IN what may come to be the definitive line about our current economic crisis, Warren Buffett said on the CNBC program “Squawk Box” this month that the United States economy has “fallen off a cliff.”
The most trusted investor in history went on the air to talk, with characteristic candor and humor, about the horrendous truth we pretty much know, possibly in an effort to calm things down and point toward some answers we don’t yet know. He proceeded to give his views on what went wrong (“everybody thought house prices could go nothing but up ... so you had $11 trillion of residential mortgage debt built on this theory ”), on people’s paralyzing fear and confusion (“We are in a very, very vicious negative feedback cycle .... I don’t want this to be the last line of the movie”), and on the absolute necessity of fixing the banks and taking clear, decisive action.
A look back at the handling of another financial crisis a full century ago underlines the point about decisive action. You just don’t want to take the wrong decisive action. Markets today are immeasurably more complex, global, fast-moving and regulated (a lot of good that did) than they were a hundred years ago, but the need for strong leadership has not changed.
In early 1906, the banker Jacob Schiff told a group of colleagues that if the United States did not modernize its banking and currency systems, its economy would, in effect, fall off a cliff — that the country would “have such a panic ... as will make all previous panics look like child’s play.”
Yet the country failed to reform its financial institutions, and conditions deteriorated steadily over the next 20 months. There was a worldwide credit shortage. The American stock market crashed twice. The young Dow Jones industrial average lost half of its value.
In October 1907, when a panic started among trust companies in New York and terrified depositors lined up to get their money out, Schiff’s dire prediction seemed about to come true. The United States had no Federal Reserve, the Treasury secretary did not have much political authority, and the president, Theodore Roosevelt, was off shooting game in Louisiana.
J. Pierpont Morgan, a 70-year-old private banker, quietly took charge of the situation.
In the absence of a central bank, Morgan had for decades been acting as the country’s unofficial lender of last resort, gathering reserves and supplying capital to the markets in periods of crisis. For two harrowing weeks in 1907, with the whole world watching, he operated like a general, deploying three young lieutenants to do leg work and supply him with information, and bringing two other leading bankers, James Stillman of National City Bank and George Baker of the First National Bank, into a senior “trio” to make executive decisions. (First National and National City eventually combined to form what is now Citigroup — are the shades of Baker and Stillman writhing over what has become of their descendant institution?)
The Morgan teams ran “stress tests” on the unregulated trust companies, figuring out which were impossibly overleveraged and should be allowed to fail, and which were basically sound but crippled by the panic. Once they had determined that a trust was essentially healthy, the bankers supplied it with cash, matching their loans dollar-for-dollar with the trust’s collateral assets.
When the New York Stock Exchange nearly closed early one day in October 1907 because financial institutions calling in loans were choking off the market’s money supply, Morgan summoned the presidents of New York’s major commercial banks to his office and came up with $24 million to lend to the exchange. Next, New York City ran out of cash to meet its payroll and interest obligations; Morgan and company conjured up a $30 million loan and prevented default.
At the end of Week 1, President Roosevelt sent a letter to the press congratulating the “substantial businessmen who in this crisis have acted with such wisdom and public spirit.” Shipments of gold were on the way from London to New York, and confidence had returned to the French Bourse, “owing,” reported one paper, “to the belief that the strong men in American finance would succeed in their efforts to check the spirit of the panic.” During a panic, confidence is almost as good as gold.
At the end of Week 2, Morgan called 50 presidents of trust companies to his private library on East 36th Street, locked the doors, and did not let them out until they had signed on to a final $25 million loan. The scholar of Renaissance art Bernard Berenson told his patron Isabella Stewart Gardner that “Morgan should be represented as buttressing up the tottering fabric of finance the way Giotto painted St. Francis holding up the falling church with his shoulder.”
Though Morgan had a large sense of public duty, he had not shouldered the falling church out of pure altruism. His self-interest operated on a national scale. His clients — many of them Europeans who had invested for decades in the emerging American economy through the House of Morgan — had billions of dollars committed in the United States. In watching over their long-term interests, trying to control the excesses of the business cycle and maintain the value of the dollar, Morgan had come to serve as guardian of American credit in international markets.
His power in 1907 derived not from the size of his own fortune but from the trust placed in him by investors, other bankers and international statesman. After Morgan died in 1913, the newspapers reported his net worth as about $80 million — roughly $1.7 billion in today’s dollars. John D. Rockefeller, already worth a billion in 1913 dollars, is said to have read the figure, shaken his head, and remarked, “And to think he wasn’t even a rich man.”
Trust in Morgan was by no means universal. In 1907, some of his critics charged that he had started the panic in order to scoop up assets at fire-sale prices and line his own pockets. In fact, the Morgan banks lost $21 million that year.
The difficulty today of assigning dollar values to “toxic” assets makes Morgan’s job look easy. Yet though the amount of money required for the 1907 bailouts is pocket change compared to the current trillions, at the time, the troubles and the numbers seemed enormous.
No single figure, much less a private banker, could wield the kind of power in today’s gargantuan collapsing markets that Morgan had a hundred years ago. And so far, not even the combined official powers of the Fed and Treasury have been able to stop the cascading disasters. Paul Volcker, the former Federal Reserve chairman, said recently that he couldn’t remember a time “maybe even in the Great Depression, when things went down quite so fast, quite so uniformly around the world.”
Perhaps new economic leadership will emerge during this crisis, under our gifted, charismatic president. It seems likely to consist of people who have the kind of experience, judgment and authority Morgan had — possibly a new “trio” made up of the current Fed chairman, Ben Bernanke; Paul Volcker; and Warren Buffett.
Only Mr. Bernanke is formally in a position to exercise that high authority now, which he is doing — he announced last week that the Fed would inject an extra $1 trillion into the financial system. Mr. Volcker, chairman of the White House Economic Recovery Advisory Board, could easily be promoted to a more dominant role. Mr. Buffett has already stepped up in public, praising the steps the Fed took last fall to insure money markets and commercial paper as “vital in keeping the place going” (if the Fed hadn’t acted, Mr. Buffett told his CNBC interviewer, “we’d be meeting at McDonald’s this morning”).
Moreover, Mr. Buffett said he could “guarantee” that in five years or so “our great economic machine” will be running a lot faster than it is now, with the government playing an enormous role in how quickly it recovers. Last fall he declared that we had just been through an “economic Pearl Harbor.” Last week he said that in order to fight this economic war the country has to unite behind President Obama, the government has to deliver “very, very” clear messages and we all have to focus on three jobs:
Job 1: win the economic war.
Job 2: win the economic war.
Job 3: win the economic war.
Just what Morgan would have said.
Jean Strouse is the author of “Morgan: American Financier” and the director of the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at The New York Public Library.