In the past weekend edition (January 4-5, 2014) of the Wall Street Journal, James Grant, financial journalist, reviewed (“Great Minds, Failed Prophets”) Fortune Tellers by Walter A. Friedman, a new book about the first generation of economic forecasters, or business prophets. Friedman tells the stories of forecasters who became well-known and successful in the 1920s: Roger Babson, John Moody, the team of Carl J. Bullock and Warren Persons, Wesley Mitchell, and the great Irving Fisher. I haven’t read the book, but, judging from the Grant’s review, I am guessing it’s a good read.
Grant is a gifted, erudite and insightful journalist, but unfortunately his judgment is often led astray by a dogmatic attachment to Austrian business cycle theory and the gold standard, which causes him to make an absurd identification of Fisher’s views on how to stop the Great Depression with the disastrous policies of Herbert Hoover after the stock market crash.
Though undoubtedly a genius, Fisher was not immune to bad ideas, and was easily carried away by his enthusiasms. He was often right, but sometimes he was tragically wrong. His forecasting record and his scholarship made him perhaps the best known American economist in the 1920s, and a good case could be made that he was the greatest economist who ever lived, but his reputation was destroyed when, on the eve of the stock market crash, he commented “stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” For a year, Fisher insisted that stock prices would rebound (which they did in early 1930, recovering most of their losses), but the recovery in stock prices was short-lived, and Fisher’s public reputation never recovered.
Certainly, Fisher should have been more alert to the danger of a depression than he was. Working with a monetary theory similar to Fisher’s, both Ralph Hawtrey and Gustav Cassel foresaw the deflationary dangers associated with the restoration of the gold standard and warned against the disastrous policies of the Bank of France and the Federal Reserve in 1928-29, which led to the downturn and the crash. What Fisher thought of the warnings of Hawtrey and Cassel I don’t know, but it would be interesting and worthwhile for some researcher to go back and look for Fisher’s comments on Hawtrey and Cassel before or after the 1929 crash.
So there is no denying that Fisher got something wrong in his forecasts, but we (or least I) still don’t know exactly what his mistake was. This is where Grant’s story starts to unravel. He discusses how, under the tutelage of Wesley Mitchell, Herbert Hoover responded to the crash by “[summoning] the captains of industry to the White House.”
So when stocks crashed in 1929, Hoover, as president, summoned the captains of industry to the White House. Profits should bear the brunt of the initial adjustment to the downturn, he said. Capital-spending plans should go forward, if not be accelerated. Wages must not be cut, as they had been in the bad old days of 1920-21. The executives shook hands on it.
In the wake of this unprecedented display of federal economic activism, Wesley Mitchell, the economist, said: “While a business cycle is passing over from a phase of expansion to the phase of contraction, the president of the United States is organizing the economic forces of the country to check the threatened decline at the start, if possible. A more significant experiment in the technique of balance could not be devised than the one which is being performed before our very eyes.”
The experiment in balance ended in monumental imbalance. . . . The laissez-faire depression of 1920-21 was over and done within 18 months. The federally doctored depression of 1929-33 spanned 43 months. Hoover failed for the same reason that Babson, Moody and Fisher fell short: America’s economy is too complex to predict, much less to direct from on high.
We can stipulate that Hoover’s attempt to keep prices and wages from falling in the face of a massive deflationary shock did not aid the recovery, but neither did it cause the Depression; the deflationary shock did. The deflationary shock was the result of the failed attempt to restore the gold standard and the insane policies of the Bank of France, which might have been counteracted, but were instead reinforced, by the Federal Reserve.
Before closing, Grant turns back to Fisher, recounting, with admiration, Fisher’s continuing scholarly achievements despite the loss of his personal fortune in the crash and the collapse of his public reputation.
Though sorely beset, Fisher produced one of his best known works in 1933, the essay called “The Debt-Deflation Theory of Great Depressions,” in which he observed that plunging prices made debts unsupportable. The way out? Price stabilization, the very policy that Hoover had championed.
Grant has it totally wrong. Hoover acquiesced in, even encouraged, the deflationary policies of the Fed, and never wavered in his commitment to the gold standard. His policy of stabilizing prices and wages was largely ineffectual, because you can’t control the price level by controlling individual prices. Fisher understood the difference between controlling individual prices and controlling the price level. It is Grant, not Fisher, who resembles Hoover in failing to grasp that essential distinction.