Thursday
Apr172014

All the Presidents' Bankers Excerpt: World Bank, IMF, Globalizing Wall Street

(This excerpt first appeared on Zerohedge courtesy of Nation Books. A fascinating, relevant piece of Cold War, Financial Globalization history.)

The World Bank and the IMF: Expanding Wall Street’s Reach Worldwide

Just after the United States entered World War II, two simultaneous initiatives unfolded that would dictate elements of financing after the war, through the joint initiatives of foreign policy measures and private banking whims. Plans were already being formulated to navigate the postwar peace, especially its international power implications for finance and politics, in the background. American political leaders and scholars began considering the concept of “one world” from an economic perspective, void of divisions and imbalances. Or so the theory went.

The original plans to create a set of multinational entities that would finance one-world reconstruction and development (and ostensibly balance the world’s various economies) were conceived by two academics: John Maynard Keynes, an adviser for the British Treasury, and Harry Dexter White, an economist in the Division of Monetary Research of the US Treasury under Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau.

By the spring of 1942, White had drafted plans for a “stabilization fund” and a “Bank for Reconstruction and Development.” His concept for the fund became the seed for the International Monetary Fund. The other idea became the World Bank. But before those entities would come to life through the Bretton Woods conferences, many arguments about their makeup would take place, and millions of lives would be lost.

Keynes, White, and Power Transfer to the United States

By early 1944, nearly two-thirds of the European GNP had been devoted to war; millions of people had been slaughtered. But six months after the complete liberation of Leningrad, it was the international financial aspects of the coming peace that exercised the imagination of the policy elites. In July 1944, 730 delegates representing the forty-four Allied nations convened at the Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. Amid picturesque mountains, hiking trails, and oppressive heat, they sat to determine the postwar economic system.

For three weeks, they debated the charter for the International Monetary Fund and discussed how the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, or the “World Bank,” would operate.

White and Keynes had competed for influence over this final result for the past two years. To a large extent, the personal vehemence of each man aside, they did so as an extension of the jockeying for position between the United States and Britain as the incoming and outgoing financial superpowers. At first, virtually every American banker and politician opposed the main aspects of Keynes’s plans, particularly his idea about creating a new global currency—the unitas—that would supersede gold and the dollar.

Many subsequent histories of the Bretton Woods Conference consider the final doctrines for the IMF and World Bank as representing a clear compromise between White and Keynes. But they leaned far more toward White’s model and vision.

From the bankers’ standpoint, White’s model was more tolerable because it preserved the supremacy of the dollar. Former President James A. Garfield once said, “He who controls the money supply of a nation controls the nation.” But in the negotiations surrounding those Bretton Woods meetings, the mantra was more “Those who control the banks backed by the currency that dominates the world control world finance.”

While final drafts snaked through Congress after the July 1944 meetings, one key US banker maintained his public opposition to Bretton Woods. Even after it became clear that the multinational entities would be dollar-based, Chase chairman Winthrop Aldrich remained opposed to the idea. Mostly, he feared the slightest amount of competition from any uncontrollable source. Though Aldrich favored removing trade barriers, which would provide the US banks a wider field for cross-border financing, he didn’t want some supranational entity getting in the way of private lending to facilitate that trade.

In his “Proposed Currency Plan” of September 16, 1944, Aldrich slammed the accords, which he saw as a distinct challenge to the power of private banks. “The IMF,” he said, “would become a mechanism for instability rather than stability since it would encourage exchange-rate alterations.”

Like most bankers, Aldrich was fine with the World Bank taking responsibility for exchange-stabilization lending. That element would aid bankers; a supranational entity providing monies to struggling countries would bolster them sufficiently to be able to borrow more through private banks. But bankers didn’t want a fund constructed as a competing lending mechanism that could possibly take business away from them, operating in the guise of economic security.

Aldrich warned, “We shall have the shadow of stability without the substance. . . . Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of the Bretton Woods proposals is that they serve as an obstacle to the immediate consideration and solution of these basic problems.”

Aldrich’s public outcry was unsettling to President Roosevelt and Treasury Secretary Robert Morgenthau, who knew that it was politically important to get all the main bankers’ support. Not only did they hold a solid proportion of US Treasury debt; they had become the distribution mechanisms of that debt to more and more citizens and countries. There couldn’t be an IMF without the support of private lenders, and if the US was going to be in command of such an entity from a global perspective, US bankers had to be on board. Concession to the bankers wasn’t a matter of empty appeasement but of economic supremacy.

The American Bankers Association, on which Aldrich was a board member, also wanted to restrict the IMF’s powers. Burgess, who served as chairman of the American Bankers Association and National City Bank vice chairman, was unwilling to back the Bretton Woods proposals unless White made more concessions to reinforce the supremacy of the US banks and the dollar. He would play hardball and get Morgenthau involved if he had to.

Though White refused to bow to Burgess’s requests, Congress incorporated them into the final documents. To make the bankers happy, a compromise was fashioned that restricted the IMF funds to loans offsetting short-term exchange rate fluctuations, such as when one country has a sharp and sudden shift in the value of its currency relative to another. That loophole left plenty of room for banks to supply aggressive financing to developing nations over the loosely defined longer-term. It also meant that all nations receiving short- term assistance from the IMF would likely be on the hook for more expensive debt at the hands of the bankers in tandem, or later. But in the scheme of White’s plan, this alteration was more cosmetic than substantial.

The Bretton Woods Agreement

Congress approved the Bretton Woods agreement on July 20, 1945. Twenty- seven other countries joined as well. The Soviet Union did not. It was a portent of how rapidly the world was falling into the Cold War and how rapidly the United States was forging its own foreign alliances in the postwar economy.

By the time the Bretton Woods delegates reconvened to settle the final details of the agreement at Savannah, Georgia, in March 1946, Churchill had already coined the term “the Iron Curtain” to describe the line between Communist Soviet Union and the West in his famous “Sinews of Peace” speech at Westminster College.

In addition to the growing Cold War mentality, or perhaps because of it, expectations that White would lead the IMF were squashed when the FBI alerted President Truman that White and other senior civil servants had passed secret intelligence to the Soviet Union. It’s doubtful that Truman believed the allegations; though he took White out of the bidding for the head position, White remained an executive director.

The incident served as a precedent for how the top positions at the World Bank and the IMF would be allocated along political-geographical lines. The post was offered instead to Belgian economist Camille Gutt, establishing the protocol whereby the IMF would be headed by a Western European and the World Bank by an American.

But while politics dictated the initial leadership choices, private bankers’ behavior would soon overshadow the functions of both bodies. Despite their “international” monikers, the World Bank and the IMF disproportionately served the interests of the Western European nations that were most important to the United States from the get-go. The bankers could exert their influence over both entities to expand their own enterprises.

Later, another element that reinforced this dynamic was added. Thanks to a minor technicality introduced by Truman’s Treasury secretary, John Snyder, “aid monies” to “friendly” (or large and friendly) countries would be considered “grants,” which would not show up as national debt, thereby providing the illusion of better economic health. Money granted for military operations or the friendly countries would not show up as debt either. This presented a foreign business opportunity whereby banks could provide loans at better terms to larger countries and make more money off higher interest loans to developing ones because of the disparity in their perceived debt loads.

In addition, as Martin Mayer observed in his classic book The Bankers, “the growing and unregulated Eurodollar market would become a cauldron of out-of-control debt and heady profits for US banks.” Through this market, many of the major midcentury postwar loans would be made.

Making the World Bank Work for Wall Street

Congress had established the National Advisory Council to be the “coordinating agency for United States international financial policy” and as a mechanism to direct that policy through the international financial organizations. In particular, the council dealt with the settlement of lend-lease and other wartime arrangements, including the terms of foreign loans, details of assistance programs, and the evolving policies of the IMF and World Bank. As chairman of the National Advisory Council, U.S Treasury secretary John Snyder carried a vast amount of influence over those entities, as many major decisions were discussed privately at the council meetings and decided upon there.

There was one ambitious lawyer who understood the significance of Snyder’s role. That was John McCloy, an outspoken Republican whose career would traverse many public service and private roles (including the chairmanship of Chase in the 1950s), and who had just served as assistant secretary of war under FDR’s war secretary, Henry Stimson. McCloy and Snyder would form an alliance that would alter the way the World Bank operated, and the influence that private bankers would have over it.

It was Snyder who made the final decision to appoint McCloy as head of the World Bank. McCloy, a stocky Irishman with steely eyes, had been raised by his mother in Philadelphia. He went on to become the most influential banker of the mid-twentieth century. He had been a partner at Cravath, Henderson, and de Gersdorff, a powerful Wall Street law firm, for a decade before he was tapped to enter FDR’s advisory circle.

After the war, McCloy returned to his old law firm, but his public service didn’t translate into the career trajectory that he had hoped for. Letting his impatience be known, he received many offers elsewhere, including an ambassadorship to Moscow; the presidency of his alma mater, Amherst College; and the presidency of Standard Oil. At that point, none other than Nelson Rockefeller swooped in with an enticing proposition that would allow McCloy to stay in New York and get paid well—as a partner at the family’s law firm, Milbank, Tweed, Hope, and Hadley.

The job brought McCloy the status he sought. He began a new stage of his private career at Milbank, Tweed on January 1, 1946. The firm’s most import- ant client was Chase, the Rockefeller’s family bank. But McCloy would soon return to Washington.

Truman had appointed Eugene Meyer, the seventy-year-old veteran banker and publisher of the Washington Post, to be the first head of the World Bank. But after just six months, Meyer abruptly announced his resignation on December 4, 1946. Officially, he explained he had only intended to be there for the kick-off. But privately, he admitted that his disagreements with the other directors’ more liberal views about lending had made things untenable for him. His position remained vacant for three months.

When Snyder first approached McCloy for the role in January 1947, he rejected it. But Snyder was adamant. After inviting McCloy to Washington for several meetings and traveling to New York to discuss how to accommodate his stipulations about the job—conditions that included more control over the direction of the World Bank and the right to appoint two of his friends— Snyder agreed to his terms.

Not only did Snyder approve of McCloy’s colleagues, but he also approved McCloy’s condition that World Bank bonds would be sold through Wall Street banks. This seemingly minor acquiescence would forever transform the World Bank into a securities vending machine for private banks that would profit from distributing these bonds globally and augment World Bank loans with their private ones. McCloy had effectively privatized the World Bank. The bankers would decide which bonds they could sell, which meant they would have control over which countries the World Bank would support, and for what amounts.

With that deal made, McCloy officially became president of the World Bank on March 17, 1947. His Wall Street supporters, who wanted the World Bank to lean away from the liberal views of the New Dealers, were a powerful lot. They included Harold Stanley of Morgan Stanley; Baxter Johnson of Chemical Bank; W. Randolph Burgess, vice chairman of National City Bank; and George Whitney, president of J. P. Morgan. McCloy delivered for all of them.

A compelling but overlooked aspect of McCloy’s appointment reflected the postwar elitism of the body itself. The bank’s lending program was based on a supply of funds from the countries enjoying surpluses, particularly those holding dollars. It so happened that “the only countries [with] dollars to spare [were] the United States and Canada.” As a result, all loans made would largely stem from money raised by selling the World Bank’s securities in the United States.

This gave the United States the ultimate power by providing the most initial capital, and thus obtaining control over the future direction of World Bank financial initiatives—all directives for which would, in turn, be predicated on how bankers could distribute the bonds backing those loans to investors. The World Bank would do more to expand US banking globally than any other treaty, agreement, or entity that came before it.

To solidify private banking control, McCloy continued to emphasize that “a large part of the Bank capital be raised by the sale of securities to the investment public.” McCloy’s like-minded colleagues at the World Bank—vice president Robert Garner, vice president of General Foods and former treasurer of Guaranty Trust; and Chase vice president Eugene Black, who replaced the “liberal” US director Emilio Collado—concurred with the plan that would make the World Bank an extension of Wall Street. McCloy stressed Garner and Black’s wide experience in the “distribution of securities.” In other words, they were skilled in the art of the sale, which meant getting private investors to back the whole enterprise.

The World Bank triumvirate was supported by other powerful men as well. After expressing his delight over their appointments to Snyder on March 1, 1947, Nelson Rockefeller offered the three American directors his Georgetown mansion, plus drinks, food, and servants, for a three-month period while they hammered out strategies. No wives were allowed. Neither were the other directors. This was to be an exclusive rendezvous.

It is important to note here that the original plan as agreed upon at Bretton Woods did not include handing the management and organization of the World Bank over to Wall Street. But the new World Bankers seemed almost contemptuous of the more idealistic aspects of the original intent behind Bretton Woods, that quaint old notion of balancing economic benefits across nations for the betterment of the world. Armed with a flourish of media fanfare from the main newspapers, they set about constructing a bond-manufacturing machine.

With the Cold War hanging heavily in the political atmosphere, the World Bank also became a political mechanism to thwart Communism, with funding provided only to non-Communist countries. Politics drove loan decisions: Western allies got the most money and on the best terms.

Saturday
Apr122014

From J.P. Morgan to Jamie Dimon

(This piece originally appeared in the New York Daily News, April 10, 2014): New York is a wonderful town — if you run a mega bank. Because for over a century, the Big Six banks and their leaders have dominated not just the U.S. banking industry, but American and global finance, traversing the power corridor between the White House and Wall Street to help themselves, their families and their friends in good times and bad, in partnership with the President.

But in the process of placing personal enrichment over the public interest and fair practices, particularly in recent years, they have created an atmosphere where the next big crisis is not a question of if, but of when. History has shown that absent true reform, those holding the power and the money can and will wreak havoc on the rest of the population.

For the first 80 years of the 20th century, four families largely controlled the nation’s top three banks: Morgan, Aldrich, Stillman and Rockefeller. National, financial and foreign policy was fashioned through personal connections to the Presidents — forged through blood, marriage, mentorships and connections made at Ivy League colleges, and through social activities like yachting, golfing, ranch barbeques and exclusive parties and clubs.

In October 1907, Manhattan was struck by a major bank panic. People from Fifth Ave. to Harlem rushed to extract their money from the Knickerbocker Trust Company because one of its leaders had made a horrendous bet on copper, which precipitated a wider panic. A fear of greater ramifications caused the “Trust-Buster,” President Teddy Roosevelt, to turn to the one man he believed could help — a banker, J.P. Morgan.

At midnight, Morgan and his entourage gathered at the Hotel Manhattan. With $25 million from the government to utilize as he saw fit, Morgan directed his financial friends to back the Trust Company of America, the “Too Big to Fail” firm of the time, embraced by the government and finance men who decided which banks lived and died — not the Knickerbocker Trust Company. President Roosevelt sat in Washington awaiting the results.

At 1 a.m., Frank Vanderlip, vice president of National City Bank (now Citigroup), informed reporters in the lobby that all would be well. And it was. New York papers sung Morgan’s praises. He had “saved” the city, the country. He was dubbed a “king.” The press omitted that he did it without dropping a dime of his own money.

Fast-forward through WWI and years of speculative buying and shady scams, and the stock market stood poised for collapse. In October 1929, it did.

Another meeting was called. The Big Six bankers gathered at the House of Morgan on 23 Wall Street before Thomas Lamont, acting Morgan Chairman. At his table were five other bankers: from National City Bank and First National Bank (both now part of Citigroup), from Morgan Guaranty and Chase (which, along with the Morgan Bank, became part of JPM Chase), and from Bankers Trust (which was controlled by the Morgan Bank). President Hoover sat in Washington awaiting the results.

The men hashed out a plan to boost the markets using their firms’ (or customers’) money. Each banker agreed to pony up $25 million. The stock-buying began. The mood and the markets were lifted. The media exalted. Nonetheless, over the next three years, the market lost most of its value, and a Great Depression ensued, crushing citizens.

Yet the Big Six survived, devouring thousands of smaller banks that failed.

Today’s Big Six banks are largely combinations (with additional members thrown in the mix) of the same Big Six banks that thrived through the Panic of 1907, Crash of 1929, WWII, the Bay of Pigs, the 1990s merger mania, and the recent financial crisis of 2008.

They now hold $9.4 trillion, or 84%, of FDIC-insured deposits, $12.5 trillion, or 85%, of all U.S. bank assets — and control 96% of all U.S., and 43% of the $693 trillion of global derivatives positions.

For the last 100 years, their leaders have collaborated with willing Presidents to run America. Given current global financial complexity, the Big Six chairmen have more economic control than Presidents, governments or central banks. We don’t elect them, but we do keep our money with them. We shoulder the cost of the risks they take.

With so much power in the hands of an elite few, America operates more as a plutocracy on behalf of the upper caste than a democracy or a republic. Voters are caught in the crossfire of two political parties vying to run Washington in a manner that benefits the banking caste, regardless of whether a Democrat or Republican is sitting in the Oval. Meanwhile, American inequality is reaching pre-1929 heights.

Mitigating the big banks’ power requires, at long last, breaking them up in such a manner as to split our deposits and taxpayers dollars from their speculative activities — by finally reinstituting the Glass-Steagall act of 1933.

In addition, we need to instill deposit and assets limits on these monstrosities to reduce the amount of control they have over America’s money. We need Congress to wake up to the looming mega-crisis around the corner that will happen without serious reform.

And, not least, we need a President who will get out of the bankers’ bed.

 



Thursday
Apr102014

Another Excerpt: All the Presidents' Bankers: Nixon's War/Wall Street's War

(This excerpt first appeared on Zerohedge, with permission from Nation Books. All rights reserved.)

Wall Street’s War

While the protests against the Vietnam War intensified in the first years of the Nixon administration, the financial elite was fighting its own war—over the future of banking and against Glass-Steagall regulations. National City Bank chairman Walter Wriston was a steadfast warrior in related battles, as he fought with Chase chairman David Rockefeller for supremacy over the US banker community and for dominance over global finance.

Rockefeller’s sights were set on a grander prize, one with worldwide implications: ending the financial cold war. He made his mark in that regard by opening the first US bank in Moscow since the 1920s, and the first in Beijing since the 1949 revolution.

Augmenting their domestic and international expansion plans, both men and their banks prospered from the emerging and extremely lucrative business of recycling petrodollars from the Middle East into third world countries. By acting as the middlemen—capturing oil revenues and transforming them into high-interest-rate loans, to Latin America in particular—bankers accentuated disparities in global wealth. They dumped loans into developing countries and made huge amounts of money in the process. By funneling profits into debts, they caused extreme pain in the debtor nations, especially when the oil-producing nations began to raise their prices. This raised the cost of energy and provoked a wave of inflation that further oppressed these third world nations, the US population, and other economies throughout the world.

Bank Holding Company Battles

When Eisenhower signed the 1956 Bank Holding Company Act banning interstate banking, he left a large loophole as a conciliatory gambit: a gray area as to what big banks could consider “financially-related business,” which fell under their jurisdiction. In practice, that meant that they could find ways to expand their breadth of services while they figured out ways to grow their domestic grab for depositors. On May 26, 1970, the “Big Three” bankers— Wriston and Rockefeller, along with Alden “Tom” Clausen, chairman of Bank America Corporation—appeared before the Senate Banking and Currency Committee to press their case for widening the loophole.

During the proceedings, Wriston led the charge on behalf of his brethren in the crusade. Tall, slim, elegantly dressed, and the most articulate of the three, he dramatically called on Congress to “throw off some of the shackles on banking which inhibit competition in the financial markets.”

The global financial landscape was evolving. Ever since World War II, US bankers hadn’t worried too much about their supremacy being challenged by other international banks, which were still playing catch-up in terms of deposits, loans, and global customers. But by now the international banks had moved beyond postwar reconstructive pain and gained significant ground by trading with Cold War enemies of the United States. They were, in short, cutting into the global market that the US bankers had dominated by extending themselves into areas in which the US bankers were absent for US policy reasons. There was no such thing as “enough” of a market share in this game. As a result, US bankers had to take a longer, harder look at the “shackles” hampering their growth. To remain globally competitive, among other things, bankers sought to shatter post-Depression legislative barriers like Glass-Steagall.

They wielded fear coated in shades of nationalism as a weapon: if US bankers became less competitive, then by extension the United States would become less powerful. The competition argument would remain dominant on Wall Street and in Washington for nearly three decades, until the separation of speculative and commercial banking that had been invoked by the Glass-Steagall Act would be no more.

Wriston deftly equated the expansion of US banking with general US global progress and power. It wasn’t so much that this connection hadn’t occurred to presidents or bankers since World War II; indeed, that was how the political-financial alliances had been operating. But from that point on, the notion was formally and publicly verbalized, and placed on the congressional record. The idea that commercial banks served the country and perpetuated its global identity and strength, rather than the other way around, became a key argument for domestic deregulation—even if, in practice, it was the country that would serve the banks.

The Penn Central Debacle

There was, however, a fly in the ointment. To increase their size, bankers wanted to be able to accumulate more services or branches beneath the holding company umbrella. But a crisis in another industry would give some legislators pause. The Penn Central meltdown, the first financial crisis of Nixon’s presidency, temporarily dampened the ardency of deregulation enthusiasts. The collapse of the largest, most diverse railroad holding company in America was blamed on overzealous bank lending to a plethora of non-railroad-oriented entities under one holding company umbrella. The debacle renewed debate about a stricter bank holding company bill.

Under Wriston’s guidance, National City had spearheaded a fifty-three-bank syndicate to lend $500 million in revolving credit to Penn Central, even when it showed obvious signs of imminent implosion.

Penn Central had been one of the leading US corporations in the 1960s. President Johnson had supported the merger that spawned the conglomerate on behalf of a friend, railroad merger specialist Stuart Saunders, who became chairman. He had done this over the warnings of the Justice Department and despite allegations of antitrust violations called by its competitors. With nary a regulator paying attention, Penn Central had morphed into more than a railroad holding company, encompassing real estate, hotels, pipelines, and theme parks. Meanwhile, highways, cars, and commercial airlines had chipped away at Penn Central’s dominant market position. To try to compensate,
Penn Central had delved into a host of speculative expansions and deals. That strategy was failing fast. By May 1970, Penn Central was feverishly drawing on its credit lines just to scrounge up enough cash to keep going.

The conglomerate demonstrated that holding companies could be mere shell constructions under which other unrelated businesses could exist, much as the 1920s holding companies housed reckless financial ventures under utility firm banners.

Allegations circulated that Rockefeller had launched a five-day selling strategy of Penn Central stock, culminating with the dumping of 134,400 shares on the fifth day, based on insider information he received as one of the firm’s key lenders. He denied the charges.

In a joint effort with the bankers to hide the Penn Central debacle behind a shield of federal bailout loans, the Pentagon stepped in, claiming that assisting Penn Central was a matter of national defense.5 Under the auspices of national security, Washington utilized the Defense Production Act of 1950, a convenient bill passed at the start of the Korean War that enabled the president to force businesses to prioritize national security–related endeavors.

On June 21, 1970, Penn Central filed for bankruptcy, becoming the first major US corporation to go bust since the Depression. Its failure was not an isolated incident by any means. Instead, it was one of a number of major defaults that shook the commercial paper market to its core. (“Commercial paper” is a term for the short-term promissory notes sold by large corporations to raise quick money, backed only by their promise to pay the amount of the note at the end of its term, not by any collateral.) But the agile bankers knew how to capitalize on that turmoil. When companies stopped borrowing in the flailing commercial paper market, they had to turn to major banks like Chase for loans instead. As a result, the worldwide loans of Chase, First National City Bank, and Bank of America surged to $27.7 billion by the end of 1971, more than double the 1969 total of $13 billion.

A year later, the largest US defense company, Lockheed, was facing bankruptcy, as well. Again bankers found a way to come out ahead on the people’s dime. Lockheed’s bankers at Bank of America and Bankers Trust led a syndicate that petitioned the Defense Department for a bailout on similar national security grounds. The CEO, Daniel Haughton, even agreed to step down if an appropriate government loan was provided.

In response, the Nixon administration offered $250 million in emergency loans to Lockheed—in effect, bailing out the banks and the corporation. To explain the bailout at a time when the general economy was struggling, Nixon introduced the Lockheed Emergency Loan Act by stating, “It will have a major impact on the economy of California, and will contribute greatly to the economic strength of the country as a whole.” After the bill was passed, not a single Lockheed executive stepped down.

It would take several years of political-financial debate and more bailouts to sustain Penn Central. One 1975 article labeled the entire episode “The Penn-C Fairy Tale” and condemned the subsequent federal bailout: “While the country is in the worst recession since the depression and unemployment lines grow longer every day, Congress is dumping another third of a billion dollars of your tax payer dollars down the railroad rat hole.” (The incident was prologue: Congress would lavish hundreds of billions of dollars to sustain the biggest banks after the 2008 financial crisis, topped up by trillions of dollars from the Fed and the Treasury Department in the form of loans, bond purchases, and other subsidies.)

More Bank Holding Company Politics

Despite the Penn Central crisis, the revised Bank Holding Company Act decisively passed the Senate on September 16, 1970, by a bipartisan vote of seventy-seven to one. The final version was far more lenient than the one that Texas Democrat John William Wright Patman, chair of the House Committee on Banking and Currency, or even the Nixon administration had originally envisioned. The revised act allowed big banks to retain nonbank units acquired before June 1968. It also gave the Fed greater regulatory authority over bank holding companies, including the power to determine what constituted one. Language was added to enable banks to be considered one-bank holding companies if they, or any of their subsidiaries, held any deposits or extended any commercial loans, thus broadening their scope.

President Nixon signed the bill into law without fanfare on New Year’s Eve 1970. In fact, his inner circle decided against making a splash about it. They didn’t think the public would understand or care. Plus, they realized that there was a prevailing attitude that the Nixon administration had favored the big banks, and though it had, this was not something they wanted to draw attention to.

The End of the Gold Standard

The top six banks controlled 20 percent of the nation’s deposits through one-bank holding companies, but second place in that group wasn’t good enough for Wriston, who noted to the Nixon administration that his bank was really the “caretaker of the aspirations of millions of people” whose money it held. Wriston flooded the New York Fed with proposals for expansion. His applications “were said to represent as many as half of the total of all of the banks.” The Fed was so overwhelmed, it had to enlist First National City Bank to interpret the new law on its behalf.

By mid-1971, the Fed had approved thirteen and rejected seven of Wriston’s applications. His biggest disappointment was the insurance underwriting rejection. The possibility of converting depositors for insurance business had been tantalizing. It would continue to be a hard-fought, ultimately successful battle.

Around the same time, New York governor Nelson Rockefeller (David Rockefeller’s brother) approved legislation permitting banks to set up subsidiaries in each of the state’s nine banking districts. This was a gift for Wriston and David Rockefeller, because it meant their banks could expand within the state. Each subsidiary could open branches through June 1976, when the districts would be eliminated and banks could merge and branch freely.

Several months later, First National City Bank was paying generous prices to purchase the tiniest upstate banks, from which it began extending loans to the riskiest companies and getting hosed in the process; a minor David vs. Goliath revenge of local banks against Wall Street muscle.

By that time, the stock market had turned bearish, and foreign countries were increasingly demanding their paper dollars be converted into gold as they shifted funds out of dollar reserves. Bankers, meanwhile, postured for a dollar devaluation, which would make their cost of funds cheaper and enable them to expand their lending businesses.

They knew that the fastest way to further devalue the dollar was to sever it from gold, and they made their opinions clear to Nixon, taking care to blame the devaluation on external foreign speculation, not their own movement of capital and lending abroad.

The strategy worked. On August 15, 1971, Nixon bashed the “international money speculators” in a televised speech, stating, “Because they thrive on crises they help to create them.”16 He noted that “in recent weeks the speculators have been waging an all-out war on the American dollar.” His words were true in essence, yet they were chosen to exclude the actions of the major US banks, which were also selling the dollar. Foreign central banks had access to US gold through the Bretton Woods rules, and they exercised this access. Exchanging dollars for gold had the effect of decreasing the value of the US dollar relative to that gold. Between January and August 1971, European banks (aided by US banks with European branches) catalyzed a $20 billion gold outflow.

As John Butler wrote in The Golden Revolution, “By July 1971, the US gold reserves had fallen sharply, to under $10 billion, and at the rate things were going, would be exhausted in weeks. [Treasury Secretary John] Connally was tasked with organizing an emergency weekend meeting of Nixon’s various economic and domestic policy advisers. At 2:30 p.m. on August 13, they gathered, in secret, at Camp David to decide how to respond to the incipient run on the dollar.”

Nixon’s solution, pressed by the banking community, was to abandon the gold standard. In his speech the president informed Americans that he had directed Connally to “suspend temporarily the convertibility of the dollar into gold or other reserve assets.” He promised this would “defend the dollar against the speculators.” Because Bretton Woods didn’t allow for dollar devaluation, Nixon effectively ended the accord that had set international currency parameters since World War II, signaling the beginning of the end of the gold standard.

Once the dollar was no longer backed by gold, questions surfaced as to what truly backed it (besides the US military). According to Butler, “The Bretton Woods regime was doomed to fail as it was not compatible with domestic US economic policy objectives which, from the mid-1960s onwards, were increasingly inflationary.”

It wasn’t simply policy that was inflationary. The expansion of debt via the joint efforts of the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve was greatly augmented by the bankers’ drive to loan more funds against their capital base. That established a debt inflation policy, which took off after the dissolution of Bretton Woods. Without the constraint of keeping gold in reserve to back the dollar, bankers could increase their leverage and speculate more freely, while getting money more easily from the Federal Reserve’s discount window. Abandoning the gold standard and “floating” the dollar was like navigating the waters of global finance without an anchor to slow down the dispersion of money and loans. For the bankers, this made expansion much easier.

Indeed, on September 24, 1971, Chase board director and former Treasury Secretary C. Douglas Dillon (chairman of the Brookings Institution and, from 1972 to 1975, the Rockefeller Foundation) told Connally that “under no circumstances should we ever go back to assuming limited convertibility into gold.” Chase Board chairman David Rockefeller wrote National Security Adviser (and later Secretary of State) Henry Kissinger to recommend “a reevaluation of foreign currencies, a devaluation of the dollar, removal of the U.S. import surcharge and ‘buy America’ credits, and a new international monetary system with greater flexibility . . . and less reliance on gold.”

With the dollar devalued, investors poured money into stocks, fueling a rally from November 1971 led by the “Nifty Fifty,” a group of “respectable” big-cap growth stocks. These were being bought “like greyhounds chasing a mechanical rabbit” by pension funds, insurance companies, and trust funds. The Chicago Board of Trade began trading options on individual stocks in 1973 to increase the avenues for betting; speculators could soon thereafter trade futures on currencies and bonds.

The National Association of Securities Dealers rendered all this trading easier on February 8, 1971, when it launched the NASDAQ. The first computerized quote system enabled market makers to post and transact over-the-counter prices quickly. With the stock market booming again, NASDAQ became a more convenient avenue for Wall Street firms to raise money. Many abandoned their former partnership models whereby the firm’s partners risked their own capital for the firm, in favor of raising capital by selling the public shares. That way, the upside—and the growing risk—would also be diffused and transferred to shareholders. Merrill Lynch was one of the first major investment bank partnerships to go “public” in 1971. Other classic industry leaders quickly followed suit.

Meanwhile, corporations were finding prevailing lower interest rates more attractive. Instead of getting loans from banks, they could fund themselves more cheaply by issuing bonds in the capital markets. This took business away from commercial banks, which were restricted by domestic regulation from acting as issuing agents. But bankers had positioned themselves on both sides of the Atlantic to get around this problem, so they were covered by the shift in their major customers’ financing preferences. While their ability to service corporate demand was dampened at home, overseas it roared. Currency market turmoil also led many countries to the Eurodollar market for credit, where US banks were waiting. Thus, the credit extended through international branches of major US banks tripled to $4.5 billion from 1969 to 1972.

The market rally, cheered on by the media, was enough to bolster Nixon’s fortunes. In the fall of 1972, Nixon was reelected in a landslide on promises to end the Vietnam War with “peace and honor.” Wall Street reaped the benefits of a bull market, and more citizens and companies were sucked into new debt products. The Dow hit a 1970s peak of 1,052 points in January 1973, as Nixon began his second term.