Who Caused the Great Depression?

Lessons from an era in which four men held sway over global finance.

Reviewed by Frank Ahrens
Sunday, February 15, 2009; Page BW05


The Bankers Who Broke the World

By Liaquat Ahamed

Penguin Press. 564 pp. $32.95

From the 1870s to 1914, the world's developed nations basked in a shimmering age of commerce. The European powers were at peace. Goods flowed home from colonies. The newly reunited United States was growing into muscular adolescence. And all of the world's major economies rested on a seemingly solid base: the gold standard.

But it proved to be a system in a snow globe, easily shattered. World War I broke the idyll and unhooked country after country from dependence on gold. They resorted to printing money to fund the war, leading to massive inflation, unemployment, political instability and general suffering across the Continent.

It's no wonder, then, that after the signing of the armistice in 1918 the world's four most powerful bankers -- a fraternity described in newspapers of the time as "the world's most exclusive club" -- did everything they could to force nations back to the discipline of the gold standard.

It was a ruinous decision. as Liaquat Ahamed notes in Lords of Finance, all the gold mined in history up to 1914 "was barely enough to fill a modest two-story town house." There simply was not enough of it to fund a global conflict or to allow economic recovery afterward.

Ahamed's illuminating and enjoyable book focuses on the four men whose arrogance and obstinacy, he contends, caused the worst depression in modern times: Benjamin Strong Jr., the morphine-using, consumptive governor of the New York Federal Reserve; Montagu Norman, the spiritual seeker at the helm of the Bank of England; Emile Moreau, the xenophobic governor of the Banc de France; and Hjalmer Schacht, the president of Germany's Reichsbank, a Prussian by temperament, if not by birth, whose sensibilities led to a flirtation with the Nazis.

They were the most important central bankers in their respective nations when those four countries controlled most of the world's wealth and one -- England -- was its unrivaled lender. It was a time, almost unrecognizable to us, when the central banks that printed each nation's currency were privately owned, and regulation was unheard of. As a consequence, this handful of men -- who knew each other intimately enough that one was godfather to another's son -- could wield a coordinated, long-lasting and terrible impact on the global economy.

The gold standard's role in the worldwide depression of the 1930s has been probed before, notably in Barry J. Eichengreen's scholarly Golden Fetters (1992). But Ahamed -- a hedge fund adviser, a World Bank veteran and a supple writer -- personalizes the story, exploring how insular relationships led to bad choices. Strong and Norman, for instance, became friends and gained each other's trust through lengthy correspondence. Strong used his influence to secure a loan for England, then prodded Norman to put England back on the gold standard. Norman, in turn, persuaded Strong to push down U.S. interest rates, helping to create the stock bubble that eventually burst in October 1929. When Strong died in 1928, his replacement became Norman's thrall and fell in lock-step with the emphasis on gold, extending the economic agony.

Meanwhile, the unchecked concentration of power in one banker's hands was also roiling Germany. In 1924, Schacht went bizarrely off the farm and attacked his government, releasing public statements accusing the state of losing control of its finances and saying that Germany was too broke to pay additional war reparations. While Schacht partly spoke the truth, his freelancing undermined already shaky public confidence. Later, he sabotaged a loan his nation tried to secure in New York, nearly bringing down the government.

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