that these same bankers have deliberately maneuvered themselves into close proximity of the Fed and the Federal government in order to influence and benefit from its policies. Since the Fed’s creation in 1913, the top bankers have consistently maintained close relationships with the Fed.
Mainstream academic economics has long been dominated by economists close to the lords of finance. In the book Lords of Finance, Lord Keynes, himself an academic economist, is surrounded by and consorted with the most influential bankers and politicians of his era. He was even granted a position on the board of the Bank of England. In late 1929, the British government created a committee to investigate the highly criticized banking system, half of the 14 members were bankers and the other half were businessmen and inflationist economists such as Lord Keynes. In the 21st century, the lords continue to promote inflationist economists such as Paul Krugman and Larry Summers, who in turn promote their agenda of greater power for central banks, more bailouts, and continued interventionist policies that benefit the banks.
Mainstream economists today continuously place blame everywhere except on the inflationist policies of the central banks for the economic devastation wrought over the past 100 years. The megalomaniacs (p. 149) within and surrounding the central banks seldom admit to their mistakes, often because their decisions are politically driven, leaving them no choice but to inflate the currency. In the early 1920s, Von Havenstein (head of the Reichsbank), like Bernanke today, did not admit that his policies were inflationary. He blamed everyone but himself, and just before the hyperinflation set in ...
He began arguing that the inflation had nothing to do with him, that he was a passive bystander to the whole process, that his task was simply to make enough money available to grease the wheels of commerce, and if business was required a trillion more marks, then it was his job to make sure they were run off the presses and efficiently distributed around the country. (p 126)
Liaquat Ahamed is an excellent writer and deserves praise for giving this story light. The names were known but little else about the lives of these lords of finance, these men that have so affected our lives through their furtive manipulations. The story is all the more impressive because of the author’s high regard for the banking establishment and those who control it. Ahamed asserts that during our recent financial crisis (which was caused by the Federal Reserve’s artificially low interest rates), a catastrophe was averted. Perhaps he believes that ‘bank failures’ are a catastrophe. However, Austrian economists can demonstrate that bank failures are beneficial to an economy overall, as this helps to quickly facilitate the process of liquidating malinvestments.
Although Ahamed acknowledges that artificially low interest rates encouraged the bubble of the 1920s, he fails to recognize its central role. Although he acknowledges the secretive nature of our banking system and the way in which powerful bankers benefit from the system, he glosses over these facts as though they are indelible components of “capitalism,” not realizing that central banking is in fact antithetical to a free market system.
Ahamed notes that in 1923,
few people could be convinced to entrust the management of national moneys and currency values to the discretion of treasury mandarins, politicians, or central bankers. (p. 168)Why is it then that so many people are willing to do just that today? I submit that if more citizens were aware of the power of central bankers and the destructive and corrupt nature of the system, the public would demand a change. The first step toward a real change is more widespread exposure of the system and its scandalous history. We therefore need more books like Lords of Finance.