NEAL CONAN, host.
This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Writing his new book, historian Niall Ferguson said he learned three things: that poverty is caused by the absence of banks rather than exploitation, that money amplifies the human tendency to overreact, and that few things are harder to predict than the timing and magnitude of financial crisis. In a volume that traces the history of money from Mesopotamia to microfinance, Ferguson explains the circumstances that gave birth to critical institutions, the stock market for example, insurance, real estate and so on, and gives history a new spin by explaining that for example, the real turning point of the American Civil War wasn't the fall of Vicksburg or the battle of Gettysburg but the fall of New Orleans a year earlier. So today we want to hear from financial historians in the audience, amateur and otherwise, what moments of history do you turn to provide insight into our current mess? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org and click on Talk of the Nation.
Later in the program, remembering former San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and City Supervisor Harvey Milk assassinated 30 years ago this week. Joining us now though from our bureau in New York, it's Niall Ferguson, Laurence A. Tisch, professor of history at Harvard. His new book is called the "The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World," and thanks very much for being with us. Nice to have you back on Talk of the Nation.
Professor NIALL FERGUSON (History, Harvard University, Author, "The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World"): Nice to be here, Neal.
CONAN: And so, as we look at this financial mess, a lot of people would say, well there's one stark lesson that we could all turn to, the Great Depression.
Prof. FERGUSON: Yes, it's certainly getting to the point that - that's the point, the obvious analogy to draw, that there's certainly been no financial crisis of this magnitude in my lifetime. And I think most people who have had long careers on Wall Street spanning 25 or 30 years have no point of reference in their own experience. Of course, this isn't exactly like the Great Depression. It would be very surprising if we ended up with 25 percent unemployment or a 30 percent contraction of gross domestic product. But I think it's clear that the preconditions, the starting point, is remarkably similar in the sense that we have got a major crisis not only in the American banking system but in the western banking system. We've had dramatic declines in asset prices, housing in particularly stock market prices. And the authorities are battling to implement lessons that we thought we'd learned from history. We thought we'd learn what the Fed should do in a crisis like this. And we thought we'd learn from John Maynard Keynes what the Treasury should do and they're doing it. The scary thing is, that the results aren't really as good as we might have expected. It's as if the Great Depression wants to happen anyway despite a completely differently policy mix.
CONAN: Interesting that Ben Bernanke, the current head of the Fed, is said to be an expert on the Great Depression. And one of the team that President-elect Obama announced today, a scholar at the University of California at Berkeley, well, she's an expert in the Great Depression, too.
Prof. FERGUSON: That's right, and I think we should be thankful that some of the people in key positions during this crisis are in fact experts in financial history, because I argue in "The Ascent of Money" that one of the causes of this crisis has been ignorance to financial history. Ignorance in the part of Wall Street investment bankers, ignorance on the part of ordinary American household who made decisions about their own financial futures that were based one of myopic refusal to acknowledge how big the risks they were running actually were. So financial history is pretty important in a crisis like this, and I'm relieved for one that there are some experts in the field actually up there making key decisions.
CONAN: Well, you hope to educate us with this volume. Though the title of the book, well somewhat ironic, don't you think?
Prof. FERGUSON: Well it would be an inappropriate title if the book only dealt with the last 15 months, and then I would certainly have called it "The Descent of Money." But as it's a book that covers 4,000 years, I think it's right to call it the ascent - the allusion is obviously to - perhaps not obviously to Jacob Brownoski's great 1970s series in book "The Ascent of Man," which was a really a history of the role of science in civilization. And I wanted to make the point that finance - though it's rather less noble a calling than science - has made as big a contribution to our civilization. It's just that the "Ascent of Money" is a very bumpy ride.
I draw a comparison between the "Ascent of Money" and mountain horizon. You sort of go up, and then you go down, and then you go up and there's a cliff that you go down and then you rise up the slopes again. The point is that you never go all the way back to base camp. I mean we're not going to go all the way back to ancient Mesopotamia, and no matter how bad this crisis gets - just as we didn't go all the way back permanently to 1914 after the Great Depression. There was a recovery and eventually the lost values of the early 1930s were recovered. That's why "The Ascent of Money" is an appropriate title. Maybe it's also important, given the importance of confidence in a crisis like this to remind people that no matter how dark the sky may get financially, it will not stay black forever.
CONAN: Not forever, but that stock market crash happened in 1929 and we basically came out of the depression, maybe ten years later. So, it can seem like forever.
Prof. FERGUSON: I think that time frame is actually crucial here, Neal. Many people have got used to the idea of very short, pretty shallow recessions. Ben Bernanke himself in a rare lapse gave a lecture in 2004 entitled "The Great Moderation" in which he said that improvements in monetary policy making had succeeded in evening out the fluctuations in the economy and reducing the threat of inflation, reducing the magnitude and frequency of recession. And, it turns out that was quite wrong. We can forget about "The Great Moderation" when we're suddenly staring in the face, another great depression.
CONAN: Let's get some of the callers involved in the conversation. Our guest of course is Niall Ferguson, a Professor of History at Harvard and also at Oxford, author of "The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World." Email us email@example.com. You can give us a call, 800-989-8255. As you look at our financial mess, what periods in history well, do you think provide illumination? Let's begin with Steve, Steve calling us from Adams County in Ohio.
STEVE (Caller): That's right, I think the period in history that deserves some attention is the 1912, 1913 passage of the Aldrich Bill, which gave the Federal Reserve Bank a monopoly to print money, that people were required to treat that paper money as legal tender. And that was the beginning of the end. At that time - since that time, we've had a diminution of the value of the dollar, a 100 to one. And now we are in a phase where the U.S. taxpayer is being put in further debt to bailout banks. But all of this goes back really to that bill which created the Federal Bank which I don't think people realize is actually our fourth central bank in this country, and the first three went bankrupt.
CONAN: As in...
STEVE: And it was very similar circumstances that this one is.
Prof. FERGUSON: Well, Steve, it's certainly interesting to reflect on the fact that before 1913, the United States was almost unique among major economies and not having a central bank. Of course that didn't mean that financial history pre-1913 was tremendously smooth in the U.S. There were recurrent panics and banking failures. There had been major crisis in 1907, which is of course the reason why the Fed got created, the realization that there wasn't an adequate central monetary authority, it was Milton Friedman who argued that the Fed was actually one of the principal causes of the Great Depression, because it got its policies so badly wrong - particularly between 1929 and 33 by failing to counteract the banking failures of that period. Now as we were saying earlier, we gave a Fed under a historically literate chairman in Ben Bernanke which is trying to do exactly the opposite.
Bernanke has been trying to counter that the implosion of the banking system by pouring huge amounts of liquidity, huge amounts of money into the banking system that the Fed's balance sheet has exploded by $1.3 trillion. It's now leveraged almost like a hedge fund, 50 to one, it's assets are 50 times it's underlying capital. But I can't help feeling that this is the right thing to do under these circumstances, because if he'd done anything different - if he'd simply sat on his hands and said, it's just too bad, we would have seen not just a couple of banks fail, we would have seen hundreds of banks fail, and the United States really would have been plunged into a Great Depression. So I think Steve have to give some credit to the Fed for learning from history and improving its long run performance. And I think you also need to be aware of the somewhat alluring notion that somehow we'd be better off without it. I must say, I find that a little bit difficult to swallow.
STEVE: Well, the Fed is certainly the most comprehensive central bank we've had but we actually had three central banks prior to that. I agree with you that there was considerable roiling in the financial markets prior to the Fed being created, and that was used as a justification for the Aldrich Bill. However, that was always caused by the same thing which was banks lending money against assets that actually consisted of debt. They were lending against asset that they didn't even have. So - and trying to create money out of thin air. And that's what the Fed is doing right now to try to bail us out. It's a time-worn technique that goes back hundreds and hundreds of years. And I don't think people really realize that in this country it's been tried and failed in the past. It was just always tried on a smaller scale. The Fed has certainly been a more successful bank than the previous central banks. It's managed to pull the scam for a longer period, but now people have dollars in their pocket that say Federal Reserve Note when I'm old enough to remember when your money said silver certificate on it and was redeemable in golden silver, at least theoretically.
CONAN: And you do point out in the book, Niall Ferguson that indeed when President Nixon closed the last gold window in - what was it, 1971?
Prof. FERGUSON: Yeah.
CONAN: And then at that point, well, the dollar has been devalued by some 86 percent since then.
Prof. FERGUSON: Yes, there's no doubt that the dollar in your pocket is worth a whole lot less than it was in 1971, and this is one of the paradoxes of the age of what is sometimes called fiat money or paper money. That although money is supposed to be a store of value, the dollar has steadily depreciated as a result of inflation. Now, that inflation moderated and this was partly Ben Bernanke's point in the great moderation lecture. It has significantly declined since the 1980s when Greenspan's predecessor Paul Volcker successfully waged a war on inflation. Central banks thought they had - got much better managing the problem of inflation by creating targets and by focusing very closely on the consumer price inflation. But as I try and point out in the "Ascent Of Money," while they were winning that war, another war was breaking out off stage, or rather just out of vision on stage, and that was the inflation danger in asset markets. You see as consumer price inflation moderated, prices in asset markets, first the stock market in the 1990s and then the real estate market ran out of control. And I think a big mistake that was made at the Fed was to say, this isn't really our problem. Or rather, when the bubbles blow up, we're not going to do much to stop it. We'll try and clear up the mess if they burst. So the Fed ended up adopting a rather asymmetric policy - would sort of turned a blind eye to bubbles and when there was a sell-off, and one saw that very clearly in the '90s, then the Fed would cut rates, and this was really what the market meant when it talked about a Greenspan Put. In effect, under Alan Greenspan, people could hold stocks and feel confident that if their market value suddenly dropped, the Fed would cut rates and pretty soon the price would go back up again. This I think was a mistake, and I think one can legitimately say that the Fed got this wrong in the '90s and again, got it wrong with the real estate bubble.
CONAN: More with Niall Ferguson in just a moment. His new book, "The Ascent Of Money: A Financial History Of The World." And we'll get to more of your calls. What moments in history give you insights into our current mess? Is it that in Mesopotamia, clay tablet served as money instead of precious metals or is it the American Civil War? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.
CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. As the new administration gets ready to face down the current economic crisis, one of it's most powerful tools is history and as Niall Ferguson shows us in his new book, there are millennia of financial history to guide them. His new book is titled "The Ascent Of Money: A Financial History Of The World." You can read all about money, what it is and where it came from in an excerpt at our website at npr.org/talk. Today, we want to hear from financial historians in the audience, amateur and otherwise. What moments in history do you think provide insights into our current mess? 800-989-8255, Email us email@example.com, and let's hear from Richard. Richard on the line with us from Jacksonville in Florida.
RICHARD (Caller): Hey, how are you, sir?
CONAN: Good. Thanks.
RICHARD: Hey, I wanted to - I've always wanted to have someone to compare what happened after the Civil War, during Reconstruction when the Freedman's Bank was created specifically to allow recently freed slaves and African-American Civil War veterans to have a place to save their money? My understanding is that there was as much as $51 million saved by this group of people that was specifically designed to allow them to save money for their future. And then a law was passed that allowed that money to be used to invest in, then the boom was railroad and pretty much the way Fannie Mae money went into mortgages, the Freedman's Bank money went into railroads. The railroads went bust. They weren't able to pay back the money and the Freedman's Bank was destroyed pretty much within five, six, seven years. Frederick Douglas sort of tried to do a lot to regain confidence, but that never happened. And, I thought that that was pretty much a great analogy to what has just happened with the recent rush to give everybody - low income people an opportunity to get a mortgage. It was pretty much the same way to give the slaves an opportunity to enhance their investment by investing in railroads.
CONAN: That analogy might not be totally appropriate. The Freedman's Bank, Niall Ferguson?
Prof. FERGUSON: Well, this is a tale, and a rather sad tale, of savings being destroyed by banks unwisely investing them. Whereas of course, a sub-prime crisis is a very different story where it's a case of borrowings by relatively poor households that really were the driver of the crisis, I mean Reconstruction, and this in the sense relates back to Steve's earlier call. Reconstruction wasn't exactly a time of economic stability in the United States least of all in the South. And, it was in fact almost a once a decade event that investments particularly in railroads would tank. Banks would fail, banks failed with enormous regularity. I mean, one shouldn't single out Freedman's Bank because many, many banks failed in the crises of the - of 1873 for example, which was a global financial crisis. One has to remember the extent to which as today, by the late 19th century, the world economy was highly integrated, and a crisis in 1873 could cause people to lose their savings as far away from the South as Berlin, which was one of the great epicenters of that crisis.
I think we've seen a very different pattern in our time because in our time, we've encouraged relatively poor households including many African-American households to borrow money and to take out loans that in fact, they really weren't able to service. Before the subprime crisis blew up, I was sort of suspicious of what was going on, and I went and did some field work in Memphis, Tennessee and in Detroit which were - for areas where real estate markets were already beginning to fragment in late '06. And, I was really impressed by the extent to which there had been a campaign - politically encouraged campaign to make loans to ethnic or racial minority groups, loans that were in fact almost inevitably going to blow up because of the way in which they were constructed. You would have in one or two years of relatively low interest payments. Very attractive teaser rates and then in the third year, the thing would zoom upwards. So it was actually the debts of African-Americans rather than their savings that were the problem in this most recent crisis and that of course, in many ways, the opposite scenario.
CONAN: Richard, thanks very much for the phone call. Let's - here's an email from Chase in Tucson, Arizona. I think an interesting parallel we can see with this crisis would be a period in the late 19th century when banks throughout the country had restricted practices of lending that resulted in the crop lean system which was in part a result of the gold standard. Families were losing their dwellings and farms because of high interest rates and strict lending much as modern families are facing high rates of foreclosure.
Prof. FERGUSON: This is a fascinating parallel in fact because we often forget the term Great Depression was first used from the mid-1870s through to the mid-1890s and it referred to a depression of prices, particularly agricultural prices. Food prices were being driven down by the increasing integration of global grain markets, the falling cost in transportation, and so forth. And this was very bad news indeed for farmers because they often had relatively large debts in relation to their assets. As the prices fell, as deflation set in, the real burdening - the real burden of these debts increased. So I do think it's useful, Chase, to look back to that period, and I sometimes ask myself when we talk about the next Great Depression, should we in fact be looking at that Great Depression rather than the 29 to 33 experience? If so, we should be reasonably cheerful, because although prices fell pretty steadily from the mid-1870s until the mid-1890s, global output didn't decline and indeed the United States experienced really some of the fastest growth in it's 19th century history. It wasn't a great time to be a farmer, and that of course explains that extraordinary populist movement that directed its fire against the gold standard, blamed the falling prices on the monetary system that pegged the dollar to gold. But it was a pretty good time to be in industry. It was a pretty good time to be part of the urbanization of America. If we can get a Great Depression like that then we'll be sighing with relief. But I'm very much afraid that we're more likely to end up with something else dear.
CONAN: And so that's why a rural populist like William Jennings Bryan would issue his great speech on the cross of gold.
Prof. FERGUSON: I think that's important to remember because our first caller, Steve was also making the argument - I think - for a precious metal standard - perhaps a gold standard though he also mentioned silver. And some people are very nostalgic at the moment for the good old days of gold and blame all our problems in the absence of a metallic base for the currency. They conveniently forget that in previous episodes when currencies were pegged to precious metal like in the late 19th and early 20th century, there were downsides to that, too. If you pegged the global economy to gold today, it would be extremely difficult to achieve sustained growth because there actually isn't that much gold out there as a basis for a vast global economy with a GDP, which is somewhere in the region of $50 trillion a year. A gold would be a trivially small base for such an economy, and that's why I'm one of those people who resists gold nostalgia. I think it was John Maynard Canes who referred to the gold standard as a sort of relic of barbaric survival of a bygone age, and I'm rather inclined to agree with that and to resist those who would say, let's go back to the good old days of gold. Gold brought us the first Great Depression way back in the late 19th century. And, in many ways it brought us the second, too. It was only the breakdown of the gold standard after 1931 that allowed the world economy to begin to recover, a point very eloquently made by Barry Eichengreen in his wonderful book, "Golden Fetters" - a required reading incidentally in the Great Depression.
CONAN: Now, let's get Fred on the line. Fred is with us from Lavonia in Michigan.
FRED (Caller): Hi. Good afternoon, gentlemen.
Prof. FERGUSON: Hi.
CONAN: Good afternoon.
FRED: Hi. I wanted to discuss an aspect of this - of the financial crisis that I don't hear talked about very much, because I am a pastor actually in Lavonia which is a suburb of Detroit, and a good portion of my congregation either works in the auto industry or they work in businesses which are affected by the auto industry. And, as fear comes upon people here, I have turned to an event that happened in 1857 in the United States where we experienced a tremendous financial crash. What's very interesting to me is as a result of that financial crash there was a huge spiritual and a moral awakening in the United States that came about shortly during that and after that. Some people even go so far as to say that the abolitionist movement gained a lot of their energy as a result of the religious awakening that occurred because people were in so much turmoil in this financial crash in 1857 that they poured in to churches, began to pray.
In fact, the New York Senate of the Presbyterian church published something astonishing, I think, in the New York Observer. It said - they published a statement which said in view of the recent commercial disaster that has come upon our country, the Senate of New York, deeply impressed by the fact that the Lord has a controversy with his people and that it is incumbent on them to humble themselves beneath his hand, does solemnly recommend to all its churches to set apart Thursday, November 5th as a special day of humiliation and prayer. Which I had to say - it's incredible. You know, it's something that I won't hear spoken about, but their response to a financial disaster which is very similar to ours - the banks begin to collapse like dominoes - was to pull people together to pray. And by all accounts, from all the major newspapers, they had tens of thousands of people who prayed, some people even linked this to the moral energizing that was necessary to spark the abolitionist into action for the Civil War. I was just wondering what you gentlemen thought of this.
Mr. FERGUSON: Well, Fred, this is a very interesting point, which is that financial crises have known economic consequences. You're quite right that in the wake of 1857, there was a significant upsurge in religious fervor. Of course, upsurges and religious fervor are pretty regular occurrences in American history. And, I recommend that we look at this globally. In other parts of the world, financial crisis had political rather than religious consequences. In Europe for example, in the wake of the 1873 stock market crash, there was a significant increase in antisemitism. And this is the other side of the coin it seems to me in the - if you'll forgive that metaphor. If you look at the 1870s, one of the things that was frequently pointed out by antisemitic parties, not only in Germany, it happened in France as well, was that the Jews were over-represented in the financial system, that there was a disproportionate number of Jews involved in banking, for example. And, when the crisis happened, rather than flocking to the churches, people flocked to hear demagogues blame the crash on speculators. And you ended up actually with an upsurge that's really unpleasant, xenophobic and populist politics.
The other point which I think follows from what you've said, Fred, is that after these religious revivals in the United States you very quickly ended up with a political crisis and then full-blown war. And this is a really important point. When a major financial crisis happens, it often is followed by a breakdown in the geopolitical order either in civil war, or more frightening still, in war between states. It's no coincidence that 1933, which was, of course the trough of the world economy, saw not only Franklin Roosevelt's inaugural address but also Adolf Hitler's appointment as chancellor of Germany. We need to be nervous about the political consequences of this crisis. Here, they'll be mild. Here, in fact, we've had a huge political upheaval but it's produced, in fact, a moderate possibility, even a bipartisan Democratic administration. In other countries where the crisis will probably be more profound in its impact, we're likely to see some very different and probably a good deal less pleasant political consequences.
CONAN: In more brittle political systems, and one has to look at a couple of places, Russia and China.
Mr. FERGUSON: Well, Russia is a very interesting case. I've been arguing for quite some while that there's a kind of vimar(ph) scenario playing out in Russia. We've had the kind of the defeat in the Cold War. We had the inflation period in the 1990s. We had the period of corrupt Democracy under Boris Yeltsin. And we've had the gradual transition to authoritarianism under Vladimir Putin and his supposed successor. The financial crisis has hit Russia harder than almost any country in the world, not least because of the foolish geopolitical moves that the Russians made during the summer in the war with Georgia. And the result I think is unquestionably rather worrying. There's absolutely no question that Russia is moving to the right politically, and the worst things get economically. I think the more tempted to the regime will be to rattle its saber. So there's the sense in which we're kind of replaying in some ways the politics of the 1930s, and seeing whether in Russia you could end up with a fascist outcome.
CONAN: Fred, thanks very much for the phone call, appreciate it.
FRED: Thank you.
CONAN: Our guest Niall Ferguson, his new book, "The Ascent of Money." You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's go to Mike, Mike with us from Westbrook in Connecticut.
MIKE (Caller): Yes. Good afternoon, gentlemen. Thank you very much for this conversation. It's been very intriguing. I have two statements slash questions, I guess. The first would be, since it seems that history repeats itself, I would be very interested to hear your take on what areas in the coming future you would see as places where industry will boom or opportunities for people - young people or entrepreneurs. And the second part of that is that I'm an educator and I'm trying to encourage our young people to look towards the future - prepare them for the challenges that are facing us. And, I would be curious to hear from you what you would think those challenges might be.
Mr. FERGUSON: Well, Mike, history never exactly repeats itself. I think it was Mark Twain who said that it rhymes. So we'll get something that will in some ways resemble previous Great Depressions. But it's bound to be quite different, not least for the reasons we've discussed because of the very different policy responses that this depression is eliciting. I think it's very important to bear in mind that no matter how bad the financial crisis gets, the United States has a track record of maintaining entrepreneurship and innovation. Even in the dark days of the 1930s, companies like General Electric and RCA were making all kinds of advances, both technological and managerial. That meant that when the great stimulus of World War II came along, the U.S. economy exploded into life, and almost doubled in size in the space of just a few years. In the 1970s, another pretty dire decade, if you remember the decade of double-digits inflation, the so-called stagflation, yeah. We remember that - at least I'm old enough to. Even then, there were extraordinarily innovative companies being created.
The 1970s were when Microsoft was founded and Apple. So, I think we can be sure- I'm confident of this - that there will be innovation even in these tough times. And in many ways, necessity being the mother of invention, talented people who might otherwise have gone off to Wall Street to sell collateralized debt obligations may do something slightly more constructive in the field of technology, or for that matter, health care. There'll be innovation. There will be opportunities. There just won't be in financial services. And, I think your role as an educator, and I, of course, am an educator too, Mike, is to try to prepare people for this kind of a world. A world in which there aren't going to necessarily be easy jobs in the financial sector, and where there'll be a premium on innovation, a premium on entrepreneurship. I think the other thing we can usefully do is teach people some financial history, because as I said earlier, ignorance about the financial past has been a really big part of this rather sorry story.
CONAN: Mike, thanks very much.
MIKE: I appreciate it. Thank you.
CONAN: OK. And we just have a minute or so left with you, Niall Ferguson. But wanted to ask this question from John in Menlo Park, California: Do you see ways that novel techniques like microlending could play a role in recovery, for example, to facilitate the flow of international capital?
Mr. FERGUSON: I don't actually have a little section in the book, "The Ascent of Money," about microfinance. I got very interested in it and went to Bolivia, where I had a look at how microfinance empowers poor, indigenous women in cities like La Paz to set up their own small market stalls, and encountered some very impressive, indeed, moving stories of finance mobilizing energies. I'm not sure microfinance is an enormous role to play in the United States. This is something that works very well in relatively poor countries where there isn't really much in the way of banking and financial intermediation. This is a way of getting poor people their first crack at taking out a loan and they do it in small groups. It's often groups of women who are the borrowers. This system has huge potential, there's no question. Though it has a downside, it's quite expensive. And on close inspection, the interest rates, some of these loans are often very high. I think we have to pin our hopes on the revival of macrofinance, if you will forgive me for putting it that way. And that revival is going to depend very much on what is achieved by the new team installed at the Treasury today by President-elect Obama.
CONAN: Niall Ferguson, thanks very much for your time as always.
Mr. FERGUSON: My pleasure, Neal.
CONAN: Niall Ferguson's new book "The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World." Coming up, we'll go back 30 years and remember the murders in San Francisco of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.