Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose (1980), episode 3 – Anatomy of a Crisis. part 1
FREE TO CHOOSE: Anatomy of Crisis
Friedman Delancy Street in New York’s lower east side, hardly one of the city’s best known sites, yet what happened in this street nearly 50 years ago continues to effect all of us today. Wall Street. Most of us know what happened here 50 years ago. Inside the Stock Exchange on October 29, 1929, the market collapsed. It came to be known as Black Thursday. The Wall Street crash was followed by the worst depression in American history. That depression has been blamed on the failure of capitalism. It was no such thing but the myth lives on. What really happened was very different.
Although things looked healthy on the surface, business had begun to turn down in mid 1929. The crash intensified the recession. So did continuing bank failures in the south and Midwest. But the recession only became a crisis when these failures spread to New York and in particular to this building, then the headquarters of the Bank of United States. The failure of this bank had far reaching effects and need never have happened.
It was something of a historical accident that this particular bank played the role it did. Why did it fail? It was a perfectly good bank. Banks that were in far worse financial shape had come under difficulties before it did and had, through the cooperation of other banks, been saved. The reason why it wasn’t saved has to do with its rather special character. First its name, Bank of United States, a name that made immigrants believe it was an official governmental bank although in fact it was an ordinary commercial bank. Second its ownership, Jewish, both its name and the character of its ownership which had so much to do with attracting the large number of depositors from the many Jewish businessmen in the city of New York. Both of them also had the effect of alienating other bankers who did not like the special advantage of the name and did not like the character of the ownership. As a result, other banks were all too ready to spread rumors, to help promote an atmosphere in which runs got started on the bank and which it came into difficulty. And they were less then usually willing to cooperate in the efforts that were made to save it.
Only a few blocks away is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. It was here that the Bank of United States could have been saved. Indeed, the Federal Reserve System had been set up 17 years earlier precisely to prevent the worst consequences of bank failures.
The Federal Reserve Bank of New York, whose directors today meet in this room, devised a plan in cooperation with the superintendent of banking of the State of New York to save the Bank of United States. Their plan called for merging the Bank of United States with several other banks and also providing a guarantee fund to be subscribed to by still other bankers to assure the depositors that the assets of the Bank of United States were safe and sound. The Reserve Bank called meeting after meeting to try to put the plan into effect. It was on again, off again. But finally, after an all night meeting on December 10, 1930, the other bankers, including in particular John Pierpont Morgan, refused to subscribe to the guarantee fund and the plan was off. The next day the Bank of United States closed its doors, never again to open for business. For its depositors who saw their savings tied up and their businesses destroyed, the closing was tragic. Yet when the bank was finally liquidated, in the worst years of the depression, it paid back 92.5 cents on the dollar. Had the other banks cooperated to save it, no one would have lost a penny.
For the other New York banks, they thought closing the Bank of United States would have purely local effects. They were wrong. Partly because it had so many depositors, partly because so many of the depositors were small businessmen, partly because it was the largest bank that had ever been permitted to fail in the United States up to this time, the effects were far reaching. Depositors all over the country were frightened about the safety of their funds and rushed to withdraw them. There were runs. There were failures of banks by the droves. And all the time the Federal Reserve System stood idly by when it had the power and the duty and the responsibility to provide the cash that would have enabled the banks to meet the insistent demands of their depositors without closing their doors.
The way runs on banks can spread and can be stopped is a consequence of the way our bank system works. You may think that when you take some cash to a bank and deposit it, the bank takes that money and sticks it in a vault somewhere to wait until you need it again to turn it back over to you.
Bank teller: Okay, how would you like this? Two tens, one five and five ones. Okay.
Friedman: The bank does no such thing with it. It immediately takes a large part of what you put in and lends it out to somebody else. How do you suppose it earns interest, to pay its expenses, or pay you something for the use of your money? The result is that if all depositors in all the banks tried all at once to convert their deposits into cash, there wouldn’t be anything like enough cash in the banks of the country to meet their demands. In order to prevent such an outcome, in order to cut short a run, it is necessary to have some way either to stop people from asking for it, or to have some additional source from which cash can be obtained. That was intended to be the purpose of the Federal Reserve System. It was to provide the additional cash to meet the demands of the depositors when a run arose.
A classic example of how this system could and did work properly can be found over 2,000 miles from New York near the great Salt Lake in Utah.
In the early 30’s some banks in Salt Lake City and surrounding towns began to get into difficulties. The owners of one them were smart enough to see what had to be done to keep their banks open and courageous enough to do it. When fearful depositors began to clamor to withdraw all their money, one of George Eccles jobs was to brief his cashiers on how to handle the run.