European leaders are busy slapping themselves on the back today, but they shouldn’t get too carried away – there is an even bigger job still to be done.
As ever the past can give us a clue to the future. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt FDR) became the 32nd President of the United States at the height of a banking panic in 1932 he dealt with the immediate problems with a torrent of legislation designed to stabilise the situation. The Emergency Banking Act gave banks vital breathing space against foreclosure. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation effectively guaranteed all deposits which stopped the run in its tracks. The Glass Steagall Act separated commercial and investment banking thereby controlling the rampant speculation which had undermined efforts to bring America out of the Great Depression.
All of this should sound familiar to European policymakers, but crucially Roosevelt did not stop there. In between his election victory in November 1931 and his inauguration in March 1932 he attended a meeting at the White House with outgoing President Herbert Hoover and the British economist John Maynard Keynes. Hoover talked passionately about why it was not the government’s place to stimulate demand. Keynes retorted with his belief that fiscal and monetary measures can mitigate the adverse effects of economic recessions . The story is that FDR did not understand a word that either said, but he instinctively knew that something had to be done, and if that didn’t work he’d “try something else.”
The result was a monumental kick-start to the American economy. He expanded a Hoover agency, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, making it a major source of financing for railroads and industry. The National Industrial Recovery Act established rules of operation for all firms to stop cut-throat competition, such as predatory pricing, and also increased wages.
Crucially, the recovery was pursued via pump priming with Federal money. $3.3 billion of spending via the Public Works Administration for example created the largest government-owned industrial enterprise in American history, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which built dams and power stations, controlled floods, modernised agriculture and homes in the Tennessee Valley. In simple terms, FDR put people back to work and gave them money to spend which in turn created demand.
All of this is very much counter-intuitive. Our instincts in times of financial crisis are to retrench and hoard what we have got. In actual fact we need to be spending and Government has to give the lead, in order to rebuild confidence.
The sense I have is that our policymakers know what has to be done even though it goes against many of their instincts. Our current Chancellor of the Exchequer has talked in vague terms about “big capital projects”. This is going to need more than words though.