Here’s another little gem (pp. 65-66) from Ralph Hawtrey’s Trade Depression and the Way Out. He discusses the amazing revival of business in the depth of the Great Depression triggered by FDR’s suspension of the gold standard in March 1933 immediately after taking office. Despite the suspension of the gold standard, there was period of uncertainty lasting over a month because it was not clear whether FDR would trigger a devaluation and the Treasury Department was issuing licenses to export gold preventing the dollar from depreciating in the foreign exchange markets. It was not until April 19 that the Secretary of the Treasury declined to issue any more licenses.
A license was a device for sustaining the value of the dollar. It was an instrument of torture designed to inflict further distress on a suffering nation. The pen refused to write the signature. No licenses were to be granted.
At once the dollar fell. The discount soon exceeded 10%. The suspension of the gold standard had become a reality.
The impulse given towards the revival of industry was instantaneous. It was like the magic change of spirit that seized the Allied line at Waterloo late in the afternoon, when there passed through the French ranks the terrible murmur “the Guard is giving way,” and the cohesion of their onset was at last loosened. . . . The eagles (258 grains, nine-tenths fine) were in full retreat.
Manufacturers pressed forward to fulfill a stream of orders such as they had not known for years. Wheat and corn, cotton, silk and wool, non-ferrous metals, rubber, almost every primary product found increased sales at higher prices. The steel industry, which at one time in March had been working at 15% of capacity rose in three months to 59%. The consumption of rubber in June exceeded the highest monthly totals of 1929. The index of manufacturing production, which relapsed from 66 in September 1932 to 57 in March 1933, advanced to 99 in July 1933, the highest since May 1930. The index of factory employment rose from 56.6 in March to 70.1 in July, and that of factory payrolls from 36.9 to 49.9. The Department of Labour Price Index rose from 59.8 in February 1933 to 69.7 on the 22nd July, the Farm Products group rising in the same period from 40.9 to 62.7.
This revival was a close parallel to that which occurred in Great Britain after the suspension of the gold standard in September 1931. On that occasion bank rate was put up to 6%, and renewed deflation and depression followed. In the United States, on the other hand, not only was cheap money continued (the 3% rediscount rate in New York being completely ineffective), but wide and unprecedented powers were conferred on the President with a view to a policy of inflation being carried out. . . .
For a month the depreciation of the dollar had no other source than in the minds of the market. The Administration quite clearly and certainly intended the dollar to fall, and every one dealing in the market was bound to take account of that intention. Towards the end of May the Federal Reserve Banks began to buy securities. By the end of June they had increased their holding of Government securities from $1,837,000,000 to $1,998,000,000, and the dollar was at a discount of more than 20%. The New York rediscount rate was reduced from 3% to 2.5% on the 26th May, and even the lower rate remained completely ineffective.
In July, however, the open market purchases slackened off. And other circumstances contributed to check the progress of depreciation. . . . Above all, on the 20th July, a plan for applying the minimum wages and maximum hours of the National Industrial Recovery Act throughout the whole range of American industry and trade without delay was put forward by the Administration. Profits were threatened.
The discount on the dollar had reached 30% on the 10th July, but, from the 20th July, it met with a rapid and serious reaction. There were fluctuations, but the discount did not again touch 30% till the middle of September. And the recovery of business was likewise interrupted.
There was some tendency to regard the policy of minimum wages and maximum hours as an alternative to monetary depreciation as a remedy for the depression.
It’s instructive to compare Hawtrey’s account of the effects of the devaluation of April 1933 with the treatment by Friedman and Schwartz in their Monetary History of the US (pp. 462-69) which treats the devaluation as a minor event. A subsequent discussion pp. 493-98 fails to draw attention to the remarkable recovery triggered over night by the devaluation of the dollar, and inexplicably singles out a second-order effect – increased production in anticipation of cost increases imposed by the anticipated enactment of the National Industrial Recovery Act – while ignoring the direct effect of enhanced profitability resulting from the depreciation of the dollar.
The revival was initially erratic and uneven. Reopening of the banks was followed by a rapid spurt in personal income and industrial production (see Chart 37). The spurt was intensified by production in anticipation of the codes to be established under the National Industrial Recovery Act (passed June 16, 1933), which were expected to raise wage rates and prices, and did. A relapse in the second half of 1933 was followed by another spurt in early 1934 and then a further relapse. A sustained and reasonably continuous rise in income and production did not get under way until late 1934.
This is an example of how Friedman’s obsession with the quantity theory, meaning that the quantity of money was always the relevant policy variable blinded him from recognizing that devaluation of the dollar in and of itself could raise the price level and provide the stimulus to profits and economic activity necessary to lift the economy from the depths of a depression. The name Hawtrey appears only once in the Monetary History in a footnote on p. 99 citing Hawtrey’s A Century of Bank Rate in connection with the use of Bank rate by the Bank of England to manage its reserve position. Cassel is not cited once. To my knowledge, Friedman did not cite Hawtrey in any of his works on the Great Depression.