William L. Silber on The Story of Silver

SilberThis is the story of silver’s transformation from soft money during the nineteenth century to hard asset today, and how manipulations of the white metal by American president Franklin D. Roosevelt during the 1930s and by the richest man in the world, Texas oil baron Nelson Bunker Hunt, during the 1970s altered the course of American and world history. The Story of Silver explains how powerful figures, up to and including Warren Buffett, have come under silver’s thrall, and how its history guides economic and political decisions in the twenty-first century.

Why did you write this book?

In 2014 Bunker Hunt died and when I told my children – who had worked in finance all their lives—they thought Bunker was one of the guys who kept hitting the ball into the sand in my Sunday golf group. Right then I knew that I had to write this book to at least tell the story of the greatest commodities market manipulation of the 20th century – one that was perpetrated by the larger than life Nelson Bunker Hunt – the richest man in the world who ultimately went bankrupt trying to corner the silver market with his brothers, Herbert and Lamar, in the 1970s. The Hunts drove the price of silver to a record $50 an ounce in January 1980 and nearly brought down the financial markets in the process. But the Hunt brothers were not the first nor the last to be seduced by the white metal. In 1997 Warren Buffett, perhaps the most successful investor of the past fifty years, bought more than 100 million ounces, almost as much as the Hunts, and pushed the price of silver to a ten-year peak. In 1933 Franklin Delano Roosevelt raised the price for silver at the U.S. Treasury to mollify senators from western mining states while ignoring the help it gave Japan in subjugating China. Was FDR’s price manipulation in the 1930s less criminal than Nelson Bunker Hunt’s in the 1970s? Reading this book will let you make an informed judgment and it will also show that the white metal has been part of the country’s political system since the founding of the Republic. Perhaps the most famous speech in American electoral politics, Nebraska Congressman William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” sermon at the 1896 Democratic convention, was all about silver. Bryan’s cause, the resurrection of silver as a monetary metal, aimed to rectify the injustice perpetrated by Congress in the Crime of 1873, which discontinued the coinage of silver dollars that Alexander Hamilton had recommended in 1791. Thus, the Story of Silver spans two centuries and is woven into the fabric of history like the stars and stripes.   

Why did Bunker Hunt become obsessed with silver in the 1970s?    

A member of the right-wing John Birch Society, Bunker became the richest man in the world at age forty in 1966 when oil was discovered in Libya where he owned the drilling rights. His ultraconservative politics made him distrust government and its paper currency and favor real investments, such as oil, land, and racehorses. The Arab oil embargo in 1973 provoked an outburst of inflation and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi nationalized Bunker’s oil fields, forcing the Texan into precious metals to protect against the declining value of the dollar. He bought silver, rather than gold, because he thought the yellow metal was “too political” and “too easily manipulated” by outside forces. Bunker worried that central bankers could sell their massive gold reserves and depress its price. Silver, on the other hand, benefited from favorable fundamentals: the demand for the white metal by industry, for use in electronics, photography, and medicine, exceeded mine production by nearly 200 million ounces a year (Warren Buffett invested in silver in 1997 for the same reason). Moreover, in 1973 the price of silver was cheap relative to gold. The price ratio of gold to silver had been about 16 to 1 for a century before the Crime of 1873, meaning that it took 16 ounces of silver to buy an ounce of gold. In 1973, before Bunker began his accumulation, the price ratio was almost 40 to 1. Bunker thought silver’s industrial uses should have boosted its price to where only 5 ounces of silver were needed to get an ounce of gold. Bunker picked 5 to 1 because it was lower than 16 to 1 but he could have gone further. In ancient Egypt silver’s scarcity and medicinal uses had made it more valuable than gold.   

Did the Hunt Brothers really manipulate the price of silver?

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) argued that during the second half of 1979, the Hunt brothers and their Arab collaborators coordinated a scheme to drive up silver prices in the futures markets by purchasing over 200 million ounces of the white metal, more than the combined annual output of Canada, Mexico, Peru, and the United States, the four largest noncommunist producing countries. They pressured the market by controlling more than 40% of silver in exchange warehouses and by taking delivery of almost 50 million ounces of bullion. But the alleged manipulation was not the classic corner of futures markets, where the longs prevented the shorts from delivering. As silver prices accelerated in December 1979, for example, even the CFTC said that the shorts “anticipated no difficulties in making delivery on their positions.” Moreover, the Hunts denied manipulative intent, dismissed any coordination, even among themselves, and justified their demand for silver as a hard asset to protect against global risks in the second half of 1979, when inflation reached double digit levels, Iranian terrorists invaded the United States embassy in Teheran and seized American hostages, and when the Russians invaded Afghanistan.  Disentangling the impact of the alleged manipulators from legitimate speculation took extensive litigation in this case. In a civil trial in 1988 a jury easily concluded that the Hunts conspired with others to manipulate but disagreed about the impact on prices. The jury had to distinguish between the defendants’ accumulation and the unsettling news of 1979. The CFTC argued that gold prices reflect political and economic turmoil and silver increased twice as much during 1979, providing a benchmark for damage calculation for the jury. But that ignores the historical evidence that the white metal is normally twice as volatile as the yellow. For example, during the European debt crisis following Lehman’s bankruptcy in 2008, silver rose 400% and gold increased by 250% and none of that disparity came from manipulation. That evidence came too late to exonerate the Hunts.  

How did FDR’s silver subsidy help Japan subjugate China in the 1930s?

During the Great Depression, after the price of silver hit a record low of 24¢ an ounce, Democratic Senator Key Pittman of Nevada, the powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, urged President Roosevelt to reverse the Crime of 1873 and restore the white metal’s full monetary status. In exchange, Pittman promised the support of fourteen senators from western mining states for Roosevelt’s controversial New Deal legislation. FDR agreed and responded with a series of purchase programs for silver by the U.S. Treasury that ultimately doubled the price of the white metal. The higher price attracted silver from the rest of the world, especially from China, whose currency was backed by the precious metal, and ultimately forced China to abandon the silver standard when that country was most vulnerable. It was 1935 and China, led by American ally Chiang Kai-shek, faced an internal threat from Mao Tse-tung’s communist insurgents and an external threat from Imperial Japan. Roosevelt’s Treasury secretary, Henry Morgenthau, worried that China’s insecure government, weak economy, and susceptibility to Japanese aggression made her especially vulnerable to the dislocations arising from American silver policy. Morgenthau was right to worry. Roosevelt’s pro-silver program to please western senators helped the Japanese military subjugate a weakened China and boosted Japan’s march towards World War II, demonstrating the danger of formulating domestic policy without considering international consequences.  It is a cautionary lesson for putting America First today, especially since the fallout from such narrow-minded policymaking may not materialize until it is too late, just like in the 1930s.

Was the Crime of 1873 really a crime?

The Crime of 1873 refers to legislation passed by Congress on February 12, 1873, negating Alexander Hamilton’s favorite law, that both gold and silver be monetary standards in the United States, and establishing gold as sole legal tender for all obligations. The new law omitted the free and unlimited coinage of silver dollars at the mint, an option since 1792, and restricted the legal tender status of subsidiary silver coins, such as dimes, quarters, and half-dollars, to five dollars or less. The U.S. Constitution allows Congress to “coin money” and “regulate the value thereof,” so no legislator voting for the act technically committed a crime. The allegations of impropriety arose because few people realized the full consequences of the shift to gold when the law was passed. Moreover, Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Sherman, who introduced the legislation, not only failed to sound the warning bell but also soft-pedaled the bill despite knowing its importance. Sherman’s removal of the silver dollar from the Coinage Act of 1873 eroded the value of the white metal, cutting its price in half by the mid-1890s, and altering the course of American history. Twenty-five years of price deflation during the last quarter of the 19th century increased the burden of debts like mortgages which remained fixed in dollar terms even though home prices declined. The drop in wages and agricultural prices launched a generation of social combat, pitting “silverites” against “goldbugs,” debtors versus creditors, and midwestern farmers against East Coast bankers, all combining to darken the political landscape like a dust storm. Many consider L. Frank Baum’s children’s story, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which has entertained millions since it was published in 1900, an allegory of the contemporary class warfare. William Jennings Bryan capitalized on the social upheaval, captured the Democratic nomination for the presidency in the 1896 election with his Cross of Gold speech promoting the monetary status of silver and easier credit. Bryan lost to William McKinley, leaving silver a second class monetary metal until Key Pittman and Franklin Roosevelt joined forces to rescue the white metal in the 1930s.  

Should investors own silver today?

The worldwide experiment in fiat currency, pure paper money, that began on August 15, 1971, when President Nixon suspended the right of foreign central banks to convert dollars into gold, almost failed at the start. The newly designed freedom from precious metals allowed America’s central bank, the Federal Reserve System, to deliver easy credit in response to political pressure, spawning the Great Inflation of the 1970s and nearly destroying the U.S. dollar. But the chaos unleashed popular support for making price stability the primary objective of an independent central bank. Since then, central bank independence throughout the world has replaced gold and silver as guardian of the currency. And if central bankers do their job that arrangement will continue, but public support can evaporate, undermining banker resolve. The U.S. Congress, for example, can abolish the Federal Reserve with a simple majority vote, suggesting that America’s central bank might run a printing press when rising interest rates bring an avalanche of protest to Capitol Hill. The Federal Reserve has survived the fifty-year trial of fiat currency, but that period is less than a heartbeat in world history. The Soviet Union’s experiment with communism challenged America for world domination for the better part of the twentieth century before expiring like the worthless paper currency of Germany’s Weimer Republic. Central bankers remain on trial, and the uncertain verdict sustains the ancient role of gold and silver as storehouses of value in the new millennium.

William L. Silber is the Marcus Nadler Professor of Finance and Economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business. His many books include When Washington Shut Down Wall Street (Princeton) and Volcker (Bloomsbury). He lives in Teaneck, New Jersey.

Sebastian Edwards on American Default: The Untold Story of FDR, the Supreme Court, and the Battle over Gold

EdwardsThe American economy is strong in large part because nobody believes that America would ever default on its debt. Yet in 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt did just that, when in a bid to pull the country out of depression, he depreciated the U.S. dollar in relation to gold, effectively annulling all debt contracts. American Default is the story of this forgotten chapter in America’s history. At a time when several major economies never approached the brink of default or devaluing or recalling currencies, American Default is a timely account of a little-known yet drastic experiment with these policies, the inevitable backlash, and the ultimate result.

Americans believe that the Federal government has never defaulted on its debt. Yet in your book, you tell the story of a massive debt restructuring that happened only eight decades ago, in 1933. A debt restructuring that changed contracts unilaterally and retroactively, and imposed losses of 61% on investors. Why do you think that this episode is so little known?

This is a case of “collective amnesia.” Americans think of themselves as law-abiding citizens. We think of the United States as a country where institutions work and where contracts are sacred; a country where the rule of law prevails at all times. Reneging on contracts is not something this nation does. And, certainly, we don’t change contracts retroactively. It is something that “banana republics” do. And when they do it, we scold them and denounce them. We also demand compensation for damages.

When the Supreme Court heard the gold clause cases in 1935, most analysts thought that these were among the most important cases ever considered by the Court. Today, however, they are not even taught in most law schools. We have forgotten the episode because it is convenient, because it helps us maintain the view we have about our nation: a nation that always pays its debts. But, as I show in this book, this is not the case.

Your book is about the annulment of the gold clauses in 1933, and the Supreme Court decisions that ruled that it was legal to change debt contracts retroactively. What were the gold clauses, exactly? And what was their role?

Historically, most long-term debt contracts in the United States were written in terms of gold. That is, the borrower committed himself to paying back an amount of gold (or gold equivalent) equal to the amount borrowed, plus interest. This practice started during the Civil War to protect lenders from possible inflation.

In 1933, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt took the U.S. off the gold standard, all public debt included the gold clause. In addition, most railway and public utility bonds had gold clauses, as did most mortgages. Overall, debt equivalent to approximately 120% of GDP was subject to these escalation riders. That is a huge number. To put things in perspective, it is about twice as large as the debt that Argentina restructured unilaterally in 2002.

You write that the abrogation of the gold clauses was closely related to the abandonment of the gold standard in 1933.

In 1933, President Roosevelt thought that the U.S. could benefit from devaluing the dollar with respect to gold. This had been done by the United Kingdom in September 1931, and it appeared to be helping the UK get out of the depression. However, FDR was told by his advisers that the gold clauses stood in the way of a devaluation. With the gold clauses in place, a devaluation of the USD would immediately trigger an increase in debts by the same amount as the devaluation. This would bankrupt almost every railway company, and many other businesses. It would also be extremely costly for the government. It was at this point that FDR decided to abrogate the gold clauses. The actual annulment took place on June 5, 1933.

When emerging countries, such as Argentina, devalue their currency and restructure their debts, we often brand them as “populists.” Was there a populist element in FDR’s decision to abandon the gold standard and abrogate the gold clauses?

One of the main issues in 1933 was how to raise agricultural prices, which had declined by almost 70% since 1919. After the 1932 election there was a large bloc of populists, pro-agrarian members in Congress. The better known one was Senator Huey Long, but there were others. Two very influential ones were Senator Elmer Thomas from Oklahoma, and Senator Burton Wheeler from Montana. They were “inflationists,” and believed that getting off gold would help increase commodity prices. To a large extent the devaluation of the dollar—from $20.67 to $35 per ounce of gold—was to placate this group of “populist” lawmakers. Wheeler was also an isolationist. In Philip Roth novel The Plot against America, Wheeler is a fictional vice president, and aviator Charles Lindbergh is the president.

There are still some people who believe that getting off gold was a mistake. Was it necessary? Did it work? Should the U.S. go back to gold?

Most economic historians—including Milton Friedman and Ben Bernanke—agree that one of the main consequences of devaluing the dollar in 1934 was that the country received a huge inflow of gold. This additional gold was monetized by the Federal Reserve. As a consequence, there was a large increase in credit. This triggered a recovery, and helped reduce unemployment. A key question, which I address in the book, is whether it was possible, at the time, to put in place an expansionary monetary policy and still maintain some form of a gold-based standard. This is a controversial issue; British economist John Maynard Keynes believed that it was possible; many modern economists believe that it was not.

You argue in the book that at the time most economists were perplexed and didn’t know how to face the Great Depression. Apparently they didn’t understand the effects of fluctuating exchange rates.

In the 1930s the economic analysis of currency values and currency adjustments was in its infancy. Some well-known economists, such as Yale’s Irving Fisher, were very critical of the gold standard, and suggested pegging the value of the dollar to a basket of commodities. Other, including Princeton’s Edwin Kemmerer and Chicago’s Jacob Viner, were convinced that, in spite of some shortcomings, the gold standard was the best available monetary system. In the book I tell the story of how these two groups for FDR’s ear. I discuss who said what and how the President reacted to their advice.

You write that in 1933 George F. Warren was the most influential economist in the world. However, today almost no one knows his name. Who was he, and why was he so important?

George F. Warren was a professor of agricultural economics at Cornell, and a friend of Henry Morgenthau Jr.

Morgenthau was a neighbor and friend of President Roosevelt, who eventually became Secretary of the Treasury. In 1931, Warren published a book titled Prices, where he argued that agricultural prices were related in a one-to-one fashion to the price of gold. If the price of the metal increased through a devaluation of the USD, the price of wheat, corn, cotton, eggs and so on would increase immediately and by the same amount. Starting in July 1933, Warren became Roosevelt’s main economic adviser. In October the president put in place a “gold buying program” based on Warren’s theories. Every morning FDR would determine an arbitrary price at which the government bought small amounts of gold. The president’s expectation was that agricultural prices would follow in short order. But that didn’t happen; the program did not work as expected. John Maynard Keynes criticized it strongly, and in January 1934 the program was abandoned. In the book I discuss, in great detail, Warren’s theories and I compare them to those of other prominent economists, including Irving Fisher’s.

You devote quite some time to the cases argued in front of the Supreme Court. What can you tell us about them?

At the time, the Court was deeply divided. There was a conservative bloc led by Justice James Clark McReynolds, and a liberal bloc that included Justices Brandeis and Cardozo. Charles Evans Hughes, the Chief Justice, was often the swing vote. The cases were fascinating for several reasons; first, the Administration used a “necessity” argument to support the Joint Resolution that abrogated the gold clauses. This argument is very similar—in fact, almost identical—to the argument used recently by countries such as Argentina when restructured their debts unilaterally. Second, the government made very sophisticated economic arguments; in order to support them, it included a number of charts and diagrams in its briefs. Third, the rulings were very convoluted and controversial. In the case involving public debt (a Liberty Bond, to be more precise), the Court ruled that Congress had exceeded its power, and that the abrogation was thus unconstitutional. However, the Court said, there were no damages involved. That is, the government had violated the Constitution, but didn’t have to compensate bond holder for losses.

In modern times, countries that default and/or restructure their debts unilaterally pay a cost. Generally speaking, they have great difficulties accessing the capital markets. However, this was not the case for the U.S. What do you think are the reasons for this?

I discuss this issue in great detail in the book. Milton Friedman argued that by expropriating property rights the abrogation had severe negative effects on the U.S. economy. It negatively affected investment. I combed the data and didn’t find significant dislocations or signs of distress in the weeks and months following the Supreme Court rulings. In the final chapters of the book I give a possible explanation for this. I point out why the U.S. case is so different from recent default episodes, including Argentina and Greece.

Sebastian Edwards is the Henry Ford II Professor of International Economics at the University of California, Los Angeles. His books include Toxic Aid: Economic Collapse and Recovery in Tanzania and Left Behind: Latin America and the False Promise of Populism. He lives in Los Angeles.

Joseph Nye talks presidential foreign policy with WNYC’s Brian Lehrer

You might also enjoy reading Joseph Nye’s thoughts on how external forces can change a presidential style from transformational to transactional or in the reverse.

Some critics complain that US President Barack Obama campaigned on inspirational rhetoric and an ambition to “bend the arc of history,” but then turned out to be a transactional and pragmatic leader once in office. In this respect, however, Obama is hardly unique.

Many leaders change their objectives and style over the course of their careers. One of the great transformational leaders in history, Otto von Bismarck, became largely incremental and status quo-oriented after achieving the unification of Germany under Prussian direction. Likewise, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s foreign-policy objectives and style were modest and incremental in his first presidential term, but became transformational in 1938 when he decided that Adolf Hitler represented an existential threat.

Transactional leadership is more effective in stable and predictable environments, whereas an inspirational style is more likely to appear in periods of rapid and discontinuous social and political change. The transformational objectives and inspirational style of a leader like Mahatma Gandhi in India or Nelson Mandela in South Africa can significantly influence outcomes in fluid political contexts, particularly in developing countries with weakly structured institutional constraints.

By contrast, American foreign-policy formation is highly constrained by institutions like Congress, the courts, and the constitution. Thus, we would expect less opportunity for transformational leadership.

But even the US Constitution is ambiguous about the powers of Congress and the president in foreign policy. At best, it creates what one constitutional expert called “an invitation to struggle.” Moreover, much depends on external conditions. Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman developed transformational objectives only in response to external events after they entered office.

Read the complete article at Project Syndicate: http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/contextual-intelligence-and-foreign-policy-leadership-by-joseph-s–nye


Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era
Joseph S. Nye, Jr.